Poincaré, Raymond (1860–1934)
POINCARÉ, RAYMOND (1860–1934)EARLY CAREER
WORLD WAR I
Raymond Poincaré was one of the most visible political figures in the Third Republic in the first decades of the twentieth century. A deputy at age twenty-seven, minister at thirty-three, in 1912 he was appointed prime minister. He served as president of France from 1913 to 1920 and, before illness forced him to leave office, he was twice more appointed prime minister, from January 1922 to March 1924, and again from July 1926 to July 1929.
For all that, only at the end of his life did Poincaré enjoy real popularity. Unlike his adversary Georges Clemenceau (1841–1929), Poincaré was tagged with disparaging nicknames such as "Poincaré-la-guerre" when a campaign in the 1920s accused him of being responsible for the First World War, and "L'homme-qui-rit-dans-lescimetières" (the man who laughs in the cemeteries) after a snapshot showed him blinking from the sunlight as he entered a military cemetery. The cap he wore during visits to the front made him look like a cab driver, and that was another motive for mockery. Despite singular intelligence and eloquence—he was a rigorous jurist and a well-known lawyer—his cold exterior and punctilious personality prevented him from becoming genuinely popular.
Poincaré was born in Bar-le-Duc and as a young boy witnessed the disastrous Franco-Prussian War of 1870–1871 that ended with the French losing Alsace and North Lorraine to Germany. He grew up to become a faithful patriot and also a convinced republican, which placed him close to the left wing in French politics. During the Dreyfus affair, Poincaré was a moderate "Dreyfusard" who opposed the trial but kept out of the fray and away from the affair's turmoil and from the Radical Party founded in its wake. Moderation would be the key characteristic of Poincaré's domestic political agenda. Apart from a brief position as finance minister in 1906, from 1896 to 1912 he held no cabinet posts. It is no surprise that from 1903 on he preferred a seat in the senate, a more conservative body than the chamber of deputies.
Although a specialist in matters of the budget, Poincaré preferred foreign policy. Appointed prime minister in 1912, he chose himself as foreign affairs chief, intending to pursue a firm policy with Germany and to shore up France's relations with its allies, particularly with Russia. During a visit to St. Petersburg in August 1912, Poincaré learned about secret treaties signed, with Russian involvement, by Balkan countries that aimed to evict the Turks from Europe. He was unhappy about the matter but decided to downplay the issue so as to maintain strong ties with Russia. This crucial decision encouraged Russian foreign policy makers in their conviction that they need not be preoccupied by French diplomatic opinion, even while jeopardizing peace in Europe.
Poincaré was elected president of France in 1913, winning against the radical republican Jules Pams, thanks to support he received from the Right. He was prepared, while remaining within the constitutional framework, to return the presidency to its former level of influence, which had slipped in recent years. Poincaré pursued foreign affairs while firmly supporting the policy of three years' obligatory military service, which was voted to be renewed that year.
Poincaré was surprised by the crisis of July 1914 in the wake of the assassination of Archduke Francis Ferdinand, which he learned about on the return trip from one of his regular visits to Russia. At sea for most of the time with his prime minister René Viviani, and at the mercy of poor telegraphic communication, he was unable to play an important role. He had been accused before his departure of conspiring with Russia to make war; there exists no proof of this, and it is more likely that Russia acted without even considering the French position. Circumstances conspired to make Poincaré a war president.
Poincaré wrote some ten volumes of memoirs of the period of the First World War, entitled Au service de la France (1926–1933; In the service of France). A final, eleventh volume was published posthumously a half century later. He also coined the famous slogan L'union sacrée (the sacred union) in a speech to parliament on 4 August 1914. His major role in French politics effectively ended in November 1917, when he decided he was obliged to appoint his rival Georges Clemenceau prime minister. Not only through war's end but throughout the debates around the Treaty of Versailles at the Paris Peace Conference (January–June 1919), Clemenceau kept Poincaré at a distance. The legislative chambers unanimously proclaimed on 11 November 1918 that Clemenceau and Marshal Ferdinand Foch had earned the "merit of the Nation"; but Poincaré had to wait until January 1920 to receive the same homage.
After his presidency ended in 1920, Poincaré decided he still had an active role to play in politics and stood for reelection as senator from the Meuse region. He was reappointed prime minister in 1922 and again took charge of foreign affairs. He was then faced with applying the strictures of the Versailles Treaty, because Germany evinced reluctance to pay reparations. In addition, both Poincaré and Marshal Foch advocated a strong French presence in the Rhineland, in disagreement with Clemenceau, who initially wished to separate the Rhine's left bank from Germany. But the situation was favorable for Poincaré's policy and in 1923, after Germany failed to make scheduled reparations payments, he ordered the occupation of the Ruhr. While it caused great difficulties for Germany, the expensive troop deployment also marked the beginning of serious financial problems for France; moreover, the United States and England were strongly opposed to it. To pay for the occupation, Poincaré had to levy a considerable tax increase, which became one of the reasons he was defeated in the 1924 elections by a reunited coalition of left-wing parties. However, two years later the country's catastrophic financial situation brought him back to power. He turned over foreign affairs to Aristide Briand, who managed a conciliatory policy with Germany, while he took charge of finances.
Poincaré's rigorous economic policy bore fruit. The war had been financed principally by loans, and in 1928—after a serious devaluation of the franc had reduced it to about one-fifth of its 1914 value—the economic situation improved. The creation of the Franc-Poincaré remained a symbol of France's financial recovery, supported by a clear economic upturn. When Poincaré retired for health reasons, France seemed to have recovered a measure of stability. By the time he died in 1934 at age seventy-four, however, the country was suffering from the effects of the worldwide economic crisis.
Poincaré, Raymond. The Memoirs of R. Poincaré, 1915. Translated and adapted by Sir George Arthur. London, 1930.
——. Au service de la France: Neuf années de souvenirs. 11 vols. Paris, 1926–1974.
Becker, Jean-Jacques. 1914: Comment les français sont entrés dans la guerre. Paris, 1977.
Becker, Jean-Jacques, and Serge Berstein. Victoire et frustrations: 1914–1929. Paris, 1990.
Keiger, John F. V. Raymond Poincaré. New York, l997.