British Labor and French Elections: Can the Entente Be Restored?

PERHAPS the most important question for Europe and, indeed, for the world, is whether France and England can agree. That is what everybody is asking, and after the work of the Committees of Experts it is wondered whether the ‘eternal problem’ of Reparations can be solved. Certainly Mr. Ramsay MacDonald, on taking up office, immediately abandoned the system of pinpricks that had been practised by Lord Curzon, who had shown for some months his irritation with M. Poincare, and, instead of applying his mind to the real difficulties that existed between France and England, had indulged in the petty game of scoring points. Mr. Baldwin was a vacillating Prime Minister, and before Mr. Baldwin came Mr. Bonar Law, a sick and a dying man, of pessimistic temperament, who did not even try to prevent the French from marching into the Ruhr. As for Mr. Lloyd George, he had, to use a common phrase, shown himself to be too clever by half, and was no longer trusted on the Continent.

The frankness, the sincerity, and the obvious friendliness of Mr. Ramsay MacDonald, the Labor Prime Minister of England, surprised the French. A new and better atmosphere was immediately created; but after the first exchange of greetings, after the protestations on both sides that there was every desire to restore the Entente Cordiale, the real problems stood up as starkly as ever. Would France modify her attitude? Did she really mean to stay in the Ruhr? Was it her fixed intention to crush Germany finally, or did she not rather see the need of giving a new turn to her policy? Was not the Ruhr occupation shown to be as disastrous for France as for Germany, a bankrupt enterprise, tending to produce bankruptcy in all the countries concerned? The franc had fallen lower than ever, and in a panic M. Poincare tried to push through Parliament, on the very eve of the French elections which were to be held in May, a Bill which would have the effect of increasing taxation by twenty per cent — a most unpopular measure, which perhaps was equivalent to the suicide of the Bloc National. The Bill was taken to be a confession that it was France who was to pay after all and not Germany as had been promised.

The position, therefore, — and it is well worth studying, —is that a Labor Government had for the first time taken office in England, while elections which would produce a swing to the Left — in the opinion of nearly all the observers — were being prepared in France.

Rarely has an election caused so much excitement as this French election. The rush of inscriptions on the electoral lists was a sufficient indication. Everything in France for a long time has been dominated by these elections, and it was felt that France could not change her methods until a new Parliament had been returned. Now, had M. Herriot and M. Painleve and other Radical chiefs frankly denounced the occupation of the Ruhr when it was proposed by M. Poincare, they would have suffered some months of intense unpopularity but they would now undoubtedly be masters of the situation. France is tired of the Ruhr expedition but, unfortunately, no responsible statesman had from the beginning opposed the expedition. Not until a year had passed were there signs that the Radical Party — or to use the more comprehensive expression, the Bloc des Gauches — had made up its mind to separate itself from the Poincare policy. The Radical leaders were not prepared to take risks. They temporized: they were mere opportunists. While the Ruhr operation was popular they were for the Ruhr operation; when it began to become unpopular, they very mildly and doubtfully criticized the Ruhr operation.

Even now the chief effort of the Bloc des Gauches is to avoid the patriotic issue. They do not wish to be manoeuvred into such a position that they can be called anti-patriots. There is no chord which is so readily stirred in France as the patriotic chord. Therefore, the Bloc des Gauches prefers to fight the Bloc National on internal affairs — the financial muddle, the high cost of living, the revival of clericalism, and so forth. The most formidable factors in the election — if they have their way — will be the menace of higher taxation, the fall of the franc, and the rising cost of food. These are domestic issues in more than one sense and it is upon them that the Bloc National will go down in the dust, if indeed it goes down.

The question arose whether Mr. Ramsay MacDonald should come to grips with the French Government. In France itself there were many voices which counseled delay. The leaders of the Bloc des Gauches pointed out to me the perilous position in which British pressure might place them. They felt that if the British Labor Government asked too much, there would be a final patriotic rally in France which would benefit the Bloc National and damage the Bloc des Gauches at the elections. They advised some marking of time: they foresaw a party in power in France, after May, not dissimilar to the party in power in England. It was then that an agreement could be reached; but if in the meantime there were acute quarrels between France and England, the parties of the Left in France would be greatly injured. The Labor Government should then proceed cautiously, wisely, and amicably.

That France will eventually change her policy, even the most ardent upholders of M. Poincare believe to be inevitable. It is not a matter of the personality of M. Poincare: it is the impossibility for the existing Parliament to stultify itself by any radical alteration of its attitude. Even were the Bloc des Gauches to fail at the polls, even though M. Poincare remained in power, M. Poincare and the new Parliament would be able to do after the elections what they were totally unable to do before the elections. The elections will be a renovation. M. Poincare and the French Parliament have been the prisoners of their own propaganda. The elections will knock off the shackles.


