Boulanger Affair

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the agent of royalist restoration
the failure of boulangism

Between 1886 and 1887, General Georges-Ernst-Jean-Marie Boulanger (1837–1891) was at the center of French political life. A dashingly handsome man, given to parading around Paris on his black horse Tunis, he also professed advanced republican views then relatively rare among senior members of the French officer corps. For many in a nation still traumatized by France's crushing military defeat and territorial losses in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870–1871, Boulanger became the symbol of the hoped-for revenge, the origin of his nickname, "Le général revanche." All of this brought him to the attention of left-wing republicans known as the Radicals upon whom the more moderate republicans depended in order to sustain a majority in a parliament, where fully a third of the deputies were royalists or Bonapartists (who usually called themselves conservatives). Inclusion of Boulanger as minister of war in the government of Charles de Freycinet (1828–1923) in January of 1886 and that of his successor René Goblet (1828–1905) in December of the same year was the price of Radical support.

Boulanger certainly did not disappoint his Radical supporters. As minister of war he sponsored a bill ending the exemption of seminarians from military service, expelled members of the royal family from the military, and expressed sympathy for striking workers. His deportment as minister of war sufficiently irritated the German Empire to prompt a brief war scare in the spring of 1877. All of this enhanced his popularity with political figures on the extreme left, who soon came to be known as Boulangists. Moderate republicans, much like their royalist opponents, were unnerved by Boulanger since both, mindful of the still-fresh experience of the Paris Commune, feared the prospect of war with its attendant revolutionary consequences. As a result, in May 1877, Maurice Rouvier (1842–1911), with the tacit support of conservatives, formed a government without Boulanger. His exclusion from government prompted mass protests from the popular classes of Paris, chanting the innumerable popular songs celebrating the virtues of the dashing general.

Life in the barracks was unappealing to Boulanger, who was soon conspiring with politicians of every hue to renew his political career. His political activities, technically illegal for a serving officer, were by the spring of 1888 sufficiently overt that the government dismissed him from the army. Boulanger promptly began running for office in a series of by-elections. He campaigned on a platform of constitutional "revision." Although vague, this platform suggested that he, like Radicals in general, sought a more democratic republic with a democratically elected president and Senate. No sooner elected (and often with substantial majorities), he would resign his seat to run elsewhere. In August 1888 he was simultaneously elected in three departments and was transparently conducting a series of plebiscites on his very name. In January 1889, he was triumphantly elected in Paris. The significance of a military man conducting a plebiscitary campaign did not escape contemporaries; it was uncomfortably reminiscent of the two previous Bonapartes. By early 1889 many were openly predicting a Boulangist dictatorship. But Boulanger was no Bonaparte. When in March 1889 the government, in what was almost certainly a bluff, leaked word of Boulanger's imminent arrest, the general panicked and fled to Brussels where he would commit suicide in 1891.

the agent of royalist restoration

Boulanger's phenomenal electoral successes owed something to his dynamic image and to the energetic campaigning of his supporters. But they owed rather more to the covert support coming from an unlikely source: French royalists. As a result of a series of secret agreements struck with the royalist leadership between November 1887 and April 1888, the man who still posed as a left-wing republican became the agent of a proposed royalist restoration. Boulanger, now thoroughly disaffected by the republican regime, abandoned his advanced republican views (which were in any case of relatively recent date) and promised to help restore the monarchy in exchange for royalist support for his ministerial ambitions. Of necessity the accord remained secret since any revelation of a deal with royalists would instantly alienate Boulanger's left-wing supporters. The arrangement posed even greater difficulties for the royalist rank and file, who had for the previous two years subjected Boulanger to principled venomous attacks. But by 1888 the royalists had little choice. Their electoral success in 1885, when they obtained nearly a third of the seats in parliament, proved ephemeral and in subsequent years their appeal to most Frenchmen had significantly diminished. As they were only too aware, the royalist pretender, Louis-Philippe Albert d'Orléans (1838–1894), the Comte de Paris, although both intelligent and dignified, was hardly charismatic and, worse, had been in exile in Great Britain since 1886. The local royalist leadership was elitist and singularly out of tune with the demands of modern electoral campaigns; consequently its electoral organization was often rudimentary. Although royalists harped incessantly on the demonstrable flaws of the republican regime, ever fewer Frenchmen were finding their proposed monarchist alternative attractive. Only by harnessing the dynamism of Boulanger and his allies could they hope to supplant the republic with a monarchy. In order to render this partnership more palatable to their respective followers, Boulanger and the royalists disguised it as a "parallel march" for constitutional revision. Discreetly left unsaid was the fact that whereas most of Boulanger's followers believed that revision would yield a more democratic constitution, the royalists intended it to produce a monarchist one.

