At Versailles

Part I

During the Peace Conference, France's allies became exasperated with what they saw as French intransigence, French greed and French vindictiveness. They had not suffered what France had suffered. The war memorials, in every city, town and village, with their lists of names from the First World War, the handful from the Second, tell the story of France's losses. A quarter of French men between eighteen and thirty had died in the war, over 1.3 million altogether out of a prewar population Of 40 million. France lost a higher proportion of its population than any other of the belligerents. Twice as many again of its soldiers had been wounded.

In the north, great stretches of land were pitted with shell holes, scarred by deep trenches, marked with row upon row of crosses. Around the fortress of Verdun, site of the worst French battle, not a living thing grew, not a bird sang. The coal mines on which the French economy depended for its power were flooded; the factories they would have supplied had been razed or carted away into Germany. Six thousand square miles of France, which before the war had produced 20 percent of its crops, go percent of its iron ore and 65 percent of its steel, were utterly ruined. Perhaps Wilson might have understood Clemenceau's demands better if he had gone early on to see the damage for himself.

At the Peace Conference, Clemenceau was to keep all the important threads in his own hands. The French delegation drew on the best that France had to offer, but it did not meet at all for the first four months of the conference. Clemenceau rarely consulted the Foreign Ministry professionals at the Quai d'Orsay, much to their annoyance. Nor did he pay much attention to the experts from the universities he had asked to draw up reports on France's economic and territorial claims and to sit on the commissions and committees that proliferated over the course of the conference. "No organization of his ideas, no method of work," complained clever old Paul Cambon from London, "the accumulation in himself of all duties and all responsibilities, thus nothing works. And this man of 78 years, sick, for he is a diabetic ... receives fifty people a day and exerts himself with a thousand details which he ought to leave to his ministers. At no moment in the war was I as uneasy as I am for the peace."

Stéphen Pichon, Clemenceau's foreign minister, was an amiable, lazy and indecisive man who received his instructions every morning and would not have dreamed of disobeying. Clemenceau was rather fond of him in an offhand way. "Who is Pichon?" he asked one day. "Your minister of Foreign Affairs," came the reply. "So he is," said the old Tiger, "I had forgotten it." On another occasion, Pichon and a party of experts were waiting patiently in the background for a meeting to start when Clemenceau teased Balfour about the number of advisers he had. When Balfour replied, "They are doing the same thing as the greater number of people with you," Clemenceau, infuriated to be caught out, turned around. "Go away all of you," he told Pichon. "There is no need for any of you!"

If Clemenceau discussed issues at all, it was in the evening at his house, with a small group that included his faithful aide General Henri Mordacq, the brilliant gadfly André Tardieu and the industrialist Louis Loucheur. He kept them on their toes by having the police watch them. Each morning he would give them a dossier with details of their previous day's activities. As much as possible he ignored Raymond Poincaré, his president, whom he loathed.

§     §     §

Throughout his long life Clemenceau had gone his own formidable way. His enemies claimed that his slanting eyes and his cruelty were a legacy from Huns who had somehow made it to the Vendée. He was born in 1841, to minor gentry in a lovely part of France with a violent history. Generally, the people of the Vendée chose the wrong side: in the wars of religion, which the Catholics won, they were Protestants; during the French Revolution they were Catholic and royalist. The Clemenceau family was a minority within a minority; republican, radical and resolutely anticlerical. Clemenceau himself thought snobs were fools, but he always went back to the gloomy family manor house, with its stone floors, its moat and its austere furnishings.

Like his father, Clemenceau trained as a doctor; but, again like his father, he did not practice. His studies in any case always took second place to writing, politics and his love affairs. Like other bright young men, he was drawn to Paris and the world of radical intellectuals, Journalists and artists. In the late 1860s he spent much time in the United States, widely admired by republicans as a land of freedom. His travels left him with fluent English, peppered with out-of-date New York slang, in an accent that mingled a Yankee drawl with rolling French "r's."

He also gained a wife, Mary Plummer, a lovely, stupid and very conventional New England girl whom he had met while he was teaching French in a girls' school. He brought her back to France and deposited her for long periods of time with his parents and unmarried aunts in the Vendée.

