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CONTEMPORARY LIFE AND THOUGHT IN FRANCE.
ALL the political events of the last months of 1882 sink into insignificance in comparison with the one that has marked its concluding moments: Gambetta is dead. France has lost the only man who, since the death of M. Thiers, has possessed real popularity, has been the leader of a party, and could be regarded as the country's true representative. It is quite impossible to convey any idea of the emotion which the death of Gambetta excited throughout the entire country. After his downfall in January, 1882, judging more especially from the utterances of certain newspapers, it might hare seemed as if his popularity had become extinct, whereas it showed itself to be only more deeply rooted than ever. It extended, indeed, far beyond his own immediate party, and the grief his death occasioned ▼as in no sense a manifestation of political feeling. Many of Gambetta's adversaries, even some members of the Right, have shared in the prevailing sorrow. Gambetta is mourned as a patriot; it was as a patriot he was loved. He was felt to be a reserve-force for France against the day of danger; the only man round whom all Frenchmen would then rally with confidence, and under whose orders they would be ready to act. Gambetta might in some sense be looked upon as a hindrance in the political world of the present; because, not himself strong enough to govern, he was sufficiently so for it to be impossible for any one to govern without him. But, regarded from a more elevated and distant point of view, he was an immense power: he had his views on government; he alone had succeeded in forming a party with ideas subordinate to his own; he alone had supporters in every class of society, in the administration, in the magistracy, in the army; he alone represented France abroad, and the very fears his name inspired were an indirect homage to his power. In the state of disorganization,
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of intellectual and moral anarchy in which France is at present, the passing away of a man like this is a national calamity. Some few fanatics here and there are ahle to rejoice at the removal of one whom they looked upon as an obstacle to the realization of their illusory dreams; but the mass of the nation has been stirred by a deep and disinterested grief.
Independently of the higher and patriotic causes of Gambetta's popularity, imagination and sentiment have, it must be owned, had something to do with the profound impression which his life and his death have created. They are a drama and a poem, full of startling incident and action. The son of a small grocer of Cahors, of foreign extraction and no fortune, he became famous in one day by favour of a political lawsuit. His flight from Paris in a balloon was the second startling incident of his life; his lawsuit during the political campaign of the 16th of May, the third. And finally, he dies after an accident, the cause of which remains a mystery; and his funeral is, as it were, an apotheosis of "his memory. To a people like the French, so fond of the drama, and so essentially literary and artistic, is not this a destiny calculated to lead every heart captive?
What though Gambetta bore a foreign name, it was sonorous and readily engraven on the memory. His open countenance, his engaging smile, won general sympathy; whilst the glass eye he wore in place of the eye he lost as a child, gave a certain fixedness and fascination to his gaze. A voice at once powerful and charming, capable of every modulation, to which the southern accent lent fervour and incisiveness; an impulsive nature and wonderful spirit; and a rare power of assimilation—all combined to give the young lawyer extraordinary ascendency over every one who came in contact with him. Already he was surrounded by a whole cluster of friends full of belief in his brilliant future, when, in consequence of the political lawsuit he was called to conduct, his name was suddenly on every one's tongue. The Empire had instituted proceedings against certain newspapers for opening a subscription for the erection of a monument to Baudin, a representative of the people who had been killed on a barricade on the 4th of December, 1851. Gambetta was one of the counsel for the defence, and, without paying any heed to the matter itself, he made a flaming speech against the December crime, which struck the magistrates dumb with admiration and astonishment. The year after, in 1869, Gambetta was elected deputy for both Paris and Marseilles, and took his stand as leader of the opposition against the Empire, which he defined in one word, irreconciliable. What constituted his originality and ensured his success was a singular mixture of violence and practical good sense, an absence of anything like narrow-mindness or fanaticism combined with the zeal of an apostle. When he announced to the electors of Belleville his political creed—more than one article of which he was in later years obliged to cancel—though adopting the most provoking attitude towards the Empire, he kept up intimate relations with the Orleanists, and supported the candidature of Prevost Paradol, and subsequently that of M. Thiers.
If the experiment of a Liberal Empire, to which the more enlightened bourgeoisie had given in its adhesion, had been successful, Gambetta's position would no doubt have lost in weight; but there came successively the plebiscite and the war, and then Sedan, to justify his attitude of irreconciliable. Once the Empire had fallen, he became the true representative of France. It is difficult to tell how far his colleagues in the Government of National Defence were glad to get rid of him by sending him into the provinces to organize a resistance that seemed impossible; at all events they ensured his fame. His flight from Paris in a balloon with M. Spuller, the enthusiasm his arrival in the country occasioned, the amazing rapidity with which, with M. de Freycinet's aid, he organized the army of the Loire, the unlooked-for victory at Coulmiers, all created an indelible impression on the popular mind. That Gambetta committed great faults, that he showed a want of experience, and above all, did very wrong, once the armistice was signed, to attack so fiercely his Paris colleagues, and, in defiance of all justice, declare all former official deputies, senators, and functionaries of the Empire ineligible to the future Assembly, is very true; but it is no less true that he showed indefatigable courage and activity, and even strategical talent, as the enemy admitted; that he knew how to appeal to every living force in France without party distinction; that during four months he was the very soul of his country; and that, whilst the Paris Government showed itself incapable of making any use of the forces existing in the capital, Gambetta was the real saviour of the national honour. To him we owe the only general who showed himself capable of commanding an army—General Chanzy, whose death, by a strange fatality, took place two days previous to Gambetta's funeral!
