The man who was France

Patrice Higonnet

  • At the Heart of a Tiger: Clemenceau and His World 1841-1929 by Gregor Dallas
    Macmillan, 672 pp, £25.00, January 1993, ISBN 0 333 49788 0

Clemenceau was an archetype; he even looked like the Third Republic. He wore, in Keynes’s words of 1919, ‘a square-tailed coat of very good, thick broadcloth, and on his hands, which were never uncovered, grey suede gloves’. For Churchill, who much admired his French counterpart, Clemenceau was ‘as much as a single human being, miraculously magnified, can ever be, a nation; he was France.’ And so he was, but the trouble is the Tiger was also dead-set against many features of modern life, from political parties and feminism to trade unions and telephones. An archnationalist and – in the end – an unwitting belliciste, he was the evil genius behind the destructive peace of 1919. It is too bad that Gregor Dallas in his long biography has so little to say about these matters. For him, Clemenceau was ‘the man who led them’ – the ordinary soldiers of the First World War – ‘and their allies’ (who does Dallas have in mind?) ‘to victory in 1918. And a victory it certainly was.’ No it wasn’t: 1914-18 was a disaster all around, and so was Clemenceau’s handiwork – the Versailles Treaty of 1919. The break-up of the central empires which it ratified brought us Hitler; the Russians’ share was Lenin; and the legacy of the Ottomans is still being fought over, from Iraq and Palestine in the Middle East to Sarajevo today and Kosovo tomorrow.

What Clemenceau stood for was France and the principles of 1789. A peasant-cum-aristocrat in many of his attitudes – he was a great equestrian and an athlete – he was neither a peasant nor a noble by birth, but the scion of a well-to-do, landowning, impeccably republican family, who became a polished boulevardier. The Clemenceaus were free-thinkers whose politics were formed in 1789. There were many good things about this highly cultivated man who was steadfastly hostile to colonialism; who had a genuine interest in Asian art; and who was especially famous in his day as the leading enemy of that imperialising pedagogue, Jules Ferry, an austere statesman who couldn’t resist the urge to educate ‘little brown children’ into Frenchness wherever they might be.

A doctor by early training (though not a specially competent one), Clemenceau built up his first political base by running a clinic for the poor in a working-class neighbourhood of Paris. A disciple of Condorcet, he was from first to last a left-democrat republican, or ‘radical-socialist’ as this option was labelled by the French in the late 19th century. Arago, a democratic leader of the 1848 Revolution and a friend of Clemenceau’s father, appointed the 29-year-old Clemenceau to be mayor of Montmartre in 1870. He was, in Churchill’s words again, ‘an apparition of the French Revolution’.

Still in his early thirties, he made a career on the Paris Municipal Council, and in 1876 was returned by Montmartre to the Chamber of Deputies, from which he had resigned in 1871 in protest against the cession to Germany of Alsace Lorraine. In 1885, by overthrowing Jules Ferry, he became the first leader of the parliamentary Left. He proved himself an acerbic, intolerant, relentless and highly skilled debater. A few years later, he brought on and then crushed General Boulanger, who almost overthrew the Republic in a coup d’état. Boulanger, as it happens, had been in the same lycée as Clemenceau in Nantes in the 1850s. He was an intimate friend of Cornelius Hertz, the villain of the 1889 Panama scandal, when dozens of deputies were found to have been bribed by the Canal Company – an episode which nearly wrecked his career. He made up for it by becoming, along with Emile Zola, Captain Dreyfus’s most important apologist. And so it went, until his second prime-ministership in the last years of the First World War; his failure as a candidate for the Presidency of the Republic in 1919; and his death in 1929.

A second, more rewarding strategy in dealing with Clemenceau underpinned Jean-Baptiste Duroselle’s elephantine 1988 biography. Uncritically eulogistic, Duroselle’s magnum opus is distinctly heavy-going, but in small doses it is quite useful because minutely conversant with all of Clemenceau’s many interests – quite a feat because he remained for sixty years an intelligent and sensitive witness, not just of French politics, but of European high culture as well. Gabriel Fauré set one of his works to music, Manet and Raffaeli painted him. He travelled widely, including yearly visits to both England (he was a friend of the salonnière Lady Cecil) and Karlsbad (his brother Albert had married into the Jewish élite of Vienna). From 1867 to 1869, he lived in New York, where he married the beautiful impoverished daughter of an American dentist, a marriage which ended disastrously when his wife was caught in bed with another man. She agreed to leave France immediately, having consented to a divorce, which came through even before her boat docked in New York – surely the quickest divorce of the century.