Royalist support for Boulanger was secret but tangible. With the exception of Paris, Boulanger invariably ran in conservative departments, replacing a conservative deputy. Never did he face a conservative rival. In all cases, save Paris, the great majority of Boulanger's votes came from people who ordinarily voted for royalists or Bonapartists. When Boulanger resigned a seat, he was invariably replaced by a conservative deputy who enjoyed the support of local Boulangists. That this should be the case was an explicit condition of conservative support. Boulanger's campaign managers always worked closely with the local conservative electoral agents and with the local conservative press. And the very expensive Boulangist campaigns were funded exclusively from royalist coffers, initially from the ample funds of the rich but parsimonious pretender, later from equally rich but more generous royalist supporters like the Duchesse d'Uzès (Marie-Clémentine de Rochechouart-Mortemart; 1847–1933), and the Barons Alphonse de Rothschild (1827–1905) and Maurice de Hirsch (1831–1896). For royalists the central lesson of Boulanger's plebiscitary campaign was that while, Paris excepted, most of his votes came from conservative voters, a critical percentage came from republican voters who would never knowingly vote for the royalist party. By their calculations, attracting those critical swing voters was the key to mobilizing an electoral majority that might revise the republic out of existence.

Boulanger's abrupt departure on 1 April 1889 disillusioned some of his followers. By contrast, the royalists were neither surprised (they knew their man) nor troubled. Boulanger might have been out of France, but there were plenty of Boulangists left behind. Moreover, royalists thought they knew just how to use them for the national legislative elections scheduled for September 1889. In about one constituency in six, a royalist running on a purely monarchist platform might stand a good chance of election. But there were many more constituencies in which royalists could hope for election only if they could count on a critical percentage of erstwhile republican voters that only the Boulangists could mobilize. Boulangists would be moved to do so in exchange for the assurance of royalist support in other constituencies where royalists had even less chance of electoral success. To make any of this work, royalists running with Boulangist support would have to play down their adhesion to the monarchy and Boulangists hoping for royalist support would have to be somewhat ambiguous about their true political valence. This was an inherently difficult challenge and required long and bitter negotiations. But it was not impossible either. No small number of royalist and Bonapartist candidates were prepared to disguise their dynastic allegiances with ambiguous electoral labels. Even more Boulangists were prepared to be comparably disingenuous. Careful royalist calculations suggested that there was a serious chance of electing enough "revisionist" candidates for the subsequent legislature to have a majority in favor of revising the constitution from a republican one to a monarchist one. True, there was the real danger that Boulangist candidates would rediscover their republicanism once elected. But royalists took pains to minimize this risk. At their insistence, many of the Boulangist candidates were thinly disguised conservatives. Many of those who were not were entirely dependent on royalist financing, and since the royalists took elaborate steps to document this financing (insisting upon explicit receipts in many instances), their postelection tractability seemed likely.

the failure of boulangism

In the end, the gambit failed. Royalists and Boulangists faced a tenacious republican administration that used all of the considerable resources at its disposal to ensure local republican victories. Many of the Boulangist candidates were accommodating to the royalists precisely because they were rogues and scoundrels of one kind or another and not therefore electorally appealing. The combined total of elected royalist and Boulangist deputies did not, in the end, improve on the results of 1885.

In the wake of the electoral defeat of 1889 the royalist party gradually disappeared, many of its most prominent leaders rallying reluctantly to the republic. The Boulangist movement was dead before its namesake was but would survive in the Third Republic, albeit under different guises and labels. Most Boulangists gradually drifted into the "new Right" of the turn of the century; their descendants could be found in the antiparliamentary leagues of the 1930s.

See alsoBonapartism; Boulangism; France; Franco-Prussian War.


Harding, James. The Astonishing Adventure of General Boulanger. New York, 1971.

Irvine, William D. The Boulanger Affair Reconsidered. New York, 1989.

Levillain, Phlippe. Boulanger, fossoyeur de la monarchie. Paris, 1982.

Seager, Frederick H. The Boulanger Affair. Ithaca, N.Y., 1968.

William D. Irvine