The "Affairs" of the French Third Republic (1871-1914)
The French Third Republic rose out of the ashes of Napoleon III's Second Empire after its defeat in the Franco-Prussian War. The Third Republic was a parliamentary republic, often unstable and constantly seeking legitimacy. By the end of the 1870s, the Third Republic found its home in the center of the French revolutionary and democratic tradition. The government enacted legislation aimed at solidifying the common identity of all Frenchmen: compulsory schooling, centralized curricula, civics education, mandatory military service, and the central control of all media and government information from Paris. But it was the Boulanger Affair and the Dreyfus Affair (so commonly known that the latter simply became known as "The Affair") that, for better or for worse, gave the French Third Republic before World War I its own historical identity.
General Georges Boulanger was a popular figure who captured the imagination of the French press. He found total army support when he reorganized the military as minister of war; he received business support when he led troops to end worker strikes. Most importantly, the agrarian poor were enchanted with this horseback riding hero as the preeminent French patriot. In 1889, Boulanger decided to use his popularity for his own advancement in the political arena: Boulanger hoped to establish a dictatorship in France on the heels of his election to the presidency by mass mandate. Through skillful manipulation of the media and popular symbols, Boulanger's campaign associated the would-be military dictator with patriotism, military victory, honor, constitutional reform, democracy, social welfare, and a whole litany of policies that gave each constituent group something to look forward to in a Boulanger administration. He was able to amass a large enough group to scare the Third Republic, but failed to gain the support he needed. His effort failed when he lost the election.
However, it was the Dreyfus Affair that truly galvanized and held the attention of the entire French nation. In 1894, Alfred Dreyfus, an Alsatian Jewish army officer accused of passing French military secrets to the Germans, was convicted of treason. His trial provided an outlet for virulent French xenophobia and anti-Semitism. Sentenced to exile to Devil's Island, Dreyfus maintained his innocence in the face of a French public captivated by scare tactics from the radical right. Eventually, the evidence crucial in cementing Dreyfuss' conviction was shown to have been forged and fabricated. When the illegal activities and forged evidence came to be known in the mass press, the entire country divided into two camps: the pro-Dreyfusards (usually political allied of the left and the Third Republic) who supported Dreyfus's innocence; and the anti-Dreyfusards (usually allies of traditionally conservative institutions such as the Church and the army, alongside rabid anti-Semites) who maintained his guilt in the name of French honor, national integrity, and racial purity. The entire country organized into leagues of small groups--intellectuals, workers, soldiers, clerics, leftists, et cetera--all in the name of their position on "The Affair". Dreyfus was eventually exonerated in the press and in the court after conclusive evidence unearthed by the media determined that it was one of Dreyfus's colleagues on the General Staff who leaked the secrets and framed the Jewish scapegoat.
The French Third republic from 1871 to 1914 provides the first example of politics in the new era of mass politics and mass media and mass culture. Just as Napoleon III could have been considered the first real modern politician because of his skillful manipulation of pictures, photo-ops, and the media, the French Third Republic can be considered the first fully modern political society. The media provided the essential building block in that scenario. Due to the Third Republic's tendencies toward centralization, farmers in the most remote areas read Parisian newspapers, centralized railroads made communication of news easy and quick, and central education requirements made the French nation into one solid entity and, thus, into a mass culture. That mass culture was susceptible to cheap slogans taking aim at foreigners and outsiders, hence the near success of Boulanger's coup and Dreyfus's accusers. Nothing in particular saved democracy and justice from its conservative enemies--in Boulanger's case, he simply did not receive enough support, and in Dreyfus's case, had conclusive evidence not turned up, who knows what would have happened. Though the Third Republic survived--it, in fact, was never really in danger of collapsing until the interwar years--its new mass media was now a force to be considered.