by Mike Collins,
Class of 1999
Perhaps the single most important event in the history of the French
Third Republic in the nineteenth century is Seize Mai. "Le Seize Mai" (16
May 1877) demonstrates constitutional republics were succeeding monarchies
at the time of the Third Republic by limiting the powers of the president
in appointing ministers.
The French Third Republic was created after the end of the
Franco-Prussian War and the expulsion of the communists from the Paris
Commune. In the wake of defeat against the North German Confederation,
Emperor Louis Napoleon abdicated and Adolphe Louis Thiers, a famous French
writer and politician, was chosen the lead the provisional government.
Thiers was subsequently elected president on August 30, 1871. However, he
was forced to resign by his monarchist opponents in 1873.
The stage was set for the monarchists to take over the country again.
However, the monarchists, holding legitimacy to rule France, could not
resolve differences between Bourbons and Orleanists. The Bourbons
preferred restoring the line of King Louis XVIII and Charles X to the
throne, while the Orleanists preferred to put a descendant of Citizen King
Louis Philippe, who made France a constitutional monarchy for 18 years, on
the throne of France. With the extreme liberals dead or out of the country
(many went to Devil’s Island), the time seemed right for a king. The
people would trust a monarch now more than ever because of the hate
towards the liberals for seeming to cause the unprecedented carnage of
civil strife in revolutions and rebellions since the Restoration and the
legitimacy of the King supported by the church.
The Accidental Republic
A second Restoration was not to be. There was a vote to decide which
constitution, largely republican or monarchist, in 1875 to decide. The
chamber was split, but the monarchists were sure of a victory. However,
one man on the monarchist side was late for the vote, and the republicans
won. The French Third Republic was born, and many refer to the nation at
the time after the famous vote as the "accidental republic". Yet, the
monarchists were not going to give up that easily, especially with
significant public support.
The most important grab at power in the struggle between the Right and
Left in the Third Republic was Seize Mai. After the monarchist majority
dumped Thiers in 1873, Marie Edme Patrice MacMahon was elected as
president for a seven-year term. MacMahon, though a moderate royalist, not
quite willing to go to measures to restore a monarchy but carried out
measures to suppress republicans, even after they came into a majority in
the chamber of deputies. MacMahon went so far as to force the republican
Premier, Jules Simon, to resign on the 16th of May, 1877, when
Simon went against a new monarchist proposal.
The Consequences of MacMahon's Abuse of Power
MacMahon went further, dissolving the chamber of deputies and ordering
new elections in October of the same year. During this same time, MacMahon
appointed two royalist cabinets, one in May and one during the new
elections. As the republicans once again gained a majority, MacMahon was
forced to accept a cabinet of ministers the chamber approved of at the end
of the year.
The events of Seize Mai proved significant in demonstrating republics
were gaining power over previous monarchist governments. In a
throne-and-alter scenario with the king supported by the church and
presumably given the right to rule by God, the king has almost absolute
powers, sometimes called the "Divine Right of Kings". Charles X approved
of this method, even after the revolution and unrest in France between
1789 and 1798, and so was at least partially responsible for instigating
the revolution of 1830 and making France a constitutional monarchy in
which the powers of the king are limited to a varying degree. Yet, in a
republic, the people have more power to decide the fate of the nation, as
they can elect a parliament, or in the case of France, a chamber of
deputies. The powers of legislation and some powers of executing the laws
are removed from the executive branch of the government (formerly headed
by the king, but now the president) and given to the chamber. Thus, when
MacMahon had to get the approval for his ministers, policy makers, from
the chamber, it removed some of the powers of government from the
In addition, the ministers the chamber of deputies would approve of,
naturally, would be of the same party as the republicans in the chamber,
so the overall power and majority of the monarchists would decline and the
balance of power of the type of government the future of France would have
would shift. Therefore, Seize Mai was significant because it influenced
the future of France and demonstrated the rise of republics by limiting
the powers of the executive office, in which rested the power to appoint
ministers to head plans for the government and the nation.
It could be opined the monarchists caused their own downfall. Charles X
insisted on more power for himself, and MacMahon insisted on complete
loyalty to rightist philosophy. So it seems the personal desires of the
person in the executive office were what decided it. Yet, the power
ultimately rests in the hands of the people of the nation who instigated
the revolutions against their leaders and elected representatives to the
chamber. The future of France was its people.
MacMahon was plagued by conflict with the chamber of deputies for the
rest of his presidency. He resigned in January of 1879, before the end of
his term of seven years. Jules Grevy became the next president of the
Third Republic, and "Bloody Ditch" between the Right and the Left
continued; yet one of the most influential events of the era was most
certainly Seize Mai.
"France". Encarta 98 Multimedia Encyclopedia.
"MacMahon, Marie Edme Patrice de". Columbia Encyclopedia, Fifth Ed.
"Thiers, (Louis) Adolphe". Funk and Wagnall’s New Encyclopedia. 1993
By Michael Collins, 1999