French Third Republic
Nation of France from 1870 to 1940
Top 10 French Third Republic related articles
- 1 Politics
- 2 Dreyfus affair
- 3 Social history
- 4 Radicals' republic
- 5 Church and state
- 6 Foreign policy
- 7 First World War
- 8 Peace and revenge
- 9 Interwar period
- 10 Downfall of the Third Republic
- 11 Interpreting the Third Republic
- 12 Historiography of decadence
- 13 Timeline to 1914
- 14 See also
- 15 References
Coat of arms
Motto: Liberté, égalité, fraternité
("Liberty, equality, fraternity")
Anthem: La Marseillaise
The French Republic in 1914
and largest city
|Common languages||French (official), several others|
|Government||Unitary parliamentary republic|
• 1871–1873 (first)
• 1932–1940 (last)
|President of the Council of Ministers|
• 1870–1871 (first)
|Louis Jules Trochu|
• 1940 (last)
|Chamber of Deputies|
• Proclamation by Leon Gambetta
|4 September 1870|
• Vichy France established
|10 July 1940|
|Today part of||
Part of a series on the
|History of France|
The French Third Republic (French: La Troisième République, sometimes written as La IIIe République) was the system of government adopted in France from 1870, when the Second French Empire collapsed during the Franco-Prussian War, until 10 July 1940 after France's defeat by Nazi Germany in World War II led to the formation of the Vichy government in France.
The early days of the Third Republic were dominated by political disruptions caused by the Franco-Prussian War of 1870–71, which the Republic continued to wage after the fall of Emperor Napoleon III in 1870. Harsh reparations exacted by the Prussians after the war resulted in the loss of the French regions of Alsace (keeping the Territoire de Belfort) and Lorraine (the northeastern part, i.e. present-day department of Moselle), social upheaval, and the establishment of the Paris Commune. The early governments of the Third Republic considered re-establishing the monarchy, but disagreement as to the nature of that monarchy and the rightful occupant of the throne could not be resolved. Consequently, the Third Republic, originally envisioned as a provisional government, instead became the permanent form of government of France.
The French Constitutional Laws of 1875 defined the composition of the Third Republic. It consisted of a Chamber of Deputies and a Senate to form the legislative branch of government and a president to serve as head of state. Calls for the re-establishment of the monarchy dominated the tenures of the first two presidents, Adolphe Thiers and Patrice de MacMahon, but growing support for the republican form of government among the French populace and a series of republican presidents in the 1880s gradually quashed prospects of a monarchical restoration.
The Third Republic established many French colonial possessions, including French Indochina, French Madagascar, French Polynesia, and large territories in West Africa during the Scramble for Africa, all of them acquired during the last two decades of the 19th century. The early years of the 20th century were dominated by the Democratic Republican Alliance, which was originally conceived as a centre-left political alliance, but over time became the main centre-right party. The period from the start of World War I to the late 1930s featured sharply polarized politics, between the Democratic Republican Alliance and the Radicals. The government fell less than a year after the outbreak of World War II, when German forces occupied much of France, and was replaced by the rival governments of Charles de Gaulle's Free France (La France libre) and Philippe Pétain's Vichy France (L'État français).
Adolphe Thiers called republicanism in the 1870s "the form of government that divides France least"; however, politics under the Third Republic were sharply polarized. On the left stood Reformist France, heir to the French Revolution. On the right stood conservative France, rooted in the peasantry, the Roman Catholic Church and the army. In spite of France's sharply divided electorate and persistent attempts to overthrow it, the Third Republic endured for seventy years, which as of 2021 makes it the longest lasting system of government in France since the collapse of the Ancien Régime in 1789.
French Third Republic Intro articles: 77
The Franco-Prussian War of 1870–1871 resulted in the defeat of France and the overthrow of Emperor Napoleon III and his Second French Empire. After Napoleon's capture by the Prussians at the Battle of Sedan (1 September 1870), Parisian deputies led by Léon Gambetta established the Government of National Defence as a provisional government on 4 September 1870. The deputies then selected General Louis-Jules Trochu to serve as its president. This first government of the Third Republic ruled during the Siege of Paris (19 September 1870 – 28 January 1871). As Paris was cut off from the rest of unoccupied France, the Minister of War, Léon Gambetta, who succeeded in leaving Paris in a hot air balloon, established the headquarters of the provisional republican government in the city of Tours on the Loire river.
