“The Funny French Republic”

June 23, 1877

Thomas Nast

“The Funny French Republic”

Symbols, Uncle Sam;

No 'People' indexed for this cartoon.


Uncle Sam. "What is the use of having a President?"

Gend'arme. "Ne le comprend pas."

The specific topic of this cartoon is (as the poster announces) the arrest of M. Du Verdier, president of Paris's municipal council, for insulting the French president, General Marie Macmahon.  Uncle Sam joshes the French policeman that the freedom to ridicule the nation's chief executive is the best thing about having one.  The gendarme's inability to understand Uncle Sam's point expresses a gulf between the two nation's acceptance of free speech and political tolerance; or, in the words of a Harper's Weekly editorial of June 9, 1877, "the French incapacity of comprehending a republic."

The broader context of the cartoon, of which Du Verdier's arrest was one episode, was the political crisis of "le seize mai" (May 16).  In the wake of France's loss in the Franco-Prussian War (1870-1871), Napoleon III was deposed and the Third French Republic established.  When President Adolphe Thiers resigned in March 1873, the dominant conservative faction installed General Marie Macmahon as president for a seven-year term.  He had served with distinction in the Crimean War (1853-1856), the Italian War for Independence (1859), the Franco-Prussian War, and the defeat of the Paris Commune (1871).  Besides his military accolades, Macmahon was a devout Catholic and supported the proposed restoration of the French monarchy, two institutions which French republicans opposed.

The division of the French monarchists into two factions--those backing the House of Bourbon and those favoring the House of Orleans--produced a stalemate that prevented the return of monarchy to the nation.  Instead, in 1875, the National Assembly adopted a new constitution that allowed for a Chamber of Deputies (lower house) elected by universal manhood suffrage, a Senate (upper house) elected indirectly, a president chosen by both bodies, and a council of ministers.  The National Assembly then dissolved itself and elections were held in 1876.

Voters returned a large republican majority to the Chamber of Deputies, and in December of that year, the republican deputies forced President Macmahon to ask Jules Simon, a republican and a former minister in the Thier's administration, to form a government as premier (prime minister).  Clashes developed between the Simon administration and clerical (pro-Catholic) parties, and Simon purged the government of conservatives.  In reaction, Macmahon essentially dismissed Simon on May 16, 1877.  Simon, with his strong support in the Chamber of Deputies could have resisted the president, but decided to resign the next day.  Macmahon then chose conservative Albert de Broglie as premier and gained the Senate's approval to dissolve the Chamber of Deputies (June 25, 1877). 

The crisis raised the great national question of whether a premier's ministry was responsible mainly to the president or the Chamber.  New elections were held and voters returned a majority of republicans to the Chamber of Deputies, which then cast a "no confidence" vote against de Broglie's government.  Its successor conservative government, under Caietan Rochebouët also soon failed, in December 1877, compelling Macmahon to allow a largely republican ministry headed by Jules Dufaure, a conservative republican.  On January 5, 1879, republicans assumed control of the Senate as well, provoking Macmahon to resign a few weeks later on January 28.  The French national government had evolved into a parliamentary system, and the office of the presidency thereafter became primarily a ceremonial post. 

Robert C. Kennedy

“The Funny French Republic”
June 17, 2024

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