French democracy Essay

            Since the 19th Century the world has followed the footsteps of the United States in its attempt to find democracy.  The slow process of changing the existing norms within Europe led to revolution in some countries and distrust in many others.  Among these reforming nations was France and Italy, who took advantage of crumbling empires during the late 19th century to establish their own form of republican government.  Despite their reforms, these two nations teetered on the edge of destruction by lacking the ability to provide either full empowerment neither to the people nor to a centralized government.  The process of democratization which both countries begin to go through at this stage was long and arduous.  To be considered democratic a country chooses its leaders through fair elections, as well as ensure civil liberties and a certain respect for the law.  All of these buck the trend of European Monarchy and went against the government hierarchy of European nations.  However, due as much to circumstance as to anything else, the establishment of the Third Reich in France and the Nationalist formation in Italy were both examples of two fledgling nations starting on their path towards democratization.  France’s third republic did in fact lay the foundations for democratization by instilling respect for citizens and winning over the populace to the benefits of representation.  In contrast, Italy’s nationalist surge could only help unify Italy but could not change its essential cultural enslavement to monarchy.

            The birth of the Third Republic might be reason enough for the support of its democratization.  The French Third Republic became the governing body of France following the failed attempt by Napoleon III to conquer Prussia.  Following his defeat in the Franco-Prussian War, which ended in his capture at Sedan, France, became a Republican Parliamentary government (Hoffman).  This government though succeeding as the first long term Republic in France never had the full intentions of becoming a permanent government.  It was formed first by the victorious German generals Louis Jules Trochu and the politician Leon Gambetta in early 1871 (Hoffman).  Initially called the “Government of National Defense” this pseudo government allowed the citizens of France to vote for the establishment of a new government.

            The first step towards democratization within France was both expected and fortuitous.  Following the collapse of the Empire of Napoleon III, the vast majority of people within France still wanted to return to a Constitutional Monarchy.  However, the ensuing dispute over who the possible king of France would be as well as the heir led to a general chaos.  Ultimately, when no king could be settled upon when Comte de Chambord would not accept his crown, in 1871, the government took on the status quo of the time and remained a “temporary” republic (Hoffman).  The formation of a republic becomes the first step towards democracy.  By definition a republic is a government that allows the citizens to elect into office the people they would allow to govern them.  Although they have no control over the lawmaking process following the elections, in essence this still provide a method for citizen output into the government.  The importance of this step is that in the years following the formation of this temporary government, France began to understand how advantageous have no monarchy is.  Having never suffered a period without a king or unifying leader since the chaos of the French Revolution, the Third Republic allowed the French people realize advantages lay in having citizen input into the government as well as protections against government abuses.  These years of temporary republicanism were the roots that allowed democracy to bloom in full force following the Second World War.

            Italy in contrast, grew its fragile democracy out of its hesitant feelings for nationalism in the late 19th century.  Since the break up of the Roman Empire, Italy was ruled by the nobility within certain city states across the entire country.  Lacking any unifying force Italy had little power within the structure of the European superpowers as a country.  Therefore, with the invasion of the French army led by Napoleon, the entirety of the nation was swallowed up by its neighbors and eventually given to the controls of Austria and Spain (Marriman 230).  Only after their conquest did Italy realize itself in a precarious situation of helpless without national unity, thus with the enemy as a unifying force, it united to expel its conquerors.  A combined effort both internally and externally led to Italy’s freedom.  The Italian national hero Giuseppe Garibaldi was the leader of the internal expulsion of foreign forces in Italy.  He took his group called the “Red Shirt” army and in 1831 began to wage war against the Austrians and Spaniards in control at the time (Marriman 230).  His army liberated the South of France despite combat against superior forces through a combination of tactical genius and the aid of foreign weapons.  At the same time, Count Camilio Cavour helped to secure foreign aid in Italy’s attempt for freedom and provided the Red Shirts with munitions and weapons.  Eventually, Garibaldi freed the northern half of Italy as well and the formation of a unified Italy became a reality.  However, eve with these successes, the culture of Italy would not permit it to become a wholly democratic government.  The formation of its fragile democracy was undercut by two cultural forces within Italy itself.  First, Italy has historically been as much of a theocracy as anything else.  Thus, the power of the church in Rome was a special force into the heart of Italian politics.  Another force was the citizen’s suspicion of change; they insisted upon forming a constitutional monarchy rather than complete the transformation to a democracy.  Thus, the conquering heroes as the King of Sardinia, Victor Emmanuel to become the King of Italy (Marriman 230).  Through these actions, Italy had for the first time a democracy of sorts, but as they were ruled by both the Church and the King at the same time, little changed within the Italian regime.

