Aristide Briand

The French statesman Aristide Briand (1862-1932) is best known for his efforts to preserve international peace in the period after World War I. He also played an important role in the separation of church and state in France.

Aristide Briand was born on March 28, 1862, at Nantes, where his parents were innkeepers. Educated in public schools in Nantes, he went to Paris to study law and returned to practice at Saint-Nazaire. There he entered politics and was defeated for the Chamber of Deputies in 1889. He then joined the syndicalist movement and became an advocate of the revolutionary general strike as the means of transforming society (the labor movement at this time also favored the general-strike tactic).

Moving to Paris in 1893, Briand worked as a journalist and campaigned unsuccessfully for the Chamber in 1893 and 1898. He began to acquire an important position in Socialist circles, where he associated with the more moderate parliamentary group of Jean Jaurès and René Viviani. He was finally elected to the Chamber as a Socialist in 1902. A supporter of participation in bourgeois ministries, he refused to accept the discipline imposed by the Socialist unification in 1905. Though he continued for a time to consider himself an independent Socialist, he preferred a ministerial career to one of permanent opposition.

A brilliant orator, Briand also demonstrated great skill in the arts of parliamentary maneuver. As reporter for the committee which prepared the legislation for the separation of church and state, he sought out Roman Catholic support and tried to minimize the inevitable offense to religious sensitivities. As minister of public instruction and worship (1906) and as minister of justice (1907), he assumed the responsibility of executing these laws.

When he became premier and minister of the interior (July 1909-February 1911), Briand broke with his revolutionary beginnings by his ruthless suppression of a rail-road-workers' strike. From then on he was accepted by the moderate majority as a man who could be entrusted with the leadership of the country. As minister of justice (January 1912-March 1913) and premier (January-March 1913), he campaigned successfully for the restoration of the 3-year military service favored by the right.

With the outbreak of World War I in 1914, Briand entered the national union Cabinet of Viviani, whom he succeeded in October 1915. Unable to break the costly military stalemate, Briand came under increasing attack, led by Georges Clemenceau, and his ministry fell in March 1917.

When Briand returned to power as premier in January 1921, he faced the growing problem of relations with Germany. Despite French occupation of Düsseldorf and other German cities, he was charged with making too many concessions under Allied pressure at the many international congresses of that year and was succeeded by Raymond Poincaré. Briand became foreign minister in 1925 and held the post with one brief interruption for 7 years in several ministries, including four of his own.

With France's allies unwilling to guarantee its security, Briand saw the necessity of a Franco-German reconciliation, which he tried to promote through various concessions in response to the policy of "fulfillment" of the German foreign minister Gustave Stresemann. This approach led to the Locarno Pact of October 1925, in which Germany agreed to its western borders and was reaccepted in the concert of powers. For their efforts Briand and Stresemann shared the Nobel Peace Prize in 1926. Briand, indeed, sought to exploit all avenues toward lasting peace: military alliances, the Kellogg-Briand Pact of 1928 (a multilateral treaty outlawing war), and the League of Nations. In September 1929 he proposed a United States of Europe as the surest long-term means to peace.

The collapse during the 1930s of the instruments of peace which Briand had helped build does not detract from the nobility or the farsightedness of his effort. Fortunately, Briand did not live to see this outcome. After his defeat for the presidency in June 1931, he fell ill and resigned as foreign minister in January 1932. He died in Paris on March 7, 1932, and was accorded a state funeral.


Further Reading on Aristide Briand

There is no satisfactory biography of Briand, but one might consult the admittedly subjective work of Valentine Thomson, Briand: Man of Peace (1930). Edgar Stern-Rubarth, Three Men Tried (1939), is a discussion of Briand's Chamberlain's, and Stresemann's attempts to create a new Europe. Background information is in Kent Forster, Recent Europe: A Twentieth Century History (1965).