Patrice de MacMahon, a descendant of an Irish family, resigns as president of France on January 30, 1879, and retires to private life. His resignation comes after he dissolves the Chamber of Deputies, resulting in public outrage and a Republican electoral victory earlier in the month.
Born Marie Edme Patrice Maurice de MacMahon on July 13, 1808, in Sully, France, he serves as Marshal of France and second president of the French Third Republic. During his presidency the Third Republic takes shape, the new constitutional laws of 1875 are adopted, and important precedents are established affecting the relationship between executive and legislative powers.
The MacMahon family is of Irish origin. They were Lords of Corcu Baiscind in Ireland and descended from Mahon, the son of Muirchertach Ua Briain, High King of Ireland. After losing much of their land in the Cromwellian confiscations, a branch moved to Limerick for a time before settling in France during the reign of William III of England because of their support of the deposed King James II in the Glorious Revolution. They applied for French citizenship in 1749. After the definitive installation of the family in France, their nobility was recognised by the patent letter of King Louis XV of France.
MacMahon begins his army career in 1827 in Algeria and distinguishes himself during the Siege of Constantine (1837) and in the Crimean War (1853–56). The climax of his military career comes in the Italian campaign of 1859, when his victory at Magenta results in his being created Duke of Magenta. In 1864 he becomes Governor General of Algeria. Commanding the I Army Corps in Alsace during the Franco-Prussian War (1870–71), he is wounded and defeated at the Battle of Wörth. After a short convalescence at Sedan, he is appointed head of the army of the French Third Republic, which defeats the Paris Commune revolt in May 1871.
When Adolphe Thiers resigns as president of the republic on May 24, 1873, French rightists turn to MacMahon as his successor. He is elected president the same day. On November 20, 1873, the National Assembly passes the Law of the Septennate, conferring upon him presidential power for seven years. He assumes his presidential duties somewhat reluctantly, for he dislikes publicity and lacks an understanding of the complex political issues of his day.
During MacMahon’s term the French Constitutional Laws of 1875 are promulgated. The National Assembly dissolves itself, and the elections of 1876 returns a large majority of republicans to the new chamber. The first crisis comes in December 1876, when the republican chamber compels him to invite the moderate republican Jules Simon to form a government. The conservative Senate disapproves of Simon because he had purged some rightist officials, and, on May 16, 1877, MacMahon posts a letter to Simon that is tantamount to dismissal. Premier Simon’s resignation precipitates the crise du seize mai. When MacMahon commissions conservative Albert de Broglie to form a ministry and wins the Senate’s assent to dissolve the chamber on June 25, 1877, the question of whether the President or Parliament would control the government is squarely posed.
The new elections to the chamber return a majority of republicans, and the de Broglie ministry is given a vote of “no confidence.” The succeeding ministry, headed by Gaëtan de Rochebouët, also collapses. By December 13, 1877, MacMahon gives in to the extent of accepting a ministry led by conservative republican Jules Dufaure and composed mostly of republicans. On January 5, 1879, the republicans gain a majority in the Senate, and MacMahon resigns on January 30. The constitutional crisis during his presidency is resolved in favour of parliamentary as against presidential control, and thereafter during the Third Republic the office of president becomes largely an honorific post.
From 1887 to 1893, MacMahon directs the Société de secours aux blessés militaires (S.S.B.M) – Rescue Society of Wounded Military, which in 1940 becomes the French Red Cross.
MacMahon dies on October 17, 1893, at the Château de la Forêt at Montcresson, after having written his memoirs. He is buried on October 22 at the Hôtel des Invalides after a state funeral and a religious mass at La Madeleine, Paris.