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General Boulanger

Between 1886 and 1889, writes John Roberts, an ambitious soldier, taking advantage of a “vague aspiration toward national regeneration”, seemed to come near to destroying the Republic in France.

John Roberts | Published in History Today

On January 8th, 1886, Charles de Freycinet announced the composition of his new government. As usual, the post of Minister of War was held by a soldier.

This time it was General Boulanger, whose name had only recently come before the public during an acrimonious press controversy with the French Resident-General at Tunis. Soldiers seldom played a prominent part in public life, and little was known about the new minister.

His comparative youth — he was forty-nine — suggested that he had a good professional record.

This was true. Georges Ernest Jean Marie Boulanger was born at Rennes in 1837. His father was a Breton solicitor with tastes above his station who lived above his means.

When he went bankrupt the family moved to Nantes, where he became an inspector in an insurance company, and Georges went to the lycée (where the young Clemenceau was to follow him).

Later, the army offered a good career to a young man with ambitions and no background. Boulanger inherited some of his father’s social aspirations, and under the Empire an officer had both prestige and the chance of rapid promotion.

After passing out of Saint-Cyr in 1856, respectably placed in the upper half of his class, Boulanger began a fine career as a regimental officer.

He fought in Africa, Italy, Cochin and, finally, during the defence of Paris. In his four campaigns he collected a decoration and six wounds (one from a Communard).

By 1871, he was only thirty-four and a full colonel. In the best tradition of the French officer, he had taken no interest in politics, although he made his officers sign an address of loyalty to the National Assembly. For him, politics seemed to mean dutiful obedience to the constituted authorities.

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