After the French surrender in January 1871, the provisional Government of National Defence disbanded, and national elections were called with the aim of creating a new French government. French territories occupied by Prussia at this time did not participate. The resulting conservative National Assembly elected Adolphe Thiers as head of a provisional government, nominally ("head of the executive branch of the Republic pending a decision on the institutions of France"). Due to the revolutionary and left-wing political climate that prevailed in the Parisian population, the right-wing government chose the royal palace of Versailles as its headquarters.
The new government negotiated a peace settlement with the newly proclaimed German Empire: the Treaty of Frankfurt signed on 10 May 1871. To prompt the Prussians to leave France, the government passed a variety of financial laws, such as the controversial Law of Maturities, to pay reparations. In Paris, resentment against the government built and from late March – May 1871, Paris workers and National Guards revolted and established the Paris Commune, which maintained a radical left-wing regime for two months until its bloody suppression by the Thiers government in May 1871. The following repression of the communards would have disastrous consequences for the labour movement.
The French legislative election of 1871, held in the aftermath of the collapse of the regime of Napoleon III, resulted in a monarchist majority in the French National Assembly that was favourable to making a peace agreement with Prussia. The "Legitimists" in the National Assembly supported the candidacy of a descendant of King Charles X, the last monarch from the senior line of the Bourbon Dynasty, to assume the French throne: his grandson Henri, Comte de Chambord, alias "Henry V." The Orléanists supported a descendant of King Louis Philippe I, who replaced his cousin Charles X as the French monarch in 1830: his grandson Louis-Philippe, Comte de Paris. The Bonapartists were marginalized due to the defeat of Napoléon III and were unable to advance the candidacy of any member of his family, the Bonaparte family. Legitimists and Orléanists came to a compromise, eventually, whereby the childless Comte de Chambord would be recognised as king, with the Comte de Paris recognised as his heir; this was the expected line of succession for the Comte de Chambord by France's traditional rule of agnatic primogeniture if the renunciation of the Spanish Bourbons in the Peace of Utrecht was recognised. Consequently, in 1871 the throne was offered to the Comte de Chambord.
Chambord believed the restored monarchy had to eliminate all traces of the Revolution (including most famously the Tricolour flag) in order to restore the unity between the monarchy and the nation, which the revolution had sundered apart. Compromise on this was impossible if the nation were to be made whole again. The general population, however, was unwilling to abandon the Tricolour flag. Monarchists therefore resigned themselves to wait for the death of the aging, childless Chambord, when the throne could be offered to his more liberal heir, the Comte de Paris. A "temporary" republican government was therefore established. Chambord lived on until 1883, but by that time, enthusiasm for a monarchy had faded, and as a result the Comte de Paris was never offered the French throne.
Ordre Moral government
Following the French surrender to Prussia in January 1871, concluding the Franco-Prussian War, the transitional Government of National Defence established a new seat of government at Versailles due to the encirclement of Paris by Prussian forces. New representatives were elected in February of that year, constituting the government which would come to evolve into the Third Republic. These representatives – predominantly conservative republicans – enacted a series of legislation which prompted resistance and outcry from radical and leftist elements of the republican movement. In Paris, a series of public altercations broke out between the Versailles-aligned Parisian government and the city's radical socialists. The radicals ultimately rejected the authority of Versailles, responding with the foundation of the Paris Commune in March.
The principles underpinning the Commune were viewed as morally degenerate by French conservatives at large while the government at Versailles sought to maintain the tenuous post-war stability which it had established. In May, the regular French Armed Forces, under the command of Patrice de MacMahon and the Versailles government, marched on Paris and succeeded in dismantling the Commune during would become known as The Bloody Week. The term ordre moral ("moral order") subsequently came to be applied to the budding Third Republic due to the perceived restoration of conservative policies and values following the suppression of the Commune.
De MacMahon, his popularity having been bolstered by his response to the Commune, was later elected President of the Republic in May 1873 and would hold the office until January 1879. A staunch Catholic conservative with Legitimist sympathies and a noted mistrust of secularists, de MacMahon grew to be increasingly at odds with the French parliament as liberal and secular republicans gained legislative majority during his presidency.
