Monnet, Jean (1888–1979)

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MONNET, JEAN (1888–1979)


French economist and diplomat.

Jean-Marie Omer Gabriel Monnet is, with Charles de Gaulle (1890–1970), one of the two giants of postwar French, European, and international affairs. Unlike de Gaulle, he was neither a politician nor a soldier. He never held elective office. Moreover, although his major contribution was in economic, administrative, and institutional reform and innovation, he was neither a trained economist nor a career civil servant. His originality and success are attributable to his unique combination of the virtues of French strategic vision and Anglo-Saxon tactical pragmatism.


Born into a family of cooperative brandy merchants in Cognac on 9 November 1888, his early training was on the job. At sixteen, he was sent to London to learn English, his father having admonished him to not use books, but actively converse with people. In 1906, enrolling in the university of life, he set out as a salesman for the family firm tasked with challenging the major brands of cognac in key international markets. When war broke out, his international contacts and vision were mobilized in the cause of joint allied war-resource coordination, a scheme of inter-governmental collaboration unprecedented at that time, which helped, through the supply of wheat and shipping, to avert the worst dangers of submarine warfare. After the war, he was appointed deputy secretary general of the League of Nations, where he learned the hard way that states with veto powers can undermine the grandest of schemes. Disillusioned, he moved into investment banking, helping to refloat the Romanian and Polish currencies and to modernize China under Chiang Kai-shek (1887–1975).

In 1938, as World War II loomed, he was sent by the French government to lobby Franklin Delano Roosevelt (1882–1945) for the delivery of warplanes. He briefly headed the Anglo-French coordinating committee in London, where his May 1940 proposal for formal unification of the two nation-states was accepted by both Winston Churchill (1874–1965) and de Gaulle but aborted by the fall of France. He was then sent by Churchill to Washington, where he emerged as a major strategist behind Roosevelt's "Victory Program" of massive armaments production. After the Allied landings in North Africa, Monnet moved to Algiers and was instrumental in helping de Gaulle outmaneuver his rival General Henri Honoré Giraud (1879–1949). De Gaulle charged Monnet, within the National Liberation Committee, with armaments production.


But Monnet's real influence was yet to come. After the Liberation of France, he persuaded de Gaulle to put him in charge of a brand new planning commission, the Commissariat Général du Plan, whose remit he saw as being not just to modernize and industrialize France but to change the mind-set of politicians, administrators, labor unions, and businessmen. "Modernization is not a material state, but a state of mind," he wrote. He saw his role as being "not to direct the regeneration of France, but rather to set the orientations, the methodologies and the rhythm." He identified six priorities: coal, electricity, transport, steel, cement, and agricultural equipment. Productivity was the key, indicative targets the objective, constant adaptation the methodology, and expansionism the mind-set. By 1950 the plan's targets were being exceeded, but more important, Monnet's method had achieved its objective of educating a new generation of French leaders to turn outward and embrace the economic and industrial world on its own terms. Investment in growth-oriented and sometimes even risky ventures became the new credo. France has never looked back.

Monnet's next vision was the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC), whose objective was twofold: first, to maximize the joint ferro-carbon resources of France, West Germany, and neighboring countries (rejecting postwar French efforts to limit German coal and steel production); but second, and arguably more important, to merge the basic war-making capacities of Europe's two giants in such a way that conflict between them would be precluded. The 1951 ECSC, of whose federal "High Authority" Monnet became the first president, was the foundation stone for the European Community—later the European Union—of which he is universally considered to be the principal founding father. The project itself became known as the "Schuman Plan," because it was the foreign minister Robert Schuman (1886–1963) who sold it to the cabinet as the only way to square the circle between U.S. pressures for and French concerns about German rearmament. This was the first European institution with supranational authority. Konrad Adenauer (1876–1967), the German chancellor, confided to Monnet: "If this task succeeds, I will not have wasted my life."

The dilemma of how to build up German industrial and even military capacity as a bulwark against the Soviet Union had by 1950 (only five years after the war) become acute. Monnet was not content with devising the Coal and Steel Community. He also masterminded the proposal for a European Defence Community, the first of many subsequent schemes to pool Europe's security and defense capacity. Subsuming German armed force under a greater "European army" seemed the simplest way of squaring the rearmament circle. But the EDC ran up against two insuperable obstacles. The first was the obvious fact that, just as the German army would be subsumed in a European framework, so would the French army. This was too much for political opponents from right (Gaullists) and left (Communists) who effectively joined ranks in parliament to throw a (French) veto against this very French proposal. The other fatal flaw was the British refusal to be part of the project. Monnet's view that the pragmatic British would, with the EDC just as with the ECSC, eventually face up to "facts" proved correct in the long term but incorrect in the short term. The EDC was stillborn, paving the way for West Germany's accession to NATO in 1955.

