Georges Benjamin Clemenceau (Mouilleron-en-Pareds (Vendée), 28 September 1841 24 November 1929) was a French statesman, physician and journalist. He served as the prime minister of France from 1906-1909 and 1917-1920. For nearly the final year of World War I he led France, and was one of the major voices behind the Treaty of Versailles. He is commonly nicknamed le Tigre (the Tiger) and le Père-la-Victoire (Father Victory) for his determination as a wartime leader.
He was elected to the Paris municipal council on 23 July 1871 for the Clignancourt quartier, and retained his seat till 1876, passing through the offices of secretary and vice-president, and becoming president in 1875.
In 1876 he stood again for the Chamber of Deputies, and was elected for the 18th arrondissement. He joined the far left, and his energy and mordant eloquence speedily made him the leader of the Radical section. In 1877, after the Seize Mai crisis, he was one of the republican majority who denounced the de Broglie ministry, and he took a leading part in resisting the anti-republican policy of which the Seize Mai incident was a manifestation. His demand in 1879 for the indictment of the de Broglie ministry brought him into particular prominence. In 1880 he started his newspaper, La Justice, which became the principal organ of Parisian Radicalism. From this time onwards, throughout Jules Grévy's presidency, his reputation as a political critic and destroyer of ministries ("le Tombeur de ministères") who yet would not take office himself grew rapidly. Leading the Far Left in the National Assembly, he was an active opponent of Jules Ferry's colonial policy (which he opposed on moral grounds and also as a form of diversion from the “Revenge against Germany”) and of the Opportunist party, and in 1885 it was his instrumentalization of the Tonkin disaster which principally determined the fall of the Ferry cabinet.
At the elections of 1885 he advocated a strong Radical programme, and was returned both for his old seat in Paris and for the Var, selecting the latter. Refusing to form a ministry to replace the one he had overthrown, he supported the Right in keeping Freycinet in power in 1886, and was responsible for the inclusion of General Boulanger in the Freycinet cabinet as War Minister. When Boulanger showed himself as an ambitious pretender, Clemenceau withdrew his support and became a vigorous opponent of the heterogeneous Boulangist movement, though the Radical press and a section of the party continued to patronize the general.
By his exposure of the Wilson scandal, and by his personal plain speaking, Clemenceau contributed largely to Jules Grévy's resignation of the presidency in 1887, having himself declined Grévy's request to form a cabinet on the downfall of Maurice Rouvier's Cabinet. He was also primarily responsible, by advising his followers to vote for neither Floquet, Ferry, or Freycinet, for the election of an "outsider" (Sadi Carnot) as president.
The split in the Radical party over Boulangism weakened his hands, and its collapse made his help unnecessary to the moderate republicans. A further misfortune occurred in the Panama affair, as Clemenceau's relations with Cornelius Herz led to his being included in the general suspicion. Although he remained the leading spokesman of French Radicalism, his hostility to the Russian alliance so increased his unpopularity that in the 1893 election he was defeated for his Chamber seat, having held it continuously since 1876.
After his 1893 defeat, Clemenceau confined his political activities to journalism. His career was further overclouded by the long-drawn-out Dreyfus case, in which he took an active part as a supporter of Emile Zola and an opponent of the anti-Semitic and Nationalist campaigns.
On 13 January 1898 Clemenceau, as owner and editor of the Paris daily L'Aurore, published Émile Zola's "J'accuse" on the front page of his paper. Clemenceau decided that the controversial story that would become a famous part of the Dreyfus Affair would be in the form of an open letter to the President, Félix Faure.
In 1900 he withdrew from La Justice to found a weekly review, Le Bloc, in which Clemenceau was practically the sole contributor. Le Bloc lasted until 15 March 1902. On 6 April 1902 he was triumphally elected senator for the Var, although he had previously continually demanded the suppression of the Senate, considered a strong-house of conservatism. He sat with the Radical-Socialist Party and moderated somehow his positions, although he still vigorously supported the Combes ministry, who spearheaded the anti-clericalist Republican struggle. In June 1903 he undertook the direction of the journal L'Aurore, which he had founded. In it he led the campaign for the revision of the Dreyfus affair, and for the separation of Church and State, which was implemented by the 1905 Act .
