The French statesman Raymond Poincaré (1860-1934) served as president of France during World War I and four times as its premier.
French politics from 1912 to 1929 was largely dominated by the figures of Raymond Poincaré and Georges Clemenceau. As premier, and then as president before World War I, Poincaré pursued a nationalistic policy that contributed toward world tension. During World War I he entrusted the premiership to Clemenceau. Returning to active politics in 1922, Poincaré, as premier, followed an intransigent policy toward Germany, occupying the Ruhr in order to ensure German payment of reparations, an action that contributed to economic collapse in Germany. He also dealt effectively with French financial crises in 1924 and 1926.
Education and Early Career
Poincaré was born at Bar-le-Duc in Lorraine on Aug. 20, 1860. The son of a meteorologist and civil servant, he was educated at the lycées of Bar-le-Duc and Louis le Grand in Paris, and he studied law at the Sorbonne. Poincaré then practiced law in Paris, contributed to political journals, and served in the Department of Agriculture.
In 1887 Poincaré was elected deputy for the Meuse. At that time Louis Madelin described him as "short, slender, rather pale, with crewcut hair, and his serious face framed by a young beard." Later observers were impressed by his unemotional and distant manner.
Poincaré became a member of the Budget Commissions of 1890-1891 and 1892, and he served during 1893 and 1894 in the Cabinets of Charles Dupuy, first as minister of education and then as minister of finance. Next he became minister of public instruction in the Ribot Cabinet. In 1895 he was chosen vice president of the Chamber of Deputies, and Poincaré retained this position until 1897. In 1899 President émile Loubet asked him to form a Cabinet, but he was unsuccessful because he would not accept a Socialist minister in his coalition.
From this time until 1912, Poincaré refused to join any government except for a brief period between March and October 1906, when he was minister of finance in the Sarrien Cabinet. He emphasized his withdrawal from an active role by accepting a seat in the Senate. During this period Poincaré devoted himself to his law practice, and he became one of the wealthiest and most successful lawyers in France. In 1909 his literary efforts won him election to the French Academy.
Poincaré's political ideas remained relatively constant throughout his career. He was conservative in his basic outlook, and as the balance of power in the legislature shifted to the left, he found himself and the moderates, whom he represented, moving to the right. He was fundamentally anticlerical, believing that the Church should remain in its own sphere and play no part in education or politics. He was a dedicated republican and a patriot of the Lorraine variety whose sentiments had been molded by the German seizure of most of Lorraine in 1870.
In the reaction after the crisis at Agadir, Morocco, in January 1912, Poincaré formed a "national ministry." He emphasized the need for a strong, authoritative government, and his program called for electoral reform at home and maintenance of France's alliances and friendships abroad. Poincaré expressed his desire for peace, but he also stressed military preparedness.
Concerned to maintain France's security and prestige, Poincaré supported Russia's policy during the First Balkan War, and later he again assured the Russians that they could depend upon France. Poincaré also obtained a reorganization and strengthening of the French navy. His government entered into a naval agreement with Great Britain that resulted in France's concentrating its fleet in the Mediterranean. Poincaré also reestablished friendly relations with Italy after a naval incident in January 1912. By the end of 1912 Poincaré was widely acknowledged as France's strongest statesman.
In December 1912 Poincaré announced his intention to run for the presidency of the republic, although open candidacies were not customary. Poincaré's campaign marked the climax of the strong presidency agitation that had been growing for some time. He openly advocated a fuller use of the president's constitutional powers, and he doubtless expected to revitalize the weak office of the presidency. On Jan. 17, 1913, he was elected the ninth president of the French Republic by the National Assembly.
His strong nationalist beliefs led Poincaré to support the bill raising the term of military service from 2 to 3 years. He was, to a large extent, responsible for its passage, and he maintained it despite opposition, which continued to grow. This active role in policy formulation made him a party president, and it produced frequent attacks upon him by the left Radical-Socialist elements.
