The French statesman Jules François Camille Ferry (1832-1893) was a major political leader during the first 2 decades of the Third Republic. He played a key role in expanding public education and in developing France's colonial empire.
Jules Ferry was born at Saint-Dié, Vosges Department, on April 5, 1832. On receiving his law degree in 1851, he was admitted to the Paris bar, but he first made his name in journalism as one of the most vigorous critics of the Second Empire. His successes led him into more active politics, and in 1869 he was elected to the legislature from Paris.
Entering the Government of National Defense after the fall of the Empire, Ferry became the top civil administrator for Paris and had to struggle with the difficult problems caused by the siege. His stringent but necessary measures earned him an unpopularity in the capital that lasted throughout his career.
Ferry became minister of public instruction in 1879 and initiated a number of reforms, the most controversial being those aimed at reducing the influence of the Church on education. The state recovered its monopoly in the awarding of degrees, but his proposal to prohibit teaching by members of religious orders (the famous Article 7) was defeated in the Senate. In 1880 he took administrative measures to dissolve unauthorized religious orders. More important was his introduction of legislation to make elementary education compulsory, free, and laic. In September 1880 he became premier and was able to further his program by decrees, but lack of funds and personnel prevented his ambitious plans from being implemented at once.
An ardent colonial expansionist when most republican politicians saw foreign questions only in terms of Alsace-Lorraine and the German menace, Ferry was charged with diverting attention—and troops—away from the Continent. His first ministry ended in November 1881 as a result of criticism of the Tunisian expedition which led to the French protectorate.
Ferry returned to the Ministry of Public Instruction in January 1882. In February 1883 he was again premier and carried out a purge of antirepublican elements in the judiciary. Although his power and prestige seemed as great as ever, this time the opposition to his foreign policy proved fatal to Ferry's career. He supported French involvement in Indochina, but news of a minor defeat there, much exaggerated in the first report, compelled his resignation on March 30, 1885. He was an unsuccessful candidate for the presidency in 1887 and never again played a leading role in government. Shot by an Alsatian fanatic on Dec. 10, 1892, Ferry died in Paris on March 17, 1893.
Further Reading on Jules François Camille Ferry
For an important aspect of Ferry's career see Thomas F. Power, Jr., Jules Ferry and the Renaissance of French Imperialism (1944).
Additional Biography Sources
Guilhaume, Philippe, Jules Ferry, Paris: Encre, 1980.