But Monnet was already dreaming new dreams. His 1955 proposal for a European Atomic Energy Community (Euratom) was designed both to reduce European dependency on oil imports—a problem highlighted the following year by the Suez crisis—and to generate synergies between government, industry, and science in this key sector. Significantly, Euratom was founded on the principle that Europe's atomic program should have no military dimension, a proviso later overturned by de Gaulle. Concurrently, Monnet was heavily involved in the preparation of the Messina conference in June 1955, which not only endorsed the atomic energy proposal but also laid the groundwork for the more general European Economic Community (EEC), also known in the United Kingdom as the Common Market. Both projects were endorsed by the six founding member states, France, West Germany, Italy, Belgium, Netherlands, and Luxembourg, in the Rome Treaty of March 1957.

To ensure political support for the Rome Treaty, Monnet left the ECSC in October 1955 and launched his "Action Committee for the United States of Europe," geared, as he put it, not to "coalising states" but to "uniting peoples." He succeeded in attracting individual members from all the political parties and labor unions of the six founding states with the exception of Communists and Gaullists. His committee concentrated on overtures to both the United Kingdom (which Monnet urgently enjoined to embrace the European project) and the United States (which he invited to embrace a transatlantic "partnership of equals"). After some initial success in attracting Harold Macmillan (1894–1986) to the project, British membership was scuttled by de Gaulle's veto in January 1963. The U.S. president John Fitzgerald Kennedy (1917–1963), however, expressed enthusiasm for the Monnet vision of "two pillars" bridging the Atlantic. Monnet's influence seemed to be limitless.


It was eventually cut short, however, by the return to power in 1958 of General de Gaulle. Although, paradoxically, de Gaulle accepted the EEC, and Monnet initially rallied to the general's parallel proposal for greater political cooperation between the Six (the Fouchet Plan), ultimately the objectives and methods of these two great Europeans proved incompatible. Monnet's penchant for supranational functionalism fell foul of de Gaulle's preference for a Europe of nation-states. De Gaulle's veto of British membership was a disavowal of Monnet's overtures toward the "Anglo-Saxon" world. Monnet himself was increasingly dismissed by the Gaullists as an agent of American influence in France and in Europe—the archetypal "Atlanticist." Although he continued with the work of the Action Committee for the United States of Europe until 1975, when it was disbanded his direct influence was over. It was left to a new generation trained in the committee, men such as President Valéry Giscard d'Estaing (b. 1926) and Chancellor Helmut Schmidt (b. 1918), to carry on his work.

Monnet's influence derives from three factors. First, his extraordinary capacity to launch visionary schemes of international cooperation often solved the right problems in the right place at the right time. Although he knew his fair share of failures (League of Nations, European Defence Community), he also enjoyed, as visionaries go, a much higher than average success rate. Second, although he himself was less interested in theory than in practice, his disciples carved out for him an undisputed legacy as the father of the "community method" a brand of neofunctionalism that believed that pragmatic success in one functional area would lead to "spillover" into other areas, with the result that "ever closer union" became an inexorable process, bypassing the political will of national leaders. Third, his fervent internationalism, while coexisting comfortably with the retention of national identity (he remained forever a native of France's southwest), has imposed itself across the globe as a model to be emulated wherever a group of nation-states embraces the political project of developing a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts.

Monnet retired to write his Memoires and when sympathizers called for advice invariably responded, "Keep going, keep going, there is no future for the people of Europe except in union." Monnet died in March 1979.

See alsoEuropean Coal and Steel Community (ECSC); European Union; League of Nations.


Primary Sources

Monnet, Jean. Memoirs. Translated by Richard Mayne. London, 1978

Secondary Sources

Brinkley, Douglas, and Clifford Hackett, eds. Jean Monnet: The Path to European Unity. Basingstoke, U.K., 1991.

Duchêne, François. Jean Monnet: The First Statesman of Interdependence. New York, 1994.

Roussel, Eric. Jean Monnet, 1888–1979. Paris, 1996.

Jolyon Howorth

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Monnet, Jean (1888–1979)

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