Only to a small degree have the quarrels between the two Channel countries been fictitious, though they have been exaggerated by an unnecessary spirit of rivalry and by the political jealousy that sprang up between them. In the early days of the peacemaking, Mr. Lloyd George, on his triumphal tour from casino to casino and from capital to capital in Europe, undoubtedly got the better of the French Ministers whom he met. It was his policy which was always successful. He seemed to be the arbiter of Europe. France watched this with growing dismay. She felt herself to be sinking to the position of a second-rate Power. It was her effort to throw off what she regarded as the British yoke which explains much that has happened during the past two years.

Mr. Lloyd George owed his strength to the fact that with the virtual disappearance of Mr. Wilson and M. Clemenceau he stood alone of those who had taken a conspicuous part in the war and in the Paris Peace Conference. His prestige became enormous. As the solitary remaining figure he had advantages which the newer French Ministers did not possess. He overweighted them, and with his natural nimbleness of mind he obtained his way in practically every encounter. It was not surprising that in these circumstances France called loudly for a man who was big enough to say ‘No’ to Mr. Lloyd George. M. Poincare, who for seven years had been the President of the French Republic, was obviously that man, and with the coming of M. Poincare to power France reasserted herself, and directed her policy, not only toward the recovery of her credits upon Germany but toward placing herself in the position of the predominant nation on the Continent.

Still, on the specific question of Reparations there were excellent reasons why British policy should differ from that of France. After the first distribution of German assets, England was not particularly interested in Reparations — at any rate, not so deeply interested as France. It was better in some respects for England that the German debt should be wiped out; for England the essential thing was not the prolongation of the struggle to extract a little more or a little less money from Germany, but the restoration of normal conditions on the Continent, in order that bigger markets might be created for her own goods. It is a matter of life or death for England to manufacture, to transport, and to sell.

The confusion which followed the war meant the extinction of many markets. The British believed that, if only Europe would settle down, trade would become normal again. England had her problem of unemployment. The devastated regions of England, it has been well said, are her ruined industries. England has paid in doles to the unemployed, and in less direct fashion on account of unemployment, a sum which is calculated by the best authorities at no less than £400,000,000.

Few people understand what this has meant to England. France often reminds us that she has spent large sums on the repair of the North, but we are seldom reminded that England, in addition to the other burdens that she has voluntarily taken upon her shoulders for the sake of keeping her credit, — burdens which France has felt unable to shoulder, — has paid enormous amounts for the relief of unemployment since the great post-war depression began. Moreover, it will be observed that while France, in providing money for the restoration of the North, is, so to speak, sinking her capital in a great enterprise which will repay her tenfold, England has merely flung away these sums of money and has received no equivalent value in return. A certain proportion was spent in respect of works, but the far more important item in the nation’s outlay on unemployment was the expenditure by the poor-law authorities on out-relief, the cost of which falls upon the ratepayers. There was, further, the distribution of the unemployed-insurance fund, the so-called dole-fund.

It is possible to criticize the method of dealing with a tremendous problem, but the fact remains that unemployment in England came to be the question that more than any other — much more than that of Reparations — was uppermost in the British mind.

France was in a very different situation. France was persuaded that Reparations could be obtained on the largest scale, whereas England was chiefly desirous of that peace which she supposed would spell prosperity. The essential difference is, that, whereas France has financial difficulties, England has economic difficulties. France is prosperous in the economic sense as never before. Her industries are flourishing and indeed she is obliged to import foreign labor. There is no unemployment — there is instead industrial Malthusianism. In a certain sense France must now be the richest country in Europe. She is developing her colonies; she is improving her industrial equipment; and, indeed, a remarkable report which was prepared some time ago showed that the French heavy industries are now for the first time based upon the old German system, various enterprises being connected on what in the jargon of the economists are called the vertical and the horizontal lines.

One curious result of the war is that agricultural countries are being transformed into industrial countries. France remains, of course, largely agricultural but she is much more industrial than before; and, with the addition of the Lorraine iron and the agreements which the French ironmasters will sooner or later make with the German coal and iron magnates, will become in the commercial sense by far the most formidable rival of Great Britain. But while England suffers industrially and France flourishes, England has placed herself on a sound financial basis and France has allowed her finances — owing to her disappointed expectations of Germany — to fall into the most hopeless mess.

