M. Clemenceau and His Problems


FOR the first time in his long life, M. Clemenceau has tasted the sweets as well as realized the dangers of an overwhelming popularity. It is an amazing experience for a man approaching four-score years, to have reached the pinnacle of fame and the height of usefulness to his country. That he has done so in the face of colossal difficulties, when the country was the prey of scandals of a particularly distressing sort, is no less testimony to his courage than to his vitality. Both qualities are conspicuous, and both are typically French. There have been Frenchmen before of surpassing vigor at his age — indeed, French energy and mental mobility seem to conserve men as well as to wear them out; there have been men like Hugo and Henri Rochefort, Rodin, and even Alexandre Ribot, one of the war premiers of France; but M. Clemenceau excels them all in the vigor and force of his bearing, in his vehemence and mastery of men expressed in flashing eye, sonorous voice, emphatic gesture.

What is the secret of his youth ? The sobriety of his habits, his Spartan way of life, is partly responsible; but the fresh and eager interest of his mind is more powerful still. He has the precious faculty of Sarah Bernhardt and Napoleon of sleeping at any instant. The fatigue of any journey is relieved by this recreative power, and even a short motor-ride affords a few moments of complete repose, a truce in his vast activities. Even when the Allied conferences are being held at Versailles, he sleeps a while after lunch. And from his siesta he arises a new man.

Nothing must interfere with his rest — not even the remorseless round of a newspaper. Even in conducting his L’Homme Libre (of limited though influential circulation), he has adhered to his rule of early to bed and early to rise. His practice as a journalist was to complete his day’s article before seven A.M. Then would come his walk along the quays, or else in the neighborhood of the Tour Eiffel, where he lives; and, after that, he received callers — a friendly and intimate ceremony, which lasted well into the morning. Naturally, to accommodate himself to such unusual hours for literary composition, his bedtime was advanced; and even as head of the government he has generally retired by eight o’clock, after a frugal supper of a glass of milk.

I have been present at several of his early morning receptions. He talks with freedom and vivacity and an inexhaustible good humor. But he is very definite. Though a philosopher, he lets no subtleties appear in his manner of judging persons and events. They are thus and so, or they are not. There is no shadow-land of half-negations, no apologetic apprehension of overstating the case. Every word expresses the firm conviction of the soul. That is why he is so much admired and believed in in this land of nuances, — of intellectual tints and delicate reasonings. When tête-a-tête with you, he will talk sitting in the centre of his work-table, which resembles a painter’s palette. He has a way of opening and shutting his eyes, which suggests the Oriental. He looks Mongolian. The shape of the face, with its high cheek-bones, the parchment-like skin, the heavy white moustache drooping over the mouth, heighten this effect.

And no doubt there is a side of the ‘Tiger’s’ character, which is almost Chinese in its deep abstraction. If one part of his nature is essentially Gallic in its fire and emphasis, its passion and violence, — even its capriciousness, — the other part is the high and dry philosopher loving learning for its own sake, and given to reflection; looking out upon life through horn-rimmed spectacles, and finding it queer and illbalanced and rather excessive. I can imagine him like the hero in his own play Le Voile du Bonheur, which described the experiences of a Mandarin who, on recovering from blindness, becomes suddenly aware of the infidelity of his wife and the ingratitude of his children, and desires to be blind again.

It is a sad, rather cynical estimate of humanity, the kind that one would expect of a man with no illusions. If M. Clemenceau has any left, they are reserved, I fancy, for the humble of the earth, the heroic poilu and his kindred, and the heroes of civil life, rather than for those of loud profession and of easy conscience toward God and man. If he refuses to be bound by formulæ, he yet believes in human progress and in the perfectibility of our poor nature. But that perfectibility will not be spontaneous: it must result from acts and measures adapted to that end. Thus he is a man of practical aims, though inspired by generous ideals.

You get a very good notion of these ideals by reading M. Clemenceau’s philosophic novels, which he wrote a quarter of a century ago when he was waiting for a new opening in politics. He had been thrust into opposition by cruel misfortune. Insult had been heaped upon him, calumny upon calumny, He was said to have been paid by England for his advice to France to refrain from participating in the first Egyptian campaign. In bitterness of spirit he sat him down to write satiric novels at fifty years of age. Probably they reflect in some degree the distorted features of his own experience. He shows the meanness of conscious virtue, the exploitation of misfortune which often accompanies success, the cynicism and moral perversion which underlie many worldly estimates.

