Georges Clemenceau

The French statesman Georges Clemenceau (1841-1929) was twice premier of France, in 1906-1909 and 1917-1919. He led France through the critical days of World War I and headed the French delegation to the Paris Peace Conference.

Georges Clemenceau was born on Sept. 28, 1841, at Mouilleron-en-Pareds in the Vendée. Following the family tradition, he studied medicine at Nantes and Paris. In 1865 he traveled to the United States, where he served as correspondent for a Paris newspaper and taught riding and French in a girls' academy at Stamford, Conn. He married one of his pupils, Mary Plummer. They had two daughters and one son but separated after 7 years.

Early Political Career

In 1869 Clemenceau returned to France; after the Revolution of 1870 he was appointed mayor of the 18th arrondissement of Paris, comprising Montmartre. After being elected as a representative to the National Assembly from Paris in February 1871, he voted against the Treaty of Frankfurt. When the Communard uprising began on Montmartre on March 18, he tried unsuccessfully to prevent bloodshed. Later Clemenceau tried to mediate between the Commune and the Versailles government. Failing again, he resigned his position at Paris and his seat in the Assembly. He was elected in July 1871 to the municipal council of Paris, where he remained until 1876, becoming president in 1875.

In 1876 Clemenceau returned to national politics and was elected to the Chamber of Deputies as representative of the 18th arrondissement of Paris. At that time his graying hair was close-cropped, his bushy eyebrows overhung large, black eyes, and his thick, drooping moustache was still black. His highly individual debating style, marked by a caustic wit, soon won him undisputed leadership of the radicals. While he was uncompromisingly atheistic and anticlerical, advocating separation of church and state, Clemenceau believed in human perfectibility through scientific knowledge and moral effort. He firmly upheld liberty and natural rights and was influenced by the ideas of Auguste Comte, J. S. Mill, and Charles Darwin.

Clemenceau possessed a genius for destructive criticism and won the appellation of the "Tiger" for his role in destroying Cabinets. Strongly opposed to imperialism, he brought down the Ferry Cabinet on the Tunisian question in 1881, attacked the Freycinet Cabinet for its desire to intervene in Egypt the following year, and destroyed the Ferry Cabinet of 1885 during the Indochinese crisis.

In 1886 Clemenceau first supported Gen. Boulanger as minister of war in the Freycinet Cabinet but later actively opposed him. Clemenceau also played a prominent role in the Wilson scandal, forcing President Grévy to resign. He subsequently backed Sadi Carnot for the presidency against Jules Ferry and is credited with having said, "I shall vote for the stupidest." This incident contributed to the tradition of a weak presidency that plagued the Third Republic. Clemenceau was denounced as a friend and associate of Cornelius Hertz, a key figure in the Panama scandal, and was also accused of being in the pay of the English. He was greeted with campaign posters showing him juggling English coins, and he failed to win reelection in 1893.


Journalistic Career

Between 1893 and 1903 Clemenceau built a new career in journalism. At first he wrote daily articles for La Justice, but in 1897 he began writing for L'Aurore, which had a larger circulation. Selections of his articles were published as Le Mêlée sociale (1895) and Le Grand Pan (1896). In 1898 he published a novel, Les Plus forts, and a volume of sketches on Jewish subjects, Au pied de Sinai. Another book of articles, Au fil des jours, appeared in 1900.

On Jan. 13, 1898, Clemenceau ceded his usual space in L'Aurore to Emile Zola's inflammatory article on the Dreyfus Affair, which Clemenceau headlined "J'accuse." Henceforth Clemenceau became a dedicated partisan of the Dreyfus cause. In 1900 he began publishing a weekly, Le Bloc, most of which he wrote himself, but he soon returned to L'Aurore as editor. Meanwhile, he published his Dreyfusard articles in five volumes.


Senator and Premier

In 1902 Clemenceau was elected senator for the Var, and he accepted the post of minister of interior in the Sarrien ministry in 1906. He used troops to control a strike of miners in the Pas-de-Calais following a mine disaster in that district and employed military engineers to break a strike of electrical workers in Paris.

When the Sarrien ministry resigned in October 1906, Clemenceau became premier. He was confronted with new strikes and used the army to control the most formidable, which involved agricultural workers of the Midi. When Paris postmen struck, Clemenceau denounced strikes by civil servants. Later he created a ministry of labor and negotiated nationalization of the Western Railway. In foreign affairs Clemenceau continued to cultivate close relations with Great Britain and to build up the French alliance system. He refused to apologize to Germany for an incident in Morocco. He was forced out of office in July 1909 in a dispute on naval policy.

