The present French Republic has endured for over forty years. Within that time it has produced just one man of extraordinary power and parts. This was Leon Gambetta. Other men as remarkable as he were conspicuous in French political life during the first few years of the republic; but they belonged to an earlier generation, while Gambetta leaped into prominence only when the empire fell, crashing down in ruin and disaster.
It is still too early to form an accurate estimate of him as a statesman. His friends praise him extravagantly. His enemies still revile him bitterly. The period of his political career lasted for little more than a decade, yet in that time it may be said that he lived almost a life of fifty years. Only a short time ago did the French government cause his body to be placed within the great Pantheon, which contains memorials of the heroes and heroines of France. But, though we may not fairly judge of his political motives, we can readily reconstruct a picture of him as a man, and in doing so recall his one romance, which many will remember after they have forgotten his oratorical triumphs and his statecraft.
Leon Gambetta was the true type of the southern Frenchman—what his countrymen call a meridional. The Frenchman of the south is different from the Frenchman of the north, for the latter has in his veins a touch of the viking blood, so that he is very apt to be fair-haired and blue-eyed, temperate in speech, and self-controlled. He is different, again, from the Frenchman of central France, who is almost purely Celtic. The meridional has a marked vein of the Italian in him, derived from the conquerors of ancient Gaul. He is impulsive, ardent, fiery in speech, hot-tempered, and vivacious to an extraordinary degree.
Gambetta, who was born at Cahors, was French only on his mother’s side, since his father was of Italian birth. It is said also that somewhere in his ancestry there was a touch of the Oriental. At any rate, he was one of the most southern of the sons of southern France, and he showed the precocious maturity which belongs to a certain type of Italian. At twenty-one he had already been admitted to the French bar, and had drifted to Paris, where his audacity, his pushing nature, and his red-hot un-restraint of speech gave him a certain notoriety from the very first.
It was toward the end of the reign of Napoleon III. that Gambetta saw his opportunity. The emperor, weakened by disease and yielding to a sort of feeble idealism, gave to France a greater freedom of speech than it had enjoyed while he was more virile. This relaxation of control merely gave to his opponents more courage to attack him and his empire. Demagogues harangued the crowds in words which would once have led to their imprisonment. In the National Assembly the opposition did all within its power to hamper and defeat the policy of the government.