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Third Republic 1914-1918 The Great War

In view of the fact that there were so many political groups in the Chamber and that a majority may be formed by several different combinations among them, the President is not always limited to one particular politician. In England, when a cabinet resigned, the king sent for the leader of the opposition; he had no alternative. But in France any one of half a dozen men, some of them perhaps members of the outgoing cabinet, might succeed in winning the support of the majority; and within that small circle the President is free to choose. Not that the choice is final. It must be ratified by a vote of confidence.

Thus on June 3, 1914, following the resignation of the Doumergue cabinet, President Poincare invited Rene Viviani to take office; and when Viviani, after negotiation with the various groups, declined, Poincare applied successively and with the same result to Deschanel, Delcasse, Dupuy, and Peytral. Ribot accepted. But on June 12, when the Chamber refused a vote of confidence, he had to resign. Next day Viviani succeeded in forming a cabinet which could count on having a majority behind it.

In the supreme task of saving the nation domestic conflicts were forgotten. Party government gave way to coalition government. Reorganizing his cabinet in the first months of the war, Viviani brought in moderates like Alexandra Ribot and Unified Socialists like Marcel Sembat and Jules Guesde. When the war began in 1914 Clemenceau entered the Viviani Ministry. For some time he was chairman of the Parliamentary Committee on the Army.

Aristide Briand, who became premier fourteen months later, not only retained these men, but secured the cooperation of Cochin (Right), de Freycinet (moderate Republican), Bourgeois (right wing of the Radical-Socialist party), and Combes (left wing of the Radical-Socialist party). The obliteration of party lines was further shown by the votes of confidence in both chambers.

In the winter of 1916-17 the Briand Ministry, from a variety of causes, was sinking. Briand was tired, and not unwilling to go in advance of some event which might preclude a subsequent recall. Accordingly there was little surprise when, on March l7th, as a consequence of a sharp quarrel between General Lyautey and the French Chamber, Briand resigned.

Lyautey, as Governor-General of Morocco, had won and held for France a vast empire and revealed himself as the greatest pro-consul in all French history. He had been brought to Paris as Minister of War following Joffre's resignation, but his imperious methods, his unfamiliarity and impatience with politics and politicians had led to one incident after another, and finally to a resignation several times before threatened.

Briand was followed by Ribot, an old man, a notable figure in French politics, a conspicuous member of the Briand Cabinet, but not a man of the force necessary for the situation. He was faced at once by the consequences of the failure of the French offensive at the Aisne, followed almost immediately by an epidemic of strikes. As domestic disorder increased, as campaigns of treasons and defeatism developed, Ribot more and more showed himself incapable of dealing firmly with mounting perils. As a consequence there was little surprise when, in September, Ribot resigned and President Poincare called upon M. Paul Painleve to form a Ministry. Painleve had enjoyed a distinguished career as a professor. He was a man of high character and of great intellect. As Minister of Inventions and as Minister of War in the Briand and Ribot cabinets respectively he had rendered great service. But on the political side Painleve was weak.

In April of 1917 Clemenceau was outspoken in his censure of the management of the allied offensive. Clemenceau was somewhat scornful of America's long-continued neutrality, but was enthusiastic in his welcome when the United States entered the war. When the naval and military forces of the United States were cast into the balance and victory was assured, the old partisan quarrels began to obtrude themselves once more.

In the autumn of 1917 Clemenceau began the parliamentary attack against "Bolo-ism" and on that issue the Painleve Ministry fell in November 1917. Clemenceau was summoned to the premiership and immediately set about forming his Cabinet. Clemenceau's patriotism was widely recognized. He never hesitated in the midst of the stress of war to argue, criticize, and actually to attack where he believed a need for opposition existed. France knew that if he became Prime Minister such mistakes as he would make would not be in the direction of caution, compromise, hesitation. Reluctantly, unwillingly, but ineluctably, Poincare, the French nation - like the commander putting in his last reserves - turned to Clemenceau.

In the Versailles sessions at which Poincare had been elected President of the French Republic, his most determined enemy had been Clemenceau, who saw in Poincare a peril to the Republic. In addition to violent opposition in the sessions themselves Clemenceau had finally made a personal appeal, which was in itself almost a menace, to Poincare to refuse the election. At all times Clemenceau in his newspaper had been a savage critic of the President.

Clemenceau came to office when the army had failed on the Aisne and for the first and only time was shaken in morale. A monstrous defeatist campaign had begun in France. A break on the home-front and then on the firing-line was forecast. Not willingly did France turn to Clemenceau. His strength all men recognized, but his strength and his weakness alike terrified his contemporaries. If his eloquence in his newspaper had again and again roused the nation, his long political struggles had made enemies and his destructive course over half a century had left him with few political friends and a host of enemies.

The first task of Clemenceau was to restore the home-front. After terrible sacrifices for more than three years, with the Russian revolution destroying the Entente's Eastern Ally, and a new invasion in sight, France faced a crisis which had only two solutions - collapse, or the discovery of a great leader. Without leadership nothing more was possible. Then almost in an hour the atmosphere cleared. Backed by Clemenceau, Petain reorganized the army. To every protest, Clemenceau responded : "Je fais la guerre" - "I make war," and he would add, "Victory is to the side which endures to the last quarter of an hour."

Facing treason at home Clemenceau sent a former prime minister of France, Caillaux - still the master of the greatest single following in the Chamber - to prison. Caillaux was condemned to three years' imprisonment for having intercourse with the enemy during the war. Caillaux argued that an earlier peace would have been much better for France. Caillaux argued that peace in 1915 would not have destroyed the Central Powers; but it would have guaranteed France's moral hegemony in Europe, and made it the protector of European democracy. Caillaux argued that another opportunity was neglected in 1917. The Russian Revolution, America's entrance into the war, and the victory of France at Verdun, were a most favorable conjecture for such negotations. But Caillaux argued that the chauvinists, the imperialists, and the reactionaries in France joined forces; and France had to bleed on, because England had not attained the purposes for which it was fighting. His open championship of an earlier peace brought him bitter enmities.

After the War Caillaux wrote: "The policy I opposed has given England complete control of the sea and of the greater part of the earth's land surface, without France - except for the recovery of its lost provinces - gaming anything of value but the crumbs that fell from the bounty of the table."

Malvy, who had been in a dozen cabinets and who possessed enormous political influence, Clemenceau sent into exile. Bolo Pasha, and smaller men whose guilt was unmistakable, Clemenceau sent to the firing squad. Sarrail, a political general whose influence in the Chamber had been sufficiently great to save him from the consequences of a dozen intrigues, Clemenceau promptly recalled from Salonica and retired to private life.

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Page last modified: 11-07-2011 02:58:40 ZULU