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Leon Gambetta (1838-1882) was a French politician who had been one of the first members of the Government of National Defence, which had been set up during the Franco-Prussian War in September 1870 as the first government of the Third Republic. Gambetta had served as Minister of the Interior until February 1871, when the French surrender to the Prussians was followed by the establishment of a new government under Adolphe Thiers. Though he had hoped to continue a policy of guerre à outrance, all-out war, against the Prussians, Gambetta failed to rally the French Assembly to his cause and when Thiers signed a peace treaty with the Prussians on 1 March 1871, he resigned in protest from government and placed himself in self-imposed exile in San Sebastian. However, his political ambitions drew him back to France later the same year.
Having returned to Paris, Gambetta’s tact and eloquence saw his political star rise over the following decade. When the President, Patrice de MacMahon, resigned in January 1879, Gambetta was seen as a potential successor, though he declined the chance to be a candidate and instead accepted the office of President of the Chamber of Deputies under Jules Grevy. At the time of this cartoon, where he is portrayed as a Ringmaster in the ‘Cirque Français’, Gambetta was leading a movement to restore scrutin de liste, a system by which deputies are returned by the entire department which they represent, so that each elector votes for several representatives at once. A bill to re-establish scrutin de liste was passed by the Assembly on 19 May 1881, but rejected by the Senate on 19 June, a little over a week after this cartoon was published. Despite this setback, Gambetta would become Prime Minister in November 1881, though his political enemies accused him of wanting to become a dictator, and his cabinet fell in January 1882, after just 66 days.