France’s Third Republic lasted 70 years, but it is most remembered for its disastrous performance between the 20th century’s two world wars when a succession of governments — no fewer than 34, to be exact — stubbornly refused to recognize a changing world.
Its failure to adjust, first to the Depression, then to German rearmament, not only highlighted the weakness of an entrenched, self-serving ruling class, but also created a void that, by the 1930s, was filled by extremists of left and right.
Historical parallels are always risky, but it is nonetheless alarming to hear echoes of the Third Republic in France today. Within Europe, France appears to have lost its place as an equal partner to Germany, a disturbing development since for over half a century the Franco-German entente served as the principal pillar of European stability.
But France’s real problems lie at home. And the principal one of these is fear of change. It is not a new fear. Previous governments backed off after proposed social and economic reforms brought massive street protests. President François Hollande, whose Socialist government took office 13 months ago, created his own headache by promising change without pain — or rather pain for the rich, but not for the massive public sector that is the principal obstacle to change.
The result so far has been a renewed recession, no letup in the steady rise in unemployment, an exodus of the wealthy and deepening disillusionment with the government.
At this stage of his five-year term, Hollande enjoys the lowest popularity of any French president since the Fifth Republic was founded by Charles de Gaulle in 1958. His gamble is that he can reverse the country’s economic decline in good time to contemplate reelection in 2017.
Well, in politics, anything is possible. But in a country accustomed to strong presidential rule, the heart of the problem lies in the perceived weakness of Hollande and the disarray within his government. If the consequence were enthusiastic support for the conservative Union for a Popular Movement, which lost power with Nicolas Sarkozy last year, the political system per se would remain solid. But sharp divisions within the right have merely added to the sentiment of a country adrift.
Indeed, one of the features of the Fifth Republic is that, while the National Assembly and Senate ultimately define the law, the mood of the country is more often determined by how the president projects his power and personality. And if the hyperactive Sarkozy managed to put off many French by being all too present, Hollande is viewed at best as an office manager struggling with an uncooperative staff.
He has also not picked his battles wisely. Although gay marriage was recently legalized with majority public support, the issue stirred massive conservative and Catholic opposition, leading to huge rallies across the country. And driving these was not only opposition to gay marriage (and adoption), but also an undisguised effort to undermine the government as a whole.
Put differently, the political void is being filled by anger and frustration. On the far right, the National Front under Marine Le Pen — a more conciliatory figure than her combative father, Jean-Marie Le Pen — is quietly harvesting the unrest. On the far left, Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s Leftist Front is more of a problem for Hollande since it is already preparing to take to the streets to block any attempt at economic reform in the autumn.
Darker forces are also stirring. The recent death of a student in a Paris street brawl threw the spotlight on less visible extremist groups of left and right. The 18-year-old victim, who was attending an elite university, belonged to a group called Action Antifasciste Paris-Banlieue. He and three other members confronted skinheads associated with the extreme-right groups Third Way and Revolutionary Nationalist Youths.
A conservative opposition leader immediately called for the dissolution of extreme bands of both left and right, while leftist parties demanded only that extreme-right gangs be banned. Ominously, the word used to describe these gangs were “leagues,” the same word adopted by fascist and pro-Nazi groups trying to overthrow the Third Republic in the mid-1930s.
This month, a blog by Jean-Dominique Merchet, a journalist who claims good sources in the military, carried the sensationalist headline: “This Extreme Right That Has Fantasies About a Military Coup d’État.” Merchet said the gay marriage controversy had upset senior army officers, some of whom were linked to a fundamentalist Catholic group called Civitas. He added that some were also unhappy with the supposed influence of Freemasons in the Defense Ministry.
While no one took the threat of a coup seriously, Merchet’s blog was nonetheless widely reported, with Le Monde quoting an unnamed Defense Ministry official as saying that “the mobilization over gay marriage has prompted certain behavior and words which could influence young officers for whom defense of the ‘Great Army’ entails combating socialist-communist freemasonry.”
Once again, the idea of nationalist Catholics identifying left-leaning Freemasons as the enemy brings to mind the deep polarization that characterized French political life in the 1930s.
Talk of the Third Republic revisited may be premature, but political order in France today is under great strain. The need for more courage and stronger leadership at the top is urgent. Otherwise, the promise of a brighter future will remain just that.
Alan Riding is a former European cultural correspondent for The New York Times.