Opportunist Republicans

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Opportunist Republicans
Républicains opportunistes
Leader Jules Favre
Jules Grévy
Jules Ferry
Émile Loubet
Founded 1871 (1871)
Dissolved 1892 (1892)[1]
Preceded by Moderate Republicans
Succeeded by Progressive Republicans
Ideology Republicanism
Political position Centre-left

The Moderates or Moderate Republicans (French: Républicains modérés), pejoratively labeled Opportunist Republicans (Républicains opportunistes), were a French political group active in the late 19th century, during the Third French Republic. The leaders of the group included Jules Ferry, Jules Grévy, Henri Wallon and René Waldeck-Rousseau. Also if they were considered leftist at the time, the "opportunists" progressively evolved into a centre-right, law and order and vaguely anti-labour political party. During their existence, the moderate republicans were present in the French Parliament first under the name of Republican Left (French: Gauche républicaine, GR), and after a fusion with radical republicans as Democratic Union (French: Union démocratique, UD).



The moderate republicans were a large and heterogenous group started after the French Revolution of 1848.[2] However, the group lost the elections of 1849, finishing to be the minority group in the National Assembly.[3] After the Louis-Napoléon's coup d'état in 1851 and the birth of the Second French Empire in 1852, the republicans took part in the parliamentary opposition (along with the monarchists), against the Bonapartist majority.


President Jules Grévy, portrait by Léon Bonnat (1879).

After the Franco-Prussian War (1870–1871) and the consequential fall of the French Empire, the Third French Republic was born. However, its politics was divided in two groups: the right-wing monarchists (Orléanists and Legitimists) and the left-wing republicans (Radicals and moderates). Also if both republicans were combined by anti-clericalism and social reformism, the radicals were mostly nationalist and anti-German, refusing the Treaty of Versailles with Prussia.[4] The moderates instead supported the Treaty, and were more pragmatic on international politics.[5] In 1871, after the elections, the republicans inside the Chamber of Deputies split in two groups: the moderate Republican Left, led by Jules Favre, and the radical Republican Union led by Léon Gambetta. The two parliamentary groups were non-influential during the early years of the republic, dominated by the monarchist "Moral order" coalition of Patrice MacMahon, but after the failure of a return to the monarchy, after the elections of 1876 the moderate and radical republicans gained 193 and 98 seats in the Chamber, respectively. From this time, the republicans maintained strong majorities in the French Parliament, and were pejoratively called "Opportunists" by their detractors for their aptitude to gain the popular consensus in spite of any ideology.[6]

Moving to right[edit]

Prime Minister Jules Ferry, who resigned in 1885 after a political scandal.

In January 1879, the republican Jules Grévy is elected as President of the Republic, succeeding the monarchist MacMahon. From this time, with the progressive disappearance of the monarchists, the moderates began to move toward the parliamentary centre, between the old rights (Bonapartist and reunited monarchists) and the new lefts (radical-socialists, Marxists and Blanquists). To prevent a return to a monarchy-like creation of a socialist state, the two radical and moderate republicans spirits decided to cooperate and form common governments, despite the personal antagonism between Grévy and Gambetta, who died in 1882.

During the late 1870s and 1880s, the Republican majority launched an education reform, with the Bert Law, creating the normal schools, and the Ferry Laws, that secularize the public education. However, Grévy also signed the so-called Lois scélérates ("villainous laws"), that restricted the freedom of the press, and France started a colonial expansion in Africa, creating protectorates in Madagascar and Tunisia.[7] Despite this semi-authoritarian policies, the republicans refused to be charged of conservatism and continued to proclaim themselves "of the Left", republicanism in France being historically associated with the left-wing. This paradox was laterly identified as sinistrisme ("leftism").