The war had placed Gambetta in the foremost rank, but he embodied the idea of the war; the country wanted peace, to get which it elected an Assembly with a reactionary majority. Gambetta was obliged to take the second place, yielding the first to M. Thiers, who, with every right to it, proved himself worthy of it. But M. Thiers could have, done' nothing had he not found in M. Gambetta an auxiliary all the more powerful for having been treated by him with unjust contempt, and called a fou farieux. No period of his life does M. Gambetta greater credit than this; never did he give proof of finer political qualities than during the years extending from 1871 to 1878. The Republican party still numbered in its ranks many of the old school of 1848, absolute theorists, heirs of the Jacobin dogmas of 1793, who preferred that the Republic should perish rather than be differently organized from what they had pictured it to themselves in their dreams. Gambetta was not of that school: he was a realist in politics; he knew that institutions are what the men who make them choose them to be; he held that before all things the Republic must be established, wrested from the hands of its enemies, and its power secured. He was an opporluniste—which means that he always subordinated his policy to the possibilities and needs of the moment, instead of confining himself to bare and impracticable statements of principle. This epithet of opportuniste, used by his enemies in an injurious sense, will remain his highest eulogium. He never deserved it more than at this period of his political career.
In order to appreciate the services rendered by Gambetta he should be compared with another distinguished member of the Republican party, who by a brief space preceded him to the grave—namely, Louis Blanc. He was unquestionably an able man, an indefatigable worker, a correct, and.at times eloquent, though somewhat cold and solemn speaker, a talented writer, and an upright politician, yet he exercised no efficacious or useful influence on his age. His "Histoire de Dix Ans," which is the only one of his books most likely to live, is in many parts nothing but a spiteful pamphlet, which has propagated the most utterly false notions concerning the Government of Louis Philippe; his "History of the Revolution" is a declamatory apology for Jacobinism; the Socialistic lucubrations he indulged in at the Workmen's Congress at the Luxembourg in 1848, incited the people to revolt, without bettering in any way the condition of the poorer classes; the one of his works that contains the most wisdom and good sense is his correspondence addressed from London to the Temps from 1860 to 1870. He was more accurate in his judgment of foreigners than of his fellowcountrymen; but that did not make him clearer-sighted or more reasonable when he returned to France. In his book on the "Constitution de 1875" (Charpentier), published the very day of his funeral, he again attacks Gambetta for the most'meritorious acts of his political career. Whilst Louis Blanc shut himself up in haughty inaction, content with enunciating principles and dogmas, thus leaving a clear field to the reactionary party, Gambetta threw himself into the heat of political action, associated himself with every section of the majority, engaged in a thousand negotiations, a thousand intrigues, scattered disorder amid the ranks of his opponents, and by dint of his cleverness, pliancy, and breadth of mind, contrived, in an Assembly for the most part composed of Monarchists, to get a majority to proclaim the Republic. Louis Blanc's loyalty to the Republicwould have been its ruin; Gambetta saved it by his concessions to men and things. He it was who succeeded in checking the impatience of his party, in allaying its mistrust of M. Thiers, in making it first admit the right of the National Assembly to give a Constitution to France, and then accept the Constitution of 1875, though it was far from answering to the ideas the Republicans had hitherto held. And this great point once gained, it was again Gambetta who had the marvellous address to contract that strange alliance with the Right, whereby sixty of the seventy-five life senators were drawn from the ranks of the Left. Finally, he avoided the mistake so many of his colleagues committed, of throwing discredit by his criticisms on the Constitution he had voted for; he tried rather to show how it might be made to serve for the consolidation and development of the Republic. During this time of difficulty and struggle Gambetta exhibited the true qualities of a statesman—a quickness in seizing the main point, and a justness and breadth of mind truly admirable. He was a hard worker, for ever intent on instructing himself; and the capacity, zeal, and high-mindedness he displayed in all questions of national interest, especially those relating to military affairs, won men of the most varied political opinions to his side.
When the Parliamentary coup d'etat of May 16, 1877, took place, and Marshal MacMahon dismissed the Jules Simon Ministry, obliged the Senate to dissolve the Chamber of Deputies, and tried to bring about a reactionary general election, Gambetta found himself a second time the natural head of the Republican party. He whom M. Thiers had treated as a fou furieux now found himself his closest ally; and had M. Thiers lived Gambetta would have become Prime Minister under M. Thiers, President of the Republic. It was more especially in this campaign of May the 16th, ending in the signal defeat of the coalition formed by the reactionary parties, that Gambetta showed how admirably qualified he was to be the head of a party. His ascendency was such that the strictest discipline reigned unbroken amongst the Republicans—his counsels were all received as commands. He even supplied the motto of the struggle, in the famous dilemma hurled at Marshal MacMahon as a defiance: Se soumettre ou se demettre. He knew the nature of the electoral material so well, that the Republican majority came out strengthened from the ballot-box, and he had so many friends and partisans in every class, that had the Marshal ventured on a coup d'etat the very army would have risen against hipi. M. MacMahon first submitted, and then resigned—a result due in great measure to M. Gambetta's cleverness, energy, and eloquence.
From 1878, above all from 1879—from the moment, that is, when, M. Gre'vy having been made President of the Republic, M. Gambetta succeeded him as President of the Chamber of Deputies—a new period of his political career begins, when he was more criticized and more severely attacked, even by the Republican party; when his popularity began to lessen, and he fell into serious errors. Not to have committed mistakes would have been difficult; everything tended that way—the attacks of