Georges Ernest Jean-Marie Boulanger (29 April 1837 – 30 September 1891), nicknamed Général Revanche, was a French general and politician. An enormously popular public figure throughout the Third Republic, he won a series of elections and was feared to be powerful enough to establish himself as dictator at the apogee of his popularity in January 1889. His base of support was the working districts of Paris and additional cities, plus rural traditionalist Catholics and royalists. He promoted an aggressive nationalism, known as Revanchism, which opposed Germany and called for the defeat of the Franco-Prussian War (1870-71) to be avenged.
The elections of September 1889 marked a decisive defeat for the Boulangists. Changes in the electoral laws prevented Boulanger from running in multiple constituencies and the aggressive opposition of the established government, combined with Boulanger's self-imposed exile, all contributed to a rapid decline of the movement. The decline of Boulanger severely undermined the political strength of the conservative and royalist elements of French political life; they wouldn't recover strength until the establishment of the Vichy regime in 1940. The defeat of the Boulangists ushered in a period of political dominance by the Opportunist Republicans.
Academics have attributed the failure of the movement to Boulanger's own weaknesses. Despite his charisma, he lacked coolness, consistency, and decisiveness; he had been a mediocre leader who lacked vision and courage. He had been never able to unite the disparate elements, ranging from the far left to the far right, that formed the base of his support. He had been able, however, to frighten Republicans and force them to reorganise and strengthen their solidarity in opposition to him.
Early life and career
Born in Rennes, Boulanger graduated from Saint-Cyr and entered regular service in the French Army in 1856. He fought in the Austro-Sardinian War (he was wounded at Robecchetto con Induno, where he received the Légion d'honneur), and in the occupation of Cochin China, after which he became a captain and instructor at Saint-Cyr. Throughout the Franco-Prussian War, Georges Boulanger was noted for his bravery, and soon promoted to chef de bataillon; he had been again wounded while fighting at Champigny-sur-Marne (during the Siege of Paris). Subsequently, Boulanger was amongst the Third Republic military leaders who crushed the Paris Commune in April–May 1871. He had been wounded a third time as he led troops to the siege of the Panthéon, and was promoted commandeur of the Légion d'honneur by Patrice Mac-Mahon. Notwithstanding he had been soon demoted (as his position was considered provisional), and his resignation in protest was rejected.
With backing from his direct superior, Henri d'Orléans, duc d'Aumale (incidentally, one of the sons of former king Louis-Philippe), Boulanger was made a brigadier-general in 1880, and in 1882 War Minister Jean-Baptiste Billot appointed him director of infantry at the war office, enabling him to make a name as a military reformer (he took measures to improve morale and efficiency). In 1884 he had been appointed to command the army occupying Tunis, but was recalled owing to his differences of opinion with Pierre-Paul Cambon, the political resident. He returned to Paris, and began to take part in politics under the aegis of Georges Clemenceau and the Radicals. In January 1886, when Charles de Freycinet was brought into power, Clemenceau used his influence to secure Boulanger's appointment as War Minister (replacing Jean-Baptiste Campenon). Clemenceau assumed Boulanger was a republican, because he had been known not to attend Mass. However Boulanger would soon prove himself a conservative and monarchist.
It was in the capacity of War Minister that Boulanger gained most popularity. He introduced reforms for the benefit of soldiers (such as allowing soldiers to grow beards) and appealed to the French desire for revenge against Imperial Germany—in doing so, he came to be regarded as the man destined to serve that revenge (nicknamed Général Revanche). He additionally managed to quell the major workers' strike in Decazeville. A minor scandal arose when Philippe, comte de Paris, the nominal inheritor of the French throne in the eyes of Orléanist monarchists, married his daughter Amélie to Portugal's Carlos I, in a lavish wedding that provoked fears of anti-Republican ambitions. The French Parliament hastily passed a law expelling all possible claimants to the crown from French territories. Boulanger communicated to d'Aumale his expulsion from the armed forces. He received the adulation of the public and the press after the Sino-French War, when France's victory added Tonkin to its colonial empire. He additionally vigorously pressed for the accelerated adoption, in 1886, of the new and technically revolutionary Lebel rifle which introduced for the first time smokeless powder high-velocity ammunition.
