The Third Republic

After the surrender at Sedan, revolutionaries in the Legislative Assembly at Paris deposed the emperor and proclaimed the Third Republic. New armies were raised, but the French continued to lose. After a German siege of Paris and three other cities, the newly formed government surrendered in early 1871 and made peace with the newly formed German Empire. France had to agree to give up nearly all of Alsace and part of Lorraine and pay Germany reparations of $1,000,000,000.

Radicals who opposed the peace revolted in Paris and set up a revolutionary municipal government called the Commune. The army entered the city in May, 1871, and crushed the revolt. Thousands of Communards (supporters of the Commune) were executed. A new constitution was completed 1875, but the government remained shaky until 1879, when republicans gained control of the Assembly.

Most church officials and many army officers still favored a return to monarchy. The republicans wished to destroy the political power of both groups. The prestige of the government was weakened, however, by the disclosure in 1892 that government officials had accepted bribes from a French company that had been engaged in building the Panama Canal. This revelation was followed in 1894 by the Dreyfus scandal, as the result of which army influence was shattered and the republicans gained new strength.

Throughout these years France's colonial empire had been expanding rapidly. By the end of the 19th century, France had established control in Indochina, Madagascar, and a number of territories in northern and western Africa. Colonial expansion in Africa brought France into conflict with both Germany and Britain. An agreement with Britain in 1904 gave France control of Morocco. Germany objected, and demanded that an international conference be held to discuss the situation. At the conference, held at Algeciras in 1906, the great powers voted to uphold French claims.

The Triple Alliance, which brought together Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Italy in 1882, was viewed by France as a serious threat to national security. The Triple Entente, an alliance between France. Great Britain, and Russia, was formed in 1907. By the time World War I broke out in 1914 France had built up a strong military establishment.

Germany invaded France and much of the fighting was on French soil. Morale was low by the time Georges Clemenceau became premier in 1917, but he rallied the nation. In 1918, once the impact of the United States' entry into the war was felt, Germany was defeated. About one-sixth of France was devastated during the war and 1,358,000 French soldiers were killed and 4,000,000 more were wounded. Physical reconstruction was complete by 1928, but the terrible loss of life left France stunned for a generation.

Alsace and Lorraine, lost to Germany in the Franco-Prussian War, were restored to France by the Treaty of Versailles. France also received a 15-year lease on Germany's Saar coal mines. In 1923 Germany failed to make its reparation payments and the French government seized the Ruhr valley. Germany resumed payment of reparations under the Dawes Plan.

A period of government instability began in 1929 with the fall of the Poincaré National Union ministry. In the ensuing period many French governments were formed, only to fall after short periods. France's foreign policy was vague and after Adolf Hitler came to power in Germany in 1933 the French government did nothing to challenge his violations of the Versailles Treaty. For defense, France relied upon the Maginot Line, a series of forts along the German border. In 1938 Great Britain and France attempted to appease Hitler by allowing Germany to occupy parts of Czechoslovakia. After Germany invaded Poland, however, France joined Great Britain in declaring war on Germany in 1939.