September 4, 1870: the Republic is back

September 4, 1870: the Republic is back

On Sunday September 4, 1870, Jules Simon proclaimed the Republic on the Place de la Concorde.

© Photo RMN-Grand Palais - F. Vizzavona

Publication date: August 2008

Historical context

The last hours of the Second Empire

When news of the capture of Napoleon III following the defeat of Sedan arrives in Paris, a certain despair descends on government circles. But the parliamentarians are disturbed in the morning by groups of workers who call out to them with the cry of "forfeiture!" ". Logically, the end of the Empire resulted in the enthronement of opponents of Napoleon III, foremost among them those who were to be the pillars of the "Republic of the Jules", namely Grévy, Ferry and of course Simon. General Trochu, military governor of the capital with a conservative tendency, was immediately entrusted with the presidency of the provisional government, from which he was careful to exclude those who held too advanced ideas.

Image Analysis

Table of moments of jubilation, all social classes combined

This painting by Paul-Louis Delance is an example of art in the service of politics. At the time of the facts, the artist, aged twenty-two, was on the cusp of a career which would be marked by well-rewarded loyalty to the new regime: member of the Salon des Artistes Français in 1880, he received the award. first class medal in 1888. His work is imbued with the social and patriotic references characteristic of the republican spirit of the time. Along these lines, he painted in 1881 Return of the flag, inspired by a patriotic poem by Paul Déroulède, or The strike in Saint-Ouen (1908). The end of his life is marked by an accentuation of his tendencies towards symbolism, which are moreover present in this painting.

Jules Simon, by name and reverently referred to in the title of the painting, is at the center of a crowd (from one hundred to one hundred and fifty thousand people in total) as motley as it is effervescent, but without a riotous character. Hat held at arm's length, eyes to the sky, it appears bathed in a singular light. This halo effect transcends the individuals present to make it an assembly conscious of participating in the entry of France into a new period in its history. This figuration is part of the republican myth of the entire French people united, beyond their internal divisions, in a universalist institutional framework. This aspect has been dealt with by the painter: a craftsman in working clothes stands alongside a bourgeois and his lady on the left of the frame, certainly a little more circumspect than him. In the center of the painting appears the national guard, arms and uniforms reminiscent as much of the ongoing war as the role played by military force in the constitution and the foundations of new power.


A moment of unanimity?

With hindsight, the scene of jubilation represented by Delance seems somewhat against the grain of the military situation, but also of the political issues being played out. Two weeks later, on September 19, and until January 28, 1871, Paris was indeed a city besieged by the Prussian conqueror. At the same time, the reality of the new political situation is the installation of a motley government team, divided between the immediate or postponed organization of elections. They finally took place on February 8, 1871, clearly showing a conservative majority with a strong monarchist component. Thiers is elected in twenty-six departments, which designates him for the head of the executive. It was in this position that he negotiated the draconian clauses of the Treaty of Frankfurt, and that he repressed the Commune. Forty years after the events, when he painted this painting, Paul-Louis Delance was inevitably aware of the short-term fragility of the spontaneous consensus of September 4, 1870, which he nevertheless intended to fix permanently in an idealized version. This work must therefore be understood as being linked to the official memory of the republican regime. This episode masks the twenty-five thousand or thirty thousand deaths of the Commune, and the long persistence of anti-democratic tendencies at the top of the state. But perhaps it finds its full utility in its almost revolutionary nature. The day of September 4, 1870 is indeed a powerful element of legitimation in the continuity, apart from violent fights, of the two preceding republics, symbolically born also in the clamors of the loose street of its former masters.

  • War of 1870
  • Paris
  • Third Republic
  • Grevy (Jules)
  • Thiers (Adolphe)
  • Ferry (Jules)


Jean-Pierre AZÉMA and Michel WINOCK, The Birth of the Third Republic, Paris, Calmann-Lévy, 1970.

Jean-Marie MAYEUR, Political life under the Third Republic, 1870-1940, Paris, Le Seuil, 1984.

Alain PLESSIS, From the Imperial Festival to the Federated Wall, 1852-1871, Paris, Le Seuil, coll. "Points", 1979.

To cite this article

François BOULOC, "September 4, 1870: the Republic is back"

Video: Dr. Mark DePue - Trench Warfare During WWI