Born in Saint-Dié, in the Vosges département, France, he studied law, and was called to the bar at Paris, but soon went into politics, contributing to various newspapers, particularly to the Temps. He attacked the Second French Empire with great violence, directing his opposition especially against Baron Haussmann, prefect of the Seine. Elected republican deputy for Paris in 1869, he protested against the declaration of war with Germany, and on September 6, 1870 was appointed prefect of the Seine by the government of national defence.
In this position he had the difficult task of administering Paris during the siege, and after the Paris Commune was obliged to resign (June 5, 1871). From 1872-1873 he was sent by Adolphe Thiers as minister to Athens, but returned to the chamber as deputy for the Vosges, and became one of the leaders of the republican party. When the first republican ministry was formed under WH Waddington on February 4, 1879, he was one of its members, and continued in the ministry until March 30, 1885, except for two short interruptions (from November 10, 1881 to January 30, 1882, and from July 29, 1882 to February 21 1883), first as minister of education and then as minister of foreign affairs. He was twice premier (1880-1881 and 1883-1885).
Two important works are associated with his administration, the non-clerical organization of public education, and the beginning of the colonial expansion of France. Following the republican programme he proposed to destroy the influence of the clergy in the university. He reorganized the committee of public education (law of February 27, 1880), and proposed a regulation for the conferring of university degrees, which, though rejected, aroused violent polemics because the 7th article took away from the unauthorized religious orders the right to teach. He finally succeeded in passing the great law of March 28, 1882, which made primary education in France free, non-clerical and obligatory. In higher education, the number of professors doubled under his ministry.
After the military defeat of France by Germany in 1870, he formed the idea of acquiring a great colonial empire, not to colonize it, but for the sake of economic exploitation. He directed the negotiations which led to the establishment of a French protectorate in Tunis (1881), prepared the treaty of December 17, 1885 for the occupation of Madagascar; directed the exploration of the Congo and of the Niger region; and above all he organized the conquest of Indo-China. The excitement caused at Paris by an unimportant reverse of the French troops at Lang-son caused his downfall (March 30, 1885), but the treaty of peace with China (June 9, 1885) was his work.
He still remained an influential member of the moderate republican party, and directed the opposition to General Boulanger. After the resignation of Jules Grévy (December 2, 1887), he was a candidate for the presidency of the republic, but the radicals refused to support him, and he withdrew in favour of Sadi Carnot.
The violent polemics aroused against him at this time caused a madman to attack him with a revolver, and he died from the wound, on the March 17, 1893. The chamber of deputies voted him a state funeral.
Charles de Freycinet
|Prime Minister of France|
|Prime Minister of France|