Clemenceau, Georges (1841–1929)

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French politician.

It is conceivable that only two names from the history of France in the twentieth century will be remembered—General Charles de Gaulle, because he was the symbol of the Resistance after France's 1940 defeat during World War II, and Georges Clemenceau, because he was the symbol of France's victory in World War I. Clemenceau was not destined to be a military leader, however.

Born in 1841 in Vendée, which was a "White" region, that is, deeply royalist and Catholic, Clemenceau belonged to a bourgeois "Blue" (republican and atheist) family. He began studying medicine under the Second Empire, during which he forcefully displayed his republican sentiments, thereby earning himself several weeks in prison. Fresh out of medical school, he left for the United States because he could no longer tolerate living in imperial France—and also because he had recently suffered a serious disappointment in his love life. He lived in the United States from 1865 to 1869 and learned to speak English, a skill that was uncommon in France at that time. Also while in the United States, he married a young American woman with whom he had three children and whom he divorced in 1892.

Clemenceau's political career began in 1870 after the fall of the empire, when he was named mayor of the Parisian district of Montmartre—a title he continued to hold when the revolutionary Commune movement broke out there. Although he was not lacking in sympathy for some of its ideas, such as its commitment to social progress and its refusal to accept France's defeat at the hands of Germany in 1870, he could not sanction its use of violence. In March 1871 he was elected deputy but resigned in protest when Alsace-Lorraine was handed over to Germany.

This was not the end of his political career, however, which was to last for nearly another fifty years—one of the longest France has ever known. It began on the far left: though a republican himself, Clemenceau was a fierce enemy of republican moderates and orchestrated the end of numerous ministers' careers. Throughout his life he was feared for his tongue—he was one of the great orators of his time and never hesitated to cut down even his friends with epigrams—his sword, because he loved to fight duels, and his pen. Indeed he was one of the most incisive journalists of his time and dearly loved to write.

Because Clemenceau was not always careful about the company he kept, attempts were made to compromise him in the Panama affair, in which French politicians were bribed to support the canal project. The scandal lost him his seat as deputy for the Var in the 1893 elections, and he did not return to parliament until 1902, as senator for the same department. His years away from the legislature, however, proved to be among the most important of his life because he was one of the most vocal supporters of Captain Alfred Dreyfus, who had been unjustly convicted of treason. He wrote thousands of articles arguing for the captain's rehabilitation. Although he considered himself to be on the far left, and though he had a more heightened social consciousness than most politicians of his time, Clemenceau was never a follower of socialism. In a famous speech of 1884, as this current was gaining strength, he clearly stated that he was opposed to it. Furthermore, when this "radical" (who did not want to join the Radical Party when it was founded in 1901) became a minister for the first time in 1906 at the age of sixty-five, then premier from 1906 to 1909, he devoted a considerable portion of his energy to suppressing social movements. Dubbed the "strikebreaker," this man of the left was hated by leftist workers at the time and would remain so for the rest of his life. As a self-styled patriot, however, he was much more cautious when the international politics of the day were at issue. In truth, he was not among France's greatest government ministers and was headed for retirement in 1914, when war broke out.

Refusing to take part in the coalition government known as the Sacred Union because he held both its members and the president of the Republic, Raymond Poincaré, in low esteem, and convinced of Germany's total responsibility for the war (he remained unequivocal on this point until his death), Clemenceau called for will and determination to win the war and condemned those he suspected of weakness, pacifism, and defeatism. When the situation became critical in 1917, especially in terms of morale, Poincaré reluctantly called upon Clemenceau to take charge of the government. From 16 November 1917 onward, the "fearsome old man" (he was seventy-six) infused the country with his energy and led it to victory. He became immensely popular as a result but securing the peace proved vastly more difficult. Although more moderate than he was reputed to be (unlike Marshal Ferdinand Foch, he quickly renounced the idea of dismembering Germany) and having little belief in the Wilsonian ideas of perpetual peace and the League of Nations, he advocated measures intended to shield France from future aggression. Also contrary to what was frequently reported, he managed to find areas of compromise with President Woodrow Wilson as the months of negotiations ran on. The resulting treaty, however, was dealt a severe blow when the United States Senate refused to ratify it.

He ran for president of the Republic in 1920, wishing to oversee the enactment of the Treaty of Versailles, but many Catholic politicians refused to vote for an elderly man with a history of anticlericalism, and numerous other enemies he had made during his political career also withheld their support. Thus removed from political life, Clemenceau devoted his time to travel (though never in French colonial territories, because he had always been a staunch enemy of France's colonial enterprises) and to writing. In 1922 he returned to the United States to defend the Treaty of Versailles and the need for its adoption. He enjoyed an enthusiastic reception but failed to convince. His last book, Grandeurs et misères d'une victoire (Grandeur and Misery of Victory), was published posthumously in 1930. In it, he engages in polemical defenses of his own work, against the recently deceased Marshal Foch. Clemenceau died in Paris on 24 November 1929 at the age of eighty-eight and was buried in his native region of Vendée. His statue on the Champs-Elysées in Paris is one of the city's most prominent memorials.

See alsoFrance; Reparations; Versailles, Treaty of.


Becker, Jean-Jacques. Clemenceau, l'intraitable. Paris, 1998.

——. Clemenceau en 30 questions. La Crèche, France, 2001.

Duroselle, Jean-Baptiste. Clemenceau. Paris, 1988.

Monnerville, Gaston. Clemenceau. Paris, 1968.

Watson, David Robert. Georges Clemenceau, A Political Biography. London, 1974.

Wormser, Georges Marcel. La République de Clemenceau. Paris, 1961.

Jean-Jacques Becker