16 May 1877 crisis

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The 16 May 1877 crisis (French: Crise du seize mai) was a constitutional crisis in the French Third Republic concerning the distribution of power between the President and the legislature. When the royalist President Patrice MacMahon dismissed the Opportunist Republican Prime Minister Jules Simon, the parliament on 16 May 1877 refused to support the new government and was dissolved by the President. New elections resulted in the royalists increasing their seat totals, but nonetheless resulted in a majority for the Republicans. Thus, the interpretation of the 1875 Constitution as a parliamentary system prevailed over a presidential system. The crisis ultimately sealed the defeat of the royalist movement, and was instrumental in creating the conditions of the longevity of the Third Republic. [1]

In political science, a constitutional crisis is a problem or conflict in the function of a government that the political constitution or other fundamental governing law is perceived to be unable to resolve. There are several variations to this definition. For instance, one describes it as the crisis that arises out of the failure, or at least a strong risk of failure, of a constitution to perform its central functions. The crisis may arise from a variety of possible causes. For example, a government may want to pass a law contrary to its constitution; the constitution may fail to provide a clear answer for a specific situation; the constitution may be clear but it may be politically infeasible to follow it; the government institutions themselves may falter or fail to live up to what the law prescribes them to be; or officials in the government may justify avoiding dealing with a serious problem based on narrow interpretations of the law. Specific examples include the South African Coloured vote constitutional crisis in the 1950s, the secession of the southern U.S. states in 1860 and 1861, the controversial dismissal of the Australian Federal government in 1975 and the 2007 Ukrainian crisis.

French Third Republic nation of France from 1870 to 1940

The French Third Republic was the system of government adopted in France from 1870, when the Second French Empire collapsed during the Franco-Prussian War, until 10 July 1940 after France's defeat by Nazi Germany in World War II led to the formation of the Vichy government in France.

Monarchism in France is the advocacy of restoring the monarchy in France, which was abolished after the 1870 defeat by Prussia, arguably before that in 1848 with the establishment of the French Second Republic. The French monarchist movements are roughly divided today in three groups: the Legitimists for the royal House of Bourbon, the Orléanists for the cadet branch of the House of Orleans and the Bonapartists for the imperial House of Bonaparte.



Following the Franco-Prussian War, the elections for the National Assembly had brought about a monarchist majority, divided into Legitimists and Orleanists, which conceived the republican institutions created by the fall of Napoleon III in 1870 as a transitory state. Until the 1876 elections, the royalist movement dominated the legislature, thus creating the paradox of a Republic led by anti-republicans. The royalist deputies supported Marshal MacMahon, a declared monarchist of the legitimist party, as president of the Republic. His term was set to seven years – the time to find a compromise between the two rival royalist factions.

Franco-Prussian War significant conflict pitting the Second French Empire against the Kingdom of Prussia and its allies

The Franco-Prussian War or Franco-German War, often referred to in France as the War of 1870, was a conflict between the Second French Empire and later the Third French Republic, and the German states of the North German Confederation led by the Kingdom of Prussia. Lasting from 19 July 1870 to 28 January 1871, the conflict was caused by Prussian ambitions to extend German unification and French fears of the shift in the European balance of power that would result if the Prussians succeeded. Some historians argue that the Prussian chancellor Otto von Bismarck deliberately provoked the French into declaring war on Prussia in order to draw the independent southern German states—Baden, Württemberg, Bavaria and Hesse-Darmstadt—into an alliance with the North German Confederation dominated by Prussia, while others contend that Bismarck did not plan anything and merely exploited the circumstances as they unfolded. None, however, dispute the fact that Bismarck must have recognized the potential for new German alliances, given the situation as a whole.

Legitimists political party

The Legitimists are royalists who adhere to the rights of dynastic succession to the French crown of the descendants of the eldest branch of the Bourbon dynasty, which was overthrown in the 1830 July Revolution. They reject the claim of the July Monarchy of 1830–1848 which placed Louis Philippe, Duke of Orléans head of the Orléans cadet branch of the Bourbon dynasty on the throne until he too was dethroned and driven with his family into exile.

Napoleon III French emperor, president, and member of the House of Bonaparte

Napoleon III was the first elected President of France from 1848 to 1852. When he could not constitutionally be re-elected, he seized power in 1851 and became the Emperor of the French from 1852 to 1870. He founded the Second French Empire and was its only emperor until the defeat of the French army and his capture by Prussia and its allies in the Franco-Prussian War in 1870. He worked to modernize the French economy, rebuilt the center of Paris, expanded the overseas empire, and engaged in the Crimean War and the war for Italian unification. After his defeat and downfall he went into exile and died in England in 1873.

In 1873, a plan to place Henri, comte de Chambord, the head of the Bourbon branch supported by Legitimists, back on the throne had failed over the comte's intransigence. President MacMahon was supposed to lead him to the National Assembly and have him acclaimed as King. However, the Comte de Chambord rejected this plan in the white flag manifesto of 5 July 1871, reiterated by a 23 October 1873 letter, in which he explained that in no case would he abandon the white flag, symbol of the monarchy (with its fleur-de-lis), in exchange for the republican tricolor. Chambord believed the restored monarchy had to eliminate all traces of the Revolution, especially the Tricolor flag, in order to restore the unity between the monarchy and the nation, which the revolution had sundered. Compromise on this was impossible if the nation were to be made whole again. The general population, however, was unwilling to abandon the Tricolor flag. Chambord's decision thus ruined the hopes of a quick restoration of the monarchy. Monarchists therefore resigned themselves to wait for the death of the ageing, childless Chambord, when the throne could be offered to his more liberal heir, the Comte de Paris. A "temporary" republican government was therefore established. Chambord lived on until 1883, but by that time, enthusiasm for a monarchy had faded, and the Comte de Paris was never offered the French throne. [2]

White flag

White flags have had different meanings throughout history and depending on the locale.