            Perhaps the first evident step of the Third Republic to lay the foundation for future democracy occurred in February 1875.  At this time a series of parliamentary acts helped to establish constitutional laws of the new republic.  By taking the step into full representation through the creation of a constitution, the Third Republic set a precedent for the future democratization effort.  This constitution created a government organization much like the democratic one in place today.  Its thoughtful construction allowed the people to see the effectiveness of communal governance and the ability to elect chosen officials.  The structure of the new government consisted of a two chamber parliament which was controlled by the Prime minister.  It also established a President of the Republic who functioned much like the monarchial leaders of a constitutional monarchy, as the nominal head of government.  The prime minister served as the liaison between the president of the republic and the parliament itself (Hoffman).  His role was to account for the actions of the republic as a whole and as the leading elected official; he represented the democratic choice of national leader.  The creation of this system, which was mirrored on the parliamentary system of England, became the first step towards democracy.  Through formalizing the election process and the parliamentary makeup, the people became aware of specific and unbending rules for governance.  Thus, the government must be held accountable for their actions and actual procedures for punishment of wrongdoing and government abuse became possible (Hoffman).  All of this was new frontier for the French people and even with the constant question of monarchy versus republic that dominated French political discussion during the 1870s; the French people grew accustomed to partial self government.  In effect, the Third Republic with its crucial constitutional rules won over the people of France to the side of rule by the people instead of the divine mandate of kings.

            Italy in contrast had little control of its supposed Democratic government following the birth of nationalism.  Despite all of Italy’s unification efforts, the deep rooted cultural teachings of the church and state remained firm within the people of Italy.  Thus they distrusted the constitutional monarchy system they were governed under (  More persuaded by the governance of the Roman Church and by local mayors and leaders than the government in Rome, the national government had a shaky hold on the unity within Italy.  The government itself never established a firm grip on the Italian citizenry due in part because it never fully formalized a constitution (Marriman 234).  Without formalized rules like France to hold the government accountable for its actions, the people had little interest in the national government and attempted to revert to its origins as separate city states.  Even the presence of a Monarchy in the King of Sardinia had no effect.  This may be because the Kings of Sardinia are viewed as historically unambitious and were only nominal heads of state.  Thus the shaky creation of this constitutional monarchy was on the whole a failed experiment due to conflicting cultural loyalties by the Italian people.

            France however, adopted the concept of Republicanism wholeheartedly.  The next step on the road towards democracy occurred May 16th 1877 (Hoffman).  The debate of monarchy versus republic had finally swung in favor of republicanism.  The president of the Republic, and nominal leader, Patrice McMahon, made a last ditch attempt to preserve the monarchial system of government.  He dismissed the republic minded prime minister for a monarchist leader, the Duke de Broglie.  Then following his appointment he dissolved the parliament into general elections in October of 1877 (Hoffman).  He hoped to halt the move to republicanism through the public but this move instead created a severe backlash as the citizens of France saw this as a monarchial attempt to stage a coup within France.  Following this devastating loss, where the people returned to parliament a strong contingent of Republicanism minded representatives.  The attempts to restore French monarchy to the nation finally failed.  In the wake of the Presidency’s defeat, the seat of the President of the Republic became severely crippled.  The parliament became the de facto leaders of the nation which again set the precedent for later democracy.  The formation of the Republic and its backing from the people laid the groundwork for democracy because it demonstrated the power of the people over political office holders (Tombs).  The ability to participate in the fate of the nation and to have a formalized code to hold politicians accountable were all new to the French people.  They fell in love with this kind of political system, and despite the instability of the Third Republic, the idea of representation and citizen control of the government became firmly entrenched in their minds.  The election of 1877 became the first step in the rejection of the old regimes within France and the beginning of the road towards Democracy.  With the recognition that the French people could finally shed its history of the divine right of kings into a “people’s government” became the foundations for future democratic efforts.  The formalized government of the third republic showed that it was possible to rule effectively through the consent of the populace and allowed itself to be the prototype for future experimentations with democratic government.

The success of the third republic in helping to usher in the birth of democratization within France was phenomenal.  It laid the groundwork both in the psyche of the people as well as the solid political structure within the government.  By helping the French citizenry believe in the cause for self rule, the Republic, although ineffective at times, promoted the cause for holding politicians responsible for their actions.  The creation of a constitutional code as well as formalized election policies and the structure of parliament were important in later years for the formation of democratic parliaments and elections.  The Third Republic effectively served as the first successful empowerment of the French people through government, and made them believers in a system of self rule.  All of this helped to path the road towards greater unity and democratization.  In contrast, Italy’s unification was ineffective in unifying the country under democracy because it did not capture the hearts of its citizens in relations to self government.  The people of Italy still believed in fealty to the Church as well as love for their king.  Thus, even in the formation of constitutional monarchy, the government was ruled by the conservative Christian party which maintained much of the status quo within the country.  Without the continued investment of citizen interest, the democracy of Italy became extremely hesitant and shaky, its real power having been divided between both local government and the church.  This inability to capture the hearts of its citizenry is the reason that Italy fails in its democratic experiment, and France ultimately succeeds in its ambitions.  The road to Democracy cleared as a result of the Third Republic, and its eventual success must be credited to the founding of such an important “temporary” government.

-Marriman, A History of Modern Europe (1996)

-Stanley Hoffmann et al., In Search of France(NY: Harper, 1963)pp.1-21

-Robert Tombs, France 1814-1914(London: Longman,1996)