From the French Revolution to a Stable Democracy

Our Paris apartment is in the building to the right of the bridge, shown in this painting done at the time of the Paris Commune.
Our Paris apartment is in the building to the right of the bridge, shown in this painting done at the time of the Paris Commune, a part of the long road to a stable democracy

I look at the current efforts in the Middle East to establish democratic government (Egypt, Syria, Tunisia, Libya, and others) and wonder if the world expects too much too soon. Abraham Lincoln said it well when he expressed in his 2nd Inaugural Address his amazement at how much more difficult the Civil War had been than he or others had expected.

Neither party expected for the war the magnitude or the duration which it has already attained. Neither anticipated that the cause of the conflict might cease with or even before the conflict itself should cease. Each looked for an easier triumph, and a result less fundamental and astounding.

The French Revolution provides an example of how much effort it might take for any of these governments to become stable democracies. Years pass by as institutions are established and political deadlocks are resolved. Stability is elusive. Consider the French timeline.

  1. After about 800 years of rule by a king, the French staged a revolution in 1789 and proclaimed the first republic in 1792. The Girondists attempted to form a constitutional monarchy as was done in England, but ultimately lost out to the Jacobins, who abolished the Monarchy and established the First Republic. They set up a dictatorial government around the Committee for Public Safety. In a reign of terror, they executed more than 2500 Parisians and more than 14,500 French. Ultimately, the members of the committee are executed.
  2. In 1799 the popular general Napoleon returned from success in battle and overthrew the government, naming himself as emperor. He ruled as an autocrat, albeit to the benefit of France, until he was forced from rule in 1813 and ultimately defeated at Waterloo in 1815.
  3. The French brought back a member of the Bourbon family, Louis XVIII, to be king again, reigning from 1814 – 1824. He was then replaced by another king, Charles X, who continued to struggle between implementing the goals of the revolution and reverting to the customs of the old monarchy.
  4. In 1830 Charles gave up the throne to King Louis Phillipe, who made an enlightened attempt to set up a constitutional monarchy. It ultimately failed in 1848 and he was removed. The 2nd Republic was formed.
  5. An election was held and Louis Napoleon Bonaparte, nephew of the still popular general, was elected. In 1851 the legislature deadlocked, and Louis Napoleon Bonaparte staged a military coup, declaring himself Emperor Napoleon III. France again had autocratic rule until 1870, when Napoleon III was captured in battle against the Prussians.
  6. A new government was formed and elections were held. The winners campaigned on a popular peace platform. When they took control they signed a treaty with the Prussians. The settlement included huge war reparations, loss of the Alsace and Lorraine provinces, and 30,000 Prussian occupation troops. A public outcry ensued and once again there was a revolt.
  7. A communist anarchist insurrection (the Paris Commune) formed in 1871 and established parallel local governments in parts of the city. Although elected as the city council, the Commune proclaimed its authority to rule all of France. Rioting broke out. The Tuleries Palace (at the Louvre) and Hotel de Ville (City Hall), as well as other important buildings, were burned. The elected Versailles government launched a counter offensive using the army. There was fighting in the streets and thousands were killed. The elected government regained control, and stability was finally established until World War II, when France fell to the Germans.

From the time of the Revolution, it took 80 years of turmoil before a stable democracy was established in France.


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  1. Don Merry

    So glad you found that painting can you tell us more about it as the painter and where you saw it please? Thanks again Hugh.

    • Hugh Nelson

      It’s at Musée Carnavalet but I don’t know the painter’s name off hand. I took the photo some month’s ago and went back a few weeks ago to get that information, but the section of the museum about the revolution was closed. Hopefully we can get back there soon. I don’t see it among the museum pieces on their web site.

    • Hugh Nelson

      The French 3rd Republic, a democracy, lasted from 1870 to 1940, so the answer is democracy for all the years in your question.

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