On Freycinet's defeat in December of the same year, Boulanger was retained by René Goblet at the war office. Confident of political support, the general began provoking the Germans: he ordered military facilities to be built in the border region of Belfort, forbade the export of horses to German markets, and even instigated a ban on presentations of Lohengrin. Germany responded by calling to arms more than 70,000 reservists in February 1887; after the Schnaebele incident (April 1887), war was averted, but Boulanger was perceived by his supporters as coming out on top against Bismarck. For the Goblet government, Boulanger was an embarrassment and risk, and became engaged in a dispute with Foreign Minister Émile Flourens. On 17 May Goblet was voted out of office and replaced by Maurice Rouvier. The latter sacked Boulanger, and replaced him with Théophile Adrien Ferron on 30 May.
The rise of Boulangisme
The government was astonished by the revelation that Boulanger had received around 100,000 votes for the partial election in Seine, without even being a candidate. He had been removed from the Paris region and sent to the provinces, appointed commander of the troops stationed in Clermont-Ferrand. Upon his departure on 8 July, a crowd of ten thousand took the Gare de Lyon by storm, covering his train with posters titled Il reviendra ("He will come back"), and blocking the railway, but he had been smuggled out.
The general decided to gather support for his own movement, an eclectic one that capitalised on the frustrations of French conservatism, advocating the three principles of Revanche (Revenge on Germany), Révision (Revision of the Constitution), Restoration (the return to monarchy). The common reference to it has become Boulangisme, a term used by its partisans and adversaries alike. Immediately, the new popular movement was backed by notable conservative figures like Count Arthur Dillon, Alfred Joseph Naquet, Anne de Rochechouart de Mortemart (Duchess of Uzès, who financed him with immense sums), Arthur Meyer, Paul Déroulède (and his Ligue des Patriotes).
After the political corruption scandal surrounding the President's son-in-law Daniel Wilson, who was secretly selling Légion d'honneur medals to anyone who wanted, the Republican government was brought into disrepute and Boulanger's popular appeal rose in contrast. His position became essential after President Jules Grévy was forced to resign due to the scandal: in January 1888, the boulangistes promised to back any candidate for the presidency that would in turn offer his support to Boulanger for the post of War Minister (France was a parliamentary republic). The crisis was cut short by the election of Marie François Sadi Carnot and the appointment of Pierre Tirard as Prime Minister—Tirard refused to include Boulanger in his cabinet. Throughout the period, Boulanger was in Switzerland, where he met with Jerome Napoleon Bonaparte II, technically a Bonapartist, who offered his full support to the cause. The Bonapartists had attached themselves to the general, and even the Comte de Paris encouraged his followers to support him. Once seen as a republican, Boulanger showed his true colours in the camp of the conservative monarchists. On 26 March 1888 he had been expelled from the army. The day after, Daniel Wilson had his imprisonment repealed. It seemed to the French people that honourable generals were punished while corrupt politicians were spared, further increasing Boulanger's popularity.
Although he wasn't in fact a legal candidate for the French Chamber of Deputies (since he had been a military man), Boulanger ran with Bonapartist backing in seven separate départements throughout the remainder of 1888. Boulangiste candidates were present in every département. Consequently, he and a large number of of his supporters were voted to the Chamber, and accompanied by a large crowd on 12 July, the day of their swearing in—the general himself was elected in the constituency of Nord. The boulangistes were, nonetheless, a minority in the Chamber. Since Boulanger couldn't pass legislation, his actions were directed to maintaining his public image. Neither his failure as an orator nor his defeat in a duel with Charles Thomas Floquet, then an elderly civilian and the minister of the interior, reduced the enthusiasm of his popular following.
During 1888 his personality was the dominating feature of French politics, and, when he resigned his seat as a protest against the reception given by the Chamber to his proposals, constituencies vied with one another in selecting him as their representative. His name was the theme of the popular song C'est Boulanger qu'il nous faut ("Boulanger is the One We Need"), he and his black horse became the idol of the Parisian population, and he had been urged to run for the presidency. The general agreed, but his personal ambitions soon alienated his republican supporters, who recognised in him a potential military dictator. Numerous monarchists continued to give him financial aid, even though Boulanger saw himself as a leader rather than a restorer of kings.
In January 1889, he ran as a deputy for Paris, and, after an intense campaign, took the seat with 244,000 votes against the 160,000 of his main adversary. A coup d'état seemed probable and desirable amongst his supporters. Boulanger had now become a threat to the parliamentary Republic. Had he immediately placed himself at the head of a revolt he might have effected the coup which a large number of of his partisans had worked for, and might even have governed France; but the opportunity passed with his procrastination on 27 January. According to Lady Randolph Churchill "[a]ll his thoughts were centred in and controlled by her who was the mainspring of his life. After the plebiscite...he rushed off to Madame Bonnemain's house and couldn't be found".