You suspect that M. Clemenceau, who has so heavy a hand and so fierce a voice for the weaknesses of internationalism, is himself a social reformer. And you will come upon passages in his suggestive books, which show how warm is his heart for the poor, how strong his horror of oppression, how persistent his love of liberty and his sympathy with those who fight for it.

But he has no love for license; anarchy is abomination. ‘You and I are on different sides of the barricade,’ he once told a deputation of revolutionaries who waited on him to urge the rights of a May Day demonstration. ‘On different sides of the barricade’ expresses admirably the distinction between him and those who would find warrant for their lawlessness in his past attitude toward authority. But never in his salad days, as Communistic Mayor of Montmartre forty-seven years ago, did he fail in the high purpose of his protest. Because he was a banner-man in a popular procession, he did not become a hooligan.

And how strenuous has been his career since then! a perpetual war against the wearisome inefficiency of French politics. ‘Nous sommes en pleine incohérence,' he exclaimed one day in the Chamber; and nothing could more caustically express the futility of much Parliamentary effort in France as elsewhere. The intrinsic justice of his criticisms has made him master of France in time of war. The critic is now the executant. He who has preached the fortiter in re must now exhibit it in action.

He has begun with master-strokes: he has imprisoned persons implicated in the ‘ défaitiste ’ campaign. Bolo, Malvy, Caillaux, represent different, phases of that movement. M. Clemenceau has brought them to book; but it may be that he has not quite shown that rigid spirit of the Convention which the occasion demanded. He has been too ceremonious, perhaps, in his treatment of the two ex-ministers. M. Malvy, the former Minister of the Interior, is sent before the High Court, the supreme tribunal in the land; but an obscure subordinate, who acted, presumably, only under orders, is dealt with by court-martial. But the fact that the Premier has impeached boldly the most influential persons in France is so considerable, that it overshadows the rest. That he is less Jacobin in his zeal than M. Léon Daudet, the Royalist journalist, may be set down, I think, to a sense of responsibility. Despite the piquancy of this accusation of boulevard critics, that he is but a timid successor of the great Revolutionary judges, there is probably more force than truth in it. Certainly M. Clemenceau has put forms into his procedure; he has given his accusés time to make their defense, as well as, perhaps, to destroy their papers. But if there is no weakness in the trial, public fairness will indorse the preliminaries.

M. Clemenceau’s command of the Socialists, who profess to regard him as a citadel of bourgeois prejudice, with an uncanny knowledge of their own strategy, has proved his greatest asset. At one moment their hostility looked fatal to his ministerial longevity. There was not a single Socialist in his Cabinet. How was it possible to exist without them? But those fears passed when one realized that events were stronger than parties, and that the Premier’s national appeal had no need of partisan support to make it acceptable. The fact is that the Socialists, who threatened to wreck him, stood in danger of a similar disaster from the Russian hurricane. It was as much as they could do to save their own lives.

The red ruin of Russia came swiftly home to France. It meant that the peasant’s savings invested in Russia were lost — perhaps permanently. The Bolshevik talk of repudiation infuriated Jacques Bonhomme. Not to pay one’s debts, even on the most ‘advanced ’ pretext, gains no ear in France, where each possesses something and is apt to hold firmly to it. And for fear of seeming to sanction confiscation, French Socialism has lost a little way, and has to steer most carefully amid the shoals of treacherous definitions. And so, the least said on this head the better for advanced reformers. Not only as the custodian of a common honesty, but in his singleness of purpose to win the war, M. Clemenceau could not be lightly attacked, much less defeated on a vote. None could quarrel with his programme, when he expressed it as definitely as this: —

‘They tell me we should have peace as soon as possible. Peace! I want it; it would be criminal to have any other idea. But it is not in bellowing peace that one silences Prussian militarism. My formula applies to everything. Domestic politics: I make war; foreign politics: I make war. . . . Russia betrays us: I continue to make war. Unhappy Roumania is obliged to surrender: I still make war. And I shall continue until the last quarter of an hour; for we shall have that last quarter of an hour.'