In foreign affairs Poincaré followed the program he had inaugurated as premier, supporting Théophile Delcasséas ambassador to Russia and attempting to preserve peace by ensuring that the Entente powers pursued a strong and united policy. He made state visits to England in June 1913 and to Russia in July 1914, and he was returning to France by way of the Scandinavian capitals when Austria delivered its ultimatum to Serbia on July 23, 1914. Hastening to Paris, he urged Russia to delay mobilization, and he presided over the foreign-policy decisions of the Cabinet.
During the war Poincaré worked tirelessly to maintain morale. He urged Frenchmen to perform heroically and visited training camps, hospitals, and front lines. In November 1917 in a decision proving his statesmanship and self-sacrifice, Poincaré called upon his traditional political foe, Clemenceau, to form a Cabinet. During the peace negotiations, Poincaré found himself again in opposition to Clemenceau. Poincaré supported Marshal Ferdinand Foch in his campaign for a separate Rhineland, and he disputed Clemenceau's policy, urging a firm stand and heavy reparations. These attempts to influence policy were generally unsuccessful, and Poincaré completed his term of office in January 1920. He had been France's strongest president, but he had made no basic alteration in the office.
Reelected as senator from the Meuse, Poincaré accepted the premiership in January 1922, and he retained this post, together with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, until June 1, 1924. The chief problem at this time was reparations. Poincaré insisted that Germany fulfill its obligations. Unable to reach agreement on policy with the British in Interallied conferences held in London and Paris, Poincaré's government decided to act alone. When Germany defaulted on fuel deliveries in January 1923, French and Belgian troops occupied the Ruhr. The Germans adopted a policy of passive resistance for some months, and the German mark collapsed completely. The cost of occupation was undermining the French economy as well, and Poincaré agreed to an Anglo-American proposal to review the reparations issue. The result was the Dawes Plan, accepted in April 1924, which stabilized the mark, provided foreign loans for Germany, and reduced reparations payments.
The international exchange situation produced a financial crisis in France during the first quarter of 1924. Poincaré's adroit moves on the money market, and a 20 percent increase in indirect taxes in order to pay for the Ruhr occupation, saved the situation, but the taxes were unpopular. Attacks by the Radicals and Socialists won a substantial victory for the Cartel of the Left in the general elections of May 11, 1924, and when the new Chamber assembled, Poincaré resigned. During the next 2 years, though he retained his Senate seat, Poincaré was relatively inactive in politics.
The economic policies of the Cartel proved unsatisfactory, and in the midst of a serious financial crisis, President Gaston Doumergue recalled Poincaré to head a National Union government. Public confidence was restored, and the franc immediately rose from 50 to 40 per American dollar. The legislature granted Poincaré decree powers to meet crises. He introduced new taxes, mostly indirect; he reduced government expenses; he created, through constitutional amendment, an inviolate fund to meet bond payments; and he increased interest rates. The result was a budgetary surplus and an exchange rate of 25 francs per dollar. The elections of April 1928 brought victory for the National Union, which had supported Poincaré, and, shortly after, he officially devalued the franc, establishing it at one-fifth its prewar value.
The Radical-Socialists withdrew their support and obliged Poincaré to resign on Nov. 7, 1928, but he formed a new ministry on November 12 and retained his post until July 1929, when ill health forced him to retire. He refused a fifth offer of the premiership in 1930. Meanwhile, he had published his memoirs in 10 volumes, entitled Au service de la France (In the Service of France), describing the events of 1911-1920 and his role in them. Poincaré died in Paris on Oct. 15, 1934.
Further Reading on Raymond Poincaré
Poincaré's memoirs have been translated as The Memoirs of Raymond Poincaré (4 vols., 1926-1930). The chief biographical work in English is Sisley Huddleston, Poincaré: A Biographical Portrait (1924), a postwar study that is necessarily incomplete. Poincaré's role as president is well analyzed by Gordon Wright, Raymond Poincaré and the French Presidency (1942).
Additional Biography Sources
Poincaré, Raymond, The memoirs of Raymond Poincaré, New York: AMS Press, 1975.