France spent and borrowed freely during the war, and believing that Germany would pay the whole of the damages, considered it proper to institute a second budget of ‘recoverable expenditure,’ which was balanced only with hopes. It was a foolish policy which was bound in the long run to injure French credit. England pursued the opposite course. It may be that England went to the ot her extreme and tried to recover her former financial position too quickly. During the war she paid a larger proportion of her warcosts out of her revenue than any other belligerent, and she put all the so-called recoverable expenditure into the ordinary budget. For the past three years England has balanced her budget entirely out of current income without borrowing of any kind. This has been a great strain upon the British people, who pay in direct taxation — that is to say, in income tax — nearly twenty-five per cent even on the comparatively low incomes, while on the large incomes a steep supertax is imposed.

Probably no people has ever been so heavily hit by direct taxation. There is no escape. False returns are detected immediately. The machinery of collection is highly efficient; punishment for attempts at evasion are severe. It is perhaps not realized in America that most Englishmen work three months out of the twelve in order to pay the State.

There is not the smallest necessity to praise England or to blame France for the methods which were adopted. I merely wish to make it clear that the two peoples took diverging paths in accordance with their respective mentalities, and that they were therefore bound to take up opposed attitudes on Reparations. The British were never really under any illusions about Reparations; the French were. The British never failed to be practical and to make the necessary sacrifices while awaiting the possible future payments by Germany: the French relied upon the promises of the Versailles Treaty. The British depended upon themselves; the French depended upon Germany. It would be utterly wrong to scold or criticize the French for their credulity. They had not the same sense of realities as the Anglo-Saxon peoples; they had a keener sense of ideal justice; they had a sounder logic— and there is nothing which leads individuals and peoples so far astray as sheer logic in human affairs.

It is natural that while the French were suffering under a sense of their special grievances, they should have remained in almost complete ignorance of the genuine grievances of the British people. Lately efforts have been made to impress the truth upon the French: to teach them that England, too, is in a difficult situation and has not opposed France for the sake of opposing her. Nothing is harder than for one people to understand the point of view of another people, and it came about that while the British were laboring under their self-shouldered debts and at the same time were painfully aware of the commercial chaos, they blamed France for French unreasonableness which was perpetuating the upheaval of the Continent; and the French, smarting under their disappointment, watching helplessly their currency depreciate and their budget remain unbalanced, bitterly reproached the British for deserting them in their struggle for Reparations.


There is no prejudice or hostility on the part of England to France and no prejudice or hostility on the part of France to England except such as has arisen out of the circumstances. The British were convinced that the cause of the trouble lay in the French demands on Germany, which prolonged the strife and misery of Europe; the French believed that if they were not paid, it was because England was egotistic and had disloyally abandoned France.

On the one hand there was a people which proudly determined to tax itself to maintain its credits without asking for outside help, and at the same time found its markets closed. On the other hand there was a people which did not adequately tax itself, because it had been taught that it would obtain compensation from another nation which was responsible for all the damage that had been done. Neither France nor England has ever really appreciated the facts about each other, and nothing is more pitiful than the recriminations which have been indulged in and the angry words that have been flung across the narrow Channel. How is it possible to give nations imaginations which will traverse their frontiers? Before France and England can truly be friends again, they must understand why one country laid stress on the necessity of making Germany pay, while the other country laid stress on the necessity of pacifying Europe.

Nothing has been so striking in England during the past year or two as the unanimity of the ‘sixpenny weeklies.’ The sixpenny weeklies are an institution in England. There is the Spectator, which is Conservative; the Nation, which is Liberal; the New Statesman, which I think may not improperly be described as Socialist, although its Socialism is of the intellectual kind. I name these three weekly reviews, but there are others. Now all of them, without exception,—Conservative, Liberal, Socialist,— arrive at precisely the same conclusions. That has been to me the most important symptom in British public life. Never before do I remember such agreement. Indeed, I think it must now be quite understood in France that whether a Liberal, a Conservative, or a Labor Prime Minister is in power in England, — and we have seen all three within the space of eighteen months, — their thesis is, broadly speaking, the same. They have different methods of expressing themselves. One has observed that the tone of Mr. Ramsay MacDonald is not the tone of Mr. Lloyd George, while the tone of Lord Curzon as Foreign Minister was wonderfully unique. It does not follow that they arrive at the same conclusions by the same route. I am, in fact, inclined to declare that their agreement is partly accidental.

It is impossible that three great parties, which start from vastly varying principles, can think fundamentally alike. Doubtless it is true, for example, that the Conservative Party is to some extent, consciously or unconsciously, animated by the tradition of preserving the balance of power in Europe. The hegemony of France, which is threatened after the hegemony of Germany, can only be displeasing to the Conservatives. They see that if France were really to obtain permanent mastery of the Ruhr, were to maintain a stranglehold on Germany, were to marry the iron ore of Lorraine with the coal and coke of Westphalia, that France would not only be in a military sense the predominant nation of Europe but would in a commercial sense be in a position to rule the roost.