In March 1906 the fall of the Rouvier ministry, owing to the riots provoked by the inventories of church property, and the Radicals' victory during the 1906 legislative election, at last brought Clemenceau to power as Minister of the Interior in the Sarrien cabinet. On a domestic level, Clemenceau reformed the police forces and ordered repressive policies towards the workers' movement. He supported the formation of scientifical police by Alphonse Bertillon, as well as of the Brigades du Tigre ("Tiger's Brigades") by Célestin Hennion.
The miners' strike in the Pas de Calais after the disaster at Courrieres (more than a thousand victims), leading to the threat of disorder on the 1st of May 1906, prompted him to employ the military; and his attitude in the matter — as well as the repression of the wine-growers' strike in the Languedoc-Roussillon — alienated the SFIO Socialist party, from which he definitively broke in his notable reply in the Chamber to Jean Jaurès, leader of the SFIO, in June 1906.
This speech marked him out as the strong man of the day in French politics; and when the Sarrien ministry resigned in October, he became premier. During 1907 and 1908 his premiership was notable for the way in which the new Entente cordiale with England was cemented, and for the successful part which France played in European politics, in spite of difficulties with Germany and attacks by the Socialist party in connection with Morocco (First Moroccan Crisis in 1905-06, settled by the Algeciras Conference).
Clemenceau, who nicknamed himself "first cop of France" ("premier flic de France"), was defeated however on 20 July 1909 in a discussion in the Chamber on the state of the navy, in which bitter words were exchanged between him and Théophile Delcassé, former president of the Council whom Clemenceau had helped in his downfall. Clemenceau refused to respond to Delcassé's technical questions, and resigned after his proposal for the order of the day vote was rejected. He was succeeded as premier by Aristide Briand, with a reconstructed cabinet.
Between 1909 and 1912, Clemenceau dedicated his times to travels, conferences and also to the treatment of his sickness. He went to South America in 1910, traveling to Brazil, Uruguay and Argentina (where he went as far as Santa Ana de Tucuman in the North-West of Argentina). There, he was amazed by the influence of French culture and of the French Revolution on local elites . In 1912, he was operated because of a problem of the prostate.
He published the first issue of the Journal du Var on 10 April 1910, before creating L'Homme libre (The Free Man) newspaper, based in Paris, on 6 May 1913, in which he published daily his editorial. In these tribunes, Clemenceau focused more and more on foreign policy, and condemned the Socialists' anti-militarism. When World War I broke out, his newspaper was one of the first to be censored, being completely suspended from 29 September 1914 to 7 October. In response, Clemenceau changed its name to L'Homme enchaîné (The Man in Chains), and criticized both the lack of transparency of the government and its inefficacity, while defending the patriotic Union sacrée against the German Empire.
In November 1917 Clemenceau was appointed prime minister. Unlike his predecessors, he immediately halted disagreement and called for peace among senior politicians.
When Clemenceau became Prime Minister in 1917 victory seemed to be a long way off. There was little activity on the Front because it was believed that there should be limited attacks until the American support arrived. At this time, Italy was on the defensive, Russia had virtually stopped fighting – and it was believed they would be making a separate peace with Germany. At home the government had to combat increasing resentment against the war. They also had to handle increasing demonstrations against the war, scarcity of resources and air raids – which were causing huge physical damage to Paris as well as damaging the morale of its citizens. It was also believed that many politicians secretly wanted peace. It was a challenging situation for Clemenceau, because after years of criticising other men during the war, he suddenly found himself in a position of supreme power. He was also isolated politically. He did not have close links with any parliamentary leaders (especially after years of criticism) and so had to rely on himself and his own circle of friends.
