Gambetta, Léon-Michel

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GAMBETTA, LÉON-MICHEL (1838–1882), French statesman and founder of the French Third Republic (1870–1940).

Léon Gambetta was born 2 April 1838 at Cahors (Lot), in southwestern France. His French mother and Italian-born father ran a grocery. Gambetta studied law in Paris (1857–1859) and soon displayed his talents as an orator. His impassioned defense plea in the "Baudin Trial" (November 1868), attacking the legitimacy of the Second Empire, brought him to national prominence. He was elected to the Chamber of Deputies in May 1869. His election manifesto, the "Belleville Programme," defined the republic an agenda into the twentieth century: "universal" (that is, male) suffrage; freedom of speech and association; separation of church and state; and free, compulsory, secular education. Together, he and the politician and historian Adolphe Thiers were the founders of the French Third Republic (1870–1940) and thus of modern republicanism in France.

Emperor Napoleon III's capture at Sedan during the Franco-Prussian War (1870–1871) saw the empire overthrown and a republic proclaimed (4 September 1870). As minister of the interior in the Government of National Defense, Gambetta escaped the besieged capital by balloon, crossed enemy lines, and raised an army of 110,000. In the elections of February 1871, he was returned in ten departments. As a patriotic statement, he chose to represent Bas-Rhin in Alsace. Refusing to ratify the peace treaty that gave Alsace to Germany, Gambetta resigned on 1 March 1871.

Gambetta spent several months in the country recovering his health and was not involved in politics during the Paris Commune of 1871. He was again elected to the Chamber in July 1871 and chose to represent Paris. France was now nominally a republic, but monarchists had a majority in the Chamber and sought a restoration. Gambetta set out to create broad support for the republic. In November 1871 he established a newspaper, La république française (The French republic). During the 1870s he toured the provinces preaching republicanism to the "new social strata": the petty bourgeoisie and peasantry, whose growing political importance he predicted.

Gambetta developed "opportunism," a gradual implementation of the republican program. He toned down the revolutionary image of republicanism, presenting it as a viable system of government in which all political adversaries could operate. He persuaded republicans to accept the compromises required to pass the Constitution of 1875: a president to name prime ministers (instead of total parliamentary control) and a conservative, rurally based senate to balance the lower house (instead of a unicameral legislature).

Gambetta's republicanism rested on his reverence for the Revolution of 1789, his commitment to the "rights of man" (he said nothing about the "rights of women"), and his anticlericalism. He made "Clericalism, that is the enemy!" the catchphrase of republicans for generations. He did not oppose religious belief (though, like many republicans, he was a freethinker), but he attacked the secular power of the Catholic Church and especially church control of education, which had greatly increased under the Second Empire. He proposed a secular, national system of elementary education for both sexes, recognizing the importance of girls' education for the future of republicanism.

Despite his attachment to Alsace-Lorraine, Gambetta came to believe that revanchism (the politics of revenge) was futile and dangerous. He considered meeting with the German chancellor Otto von Bismarck, to improve relations with Germany, but this was unacceptable in 1870s France. He supported modernizing the French army and developing colonialism as a way to restore French greatness.

Many expected Gambetta to become prime minister in 1879, as leader of the majority grouping in the Chamber of Deputies, but President Jules Grévy (a republican) bypassed him. He was instead elected president (speaker) of the Chamber (1879–1881). When he was finally appointed prime minister on 14 November 1881, his support among republicans had dwindled. Rather than establishing a "Great Ministry" of leading republicans, as anticipated, he had to appoint unknown figures. His government survived only until 26 January 1882. At the end of that year he suffered an attack of appendicitis while recovering from an accidental, self-inflicted gunshot wound. Doctors feared to operate on such a prominent figure and he died from peritonitis on 31 December 1882, aged forty-four. Jules Ferry, premier of France (1880–1881, 1883–1885), implemented Gambetta's republican program of education, infrastructure development, and colonial expansion.

In his own time, Gambetta was revered as the father of the republic. The fall of the Third Republic (1940) reduced his standing, but in the 1960s and 1970s the work of J. P. T. Bury and Jacques Chastenet reestablished his significance. He made republicanism a practical form of government and helped end eighty years of instability that began with the Revolution of 1789.

See alsoAnticlericalism; Education; Ferry, Jules; France; Franco-Prussian War; Thiers, Louis-Adolphe.


Primary Sources

Halévy, Daniel, and Émile Pillias, eds. Lettres de Gambetta, 1868–1882. Paris, 1938.

Reinach, Joseph, ed. Discours et plaidoyers politiques de M. Gambetta. Paris, 1880–1885.

Secondary Sources

Amson, Daniel. Gambetta; ou, Le rêve brisé. Paris, 1994.

Antonmattei, Pierre. Léon Gambetta: Héraut de la République. Paris, 1999. The best modern biography.

Bury, John Patrick Tuer. Gambetta and the Making of the Third Republic. London, 1973.

——. Gambetta and the National Defence: A Republican Dictatorship in France. Westport, Conn., 1971.

——. Gambetta's Final Years: "The Era of Difficulties," 1877–1882. London and New York, 1982. Bury's trilogy is the most scholarly account of Gambetta's political career.

Chastenet, Jacques. Gambetta. Paris, 1968.

Elwitt, Sanford. The Making of the Third Republic: Class and Politics in France, 1868–1884. Baton Rouge, La., 1975. Elwitt's interpretation of Gambetta's role in the founding of the Republic remains central.

Grévy, Jérôme. La république des opportunistes, 1870–1885. Paris, 1998. Grévy provides the most scholarly modern interpretation of Gambetta's role.

Susan K. Foley,

Charles Sowerwine