This vibrant language, uttered in the Chamber last March, stirred even the Socialists, and M. Clemenceau was urged to ‘carry on’ by a thumping majority. When he speaks thus clearly, with the voice of France, he is neither to be silenced nor to be upset. And the Socialists know that, and know, also, that the paramount anxiety of the proletariat is not the destination and ultimate fulfillment of their catchwords and devices for social salvation, but the speedy conclusion of the war. In confusing this clear issue, in impeding the accomplishment of this steady aim, how would they justify themselves before the electorate?

All loyal citizens of France must rally to the Clemenceau banner. The purity of his aims, the known strength of his reforming zeal, are the instruments of his power, instruments more cunningly shaped and better adapted to his hand than any he could choose in the arsenal of politics.


What are the problems with which he is faced? They are, obviously, internal and external — war within and war without. For Germany has attacked along the line of least resistance in seeking to seduce the vain and ambitious by dreams of conquest or a rich emolument. And that subtle sapping proved, indeed, as dangerous as gas-shells on the Western front. How can we reconcile this turpitude and treason with the superb heroism of the Marne, of Verdun, and of the Aisne? While the heart of laborious France has always been true, vast cosmopolitan Paris has been tempted and tainted by pacifism and worse. Bolo Pasha is a figure from the Arabian Nights, incredible in his magnificence and folly. Caillaux is a genius of another sort. ‘ Tu m’as défait,’ he exclaimed with heart-sick melancholy to his wife, when he learned of the assassination of Calmette for his exposures — true or false — in the Figaro. I know of no more tragic destruction of a glistening web of power such as Caillaux had woven for himself. He felt that he had been ruined by the rash act of his wife. Gone all his grandiose projects of becoming President of the Republic, and for bringing about a swift peace with the consequent title — for posterity — of saviour of his country! All had disappeared in the smoke of Madame Caillaux’s revolver.

For Jacques Caillaux, ex-Premier of France, is not the vulgar adventurer building a bubble fortune out of sunbeams. He has statesmanlike views. He believed that France had put her money on the wrong horse, that she should have backed Germany instead of England, and thus got rid of the danger to her economic development which had thwarted her national life for half a century. Remove this menace, make peace, establish economic relations with Germany — that was, apparently, his receipt for war-worn France. Unfortunately, he disregarded a great historic wrong; he applied no remedy to an open sore; he thought only of immediate adjustments. Deep and dangerous, alas! were his methods of achieving his ideal. He had a Jesuit’s belief that the end justified the means. His words not only concealed his thoughts, but created a false impression. While apparently adhering to the Entente and making many declarations in that sense to English correspondents (myself among them), he was, if report speaketh true, striving to bring about a quite different orientation of French foreign policy. His duplicity has not succeeded. We will leave him to face his trial, with the suggestion that ambition, and not money, — for he inherited amply from his father,— has made him mad and induced him to regard himself as a Napoleon capable of carrying out a new sort of revolutionary Eighteenth Brumaire. His fanatical belief in himself has brought him to the sorriest pass for a man of his position and attainments.

M. Malvy is a conspirator of a commoner kind — slack and complacent in the discharge of his duties and rather weak than willfully wrongdoing. The Republic certainly has need of surer servants, after its generally satisfactory existence for nearly half a century. Happily, there is Clemenceau, the ‘ Incorruptible’ as well as ‘green’ in his perennial youth. As the author of the discoveries, with Gaston Calmette and Gustave Hervé, who wrote, the one and the other, in the Figaro and the Victoire accusing and urging punishments, it is right that he should be the authorized justiciar of the Republic. There is none better qualified to lead his country into the paths of an honorable peace, by reason of the strength of his convictions and his consistent loyalty and disinterestedness. After a long life of great political influence, he remains a poor man and is proud of it.

But he has the defects of his qualities. One is a sporting indifference to minor consequences. He is not afraid of risks. Sometimes those that he takes seem unnecessarily great. He decrees the liberty of the press and removes the shackles of the censorship. The effect is a new and hardened tone in public comment. The windows are open and fresh air is let in. But even so salutary a process is accompanied by danger; for, accompanying the wholesome draft is a wave of défaitiste propaganda. Intent on winning the war, he disregards this abominable enterprise, to which Gustave Hervé — the patriot converted from anti-militarism — calls his attention. But he cannot long be proof against it. His consideration for criticism springs from his own desire to be free. His ardent temperament chafes at unintelligent restrictions. Every one knows how his newspaper, the Free Man, became the Man in Chains (L’Homme Enchainé) because he felt that way about the censor’s activities. On the very day when he became Premier, he restored the old title, L’Homme Libre, and every journalist in France was a free man. But, as Gustave Hervé himself says, superior to the right of the press is the safety of the country. That is the first law.