After a lecture tour through Brazil and Argentina in 1910, Clemenceau became a member of the senate commissions for foreign affairs and for the army. In 1913 he founded a daily paper, L'Homme Libre (The Free Man), to express his views on armaments and the German menace.


World War I

In September 1914 Clemenceau's paper was suppressed because of its criticism of government weaknesses, but it reappeared immediately with the title L'Homme Enchainé (The Enchained Man). In this journal Clemenceau strove to foster the French will to victory, and to expose all forms of inefficiency in the war effort.

On Nov. 17, 1917, when French morale was near its nadir, President Poincaré asked Clemenceau to form a ministry. He served as minister of war, as well as premier, and summed up his policy: "Je fais la guerre" (I wage war). Clemenceau restored France's self-confidence. He welcomed Marshal Ferdinand Foch's appointment as commander in chief of the Allied armies in April 1918 and gave him unqualified support. When the Germans had advanced to Château Thierry, 18 miles from Paris, Clemenceau proclaimed: "The Germans may take Paris, but that will not prevent me from going on with the war. We will fight on the Loire, we will fight on the Garonne, we will fight even on the Pyrenees. And if at last we are driven off the Pyrenees, we will continue the war at sea. But as for asking for peace, never!" Clemenceau's confidence in his military commanders proved justified, and by June, Foch and Pétain were able to take the offensive. On Nov. 11, 1918, Germany signed the armistice.


Peace Conference

As leader of the French delegation at the Paris Peace Conference, Clemenceau played a major role in drafting the Treaty of Versailles and determining conference policies. He tried to obtain a strong League of Nations backed by military force, and when this failed he proposed other measures to ensure French security: German reparations to pay the whole cost of the war; French annexation of the Saar basin; and creation of a separate Rhineland state under protection of the League of Nations. U.S. president Woodrow Wilson and British prime minister David Lloyd George offered an Anglo-American guarantee of France's frontiers as compensation and forced Clemenceau to compromise all these points. Consequently, the French legislators, who found Clemenceau's rule autocratic and resented being excluded from the peace negotiations, condemned the peace treaty as too lenient and debated 3 months before ratifying it. After the elections of 1919 Clemenceau resigned as premier. An attempt to elect him president in 1920 failed.

Clemenceau retired from parliamentary politics. In 1922 he made a tour of the United States in an attempt to recall that country to its obligations after American rejection of the Versailles Treaty and the Anglo-American guarantee of French security. During the remaining years of his life he divided his time between Paris and the Vendée and devoted himself to writing. In 1927 he had completed a two-volume philosophical testament, Au soir de la pensée (In the Evening of My Thought). His memoirs of the war and the peace settlement were published after his death as Grandeurs et misères d'une victoire (Grandeur and Misery of Victory) in 1930. He died in Paris on Nov. 24, 1929.


Further Reading on Georges Clemenceau

The most detailed and judicious biography of Clemenceau written in English is Geoffrey Bruun, Clemenceau (1943). Probably the best of the many biographies written at the height of his career is H. M. Hyndman, Clemenceau: The Man and His Time (1919). Interesting sidelights are in Clemenceau's Clemenceau: The Events of His Life as Told by Himself to His Former Secretary, Jean Martet (trans. 1930). A specialized study of one aspect of Clemenceau's policy is Jere Clemens King, Foch versus Clemenceau: France and German Dismemberment, 1918-1919 (1960). One of the best works for general historical background is Sir D. W. Brogan, The Development of Modern France, 1870-1934 (1940; rev. ed. 1966). David Thomson, Democracy in France (1946; 4th ed. 1964), provides information on the political and social dynamics of the Third Republic.

Additional Biography Sources

Dallas, Gregor, At the heart of a tiger: Clemenceau and his world, 1841-1929, New York: Carroll & Graf, 1993.

Duroselle, Jean Baptiste, Clemenceau, Paris: Fayard, 1988.

Ellis, Jack D., The early life of Georges Clemenceau, 1841-1893, Lawrence: Regents Press of Kansas, 1980.

Erlanger, Philippe, Clemenceau, Paris: Perrin, 1979.

Holt, Edgar, The Tiger: the life of Georges Clemenceau, 1841-1929, London: Hamilton, 1976.

Jackson, J. Hampden (John Hampden), Clemenceau and the Third Republic, Westport, Conn.: Hyperion Press, 1979.

Newhall, David S., Clemenceau: a life at war, Lewiston, N.Y., USA: E. Mellen Press, 1991.

Watson, David Robin, Georges Clemenceau; a political biograph, London Eyre Methuen 1974.