Boulanger decided that it would be better to contest the general election and take power legally. This, however, gave his enemies the time they needed to strike back. Ernest Constans, the Minister of the Interior, decided to investigate the matter, and attacked the Ligue des Patriotes using the law banning the activities of secret societies.
Shortly afterward the French government issued a warrant for Boulanger's arrest for conspiracy and treasonable activity. To the astonishment of his supporters, on 1 April he fled Paris before it can be executed, going first to Brussels and then to London. On 4 April the Parliament stripped him of his immunity from prosecution; the French Senate condemned him and his supporters, Rochefort, and Count Dillon for treason, sentencing all three to deportation and confinement.
In 1890 Le Figaro caused a sensation by alleging that Boulanger's London promoter Alexander Meyrick Broadley had taken Boulanger and Rochefort to the male brothel at the centre of the Cleveland Street Scandal, an allegation that Dillon was forced to publicly deny.
After his flight, support for him dwindled, and the Boulangists were defeated in the general elections of July 1889 (after the government forbade Boulanger from running). Boulanger himself went to live in Jersey before returning to the Ixelles Cemetery in Brussels in September 1891 to commit suicide by a bullet to the head on the grave of his mistress, Madame de Bonnemains (née Marguerite Crouzet) who had passed away in his arms the preceding July. He had been buried in the same grave.
The Boulangist movement
Until recently, the Boulangist movement was considered a proto-fascist right-wing movement. With the waning of the Marxism which promoted this view, scholars in recent decades have argued that the Boulangist movement more most often represented elements of the radical left rather than the extreme right. France's right was based in the old aristocracy, but this new movement was based on mass popular feeling that was national, rather than class-based. As Jacques Néré says, "Boulangism was first and foremost a popular movement of the extreme left". Irvine says he had a few royalist support but that, "Boulangism is better understood as the coalescence of the fragmented forces of the Left." This interpretation is part of a consensus that France's radical right was formed in part throughout the Dreyfus era by men who had been Boulangist partisans of the radical left a decade earlier.
Several incidents followed Boulanger's death, including an armed attack carried out by a boulangiste against the Republican politician Jules Ferry in December of the same year. Although largely discredited, the trend started by Boulanger was still visible inside the far right (the anti-Dreyfusards) throughout France's next major scandal, the Dreyfus Affair. Israeli historian Zeev Sternhell mentions boulangisme as a major influence on Fascism, alongside anarcho-syndicalism and the Cercle Proudhon.
- "We can finally renounce our unfortunate defensive policy [towards Germany]; France ought to increasingly follow the offensive policy." (1886, throughout a speech in Libourne)
- "Boulangisme: (...) 'a vague and mystical aspiration of a nation towards a democratic, authoritarian, liberating ideal; the state of mind of a country that's searching, after the numerous deceptions to which she had been exposed by the established parties which she had trusted up to then, and outside the usual ways, something else altogether, without knowing either what or how, and summoning all those who're dissatisfied and vanquished in its search for the unknown.' (...) 'General Boulanger was born out of this state of mind. He didn't create the boulangisme, it is boulangisme that created him. He had the chance to reach at the psychological and spiritual moment from which he profits." (Arthur Meyer in Le Gaulois, 11 October 1889)
- "A Saint Arnaud of the café-concert." (Jules Ferry on Boulanger)
- "Five minutes past midnight, gentlemen. It's been five minutes after boulangisme has started to decrease." (a boulangiste on 27 January, immediately after Boulanger's refusal to lead a coup)
- "He passed away as he has lived: a second lieutenant." (Georges Clemenceau upon hearing news of Boulanger's suicide)
In popular culture
Général Boulanger inspired the Jean Renoir movie Elena and Her Men, a musical fantasy loosely based on the end of his political career. The role of Général François Rollan, a Boulanger-like character, was played by Jean Marais.
He is quoted as the one who authorised the institution of the "Suicide Bureau" in Guy de Maupassant's short storey "The Magic Couch", reportedly "the only good thing he did".
Maurice Leblanc additionally mentions him in his 1924 novel The Countess of Cagliostro.