In the elections of 1885 the republican consolidation was confirmed: even if popularly won by Conservative Union of Armand de Mackau, the elections guaranteed a solid republican majority in the Chamber. In fact until the election, the two republican groups have been reunited in a new political party guided by President Grévy and his close ally Jules Ferry: the "Democratic Union", born of the fusion of the Republican Left and the Republican Union. However, in 1885, the republican Prime Minister Ferry was forced to resign after a political scandal called the "Tonkin Affair", and in 1887 President Grévy also resigned his office, after a corruption scandal involving his son-in-law. The moderate republicans, seriously challenged, survived only thanks to the support of the Radical Republicans of René Goblet, and worries about the rise of a new political phenomenon: revanchism, the desire for revenge against the German Empire after the defeat of 1871.

Final divisions and decline[edit]

National Republican Association
Association nationale républicaine
Abbreviation ANR
Merged into Republican Federation
Formation 19 February 1888 (1888-02-19)
Founder Jules Ferry
Extinction 1 November 1903 (1903-11-01)
Purpose Opposition to Boulangisme; defense of businessmen and republican values
Headquarters 51, rue Vivienne, Paris
Membership (1889)
Maurice Rouvier (1888–89)
Jules Ferry (1889–93)
Eugène Spuller (1893)
Honoré Audiffred (1893–03)
Staff (1888)
ca. 110

The revanchist ideas were strong in the France of the Belle Époque, and with the scandals involving the republican governments, there was a rise of the nationalist party, led by General Georges Boulanger. Boulanger was Minister of War from 1886 to 1887; his appointment was a strategy of Prime Minister Goblet to pledge the nationalists, but after the fall of his cabinet, he was replaced by Maurice Rouvier, and the General wasn't reconfirmed. This political error started the political phase called "Boulangisme" (1887–1891). Around the General was forming a heterogeneous group of supporters: radical reformers like Georges Clemenceau and Charles de Freycinet; Bonapartists and monarchists who want overthrow the Republic; socialists like Édouard Vaillant, who admired the General's views on workers' rights; nationalists who desired revenge against Germany. Finally, Boulanger personally led the League of Patriots, a far-right revanchist and militarist league, and benefitted from popular and financial support by workers and aristocrats, respectively. To face the rise of Boulanger, the republican leaders resulted divided. From a side, the old republican moderate wing, composed by prominent personalities like Jules Ferry, Maurice Rouvier and Eugène Spuller, representing the middle bourgeoisie, industrialists and scholars, formed in 1888 the National Republican Association (French: Association nationale républicaine, ANR).;[10] to the other side, the republican right-wing of Henri Barboux and Léon Say, who represented the interests of the rich bourgeoisie and Catholics, formed the Liberal Union in 1889. Continuing to depict itself as leftist, the National Republican Association was a conservative group, opposing the income tax and strikes,[11] that tried to defend the Republic from its reputed enemy: Boulanger. The Association used many banquets to finance his activities. Finally, there was a rupture inside the Boulangist party: the Radicals of Clemenceau, disenchanted by the militarism of Boulanger, launched the "Society of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen", and the socialists became disappointed by Boulanger's frequentation of monarchists like the Duchess of Uzès and Prince Napoléon Bonaparte, also themselves disappointed by Boulanger's republican ideas. The coup de grâce to Boulangisme arrived when the General was accused of preparing a coup d'état, causing the flight of the General to Bruxelles and a republican landslide in the elections of 1889.

In the 1890s, the "Opportunist" republican parable ended. The Panama scandals of 1892 involved prominent Radical politicians like Clemenceau, Alfred Naquet and Léon Bourgeois,[12][13] granting a large victory to the Republican Association in the elections the following year. However, the Dreyfus affair broke out in 1893, causing the formation of two factions: The "Dreyfusards", like Émile Zola, Anatole France and Clemenceau, who supported the innocence of the Jewish Colonel, and the "Anti-Dreyfusard", like Édouard Drumont, Jules Méline and Raymond Poincaré, who accused Dreyfus of betrayal, partially due to rampant anti-semitism. The Republican Association, which Méline and Poincaré were members of, refused the anti-semitic thesis, but anyway took side with the anti-Dreyfus field.[14] However, this decision was fatal for the Association's destiny: in 1899, the re-conviction of the Colonel Dreyfus, with a partial pardon favored by the republican Pierre Waldeck-Rousseau, caused divisions inside the Republican Association, aggravated by the rehabilitation of Dreyfus in 1900. To remove the mole of anti-semitism, in 1901 Waldeck-Rousseau founded the Democratic Republican Alliance (ADR), claiming the heritage of Ferry and Gambetta.[15] Many moderate republicans joined the ADR, including Yves Guyot, Ferdinand Dreyfus (not linked with the Colonel), Narcisse Leven, David Raynal. The moderate republicans who had remained in the National Republican Association finally adhered, along with Progressive Republicans, to the Republican Federation, a right-wing party very distant from the original Republican Association's beliefs.[16]