In February 1875, a series of parliamentary acts established the constitutional laws of the new republic. At its head was a President of the Republic. A two-chamber parliament consisting of a directly-elected Chamber of Deputies and an indirectly-elected Senate was created, along with a ministry under the President of the Council (prime minister), who was nominally answerable to both the President of the Republic and the legislature. Throughout the 1870s, the issue of whether a monarchy should replace or oversee the republic dominated public debate.
The elections of 1876 demonstrated a high degree of public support for the increasingly anti-monarchist direction of the republican movement. A decisive Republican majority was elected to the Chamber of Deputies while the monarchist majority in the Senate was maintained by only one seat. President de MacMahon responded in May 1877, attempting to quell the Republicans' rising popularity and limit their political influence through a series of actions which would become known in France as le seize Mai.
On 16 May 1877, de MacMahon forced the resignation of Moderate Republican prime minister Jules Simon and appointed the Orléanist Albert de Broglie to the office. When the Chamber of Deputies expressed outrage at the appointment, believing the transition of authority to be illegitimate and refusing to cooperate with either de MacMahon or de Broglie, de MacMahon dissolved the Chamber and called for a new general election to be held the following October. De MacMahon was subsequently accused by Republicans and republican sympathizers of attempting to stage a constitutional coup d'état, a claim which he publicly denied.
The October elections again brought a Republican majority to the Chamber of Deputies, further affirming public opinion. The Republicans would go on to gain a majority in the Senate by January 1879, establishing dominance in both houses and effectively ending the potential for a monarchist restoration. De MacMahon himself resigned on 30 January 1879 to be succeeded by the moderate Jules Grévy.
Following the 16 May crisis in 1877, Legitimists were pushed out of power, and the Republic was finally governed by republicans referred to as Opportunist Republicans for their support of moderate social and political changes in order to establish the new regime firmly. The Jules Ferry laws that made public education free, mandatory, and secular (laїque), were voted in 1881 and 1882, one of the first signs of the expanding civic powers of the Republic. From that time onward, public education was no longer under the exclusive control of the Catholic congregations.
To discourage French monarchism as a serious political force, the French Crown Jewels were broken up and sold in 1885. Only a few crowns, their precious gems replaced by coloured glass, were kept.
In 1889, the Republic was rocked by a sudden political crisis precipitated by General Georges Boulanger. An enormously popular general, he won a series of elections in which he would resign his seat in the Chamber of Deputies and run again in another district. At the apogee of his popularity in January 1889, he posed the threat of a coup d'état and the establishment of a dictatorship. With his base of support in the working districts of Paris and other cities, plus rural traditionalist Catholics and royalists, he promoted an aggressive nationalism aimed against Germany. The elections of September 1889 marked a decisive defeat for the Boulangists. They were defeated by the changes in the electoral laws that prevented Boulanger from running in multiple constituencies; by the government's aggressive opposition; and by the absence of the general himself, who placed himself in self-imposed exile to be with his mistress. The fall of Boulanger severely undermined the political strength of the conservative and royalist elements within France; they would not recover their strength until 1940.
Revisionist scholars have argued that the Boulangist movement more often represented elements of the radical left rather than the extreme right. Their work is part of an emerging consensus that France's radical right was formed in part during the Dreyfus era by men who had been Boulangist partisans of the radical left a decade earlier.
The Panama scandals of 1892 involved the enormous cost of a failed attempt to build the Panama Canal. Due to disease, death, inefficiency, and widespread corruption, the Panama Canal Company handling the massive project went bankrupt, with millions in losses. It is regarded as the largest monetary corruption scandal of the 19th century. Close to a billion francs were lost when the French government took bribes to keep quiet about the Panama Canal Company's financial troubles.
The welfare state and public health
France lagged behind Bismarckian Germany, as well as Great Britain & Ireland, in developing a welfare state with public health, unemployment insurance and national old age pension plans. There was an accident insurance law for workers in 1898, and in 1910, France created a national pension plan. Unlike Germany or Britain, the programs were much smaller – for example, pensions were a voluntary plan. Historian Timothy Smith finds French fears of national public assistance programs were grounded in a widespread disdain for the English Poor Law. Tuberculosis was the most dreaded disease of the day, especially striking young people in their twenties. Germany set up vigorous measures of public hygiene and public sanatoria, but France let private physicians handle the problem. The French medical profession guarded its prerogatives, and public health activists were not as well organized or as influential as in Germany, Britain or the United States. For example, there was a long battle over a public health law which began in the 1880s as a campaign to reorganize the nation's health services, to require the registration of infectious diseases, to mandate quarantines, and to improve the deficient health and housing legislation of 1850.
