Léon Gambetta (lāôN´ gäNbĕtä´), 1838–82, French republican leader. A lawyer who achieved some note as an opponent of the Second Empire of Napoleon III, he was elected deputy in 1869 and joined the parliamentary opposition. After the Franco-Prussian War precipitated the downfall of the empire (1870), he became prominent in the provisional government. His organization of a government of national defense to drive out the Germans, his spectacular escape from Paris in a balloon, and his gallant opposition to the Prussian forces won worldwide sympathy. Gambetta bitterly fought French capitulation and briefly retired from politics, but after 1871 he devoted himself to the creation of the Third Republic. After the resignation of Adolphe Thiers as president, Gambetta pursued a policy of moderation and compromise and opposed both the radical republicans with whom he had been identified earlier in his career, and the monarchists and conservatives. He was influential in shaping the republican constitution of 1875, and as the real leader of the republican forces, he strove for unity against President MacMahon. Under President Grévy, Gambetta was briefly premier (1881–82), but his attempt to strengthen the executive power and to reconcile French political and social factions was unsuccessful, and his suggested electoral reform was widely denounced. He died soon after. A vigorous republican and patriot and a strong anticlerical, Gambetta was later highly revered.
See studies by P. Deschanel (1920), H. Stannard (1921), and J. P. T. Bury (1936, repr. 1970).