Georges Clemenceau was born in Mouilleron-en-Pareds, France, on 28th September, 1841. His mother, Sophie Eucharie Gautreau (1817-1903) was from a Huguenot family. His father, Benjamin Clemenceau (1810-1897) was a supporter of the 1848 Revolution and this ensured he grew up with strong republican views.
George Clemenceau (1841-1929) is credited in French and world history with bringing France from the brink of defeat to victory in the Great War. As a part of doing so, he convinced the Allies to unify their efforts through the leadership of a supreme commander, previously unheard of among nations of the day.
That said, for many other reasons Clemenceau had already earned a secure, recognized place among the great political leaders of the 20th Century. His efforts during the years of the Great War, notably from 1917 through the 1918-19 Peace of Versailles deliberations, earned him the name, “Le Pere La Victorie,” the Father of Victory. Before that, he was known simply as “The Tiger,” a name very indicative of his political style and long record of public service. Like his father, Clemenceau was a staunch republican and anti-monarchist during a period when both were unpopular views. Although trained as a doctor, he was a political writer by inclination.
He was also a masterful, charismatic debater and orator.
The Tiger was a politician who stood above politics. Repeatedly throughout his career he turned down appointed office, his broader interest, that of France, the great nation, over-riding individual political ambitions. Because of this attitude, even within his own Party he was much feared, if not hated. A biographer, Lewis Douglas, defined Clemenceau’s maverick political approach when he wrote, “(Clemenceau) destroyed where he disbelieved; created where he believed.” And, with regard to both, he always had strong views.
Abuse of power was, for Clemenceau, a bete noir. Early on in his career he warned of the potential danger of this in social legislation. Not that he wasn’t in favor of some social legislation; only that he had a cautious view of power. Organized labor was a case in point to him. He proved to be justified in his concern. For a time he was forced out of public life, but it took the energy and resources of the Opposition in concert with his own Party to defeat him in a local election.
As for abuse of power, the issue would surface time and again for him over the years. Out of elected office, he returned to writing, successfully championing with Emile Zola the cause of Alfred Dreyfus. The infamous Dreyfus Affair was to have repercussions throughout France’s military and judicial establishments for many years. The high profile nature of the issue also shored up Clemenceau’s popularity and he was subsequently re-elected to public office, more powerful and influential than previously.
During this tenure he again roused the wrath of his fellow politicians when he managed to legislate the removal of parliamentary immunity for criminal acts committed by elected representatives.
The beginning of the Great War found the Tiger sitting in the French Senate. For at least five years he had been questioning France’s preparedness for war with Germany, an unheeded voice in the wilderness. The German military quickly proved the accuracy of his pronouncements.
Finally, in late 1917, with defeat looming, Clemenceau was asked to form a government, almost as if French politicians were challenging him to put his money where his mouth was. He did so, taking a non-conciliatory position that France would settle only for the unconditional surrender of Germany. Before April, 1918, he had convinced the Allies of the need for unity of command. By November, Germany had signed an armistice.
Clemenceau, along with Woodrow Wilson of the United States and Lloyd George of Britain, shaped the terms of the Peace of Versailles. There were problems, however.
Woodrow Wilson wanted a League of Nations, an idealistic manifestation that “the war to end all wars” would be just that. Clemenceau, the realist, wanted protections for France. He did not trust the Germans and he was already drawing lessons from the Russian Revolution. He believed nationalistic feelings and aspirations of empire were too strong to make a League of Nations workable. Wilson’s ideal prevailed, though, of course, so too did Clemenceau’s reality.
The Tiger’s sharp tongue and uncannily accurate analysis did not make him a friend of Lloyd George either, a man the Tiger regarded as a pompous political opportunist. The biographer, Stephen Bonsal, reports an incident when the two leaders almost came to blows.
Petulant in losing an argument, Lloyd George’s final comment in the exchange was, “Well, I shall expect an apology for these outrageous words.”
Clemenceau’s reply: “You shall wait for it as long as you wait for the pacification of Ireland.” For that the world still waits.
In early 1920 Clemenceau’s stubbornness on an issue of principle resulted in the downfall of his government. Like Churchill after him, Clemenceau brought his country to an historic victory, only to be defeated himself.
During his remaining years he continued to write. He was working on his memoirs when he died in Paris in 1929.
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