However, the reformers met opposition from bureaucrats, politicians, and physicians. Because it was so threatening to so many interests, the proposal was debated and postponed for 20 years before becoming law in 1902. Implementation finally came when the government realized that contagious diseases had a national security impact in weakening military recruits, and keeping the population growth rate well below Germany's. Another theory put forth is that the low rate of French population growth, relative to Germany, was due to a lower French birth rate perhaps due to the provision under French Revolutionary law that land must be divided up among all the sons (or a large compensation paid) — this led peasants to not want more than one son. There is no evidence to suggest than French life expectancy was lower than that of Germany.
French Third Republic Politics articles: 51
The Dreyfus affair was a major political scandal that convulsed France from 1894 until its resolution in 1906, and then had reverberations for decades more. The conduct of the affair has become a modern and universal symbol of injustice. It remains one of the most striking examples of a complex miscarriage of justice in which a central role was played by the press and public opinion. At issue was blatant anti-Semitism as practiced by the French Army and defended by conservatives and Catholic traditionalists against secular centre-left, left and republican forces, including most Jews. In the end, the latter triumphed.
The affair began in November 1894 with the conviction for treason of Captain Alfred Dreyfus, a young French artillery officer of Alsatian Jewish descent. He was sentenced to life imprisonment for communicating French military secrets to the German Embassy in Paris and sent to the penal colony at Devil's Island in French Guiana (nicknamed la guillotine sèche, the dry guillotine), where he spent almost five years.
Two years later, evidence came to light that identified a French Army major named Ferdinand Walsin Esterhazy as the real spy. After high-ranking military officials suppressed the new evidence, a military court unanimously acquitted Esterhazy. In response, the Army brought up additional charges against Dreyfus based on false documents. Word of the military court's attempts to frame Dreyfus began to spread, chiefly owing to the polemic J'accuse, a vehement open letter published in a Paris newspaper in January 1898 by the notable writer Émile Zola. Activists put pressure on the government to re-open the case.
In 1899, Dreyfus was returned to France for another trial. The intense political and judicial scandal that ensued divided French society between those who supported Dreyfus (now called "Dreyfusards"), such as Anatole France, Henri Poincaré and Georges Clemenceau, and those who condemned him (the anti-Dreyfusards), such as Édouard Drumont, the director and publisher of the anti-Semitic newspaper La Libre Parole. The new trial resulted in another conviction and a 10-year sentence, but Dreyfus was given a pardon and set free. Eventually all the accusations against him were demonstrated to be baseless, and in 1906, Dreyfus was exonerated and re-instated as a major in the French Army.
From 1894 to 1906, the scandal divided France deeply and lastingly into two opposing camps: the pro-Army "anti-Dreyfusards" composed of conservatives, Catholic traditionalists and monarchists who generally lost the initiative to the anti-clerical, pro-republican "Dreyfusards", with strong support from intellectuals and teachers. It embittered French politics and facilitated the increasing influence of radical politicians on both sides of the political spectrum.
French Third Republic Dreyfus affair articles: 14
The democratic political structure was supported by the proliferation of politicized newspapers. The circulation of the daily press in Paris went from 1 million in 1870 to 5 million in 1910; it later reached 6 million in 1939. Advertising grew rapidly, providing a steady financial basis for publishing, but it did not cover all of the costs involved and had to be supplemented by secret subsidies from commercial interests that wanted favourable reporting. A new liberal press law of 1881 abandoned the restrictive practices that had been typical for a century. High-speed rotary Hoe presses, introduced in the 1860s, facilitated quick turnaround time and cheaper publication. New types of popular newspapers, especially Le Petit Journal, reached an audience more interested in diverse entertainment and gossip than hard news. It captured a quarter of the Parisian market and forced the rest to lower their prices. The main dailies employed their own journalists who competed for news flashes. All newspapers relied upon the Agence Havas (now Agence France-Presse), a telegraphic news service with a network of reporters and contracts with Reuters to provide world service. The staid old papers retained their loyal clientele because of their concentration on serious political issues. While papers usually gave false circulation figures, Le Petit Provençal in 1913 probably had a daily circulation of about 100,000 and Le Petit Meridional had about 70,000. Advertising only filled 20% or so of the pages.
