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Born in Rennes, Boulanger entered the army in 1856 and served in Algeria, Italy, Cochin-China and the Franco-Prussian War, earning a reputation. He was made a brigadier-general in 1880 and in 1882 was appointed director of infantry at the war office, enabling him to make a name as a military reformer, and in 1884 he was appointed to command the army occupying Tunis, but was recalled owing to his differences of opinion with Cambon, the political resident. He returned to Paris, and began to take part in politics under the aegis of Georges Clemenceau and the Radical party; in January 1886, when Freycinet was brought into power by the support of the Radical leader, Boulanger was given the post of war minister.
It was as war minister that Boulanger gained public popularity. He introduced reforms for the benefit of soldiers and appealed to the French desire for revenge against Germany, and in doing so, came to be regarded as the man destined to serve that revenge. On Freycinet's defeat in December 1886 he was retained by René Goblet at the war office but was forced from his ministry in 1887 and later deprived of his army command under charges of insubordination. Proving that it was hard to keep a good man down, Boulanger was promptly elected to the chamber for the Nord with a political programme demanding reform of the constitution.
In the chamber he was in a minority, and his actions were directed to maintaining his public image. Neither his failure as an orator nor his defeat in a duel with Floquet, then an elderly civilian, reduced the enthusiasm of his popular following. During 1888 his personality was the dominating feature of French politics, and, when he resigned his seat as a protest against the reception given by the chamber to his revisionist proposals, constituencies vied with one another in selecting him as their representative.
A Boulangist "movement" was now in full swing. The Bonapartists had attached themselves to the general, and even the comte de Paris encouraged his followers to support him. His name was the theme of the popular song "C'est Boulanger qu'il nous faut", he and his black horse became the idol of the Parisian populace and he was urged to run for the presidency. The general agreed.
Boulanger's personal ambition soon alienated his republican supporters however, who recognised in him a potential military dictator. Numerous royalists gave him financial aid however, even though Boulanger saw himself as a future dictator rather than a restorer of kings.
By January 1889, a coup seemed probable, as Boulanger had now become a threat to the parliamentary Republic. Had he immediately placed himself at the head of a revolt be might have effected the coup d'état which the intriguers had worked for, and might even have governed France; but the opportunity passed. Shortly afterward the French government issued a warrant for his arrest for treasonable activity. To the astonishment of his friends, on April 1 he fled from Paris before it could be executed, going first to Brussels and then to London.
After his flight, support for him dwindled, and the Boulangists were defeated in the general elections of July, 1889. Boulanger himself, having been tried and condemned in absentia for treason, went to live in Jersey before returning to Brussels in September 1891 to commit suicide by a bullet to the head on the grave of his mistress, Madame de Bonnemains (née Marguerite Crouzet), who had died in the preceding July.
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