<i>Fleur-de-lis</i> stylized lily, heraldic symbol

The fleur-de-lis or fleur-de-lys, is a stylized lily that is used as a decorative design or motif, and many of the Catholic saints of France, particularly St. Joseph, are depicted with a lily. Since France is a historically Catholic nation, the fleur-de-lis became "at one and the same time, religious, political, dynastic, artistic, emblematic, and symbolic", especially in French heraldry.

In 1875, Adolphe Thiers joined with the initiative of moderate Republicans Jules Ferry and Léon Gambetta to vote for the constitutional laws of the Republic. The next year, the elections were won by the Republicans, although the end result was contradictory:

Adolphe Thiers President of the French Republic

Marie Joseph Louis Adolphe Thiers was a French statesman and historian. He was the second elected President of France, and the first President of the French Third Republic.

Jules Ferry French politician

Jules François Camille Ferry was a French statesman and republican. He was a promoter of laicism and colonial expansion.

Léon Gambetta French politician

Léon Gambetta was a French statesman, prominent during and after the Franco-Prussian War.

Political crisis was thus inevitable. It involved a struggle for supremacy between the monarchist President and the republican Chamber of Deputies.

The crisis

The crisis was triggered by President MacMahon, who dismissed the moderate republican Jules Simon, head of the government, and substituted him with a new "Ordre moral" government led by the Orleanist Albert, duc de Broglie. MacMahon favoured a presidential government, while the Republicans in the chamber considered the parliament as the predominant political organ, which decided the policies of the nation.

Jules Simon French politician

Jules François Simon was a French statesman and philosopher, and one of the leaders of the Moderate Republicans in the Third French Republic.

Albert, 4th duc de Broglie French politician

Jacques-Victor-Albert, 4th duc de Broglie was a French monarchist politician, diplomat and writer.

The Chamber refused to accord its trust to the new government. On 16 May 1877, 363 French deputies – among them Georges Clemenceau, Jean Casimir-Perier and Émile Loubet — passed a vote of no confidence (Manifeste des 363).

MacMahon dissolved the parliament and called for new elections, which brought 323 Republicans and 209 royalists to the Chamber, marking a clear rejection of the President's move. MacMahon had either to submit himself or to resign, as had Léon Gambetta famously called for: "When France will have let its sovereign voice heard, then one will have to submit himself or resign" (se soumettre ou se démettre [3] ) MacMahon thus appointed a moderate republican, Jules Armand Dufaure as president of the Council, and accepted Dufaure's interpretation of the constitution:


The crisis sealed the defeat of the royalists. President MacMahon accepted his defeat and resigned in January 1879. The Comte de Chambord, whose intransigence had ruined the alliance between Legitimists and Orleanists, died in 1883, after which several Orleanists ralled to the Republic, quoting Adolphe Thiers' words that "the Republic is the form of government which divides [the French] the least". These newly rallied became the first right-wing republicans of France. After World War I (1914–18), some of the independent radicals and members of the right-wing of the late Radical-Socialist Party allied themselves with these pragmatic republicans, although anticlericalism remained a gap between these long-time rivals (and indeed continues, to be a main criterion of distinction between the French left-wing and its right-wing).

In the constitutional field, the presidential system was definitely rejected in favor of a parliamentary system, and the right of dissolution of parliament severely restricted, so much that it was never used again under the Third Republic. After the Vichy regime, the Fourth Republic (1946–1958) was again founded on this parliamentary system, something which Charles de Gaulle despised and rejected (le régime des partis). Thus, when de Gaulle had the opportunity to come back to power in the crisis of May 1958, he designed a constitution that strengthened the President. His 1962 reform to have the president elected by direct universal suffrage (instead of being elected by deputies and senators) further increased his authority. The constitution designed by de Gaulle for the Fifth Republic (since 1958) specifically tailored his needs, but this specificity was also rested on the President's personal charisma.

Even with de Gaulle's disappearance from the political scene a year after the May 1968 crisis, little changed until the 1980s, when the various cohabitations under President François Mitterrand renewed the conflict between the presidency and the prime minister. Subsequently President Jacques Chirac proposed to reduce the term of the presidency from seven to five years (the quinquennat ) to avoid any further "cohabitation" and thus conflict between the executive and legislative branches. This change was accepted by referendum in 2000.

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  1. D.W. Brogan, France Under the Republic: The Development of Modern France (1870-1939) (1940) pp 127-43.
  2. Steven D. Kale, "The Monarchy According to the King: The Ideological Content of the 'Drapeau Blanc,' 1871-1873." French History (1988) 2#4 pp 399-426.
  3. Quand la France aura fait entendre sa voix souveraine, il faudra se soumettre ou se démettre. This famous sentence — se soumettre ou se démettre, "to submit oneself or to resign" — is still often used in the modern French political debate.

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