The Roman Catholic Assumptionist order revolutionized pressure group media by its national newspaper La Croix. It vigorously advocated for traditional Catholicism while at the same time innovating with the most modern technology and distribution systems, with regional editions tailored to local taste. Secularists and Republicans recognized the newspaper as their greatest enemy, especially when it took the lead in attacking Dreyfus as a traitor and stirring up anti-Semitism. After Dreyfus was pardoned, the Radical government closed down the entire Assumptionist order and its newspaper in 1900.
Banks secretly paid certain newspapers to promote particular financial interests and hide or cover up misbehaviour. They also took payments for favourable notices in news articles of commercial products. Sometimes, a newspaper would blackmail a business by threatening to publish unfavorable information unless the business immediately started advertising in the paper. Foreign governments, especially Russia and Turkey, secretly paid the press hundreds of thousands of francs a year to guarantee favourable coverage of the bonds it was selling in Paris. When the real news was bad about Russia, as during its 1905 Revolution or during its war with Japan, it raised the ante to millions. During the World War, newspapers became more of a propaganda agency on behalf of the war effort and avoided critical commentary. They seldom reported the achievements of the Allies, crediting all the good news to the French army. In a sentence, the newspapers were not independent champions of the truth, but secretly paid advertisements for banking.
The World War ended a golden era for the press. Their younger staff members were drafted, and male replacements could not be found (female journalists were not considered suitable). Rail transportation was rationed and less paper and ink came in, and fewer copies could be shipped out. Inflation raised the price of newsprint, which was always in short supply. The cover price went up, circulation fell and many of the 242 dailies published outside Paris closed down. The government set up the Interministerial Press Commission to supervise the press closely. A separate agency imposed tight censorship that led to blank spaces where news reports or editorials were disallowed. The dailies sometimes were limited to only two pages instead of the usual four, leading one satirical paper to try to report the war news in the same spirit:
- War News. A half-zeppelin threw half its bombs on half-time combatants, resulting in one-quarter damaged. The zeppelin, halfways-attacked by a portion of half-anti aircraft guns, was half destroyed."
Regional newspapers flourished after 1900. However the Parisian newspapers were largely stagnant after the war. The major postwar success story was Paris Soir, which lacked any political agenda and was dedicated to providing a mix of sensational reporting to aid circulation and serious articles to build prestige. By 1939, its circulation was over 1.7 million, double that of its nearest rival the tabloid Le Petit Parisien. In addition to its daily paper, Paris Soir sponsored a highly successful women's magazine Marie-Claire. Another magazine, Match, was modelled on the photojournalism of the American magazine Life.
Modernization of the peasants
France was a rural nation, and the peasant farmer was the typical French citizen. In his seminal book Peasants into Frenchmen (1976), historian Eugen Weber traced the modernization of French villages and argued that rural France went from backward and isolated to modern with a sense of national identity during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. He emphasized the roles of railroads, republican schools, and universal military conscription. He based his findings on school records, migration patterns, military service documents and economic trends. Weber argued that until 1900 or so a sense of French nationhood was weak in the provinces. Weber then looked at how the policies of the Third Republic created a sense of French nationality in rural areas. Weber's scholarship was widely praised, but was criticized by some who argued that a sense of Frenchness existed in the provinces before 1870.
City department store
Aristide Boucicaut founded Le Bon Marché in Paris in 1838, and by 1852 it offered a wide variety of goods in "departments inside one building." Goods were sold at fixed prices, with guarantees that allowed exchanges and refunds. By the end of the 19th century, Georges Dufayel, a French credit merchant, had served up to three million customers and was affiliated with La Samaritaine, a large French department store established in 1870 by a former Bon Marché executive.
The French gloried in the national prestige brought by the great Parisian stores. The great writer Émile Zola (1840–1902) set his novel Au Bonheur des Dames (1882–83) in the typical department store. Zola represented it as a symbol of the new technology that was both improving society and devouring it. The novel describes merchandising, management techniques, marketing, and consumerism.
