Léon Gambetta

The French statesman Léon Gambetta (1838-1882) rallied his countrymen during the Franco-Prussian War. A founding father of the Third Republic, he was an influential figure during its formative years.

Léon Gambetta was born at Cahors on April 2, 1838, the son of a grocer from Genoa and his French wife. Educated at Montfaucon and Cahors, he studied law in Paris and was admitted to the Paris bar in 1860. Soon he became involved in the republican opposition to the Second Empire.

As a lawyer, Gambetta began to make his mark defending opponents of the regime, and in 1869 he was elected to the legislature on a radical program (the Belleville manifesto). He quickly became one of the leaders of the republican minority, and though he criticized the Empire's foreign policy, he was a vigorous patriot. After the capture of Napoleon III at Sedan during the Franco-Prussian War, Gambetta tried to rally the legislature to carry on the war but failed.

Gambetta became minister of the interior in the provisional government of national defense. After escaping from besieged Paris by balloon, he strove to rally the country to carry on the war. His impassioned oratory could not bring victory, but his efforts did help to save national honor and self-respect in defeat, and for this he has remained a national hero.

Elected to the National Assembly called to make peace, Gambetta protested the cession of Alsace-Lorraine. He campaigned for the republican cause and helped persuade the divided monarchists that they must frame a republican constitution. An astute parliamentary tactician as well as one of the greatest orators of modern France, Gambetta saw himself as a representative of the emerging lower middle classes into political prominence. His gradualism and talent for compromise were stigmatized as opportunism by his critics.

Gambetta played the key role in rallying republican forces during the May 16, 1877, crisis that led to President MacMahon's resignation, but it was his last important success. His great influence, prestige, and belief in strong government made him the object of republican suspicions, which kept him from forming a ministry until November 1881, a particularly difficult moment. The ministry was a disappointment to those who had expected a grand coalition of leading republican figures, and it lasted only 2 months. Although acknowledged as the foremost republican leader, he was never able to play the role his talents seemed to call for. Gambetta's death from peritonitis on Nov. 27, 1882, deprived the republic of a leader it would sorely miss in the years before World War I.


Further Reading on Léon Gambetta

The definitive biography of Gambetta has yet to be written, but for the early and most exciting part of his career see J. P. T. Bury, Gambetta and the National Defence (1936). Although laudatory, the work of a young associate who was later president of the republic, Paul Deschanel, Gambetta (1919; trans. 1920), is still useful, as is Harold Stannard, Gambetta and the Foundation of the Third Republic (1921).

Additional Biography Sources

Bury, J. P. T. (John Patrick Tuer), Gambetta's final years: 'the era of difficulties,' 1877-1882, London; New York: Longman, 1982.