France in Modern Times: 1760 to the Present

By Gordon Wright | Go to book overview

NINETEEN
The Opportunist Republic, 1879-1899

How beautiful was the Republic under the Empire!

ALPHONSE AULARD ( 1885)

The abdication of MacMahon in 1879 completed the process of putting the republicans in control of the republic. For the next two decades, almost without a break, political power remained in the hands of the moderate or libertarian wing of republicans -- the element currently called Opportunists and composed of a fusion of the old Republican Left with the Gambettist ex-Radicals.

In retrospect, it is hard to resist the sentiment that the Opportunist era represents one of the great wasted opportunities of modern French history. The monarchists, except for brief periods, were no longer strong enough to threaten the regime; the Radicals on the other wing could not hope to dislodge the Opportunists but only to share power at best. Two things might have been accomplished by the Opportunist leaders, if they had been men of imagination and foresight. In the political sphere, they might have given the republic a backbone and sinews by developing a vigorous executive and a more stable party system; in the social-economic sphere, they might have taken at least some cautious steps toward social reform and economic modernization.

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