The Grands Magasins Dufayel was a huge department store with inexpensive prices built in 1890 in the northern part of Paris, where it reached a very large new customer base in the working class. In a neighbourhood with few public spaces, it provided a consumer version of the public square. It educated workers to approach shopping as an exciting social activity, not just a routine exercise in obtaining necessities, just as the bourgeoisie did at the famous department stores in the central city. Like the bourgeois stores, it helped transform consumption from a business transaction into a direct relationship between consumer and sought-after goods. Its advertisements promised the opportunity to participate in the newest, most fashionable consumerism at reasonable cost. The latest technology was featured, such as cinemas and exhibits of inventions like X-ray machines (that could be used to fit shoes) and the gramophone.
Increasingly after 1870, the stores' work force became feminized, opening up prestigious job opportunities for young women. Despite the low pay and long hours, they enjoyed the exciting complex interactions with the newest and most fashionable merchandise and upscale customers.
French Third Republic Social history articles: 24
The most important party of the early 20th century in France was the Radical Party, founded in 1901 as the "Republican, Radical and Radical-Socialist Party" ("Parti républicain, radical et radical-socialiste"). It was classically liberal in political orientation and opposed the monarchists and clerical elements on the one hand, and the Socialists on the other. Many members had been recruited by the Freemasons. The Radicals were split between activists who called for state intervention to achieve economic and social equality and conservatives whose first priority was stability. The workers' demands for strikes threatened such stability and pushed many Radicals toward conservatism. It opposed women's suffrage for fear that women would vote for its opponents or for candidates endorsed by the Catholic Church. It favoured a progressive income tax, economic equality, expanded educational opportunities and cooperatives in domestic policy. In foreign policy, it favoured a strong League of Nations after the war, and the maintenance of peace through compulsory arbitration, controlled disarmament, economic sanctions, and perhaps an international military force.
Followers of Léon Gambetta, such as Raymond Poincaré, who would become President of the Council in the 1920s, created the Democratic Republican Alliance (ARD), which became the main center-right party after World War I.
Governing coalitions collapsed with regularity, rarely lasting more than a few months, as radicals, socialists, liberals, conservatives, republicans and monarchists all fought for control. Some historians argue that the collapses were not important because they reflected minor changes in coalitions of many parties that routinely lost and gained a few allies. Consequently, the change of governments could be seen as little more than a series of ministerial reshuffles, with many individuals carrying forward from one government to the next, often in the same posts.
French Third Republic Radicals' republic articles: 4
Church and state
Throughout the lifetime of the Third Republic (1870–1940), there were battles over the status of the Catholic Church in France among the republicans, monarchists and the authoritarians (such as the Napoleonists). The French clergy and bishops were closely associated with the monarchists and many of its hierarchy were from noble families. Republicans were based in the anti-clerical middle class, who saw the Church's alliance with the monarchists as a political threat to republicanism, and a threat to the modern spirit of progress. The republicans detested the Church for its political and class affiliations; for them, the Church represented the Ancien Régime, a time in French history most republicans hoped was long behind them. The republicans were strengthened by Protestant and Jewish support. Numerous laws were passed to weaken the Catholic Church. In 1879, priests were excluded from the administrative committees of hospitals and boards of charity; in 1880, new measures were directed against the religious congregations; from 1880 to 1890 came the substitution of lay women for nuns in many hospitals; in 1882, the Ferry school laws were passed. Napoleon's Concordat of 1801 continued in operation, but in 1881, the government cut off salaries to priests it disliked.
Republicans feared that religious orders in control of schools—especially the Jesuits and Assumptionists—indoctrinated anti-republicanism into children. Determined to root this out, republicans insisted they needed control of the schools for France to achieve economic and militaristic progress. (Republicans felt one of the primary reasons for the German victory in 1870 was their superior education system.)
The early anti-Catholic laws were largely the work of republican Jules Ferry in 1882. Religious instruction in all schools was forbidden, and religious orders were forbidden to teach in them. Funds were appropriated from religious schools to build more state schools. Later in the century, other laws passed by Ferry's successors further weakened the Church's position in French society. Civil marriage became compulsory, divorce was introduced, and chaplains were removed from the army.
