Tuesday, February 3, 2009

le Tigre

Chatting ninety years later at the top of this page, The Four continue to fascinate those who still study them. And we will explore aspects of them in due time as the opportunity arises. Just few notes today on Clemenceau.

Georges Benjamin Clemenceau was born in 1841 in Mouilleron-en-Pareds, in the Vendée region, famed for its superb salt and for its peasant army fighting for the crown during the French Revolution, among other things. Clemenceau spent his early manhood as a radical republican, event attempting an assassination, for which he almost, but not quite, exiled to Algeria. He became a journalist, and then a physician, but also found time to be involved in radical protests against Napoleon III. He even left France to go to America, where he married, and divorced, an American woman. When France became a republic a (the Third Republic) after the Franco-Prussian War, the thirty-year-old Clemenceau returned and served as a workhorse of Radical politics (bourgeois liberalism, nationalism, secularism—as opposed to strong Roman Catholic control of education etc.).

The young politician led a tempestuous life, but he had not always been "le Tigre" as he came to be called in his later years. Still, he was a tiger during World War I. At the moment of France's great crisis, when General Nivelle's ill-fated and murderous offensive had killed its tens of thousands of Frenchmen and when the French army mutinied, two individuals saved the Western Front from collapse: General Philippe Henri Pétain and Georges Clemenceau. Pétain took over command of the army and handled the mutiny, chiefly by installing tactics less wasteful of French lives. Clemenceau was the hard man who took over the reins of government as Premier and put down strikes, negotiated with the British and Americans, knocked heads together to keep the country focused.

So we have to give the Tiger his due. With the Peace Conference sited at Paris—perhaps the first and worst decision related to the Conference—Clemenceau was the logical leader to preside over the Conference. But the fierceness lingering from his Tiger-like struggle with the Germans, the habits of long years as political brawler, and the increasingly quirky gruffness did not really make for stellar diplomatic qualities.

We have seen already that Clemenceau treated the smaller powers with contempt.
And we have also seen within the first two weeks of the Conference, the French Press was reflecting impatience and irritation against Wilson.
Delays! Delays! Clemenceau began joking with the oddly stiff Wilson: at one of Wilson's sweep, Messianic demands, Clemenceau quipped: "When you cease to be President we will make you Grand Turk." Wilson was emphatically not amused.

A different day, tomorrow (Feb. 4, ninety years ago), we have another striking account of the Conference dynamic that was developing already. The speaker before the Council of Ten was the dynamic Greek Prime Minister, Venizelos, an advocate of a greatly expanded Greece—expanded, that is to say, with real estate formerly owned by the Central Powers—and others. In any case, here is Harold Nicolson's account:

"To the supreme Council to hear Venizelos conclude his statement. He talks of Greek claims in Asia Minor. He is again extremely good, but not so logical and effective as he was yesterday. The Italians say a few nice words when it is all over, which is applauded by P.[resident] W.[ilson]. 'Hear! Hear!' says P. W. clapping silent palms. Clemenceau as usual wears the half-smile of an irritated, skeptical and neurasthenic gorilla.

I stay behind a few minutes while they discuss whether they shall appoint a Committee of Experts to examine the Greek claims. Lloyd George proposes it, P.W. seconds it. Clemenceau concludes abruptly—'Objections?... Adopté.' The Italians gasp, as they do not want a Committee of Experts in the least."

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