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Clemenceau: The Politician

Sometimes admired, even occasionally popular; John Roberts describes how Georges Clemenceau towered over French political life for nearly half a century.

Georges Mandel, who was murdered by the Vichy government in 1944, was almost the last survivor of the small group of Clemenceau’s close colleagues.

By the end of the Third Republic, Clemenceau’s friends and enemies alike were forgotten, but the “Tiger” himself remains a legendary figure. His fame outside France is that of a great wartime Prime Minister, but long before 1917 he overshadowed the politics of the Third Republic.

Partly because of his aggressiveness and his violence, he towered over the Left for forty years. He dominated it rather than led it, and only became a minister in 1906, the year that he formed his own first government.

The experience of isolation hardened him. He was sometimes admired, and even occasionally popular, but he made more enemies than friends. His ferocity towards political opponents won him his nickname, and he was always ready to back up his words with sword or pistol.

Aggression may spring from frustration. Certainly frustration lay behind much of Clemenceau’s violence. But there were deeper roots for it in his temperament. His first book of essays was called La mêlée sociale, and he often wrote of society as if it were the battleground of humanity. In his book about his friend Monet he even wrote of art as a conflict.

Such language came naturally to him. His thought was shaped by some of the most cherished tenets of progressive liberalism, but it had always a sombre cast. His political behaviour therefore lacked restraints which milder views might have imposed. He once defined his policies in terms which could stand for his whole career: “En politique intérieure je fais la guerre, en politique étrangère je fais la guerre, je fais toujours la guerre.”

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