Clemenceau’s political contacts were no less wide. He was for a while a close associate of the militant revolutionary Blanqui; in 1880, he met Karl Marx in London, as well as Mill and Herbert Spencer; and in New York he met General Grant, though no one seems to know what they talked about. Clemenceau, who was never either clément nor sot, was not just a Tiger – as the journalists called him – but an accomplished dandy; and by 1919 had become an elegant, worldly gentleman of the old school, who spoke – Keynes again tells us – idiomatic and ‘piquantly delivered English’.

A third, and to my mind more fruitful approach to Clemenceau would be to present his career as a series of increasingly embittered clashes. The issues then would have to do less with his mercurial personality (an excellent duellist and marksman, he fought at least a dozen duels between 1871 and 1898, all of them political) than with the decline of French Republicanism in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, which mirrored his own decline from the generous impulses of his youth to the diktat of Versailles.

For Clemenceau, the principles of French Revolutionary Jacobinism were sacred. Though extraordinarily authoritarian in both his private and his public life, he was a passionate defender of Parliament, by conviction a libertarian individualist, a child of the Enlightenment for whom the individual sometimes realised himself against the state, though always within the popular sovereignty of the nation. The People were one. It was self-evident to him that social categories, provinces, linguistic groups and particularisms of any kind had to be either unhealthy artifices or anachronistic survivals: nothing could stand between the French citizen and the French state, least of all the Church.

He remained unable to understand what a social class might be and throughout the 1880s and 1890s expected to see socialism’s collapse He was by no means unsympathetic to the workers, taken as oppressed citizens, but so far as the general claims of labour were concerned, he could not see beyond arbitration, on terms the robber barons would have found acceptable: ‘You are behind a barricade,’ he once told some strikers, ‘I am before it. Your way of action is disorder. My duty is to make order. My role is to counter your efforts.’ After 1906, he jokingly referred to himself as ‘le premier flic de France’ (this was the time when he became the Tiger), a friend of the police who would impose order alike on striking Northern miners and ruined vintners from the Midi. As with the workers so with women. As a young man in the 1860s, he had translated Mill’s essay on women; he was a friend of Louise Michel, the Pasionaria of the Paris Commune; and a friend again in later decades of Marguerite Durand, known today to all students of French feminism for her library. But he remained throughout his career the confirmed enemy of women’s suffrage.

His blindness to the needs of unenfranchised groups who wanted to bend the Revolutionary individualism of 1789 to the realities of urbanised industrialism in 1917 made Clemenceau the perfect leader for an embattled France. Because they sensed that with him at the helm the French nation could never break apart, the polius and the warmongers genuinely admired père la victoire. When France was on the edge of total defeat, in May and June 1918, Clemenceau more than any one stood for a united nation. Oblivious as always of social cleavage, he assumed that, in war as in peace, France could only have a single, war like will – his own. For this latterday Jacobin, the nation had become an end in itself, something it had never been for the original Jacobins, for Robespierre or even Danton. For Clemenceau, the Republic served the nation, rather than the other way around. Worse still, that historic switch had itself been a cause of the Great War. In 1880, as a young man, Clemenceau had written: ‘We desire Republican reforms, and consequently peace. Violence founds nothing. Permit peace to accomplish its work among all the peoples of Europe, and it will be promptly seen that it is the best ally of France and the Republic.’ And as late as 1908, as prime minister, he had refused in this same pacific vein to underwrite Tsarist adventurism in Serbia. But after 1912, he accepted the inevitability of war, which now became a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy. And after 1918, his aim was not to make a durable peace, but to ensure that France would win the next war, a hopeless policy if only because she lacked the strength to enforce it – as de Gaulle, who followed a similar policy after 1944, was finally to realise in the Fifties. Hitler’s name never appears in Clemenceau’s correspondence, but by some horrible trick of fate, he perhaps more than any other person made possible the Führer’s rise to power – and with it, France’s greatest humiliation.

The best likeness of the Tiger is a bust by Rodin, a work of 1913 that Clemenceau disliked and locked up in a closet which was never to be opened. (He broke with Rodin because of it.) It shows us an old man, gifted and determined, but wearied and disabused also, the perfect incarnation of an exhausted Republican tradition. ‘He felt about France what Pericles felt of Athens,’ wrote Keynes, ‘he had one illusion, France, and one disillusion mankind, including Frenchmen and his colleagues not least.’ Unable to adapt to the changing structures of his time, Clemenceau was driven to despise the men who lived these new structures day by day. It may well be that the last word therefore should go to his brilliant socialist rival, Jaurès, whom the Tiger, of necessity, looked down on: ‘It’s by flowing to the sea,’ explained that theatrical tribune, ‘that a river remains faithful to its source.’