The Confidence Man

France’s Third Republic lasted for seventy years and ended in tragedy and fiasco in June 1940. Military defeat and the death of the Republic were followed by the death of democracy. The final act of the Third Republic’s last National Assembly, gathered together on July 10 in the ornate casino of the provincial spa of Vichy, was to place supreme power in the hands of the eighty-four-year-old Marshal Pétain. The Republic had been born in the turmoil of an earlier humiliation: the Franco-Prussian War, the loss of the border provinces of Alsace and Lorraine, and the butchery of the Paris Commune. It had seen the consolidation of France’s colonial empire, the Dreyfus Affair, the triumph of anticlericalism over monarchist Catholicism, the Battle of Verdun, the Pyrrhic revenge of November 1918. By the time it died it was by far the longest-lived republic in France’s history, and remains so today.

For much of the time the Third Republic gave the impression of being a prosperous and optimistic place. In its heyday, with its parliamentary constitution and democratic institutions, it appeared to have resolved the country’s bitter conflict between sovereign and assembly, privilege and poverty, church and state. France could at last concentrate on its self-appointed, worldwide, rôle civilisateur. The Third Republic was not only the center of a global civilization, it provided the setting of the Belle Époque, of the worlds of Pagnol and Proust, of the art of Rodin and Renoir and Braque, of the music of Fauré and Debussy.

But behind the glittering show there was something empty and menacing in the Republic’s social contract. For a land of sophisticated frivolity the birthrate was disastrously low. And for “a republic of virtue” it had a surprising number of affaires, or political scandals. The Dreyfus Affair, perhaps the most famous of all political scandals, in which a Jewish army officer was framed and convicted of espionage, took twelve years to resolve and revealed the true strength of French reaction. But it was followed by the persecution of religious orders by the anticlerical Radical Party leader Emile Combes, and by the secret blacklisting of Catholic army officers. In some ways progressive prejudice was shown to be as deeply entrenched as anti-Semitism.

By May 1940, when the Germans attacked, the French had had enough. Many of them went to war unwillingly, munichois in their hearts, grumbling and sullen, sabotaging their own war effort, ready in many cases to throw down their arms. Léon Werth in his great journal of the debacle described seeing a disciplined French unit preparing to shell a German position and being abused by women bystanders shouting, “Lâches! Lâches!” (cowards). One reason why Pétain was initially regarded as a national savior was the widely held view that his term of office could not possibly be as bad as the Third Republic.

For the historian Richard Cobb the Republic’s turning point came with the Stavisky Affair, a political scandal which is now the …

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