The history of the French Third Republic between the wars of 1870 and 1914 was crossed by three major waves of reform. The first appeared during the initial decade after the military disaster at Sedan, which ended the reign of Bonapartism and brought its liberal opposition to power. Out of the confused and unstable circumstances of those early years emerged a certain kind of republic whose middling orientation in politics and economics has left deep traces ever since.1 Meanwhile, a second wave began almost at once after 1870, although it did not crest until two decades later. One of its aspects was military reform, which was inaugurated by a recruitment law in 1872 that established the principle of universal conscription. But in reality it was not until the end of the 1880s that provision was made for a system of three-year service that finally set France on the way to a citizen army. At the same time controversy over religious issues grew increasingly rancorous, especially in regard to educational reforms. Once more, the principle of universal primary schooling was quickly accepted, but its full implications remained problematical. Not only did anticlerical pressure to enforce secularization produce endless friction, but structural and curricular disputes also delayed implementation of reform legislation. Hence, a critical revision of secondary education--the establishment of a "modern" track to parallel the classical French lyce--was not adopted before the 1890s.2
By then a third wave of reform was manifest, a movement for the improvement of public health and welfare, which is the subject of this book. It is my intention in treating "the social question" (as it was commonly called at the time) to present both a thesis and a synthesis.