M. Clemenceau’s tendency, perhaps, is to play with a situation and needlessly prolong it. We saw this characteristic in the strike in the North following the great mining disaster at Courrierès. He dallied with difficulties, tasting a pleasure therein, and protested that conciliation would effect everything — until it was almost too late to effect anything. Bloodshed, indeed, came before tranquillity in that tormented region. And in the movement in the South, where the wine-growing departments threatened to break with the Republic, in order to express their dissatisfaction with laws affecting their prosperity, he showed the same habit of temporization — even a sort of flippancy, as it seemed.

But although the disaffection grew until it became really serious, the Premier finally put an end to it by methods most suggestive of comic opera. It must have rejoiced the spirit of irony, which is so strong in him. The winegrowers’ leader, whose impassioned oratory had fascinated thousands, walked one Sunday into M. Clemenceau’s office and was swiftly and quietly packed off home — he had come to Paris to escape arrest — with a hundred francs (M. Clemenceau’s) in his pocket to pay his fare. Thus ended the rebellion in a shout of laughter, for the prophet had proved ridiculously naïve. It vindicated, if you will230;, the Clemenceau method; but none the less it is scarcely to be recommended.

There is also something of the knight adventurer about M. Clemenceau. If he disconcerts some people by his boyish spirits, — for, temperamentally, he has never grown up, — they yet feel, in spite of themselves, how steadfast he is and how wise, beneath a mask of almost truculent indifference. He has the fault common to his intellectual countrymen of relying too much upon formul. ‘It must be so, for I have proved it by mathematics.'

Again, his large generosity, broad general ideas, and ardent nature cause him to overlook the defects of meaner men in their malevolence and sordid aims. But, for all that, he is the one man conspicuously necessary to the salvation of France. His strong, brave spirit rises to the height of the national emergency. So far from being frightened by the twin dragons of Boloism and Bolshevism, he feels strengthened by his struggle with both. He has transfixed both with his sword.

The world in arms loves a fighter. That is why Clemenceau has secured the very first place in the heart of the army. It loves his spirit, the élan and bravoure of a Frenchman of the old school, directed by the science of the new. Moreover, he is a deep-dyed Republican — one who has suffered for the cause. He makes the same appeal to the common soldier as does Joffre, for he will pat a sentry on the shoulder and call him ’mon ami.'

Yet, for all his democracy, he is the last man to flatter ignorance and megalomania. Some accuse him of being an aristocrat at heart— unquestionably an old-world distinction and courtesy cling to him. He is charming in conversation. Nor is it hard to imagine him one of the most noted duelists of the day. He has the manner which goes with swordsmanship: alertness, an intrepid eye, a certain bluff heartiness. Yet he is practical withal, and combines the acuteness of a man of business with the instincts of a preax chevalier.

He has a double character: one half student and philosopher, — some one caught him reading Theocritus in the true spirit of Macaulay’s Scholar, — the other half man of action. And, sometimes, no doubt, the philosopher is uppermost, killing the physical activity. Again, a temperamental impatience to cut a way through difficulties may lead to drastic measures which another judgment would repudiate. Indeed, the balance is hard to establish, for his Gallic nature is speedily aflame and his temper leaps to the combat at the signal of attack. Yet generally it is well controlled by a brain that is steel-cold in its analysis and piercing power.

Between Boloism and Bolshevism he has risen to great authority as the one solid rock of government in France. He is the symbol of the nation. Who shall dare to cast him down? And the army, realizing his moral force behind its belligerent one, acclaims him the great patriot. And when he returns from visiting the Front, to his home on rue Franklin, he feels cheered and supported by the welcome he has had from the troops. Sometimes a poilu places in his car as a mark of especial favor a piece of rude carving from the trench, a walking-stick, with handle fashioned in the Premier’s likeness, or a pipe of good French briar. And these trophies of poilu affection touch him more, I think, than the proudest gifts.