The marriage did not last but Mary Plummer lived on in Paris, supplementing her modest annuity by taking American tourists to museums. She rarely saw Clemenceau after their separation but she faithfully collected his press cuttings. Unfortunately, she could not read them because she had never learned French. After her death in 1917 Clemenceau expressed mild regret: "What a tragedy that she ever married me."

The Clemenceau family kept the three children from the marriage, and Clemenceau never married again. He preferred to travel through life alone. There were women, of course, as friends and as lovers. "Never in my life," he said, "has it been necessary for me to make appeals to women." And on the whole it was true. In 1919 he complained sardonically that, just when he was too old to take advantage of it, women were throwing themselves at him.

Politics and, above all, France were his great passion. With the collapse of Napoleon III's empire in 1870 and the rise of the Third Republic, the way was open to him and other radical politicians to participate in public life. Clemenceau was elected to the French parliament in 1876. He was a republican like most of those who dominated the Third Republic but he did not belong to a political party in the modern sense (indeed such things did not exist then). In the loose and shifting groupings before the Great War, he was invariably found on the left, just this side of the socialists and those who rejected constitutional, democratic politics.

Clemenceau made a name for himself as an incisive and witty orator and a tenacious opponent, happiest when he was attacking governments he saw as too conservative. With his old friend Emile Zola, for example, he helped to reopen the guilty verdict against Alfred Dreyfus, the Jewish army officer falsely accused of selling French secrets to the Germans. But he was not trusted even on the left; there were too many dubious financiers in his life, women with shady reputations, creditors asking for their money. His duels left an impression of someone who belonged in the pages of Dumas. In his relentless attacks on authority he was prepared to do almost anything to win. "He comes from a family of wolves," said a man who knew him well.

Clemenceau did not help himself by his contempt for convention and his profound cynicism. Lloyd George once said of him, "He loved France but hated all Frenchmen." In 1906, when he was already in his sixties, he became a government minister. He was brought in as minister of the interior perhaps because France's president at the time owed him a political debt, more likely because, as one of his new colleagues argued, it would be too dangerous to leave him out. Later that year when what was a weak government fell, Clemenceau to the surprise of many emerged as the new prime minister and an effective one at that.

His intimates saw another side. Clemenceau was loyal to his friends and they to him. He was kind and generous with both time and money. He loved his garden, although, according to one visitor, "it was a helterskelter survival of mixed-up seeds hurled about recklessly in all directions." For years Clemenceau had a country place close to Giverny and Claude Monet, a great friend. In Paris he frequently dropped in to see the great panels of the water lilies. "They take my breath away whenever I enter that room." (He could not bear Renoir's painting: "It's enough to disgust you with love forever after. Those buttocks he gives those wenches ought not to be allowed.")

Clemenceau was also extraordinarily brave and stubborn. When the Germans advanced on Paris in 1914, the French parliament debated leaving. Clemenceau, who had resigned office in 1909 and was back to his familiar role in opposition, agreed: "Yes, we are too far from the front." In the dark days of 1917, when the French armies had been shattered on the Western Front and there was talk of collapse at home, Clemenceau the Father of Victory, as the French called him, finally came into his own. As prime minister, he held France together until the final victory. When the Germans made their last great push toward Paris in the spring of 1918, Clemenceau made it clear that there would be no surrender. If the Germans took the city, he intended to stay until the last moment and then escape by plane. When he heard that the Germans had agreed to an armistice, for once in his life he was speechless. He put his head in his hands and wept.

On the evening of November 11, he walked through Paris with his favorite sister, Sophie. "The war is won," he said when he saw the crowds starting to pull captured German guns to pieces. "Give them to the children to play with." Later, with Mordacq, he talked of the work to come: "Yes, we have won the war and not without difficulty; but now we are going to have to win the peace, and that will perhaps be even more difficult."

France, of all the Great Powers, had the most at stake in the German peace terms. Britain already had most of what it wanted, with the German fleet and the major German colonies safely in its hands, and the United States, protected from Germany by the Atlantic Ocean, was eager to pack up and go home. France not only had suffered the most; it also had the most to fear. Whatever happened, Germany would still lie along its eastern border. There would still be more Germans than French in the world. It was an ominous sign that even the souvenir penknives engraved with "Foch" and "La Victoire" being sold in France in 1919 had been made in German factories. France wanted revenge and compensation, but above all, it wanted security. No one was more aware of this than its prime minister.

Go on to part II

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