The Irish President of France

by Brian Witt

During the recent presidential election in the United States, some people wondered about the strength of American democracy. Challenges, chads, and Supreme Courts all were involved. To some, it seemed like the end of the American system. The system, for all its faults, prevailed, for better or worse. However, more than a century ago, in France, a Franco-Irish war hero helped to lead the French to a new democracy. He was a monarchist yet he helped destroy the concept of monarchy in that country.

In 1875, France was in ruins following the disastrous Franco-Prussian War. The French Emperor, Louis Napoleon had been captured by the Prussians, Paris had been sacked, and the country was leaderless. The people were split between restoring the Bourbon monarchy or creating a new, third, French Republic. The country was quickly drifting into anarchy.

One of the few heroes of the war was a person by the name of Patrick MacMahon. While placed at the defense of the city of Sedan, he was given strict orders to hold the city without attacking the Prussian forces by the emperor, Louis Napoleon, grandson of Napoleon Bonaparte. MacMahon intended to encircle and ambush the enemy, tactics learned at the War College at St. Cyr in France, and inherent in his Wild Geese military background. However, MacMahon was severely wounded in the battle of Sedan, and the city fell to the Prussians in short order.

After the collapse of the French government, MacMahon was asked to lead a provisional government. This son of St. Patrick was also known as Marshall Marie Edme Patrice de MacMahon, Duc de Magenta, a person who had distinguished himself in the Crimean War, rising through the ranks of the French army. His grandfather studied medicine at the Irish College in Paris and at Rheims in the 1740s after leaving Ireland.

MacMahon was a monarchist, but he realized that the vacuum of power was splitting the nation terribly, as well as weakening it. He agreed to stand in, trying to ensure some stability for at least a temporary period. MacMahon oversaw the creation of the new government, with a Chamber of Deputies, which was elected by the public, and a Senate, which was selected by the provincial governors. A new president would be selected by both houses, and he would then select a Premier. The idea was that the new President would have broad powers, similar to that of a king, and the Premier would ensure that there was a form of republican government. The Monarchists felt, rightfully, that MacMahon would step aside to allow the restoration of a monarchy, while the Republicans felt that the concept of a presidency was better than none. The fact that MacMahon was Irish also helped his selection. The Irish in France were very much in the thrall of the French monarchy, a fact that helped cement the support of that side of the aisle. In 1875, Patrick MacMahon became the first President of the provisional government.

Elections in 1876 sealed the compact between the two groups, with MacMahon becoming the new President of the Third Republic of France. The First Republic was that of the French Revolution, the Second was dissolved in 1851 by Louis Napoleon. However, this was to be a rough and rocky journey for MacMahon. He nominated conservative monarchists as Premier, all of whom where rejected by the strongly republican Deputies. The Deputies then objected to the powers that were given to MacMahon by the provisional government, including the right to dissolve the Chamber of Deputies at any time and call for new elections. They also objected to the number of monarchists and conservatives he appointed to government posts.

By 1879, the Chamber of Deputies was demanding that MacMahon replace many of his appointees. MacMahon saw the impasse become a rift which threatened to become another political chasm that could further damage the stability of France. In order to stop the fracturing of the government, with the two houses so utterly divided, he resigned the presidency. With that move, two things occurred. First, the idea of a restored monarchy was forever destroyed, MacMahon being the last hope for it. Second, the two houses of the French government never elected a president with any substantive power or strength again, thus ensuring that the position would be titular rather than functional.

Once MacMahon was gone, the Chamber of Deputies realized that they actually didn't like each other. While Patrick MacMahon was in power, they were united in their attacks upon him. Without him, the vast differences in the Chamber itself were revealed. Afterwards, the Chamber of Deputies, and the Senate, would become entangled in one squabble after another, rushing from crisis to crisis. Still, the idea of a democracy, and of a Republic, was entwined in the French psyche. MacMahon's constitution would last until the German invasion of France in 1940, and the rise of the Vichy government.

MacMahon was remembered after his death with the naming of a major Paris boulevard in his honor, the Rue de MacMahon. He died at his country home in Sully in 1893.

Patrick MacMahon was the man on the White Horse for the French, the traditional hero who would help save the French. This son of Ireland also set into motion a government that would last for over a half century. A monarchist who would ultimately destroy any hope for a monarchy. But ultimately, a man who by his actions, would ensure the survival of democracy in France.