Clemenceau’s ascension to power meant little to the men in the trenches at first. They thought of him as ‘Just another Politician’, and the monthly assessment of troop morale found that only a minority found comfort in his appointment. Slowly, however, as time passed, the confidence he inspired in a few began to grow throughout all the fighting men. They were encouraged by his many visits to the trenches. This confidence began to spread from the trenches to the home front and it was said “We believed in Clemenceau rather in the way that our ancestors believed in Joan of Arc.”
Clemenceau was also well received by the media because they felt that France was in need for strong leadership. It was widely recognised that throughout the war he was never discouraged and he never stopped believing that France could achieve total victory. There were sceptics, however, that believed that Clemenceau, like other war time leaders, would have a short time in office. It was said that “Like everyone else … Clemenceau will not last long- only long enough to clean up [the war].”
He supported the policy of total war – “We present ourselves before you with the single thought of total war” – and the policy of la guerre jusqu'au bout (war until the end). One of his speeches advocating these policies was so effective it left a vivid impression on Winston Churchill, (see Appendix 1.0). These policies promised victory with justice, loyalty to the fighting men and immediate and severe punishment of crimes against France. Joseph Caillaux, a German appeaser and former French prime minister, adamantly disagreed with Clemenceau’s policies. Caillaux was an avid believer in negotiated peace – which could only be achieved by surrendering to Germany. Clemenceau believed that Caillaux was a threat to national security and that if France were to be victorious, his challenge had to be overcome. Unlike previous ministers, Clemenceau was not afraid to act against Caillaux. It was decided by the parliamentary committee that he would be arrested and imprisoned for three years. Clemenceau believed, in the words of Jean Ybarnégaray, that Caillaux’s crime “was not to have believed in victory [and] to have gambled on his nations defeat”.
It was believed by some in Paris that the arrest of Caillaux and others was a sign that Clemenceau had begun a Reign of Terror. This was only really believed by the enemies of Clemenceau, but the many trials and arrests aroused great public excitement, one newspaper ironically reported “The war must be over, for no one is talking about it anymore”. These trials, far from making the public fear the government, inspired confidence as the they felt that for the first time in the war, action was being taken and they were being firmly governed. Although there were accusations that Clemenceau’s ‘firm government’ was actually a dictatorship, the claims were not supported. Clemenceau was still held accountable to the people and media and he relaxed censorship on political views as he believed that newspapers had the right to criticize political figures - “The right to insult members of the government is inviolable”. The only powers that Clemenceau assumed were those that he thought necessary to win the war.
In 1918, Clemenceau thought that France should adopt Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points, despite believing that some were utopian, mainly because one of the points called for the return of the disputed territory of Alsace-Lorraine to France. This meant that victory would fulfill one war aim that was very close to the hearts of the French people. Clemenceau was also very sceptical about the League of Nations, believing that it could succeed only in a utopian society.
As war minister Clemenceau was also in close contact with his generals. Although it was necessary for these meetings to take place, they were not always beneficial as he did not always make the most effective decisions concerning military issues. He did, however, mostly heed the advice of the more experienced generals. As well as talking strategy with the generals he also went to the trenches to see the Poilu , the French infantrymen. He wanted to talk to them and assure them that their government was actually looking after them. The Poilu had great respect for Clemenceau and his disregard for danger as he often visited soldiers only yards away from German frontlines. These visits to the trenches contributed to Clemenceau’s title Le Père de la Victoire (Father of Victory).
On 21 March the Germans began their great spring offensive. The Allies were caught off guard as they were waiting for the majority of the American troops to arrive. As the Germans advanced on the 24th of March, the British Fifth army retreated and a gap was created in the British/French lines - giving them access to Paris. This defeat cemented Clemenceau’s belief, and that of the other allies, that a coordinated, unified command was the best option. It was decided that Foch would be appointed to the supreme command.
