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Léon Gambetta

Léon Gambetta (April 2, 1838 - December 31, 1882), French statesman, was born at Cahors.

He is said to have inherited his vigour and eloquence from his father, a Genoese grocer who had married a Frenchwoman named Massabie. At the age of fifteen, Gambetta lost the sight of his left eye in an accident, and it eventually had to be removed. Despite this handicap, he distinguished himself at school in Cahors, and in 1857 went to Paris to study law. His southern temperament gave him great influence among the students of the Quartier Latin, and he was soon known as an inveterate enemy of the imperial government. He was called to the bar in 1859, but, although contributing to a Liberal review, edited by Challemel Lacour, did not make much impact until, on November 17 1868, he was selected to defend the journalist Delescluze, prosecuted for having promoted the erection of a monument to the representative Baudin, who was killed in resisting the coup d'etat of 1851. Gambetta seized his opportunity and attacked both the coup d'état and the government with an invective which made him immediately famous.

In May 1869 he was returned to the Assembly, both by the first circumscription of Paris and by Marseilles, defeating Hippolyte Carnot for the former constituency and Adolphe Thiers and Ferdinand de Lesseps for the latter. He chose to sit for Marseilles, and lost no opportunity of attacking the Empire in the Assembly. At first opposed to the war with Germany, he did not, like some of his colleagues, refuse to vote supplies, but took the patriotic line and accepted that it had been forced on France. When the news of the disaster at Sedan reached Paris, Gambetta called for strong measures. He himself proclaimed the fail of the emperor at the corps législatif, and the establishment of a republic at the hotel de ville. He was one of the first members of the new government of national defence, becoming minister of the interior. He advised his colleagues to leave Paris and conduct the government from some provincial city.

This advice was rejected through the fear of another revolution in Paris, and a delegation to organize resistance in the provinces was despatched to Tours, but when this was seen to be inefficient Gambetta himself (October 7) left Paris in a balloon, and upon arriving at Tours took the supreme direction of affairs as minister of the interior and of war. Aided by Freycinet, then a young officer of engineers, as his assistant secretary of war, he displayed prodigious energy and intelligence. He speedily organized an army, which might have effected the relief of Paris if Metz had held out, but the surrender of Bazaine brought the army of the crown prince into the field, and success was impossible. After the defeats of the French near Orleans early in December the seat of government had to be transferred to Bordeaux, and when Paris surrendered at the end of January, Gambetta, though resisting and protesting, was compelled to submit to the capitulation concluded with Otto von Bismarck. He immediately resigned. Elected by alne departments to the National Assembly meeting at Bordeaux (on the March 1 1871) he chose to sit for Strasbourg, which by the terms of the treaty about to be submitted to the Assembly for ratification was to be ceded to Prussia, and when the treaty was adopted he resigned in protest and retired to Spain.

Gambetta returned to France in June, was elected by three departments in July, and began to agitate for the definitive establishment of the Republic. On November 5 1871 he established a journal, La Republique française, which soon became the most influential in France. His orations at public meetings were more effective than those delivered in the Assembly, especially that made at Bordeaux on his return, and that at Grenoble on November 26 1872, in which he spoke of political power having passed to les nouvelles couches sociales. When Thiers, however, fell from power in May 1873, and a Royalist was placed at the head of the government in the person of Marshal MacMahon, Gambetta gave proof of his statesmanship by unceasingly urging his friends to a moderate course, and by his tact and parliamentary dexterity, no less than by his eloquence, he was mainly instrumental in the voting of the constitution in February 1875. He gave this policy the appropriate name of "opportunism."

It was not until May 4 1877, when the danger of reactionary intrigues was notorious, and the clerical party had begun a campaign for the restoration of the temporal power of the pope, that he delivered his famous speech denouncing "clericalism" as the enemy. On May 16 Marshal MacMahon, in order to support the clerical reactionaries, perpetrated his parliamentary coup d'état, and on August 15 Gambetta, in a speech at Lille, gave him the alternative se soumettre ou se démettre. He then undertook a political campaign to rouse the republican party throughout France, which culminated in a speech at Romans (September 18, 1878) formulating its programme. MacMahon, equally unwilling to resign or to provoke civil war, had no choice but to dismiss his advisers and form a moderate republican ministry under the premiership of Dufaure.

