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boulanger and the republicans, 1885–1887
boulanger, the new right, and the new nationalism, 1887–1889

Boulangism was the movement that failed to put in power the charismatic but empty-headed French general Georges-Ernest-Jean-Marie Boulanger (1837–1891). The Boulanger affair operated a major political realignment, leading indirectly to the creation of twentieth-century democratic socialism and directly to the constitution of a new right, beginning to free itself from the hopeless cause of restoring the monarchy.

boulanger and the republicans, 1885–1887

The republicans in power in France during the 1880s were on the lookout for a republican army officer to be minister of war and reorganize the army. Boulangism began when they found General Boulanger. He was popular with his troops and cut a dashing figure on horseback, thanks to his full red beard. While most army officers were clerical and indeed monarchist in their sympathies—the army's traditional association with the nobility and its hierarchical character made it, like the church, a refuge for monarchists—Boulanger was known not to attend Mass; as a result he passed for a republican. In January 1886 he was named minister of war, thanks to the leading young "radical" republican, Georges Clemenceau (1841–1929). Boulanger, however, was not a republican; he was simply an ambitious general with a commanding physical presence who was ready to exploit popular prejudices, republican or monarchist, to gain power. As minister of war, he improved draftees' food and authorized the use of the new Lebel rifle, but he proved a poor administrator, and his continual gaffes embarrassed the government. Beginning with Clemenceau, republicans began to distance themselves from Boulanger.

Boulanger, however, developed a following among a public eager for "Revanche" (revenge) against Germany, since France had ceded Alsace and much of Lorraine to the newly constituted German Empire by the treaty ending the Franco-Prussian War (1870–1871). In January 1887, trying to scare the Reichstag into voting increased credits for the army, the German chancellor Otto von Bismarck mentioned Boulanger as an indication that France was becoming dangerous again. This increased Boulanger's popularity in France: if Bismarck were scared of him, he must be a new Napoleon. But while this made Boulanger a hero to the masses, it made him a national danger: the politicians knew that the army was no better prepared for war than it had been in 1870. In May 1887 they used a cabinet reshuffle to ease Boulanger out of his position as minister of war. On 8 July 1887 he was sent to a provincial post. Crowds prevented his train from leaving, but, still obedient as a soldier, he agreed to be smuggled out in a switch engine.

To Boulanger's appeal as a nationalist was added appeal in the face of disillusionment with the Republic installed on 4 September 1870 and gradually solidified during the 1870s, the Third Republic (1870–1940). To most republicans, especially since 1848, the Republic had meant "the social and democratic Republic," but the Republic now in power seemed to foster big business and industry. The severe recession of 1882, which hit farmers and increased unemployment, particularly in construction and textiles, increased resentment against the Republic among workers, artisans, and small-businesspeople. This resentment was further increased by a corruption scandal that broke in October 1887. President Jules Grèvy's son-in-law, Daniel Wilson, who lived in the presidential residence, was selling his influence on the president: payment to Wilson was a sure way to get the Legion of Honor. The president was forced to resign at the end of 1887.

Boulanger's appeal grew, but Boulanger had no aim except to be minister of war again. Shunned now by republicans, he sought other backers, beginning negotiations with monarchist groups in November 1887 and profiting from Bonapartist support in February 1888 by-elections. On 26 March 1888, he was dismissed from the army for his political activity. The day after, the president's son-in-law got his imprisonment quashed. It seemed that brave generals were punished while corrupt politicians were spared.

boulanger, the new right, and the new nationalism, 1887–1889

During the remainder of 1888, Boulanger won by elections with resounding majorities, thanks to five hundred thousand francs from the royalist pretender, three million francs from the royalist duchesse d'Uzès, and the slogan "Dissolution, Constituent, Revision": Dissolution of the Chamber of Deputies (the lower house of parliament), Constituent Assembly to revise the Constitution, Revision of the Constitution.

Agitation for Boulanger reached a climax in January 1889, when he won a Paris by-election. His supporters expected him to stage a coup d'état and take power. Instead he lost his nerve and disappeared, some said to the bed of his mistress. Republicans won massively in the legislative elections of 1889, benefiting from the development of republicanism in the country, where Boulangism had never caught on to the same extent as in the city. Republicans also made effective propaganda use of the Paris Universal Exposition celebrating the centenary of 1789. Boulangism disintegrated. Boulanger fled to Brussels in 1891 and shot himself on the grave of his mistress, who had died of tuberculosis two months earlier.

Understanding of Boulangism has been confused by cultural analyses of fascism, which see "leftist" origins of fascism in Boulanger's initial support among early socialists (see particularly Sternhell; for an interpretation of French fascism based on social history, see Soucy). But the Boulanger affair is best understood as a crisis that helped transform the archaic politics of the post-Revolutionary era. The affair led socialists to recommit to the Republic despite disappointment with its social and economic policies; henceforth socialism would be perceived as the fulfillment of the Republic, not as an alternative obtained by overthrowing the Republic. The Boulanger affair thus led indirectly to twentieth-century democratic socialism, of which Jean Jaurès (1859–1914) soon became the charismatic leader.

The affair led directly to a new right. Until Boulangism, nationalism had been linked to the Revolutionary tradition of the levée en masse (the nation at arms) and royalists had disdained it. Now nationalists began to envisage authoritarian methods. In the mid-1880s, under a journalist named Paul Déroulède (1846–1914), La ligue des patriotes (the Patriots' League) developed a new vision: the way to rebuild the nation was to inculcate obedience among the people and authority among their leaders. Monarchists and other conservatives who had initially disdained Boulanger soon saw the value of this kind of nationalism through Boulanger's ability to draw popular support. If they could not restore the monarchy, they could use this nationalism to aim at an authoritarian regime based on values of nationalism, deference, and hierarchy. And conservatives learned about mass politics. The Dreyfus affair would further hasten their learning process.

See alsoClemenceau, Georges; France; Nationalism.


Burns, Michael. Rural Society and French Politics: Boulangism and the Dreyfus Affair, 1886–1900. Princeton, N.J., 1984.

Irvine, William D. The Boulanger Affair Reconsidered: Royalism, Boulangism, and the Origins of the Radical Right in France. New York, 1989.

Seager, Frederic H. The Boulanger Affair: Political Crossroad of France, 1886–1889. Ithaca, N.Y., 1969.

Soucy, Robert. French Fascism: The First Wave, 1924–1933. New Haven, Conn., 1986.

——. French Fascism: The Second Wave, 1933–1939. New Haven, Conn., 1995.

Sternhell, Zeev. Neither Right Nor Left: Fascist Ideology in France. Translated by David Maisel. Berkeley, Calif., 1986.

Tombs, Robert, ed. Nationhood and Nationalism in France: From Boulangism to the Great War, 1889–1918. 2nd ed. London, 2001.

Charles Sowerwine

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