Émile Combes

Émile Combes
69th Prime Minister of France
In office
7 June 1902  24 January 1905
Preceded by Pierre Waldeck-Rousseau
Succeeded by Maurice Rouvier
Personal details
Born 6 September 1835
Died 25 May 1921 (85)
Pons, Charente-Maritime
Political party Radical Party

Émile Justin Louis Combes (French: [emil kɔ̃b]; 6 September 1835 – 25 May 1921) was a French statesman and freemason[1][2][3] who led the Bloc des gauches's cabinet from June 1902 – January 1905.


Émile Combes was born in Roquecourbe, Tarn. He studied for the priesthood, but abandoned the idea before ordination. His anti-clericalism would later lead him into becoming a Freemason.[4][5] He was also in later life a spiritualist.[6] He later took a diploma as a doctor of letters (1860). Then he studied medicine, taking his degree in 1867, and setting up in practice at Pons in Charente-Inférieure. In 1881 he presented himself as a political candidate for Saintes, but was defeated. In 1885 he was elected to the senate by the départment of Charente-Inférieure. He sat in the Democratic left, and was elected vice-president in 1893 and 1894. The reports which he drew up upon educational questions drew attention to him, and on 3 November 1895 he entered the Bourgeois cabinet as minister of public instruction, resigning with his colleagues on 21 April following.

Prime minister

He actively supported the Waldeck-Rousseau ministry, and upon its retirement in 1902 he was himself charged with the formation of a cabinet. In this he took the portfolio of the Interior, and the main energy of the government was devoted to an anti-clerical agenda, partly in response to the Dreyfus Affair.[7] The parties of the Left, united upon this question in the Bloc republicain, supported Combes in his application of the law of 1901 on the religious associations, and voted the new bill on the congregations (1904), and under his guidance France took the first definite steps toward the separation of church and state. By 1904, through his efforts, nearly 10,000 religious schools had been closed and thousands of priests and nuns left France rather than be persecuted.[8]

He was vigorously opposed by all the Conservative parties, who saw the mass closure of church schools as a persecution of religion. Among people who looked with favor on his stubborn enforcement of the law, he was familiarly called le petit père.

In October 1904, his Minister of War, General André, was uncovered 'republicanizing' the army. He took the promotion process out of the hands of senior officers and handled it directly as a political matter. He used Freemasons to spy on the religious behavior of all 19,000 officers; they flagged the observant Catholics and André made sure they would not be promoted. Exposed as the Affaire Des Fiches, the scandal undermined support for the Combes government. It also undermined morale in the army, as officers realized that hostile spies examining their private lives were more important to their careers than their own professional accomplishments.[9]

Finally the defection of the Radical and Socialist groups induced him to resign on 17 January 1905, although he had not met an adverse vote in the Chamber. His policy was still carried on; and when the law of the separation of church and state was passed, all the leaders of the Radical parties entertained him at a noteworthy banquet in which they openly recognized him as the real originator of the movement.

Later life

The campaign for the separation of church and state was the last big political action in his life. While still possessed of great influence over extreme Radicals, Combes took but little public part in politics after his resignation of the premiership in 1905. He joined the Aristide Briand ministry of October 1915 as one of the five Elder Statesmen, but without portfolio.[10]

According to Geoffrey Kurtz, the years of Émile Combe's administration was a period of social reform “without equal” during the era of the Third Republic, which included such reforms as an eight-hour day for miners, a ten-hour day for many workers, the lowering of mandatory military service from 3 to 2 years, the elimination of certain middle-class draft exemptions, and some modest public assistance for the chronically ill, the disabled, and the elderly.[11] In 1903, safety standards were extended to shops and offices.[12]

Combes died 25 May 1921 in Pons, Charente-Maritime.

Combes's Ministry, 7 June 1902 – 24 January 1905



  1. Ce que la France doit aux francs-maçons (Laurent KUPFERMAN and Emmanuel PIERRAT - Grund ed. - 2012)
  2. Dictionnaire universel de la Franc-Maçonnerie (Monique Cara, Jean-Marc Cara and Marc de Jode - Larousse ed. - 2011)
  3. Histoire de la Franc-Maçonnerie française (Pierre Chevallier, Fayard ed., 1975)
  4. Masonic references in the works of Charles Williams Grand Lodge of British Columbia and Yukon 2007
  5. Burke, Peter The New Cambridge Modern History p. 304 (1979 Cambridge University)
  6. Bigots united
  7. "Emile Combes who boasted of taking office for the sole purpose of destroying the religious orders. He closed thousands of what were not then called 'faith schools'" Bigots united in the Guardian, 9 October 2005
  8. Burns, Michael France and the Dreyfus Affair: A Documentary History p. 171 (1999 Palgrave Macmillan) ISBN 0-312-21813-3
  9. Douglas Porch, The March to the Marne: The French Army 1871-1914 (2003) excerpt and text search pp 92-104, is the most thorough account in English
  10.  One or more of the preceding sentences incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1922). "Combes, Justin Louis Émile". Encyclopædia Britannica (12th ed.). London & New York.
  11. Kurtz, Geoffrey (2014). Jean Jaurès: The Inner Life of Social Democracy. Pennsylvania State University Press. p. 118.
  12. Stewart, Mary Lynn (1989). Women, Work, and the French State: Labour Protection and Social Patriarchy, 1879-1919. McGill-Queen's University Press. p. 59.


Further reading

Political offices
Preceded by
Pierre Waldeck-Rousseau
Prime Minister of France
Succeeded by
Maurice Rouvier
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