When the resignation of the Dufaure cabinet brought about the abdication of Marshal MacMahon, Gambetta declined to become a candidate for the presidency, but gave his support to Jules Grévy; nor did he attempt to form a ministry, but accepted the office of president of the chamber of deputies (January 1879). This position did not prevent his occasionally descending from the presidential chair to make speeches, one of which, advocating an amnesty to the communards, was especially memorable. Although he really directed the policy of the various ministries, he evidently thought that the time was not ripe for asserting openly his own claims to direct the policy of the Republic, and seemed inclined to observe a nsutral attitude as far as possible; but events hurried him on, and early in 1881 he placed himself at the head of a movement for restoring scrutin de liste, or the system by which deputies are returned by the entire department which they represent, so that each elector votes for several representatives at once, in place of scrutin d'arrondissement, the system of small constituencies, giving one member to each district and one vote to each elector. A bill to re-establish scrutin de liste was passed by the Assembly on May 19 1881, but rejected by the Senate on June 19.

This personal rebuff could not alter the fact that his was the name on the lips of voters at the election. His supporters were in a large majority, and on the reassembling of the chamber, Jules Ferry's cabinet quickly resigned. Gambetta was unwillingly entrusted by Grévy on November 24 1881 with the formation of a ministry-known as Le Grand Ministère. Every one suspected him of aiming at a dictatorship; attacks, albeit unjust, were directed against him from all sides, and his cabinet fell on January 26 1882, after only sixty-six days. Had he remained in office, he would have cultivated the British alliance and cooperated with Great Britain in Egypt; and when the Freycinet administration, which succeeded, shrank from that enterprise only to see it undertaken with signal success by Britain alone, Gambetta's foresight was quickly justified. However, on December 31, 1882, at his house in Ville d'Avray, near Sèvres, he died by a shot from a revolver which accidentally went off. His public funeral on January 6 1883 evoked one of the most overwhelming displays of national sentiment ever witnessed.

Gambetta rendered France three inestimable services: by preserving her self-respect through the gallantry of the resistance he organized during the German War, by his tact in persuading extreme partisans to accept a moderate Republic, and by his energy in overcoming the usurpation attempted by the advisers of Marshal MacMahon. His death, at the early age of forty-four, cut short a career which had given promise of still greater things, for he had real statesmanship in his conceptions of the future of his country, and he had an eloquence which would have been potent in the education of his supporters.

The romance of his life was his connexion with Léonie Leon, the full details of which were not known to the public till her death in 1906. She was the daughter of a French artillery officer. Gambetta fell in love with her in 1871. She became his mistress, and the liaison lasted till he died. Gambetta constantly urged her to marry him during this period, but she always refused, fearing to compromise his career; she remained, however, his confidante and intimate adviser in all his political plans. It seems she had just consented to become his wife, and the date of the marriage had been fixed, when the accident which caused his death occurred in her presence. Contradictory accounts of this fatal episode exist, but it was certainly accidental, and not suicide. Her influence on Gambetta was absorbing, both as lover and as politician, and the correspondence which has been published shows how much he depended upon her. However, some of her later recollections are untrustworthy. For example, she claimed that an actual interview took place in 1878 between Gambetta and Bismarck. That Gambetta after 1875 felt strongly that the relations between France and Germany might he improved, and that he made it his object, by travelling incognito, to become better acquainted with Germany and the adjoining states, may be accepted, but M. Laur appears to have exaggerated the extent to which any actual negotiations took place. On the other hand, the increased knowledge of Gambetta's attitude towards European politics which later information has supplied confirms the view that in him France lost prematurely a master mind, whom she could ill spare. In April 1905 a monument by Dalou to his memory at Bordeaux was unveiled by President Loubet.

Gambetta's Discours et plaidoyers politiques were published by J Reinach in 11 vols. (Paris, 1881-1886); his Dépêches, circulaires, décrets ... in 2 vols. (Paris, 1886-1891). Many biographies have appeared. The principal are Joseph Reinach, Léon Gambetta (1884), Gambetta orateur (1884) and Le Ministère Gambetta, histoire et doctrine (1884); Neucastel, Gambetta, sa vie, et ses idées politiques (1885); J Hanlon, Gambetta (London, 1881); Dr Laborde, Leon Gambetta biographie psychologique (1898); PB Gheusi, Gambetta, Life and Letters (Eng. trans. by VM Montagu, 1910). See also G Hanotaux, Histoire de Ia France contemporaine (1903). F Laur's Le Creur de Gambetta (1907, Eng. trans., 1908) contains the correspondence with Léonie Leon; see also his articles on "Gambetta and Bismarck" in The Times of August 17 and 19, 1907, with the correspondence arising from them.

Initial text from the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica. Please update as needed.

Preceded by:
Jules Ferry
Prime Minister of France
Followed by:
Charles de Freycinet