Monday, 18 May 2009

A Lesson for Political Elites from the French Third Republic

The expressions of public disgust that have followed the Daily Telegraph's revelations over MPs' expenses is a new phenomenon in Britain - but not elsewhere in Europe. The scandal carries echoes, for example, of the Tangentopoli affair in Italy in the early 1990s. This exposure of the corruption of the Italian governing elite led to the implosion of the political system that had misgoverned Italy since the war. It triggered the extinction of the two major political parties, involved - the Christian Democrats and the Socialists - and led to the rise of Silvio Berlusconi.

An even more disturbing parallel with Westminster's 'troughgate' however, is offered by the political violence that convulsed Paris in February 1934, which led to 15 deaths and more than a thousand injuries. Many see these February riots as a critical watershed - the main event that undermined France's Third Republic, and made the debacle of 1940 all but inevitable.

The Republic had never been widely loved or even respected. Born in September 1870 at the hour of France's greatest defeat and humiliation at the hands of Bismarck's Prussia, the Republic was hated by both France's extreme Right and Left. The Right, ranging from monarchists who had never accepted the French Revolution, to the ultramontane Catholic clergy and the army's officer corps, regarded the Republic as the bastard child of defeat and revolution, and worked continually to discredit it. The Left, representing the rising masses of the industrial working class, blamed the Republic for the bloody repression of the 1870 Paris Commune. Republican legitimacy, in fact, rested on a dangerously narrow base, largely consisting of the professions which gave France its centre-left ruling political class : lawyers, journalists, teachers and academics.

As with current events at Westminster, the issue that truly enraged public opinion was the financial affairs of politicians. Most Parliamentary deputies were widely - and often rightly - thought to be 'on the take' from some crooked financier or vested interest and even the most distinguished politicians were deeply distrusted. Despite leading modest lifestyles (their second homes were both one-storey bungalows), the rivals Georges Clemenceau and Joseph Caillaux, for example, were attacked for their alleged corruption.

During one election campaign, Clemenceau was followed from meeting to meeting by hired hecklers who barracked him mercilessly with yells of 'Ah Yes!' - a not so subtle reference to rumours that he was in the pay of English interests. Caillaux, for his part, was remorselessly savaged by the conservative newspaper Le Figaro; - the French equivalent of the Daily Telegraph, - for his allegedly pro-German policy in the lead up to the First World War. So viciously personal did the attacks become that Caillaux's wife Henriette was provoked into shooting dead the paper's editor, Gaston Calmette, in his office on the eve of the war. Even this, however, did not finish Caillaux's political career.

Two major scandals at the end of the 19th century brought the Republic's shaky reputation to its lowest ebb. In one, a deputy named Daniel Wilson, the son-in-law of President Jules Grevy, was found to be selling favours and contracts directly from the Elysée Palace itself, forcing Grevy's resignation. In the Panama scandal of 1892, Fernand de Lesseps, the engineering genius who had built the Suez Canal, was found to be illegally selling shares in his next venture - the company digging the Panama canal - to politicians. Clemenceau was among those implicated, along with Lesseps' fellow engineer Gustav Eiffel - the man who built the tower.

Popular perceptions that all French politicians were corrupt crooks were by now deeply entrenched,. They were the chief raison d'etre of Action Francaise, a powerful ultra-rightist and monarchist movement founded in the wake of the Dreyfus affair, which continued to grow for the next 30 years. Charles Maurras, the movement's leader, held the Republic to be illegitimate and unrepresentative of le pays réel - the true France. Leon Daudet, the brilliantly scurrilous editor of the Action Francaise newspaper, tirelessly castigated what he described as 'A Government of thieves and assassins'. Trust in the Republic and its political representatives was undermined at the beginning of 1934 by the Stavisky scandal, in which Serge Stavisky, a Russian-born fraudster, was found to have been running multiple 'Ponzi scheme' frauds protected by political friends in high places.

When Stavisky was found shot dead, Action Francaise screamed murder and brought its militants on to the streets along with members of half-a-dozen paramilitary, proto-fascist Leagues even further to the right. For the first time in the 20th century, a French Government was threatened with overthrow by mobs enraged by the financial dishonesty of their masters. On 6th February, the columns of the Leagues, along with members of the French Communist Party, converged on the Place de Concorde, site of the guillotine in 1789. The demonstrators were now after the blood of the politicans in the nearby Chamber of Deputies and a pitched battle developed with the police protecting the chamber.

Slashing the flanks of police horses with razors, rolling marbles under their hooves and pelting the police with missiles, the furious demonstrators repeatedly charged the thin police lines, pushing them back towards the Chamber of Deputies. Shooting broke out, 15 people died and a further 1,435 were wounded in the worst fighting Paris had seen since the Commune. The next day the main target of the rioters' wrath, radical Premier Edouard Daladier resigned and was replaced by a veteran conservative, Gaston Doumergue. Action Francaise and the other Leagues had claimed a political scalp but they had not succeeded in their ultimate aim of bringing down the Third Republic.

That honour belonged to Hitler when his blitzkrieg burst through the feeble French defences in 1940. But the Third Republic had died long before. Beset by constant scandals, split between Left and Right, rejected altogether by powerful and influential sections of the French population, it's little short of a miracle that it lasted 70 years. When it did die, it was already a hollow shell, despised by its own people. The history of the Third Republic is the story of a self-fulfilling prophecy: an object lesson in what happens when a political elite really did behave as shabbily as its many enemies accused them of doing. Perhaps our own rulers should study it.

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