Prominent members[edit]

Electoral results[edit]

Presidential elections[edit]

Election year Candidate # of 1st round votes  % of 1st round vote # of 2nd round votes  % of 2nd round vote Won/Loss
1873 Jules Grévy 1 0.26% Loss
1879 Jules Grévy 563 84.03% Won
1885 Jules Grévy 457 79.34% Won
1887 Sadi Carnot 303 35.69% 616 74.49% Won

Legislative elections[edit]

Chamber of Deputies
Election year # of
overall votes
 % of
overall vote
# of
overall seats won
+/– Leader
1871 unknown (#3) 16.59%
112 / 675
new party
Jules Favre
1876 unknown (#1) 36.21%
193 / 533
Increase 81
Jules Dufaure
1877 unknown (#2) 24.95%
130 / 521
Decrease 63
Jules Grévy
1881 unknown (#2) 30.83%
168 / 545
Increase 38
Jules Ferry
1885 2,624,704 (#2) 32.48%
283 / 584
Increase 115
Henri Brisson
1889 4,177,464 (#1) 52.37%
354 / 576
Increase 71
Jules Ferry

See also[edit]


  • Abel Bonnard, Les Modérés, Grasset, 330 p., 1936.
  • Francois Roth (dir.), Les modérés dans la vie politique française (1870-1965), Nancy, University of Nancy Press, 562 p, 2003 ISBN 2-86480-726-2.
  • Gilles Dumont, Bernard Dumont, Christophe Réveillard (dir.), La culture du refus de l’ennemi. Modérantisme et religion au seuil du XXIe siècle, University of Limoges Press (PULIM), coll. « Bibliothèque européenne des idées », 2007, 150 p.


  1. ^ Informally ended after the Panama scandal
  2. ^ Philippe Vigier (1967). La Seconde République. PUF, coll. « « Que sais-je ? » ». p. 127. 
  3. ^ Francis Démier (2000). La France du XIXe siècle. Éditions du Seuil. p. 602. 
  4. ^ Dominique Lejeune (2011). La France des débuts de la IIIe République, 1870-1896. Armand Colin. p. 9. 
  5. ^ Michel Winock (2007). Clemenceau. Éditions Perrin. p. 21. 
  6. ^ François Caron (1985). La France des patriotes (de 1851 à 1918). Fayar. p. 384. 
  7. ^ Georges-Léonard Hémeret; Janine Hémeret (1981). Les présidents : République française. Filipacchi. p. 237. 
  8. ^ Spuller, p. 10.
  9. ^ G. Davenay (30 August 1894). "L'Association nationale républicaine". Le Figaro. 
  10. ^ "L'Association républicaine du Centenaire de 1789". Le Temps. 9–19 February 1888. 
  11. ^ Stephen Pichon (24 June 1888). "Un Parti". La Justice. 
  12. ^ THE PANAMA SCANDALS; An Exciting Scene in the French Chamber of Deputies. March 30, 1897
  13. ^ Charles Morice; Henry Jarzuel (11 August 1894). "La Constitution". Le Figaro. 
  14. ^ Le Figaro, 27 February 1899
  15. ^ Le Figaro, 9 February 1902
  16. ^ Auguste Avril (19 November 1903). "Les Progressistes". 'Le Figaro.