The German line continued to advance and Clemenceau believed that they could not rule out the fall of Paris (see appendix 2.0). It was believed that if ‘the tiger’ as well as Foch and Pétain stayed in power, for even another week, France would be lost. It was thought that a government headed by Briand would be beneficial to France because he would make peace with Germany on advantageous terms. Clemenceau adamantly opposed these opinions and he gave an inspirational speech to parliament and ‘the chamber’ voted their confidence in him 377 votes to 110.
It was decided that a peace conference would be held in France, officially Versailles. On 14 December Woodrow Wilson visited Paris and received an enormous welcome. His 14 points and the concept of a league of nations had made a big impact on the war weary French. Clemenceau realized at their first meeting that he was a man of principle and conscience but narrow minded.
It was decided that since the conference was being held in France, Clemenceau would be the most appropriate president – ‘Clemenceau was one of the best chairmen I have ever known – firm to the point of ‘tigerishness’ when necessary, understanding, conciliatory, witty and a tremendous driver. His leadership never failed from first to last, and was never questioned.’ He also spoke both English and French, the official languages of the conference.
The Conference progress was much slower than anticipated and decisions were being constantly adjourned. It was this slow pace that induced Clemenceau to give an interview showing his irritation to an American journalist. He said he believed that Germany had won the war industrially and commercially as their factories were intact and its debts would soon be overcome through ‘manipulation’. In a short time, he believed, the German economy would be much stronger than the French.
Clemenceau was shot by an anarchist ‘assassin’ on 19 February 1919. Seven shots were fired through the back panel of his car – one striking him in the chest. It was discovered that if the bullet had entered a millimeter to the left or right, it would have been fatal.
When Clemenceau returned to the council of ten on 1 March he found that little had changed. One issue that had not changed was a dispute over the long running Eastern Frontier and control of the German province Rhineland. Clemenceau believed that Germany’s possession of the territory left France without a natural frontier in the East and so simplified invasion into France for an attacking army. The issue was finally resolved when Lloyd George and Woodrow Wilson guaranteed immediate military assistance if Germany attacked without provocation. It was also decided that the Allies would occupy the territory for 15 years, and that Germany could never rearm the area.
There was increasing discontent among Clemenceau, Lloyd George and Woodrow Wilson about slow progress and information leaks surrounding the Council of Ten. They began to meet in a smaller group, called the Council of Four. This offered greater privacy and security and increased the efficiency of the decision making process. Another major issue which the Council of Four discussed was the future of the German Saar province. Clemenceau believed that France was entitled to the province and its coal mines after Germany deliberately damaged the coal mines in Northern France. Wilson, however, resisted the French claim so firmly that Clemenceau accused him of being ‘pro German’. Lloyd George came to a compromise and the coal mines were given to France and the territory placed under French administration for 15 years, after which a vote would determine whether the province would rejoin Germany.
Although Clemenceau had little knowledge of the Austrian-Hungarian empire, he supported the causes of its smaller ethnic groups and his adamancy lead to the stringent terms in the Treaty of Trianon which dismantled Hungary. Rather than recognizing territories of the Austrian-Hungarian empire solely within the principles of self-determination, Clemenceau sought to weaken Hungary just as Germany and remove the threat of such a large power within Central Europe. The entire Czechoslovakian state was seen a potential buffer from Communism and this encompassed majority Hungarian territories.
Clemenceau did not have experience or knowledge in economics or finance but was under strong public and parliamentary pressure to make Germany’s reparation bill as big as possible. It was generally agreed that Germany should not pay more than it could afford, but the estimates of what it could afford varied greatly. Figures ranged between £2000 million which was quite modest compared to another estimate of £20,000 million. Clemenceau realised that any compromise would anger both the French and British citizens and that the only option was to establish a reparations commission which would examine Germany’s capacity for reparations. This meant that the French government was not directly involved in the issue of reparations.