When Leo XIII became pope in 1878, he tried to calm Church-State relations. In 1884, he told French bishops not to act in a hostile manner toward the State ('Nobilissima Gallorum Gens'). In 1892, he issued an encyclical advising French Catholics to rally to the Republic and defend the Church by participating in republican politics ('Au milieu des sollicitudes'). The Liberal Action was founded in 1901 by Jacques Piou and Albert de Mun, former monarchists who switched to republicanism at the request of Pope Leo XIII. From the Church's perspective, its mission was to express the political ideals and new social doctrines embodied in Leo's 1891 encyclical "Rerum Novarum".
Action libérale was the parliamentary group from which the ALP political party emerged, adding the word populaire ("popular") to signify this expansion. Membership was open to everyone, not just Catholics. It sought to gather all the "honest people" and to be the melting pot sought by Leo XIII where Catholics and moderate Republicans would unite to support a policy of tolerance and social progress. Its motto summarized its program: "Liberty for all; equality before the law; better conditions for the workers." However, the "old republicans" were few, and it did not manage to regroup all Catholics, as it was shunned by monarchists, Christian democrats, and Integrists. In the end, it recruited mostly among the liberal-Catholics (Jacques Piou) and the Social Catholics (Albert de Mun). The ALP was drawn into battle from its very beginnings (its first steps coincided with the beginning of the Combes ministry and its anticlerical combat policy), as religious matters were at the heart of its preoccupations. It defended the Church in the name of liberty and common law. Fiercely fought by the Action française, the movement declined from 1908, when it lost the support of Rome. Nevertheless, the ALP remained until 1914 the most important party on the right.
The attempt at improving the relationship with republicans failed. Deep-rooted suspicions remained on both sides and were inflamed by the Dreyfus Affair (1894–1906). Catholics were for the most part anti-Dreyfusard. The Assumptionists published anti-Semitic and anti-republican articles in their journal La Croix. This infuriated republican politicians, who were eager to take revenge. Often they worked in alliance with Masonic lodges. The Waldeck-Rousseau Ministry (1899–1902) and the Combes Ministry (1902–05) fought with the Vatican over the appointment of bishops. Chaplains were removed from naval and military hospitals in the years 1903 and 1904, and soldiers were ordered not to frequent Catholic clubs in 1904.
Emile Combes, when elected Prime Minister in 1902, was determined to defeat Catholicism thoroughly. After only a short while in office, he closed down all parochial schools in France. Then he had parliament reject authorization of all religious orders. This meant that all fifty-four orders in France were dissolved and about 20,000 members immediately left France, many for Spain. In 1904, Émile Loubet, the president of France from 1899 to 1906, visited King Victor Emmanuel III of Italy in Rome, and Pope Pius X protested at this recognition of the Italian State. Combes reacted strongly and recalled his ambassador to the Holy See. Then, in 1905, a law was introduced that abrogated Napoleon's 1801 Concordat. Church and State were finally separated. All Church property was confiscated. Religious personnel were no longer paid by the State. Public worship was given over to associations of Catholic laymen who controlled access to churches. However, in practice, masses and rituals continued to be performed.
Combes was vigorously opposed by all the Conservative parties, who saw the mass closure of church schools as a persecution of religion. Combs led the anti-clerical coalition on the left, facing opposition primarily organized by the pro-Catholic ALP. The ALP had a stronger popular base, with better financing and a stronger network of newspapers, but had far fewer seats in parliament.
The Combes government worked with Masonic lodges to create a secret surveillance of all army officers to make sure that devout Catholics would not be promoted. Exposed as the Affaire Des Fiches, the scandal undermined support for the Combes government, and he resigned. It also undermined morale in the army, as officers realized that hostile spies examining their private lives were more important to their careers than their own professional accomplishments.
In December 1905, the government of Maurice Rouvier introduced the French law on the separation of Church and State. This law was heavily supported by Combes, who had been strictly enforcing the 1901 voluntary association law and the 1904 law on religious congregations' freedom of teaching. On 10 February 1905, the Chamber declared that "the attitude of the Vatican" had rendered the separation of Church and State inevitable and the law of the separation of church and state was passed in December 1905. The Church was badly hurt and lost half its priests. In the long run, however, it gained autonomy; ever after, the State no longer had a voice in choosing bishops, thus Gallicanism was dead.