I deprecate, however, any belief that these considerations have governed British policy to the degree that is often represented. England would have welcomed, for the sake of peace and for the sake of the prosperity which — rightly or wrongly — she expects to result from peace, an understanding between France and Germany.

But, at any rate, the Labor Party is not concerned with such questions as the nice equilibrium of power in Europe. The Labor Party believes, if not in the League of Nations as at present constituted, at least in the ideal of a league of nations. It does not believe in the necessity of dividing Europe into two armed camps. That way war lies. It believes rather in aiming at a sort of United States of Europe. If in private life a menage a trois is difficult, in the international domain there seems to be no reason why three countries — the three countries of Europe upon which war or peace depends, France, England, and Germany — should not live in friendship side by side.

The Labor Party deprecates any transference of hatreds. If there was in England a wave of hatred for Germany during the war, and if that wave has passed, there is no good reason why it should now break upon the shores of France. A diplomacy which is governed and inspired by enmity is foolish. There are in the present British Government men who during the war were accused of being pacifists — as though we are not all, in the true sense of the word, pacifists. Their attitude may in the circumstances have been wrong, but it would be utterly illogical for the man who during the war proclaimed his pacifism to become an open enemy of another country after the war. If his pacifism comes from a peculiar religious source, he cannot be at once friendly toward Germany and unfriendly toward France. That is a mere perversion of sentiment. The truth is that those men in the Labor Party who were truly pacifists during the war are the men who are now, more than any other men in England, in the Conservative or the Labor Party, opposed to the unpleasant feelings which have at times manifested themselves in England against France.

Therefore France had not the smallest reason to be alarmed at the advent of a Labor Party in England. Even though the programme of Mr. Ramsay MacDonald is perhaps more extreme than the programme of Lord Curzon, it was received with less animosity as it was put forward with less animosity. There will be no mischievous dialectics; there will be only honest differences of opinion, and there will be the most tactful attempt to discuss the problems which are pending between France and England in a spirit of conciliation, of give and take.


Perhaps it is necessary to remove the impression that there is anything revolutionary in the Labor Government. In England it has been criticized by the Liberal Party on the ground that it contains rather more Lords than does the average Conservative Government, and certainly contains more members of what might be called the ruling families in England — that is to say, the families which from generation to generation, through their aristocratic origins, have a kind of primordial claim to wield effective power.

It is not the British method to tear up the constitution but gradually to adapt the constitution to the new needs of the day. There should be no foolish attempt, whether Labor or Liberalism is in the ascendant, to force conclusions too quickly.

In British diplomatic circles it is believed that M. Poincare in the occupation of the Ruhr intended to put pressure, not only on Germany, but on England. I will state quite frankly that I trace some of our present troubles to the unfortunate Balfour Note, which declined to cancel Interallied debts, and to the practical outcome of that Note, which was the settlement which Mr. Baldwin effected with America. England is now obliged to pay America a sum which represents ninepence in the pound on the income of every man in England. The result is, first, that England is more or less obliged to demand payment of her debts from France, and that France in her turn is bound to demand payment from Germany. It is also obvious that America has tied her hands in giving certain terms to England. She can hardly give other terms to another of the Allies, that is to say, France. I regard this step as particularly unhappy. But I believe that in spite of it there will be a growing desire in England to arrive at a reasonable adjustment of Allied debts. Mr. MacDonald, I am convinced, will wish to treat Reparations and Allied debts together. The settlement must be a general settlement.

Let me put quite plainly what I understand to be the view of influential men in England. England does not wish to buy France out of the Ruhr. She does not mean to offer an immense sum as a bribe. She believes that the occupation of the Ruhr is illegal and her definite statement on this point is perhaps the central factor in European policy. Nevertheless, she is or will be, as I understand, prepared to remit the French debt on terms which are not unfavorable. England cannot at the same time abandon her claims against France and against Germany. But assume that Germany’s total debt were fixed at 40 milliard gold marks, there is every reason to suppose that Germany could pay such a sum if she were helped. A moratorium seems to be necessary and assistance seems to be necessary. There must be international supervision and there must be an international loan.

Out of these 40 milliards, France would receive — say, roughly, 22 milliards. England must receive somewhere about 10 milliards, which, although not sufficient to pay America, yet will furnish the relief of which England is so greatly in need. It may well be that, after a short moratorium, Germany can pay 2 milliard gold marks a year, and if England receives sufficient from this source to enable her to meet her obligations, she has not the smallest desire to press France for payment. England, in short, wants nothing except some portion of the sums she is to pay to America, and is prepared to drop her claims on France.

Surely this is a businesslike proposition, and with the guaranties of a commercial character which might be given in such a settlement, it would be unnecessary for France, in the view of the British, to hold on to the Ruhr, especially as the holding of the Ruhr may make loans impossible and will certainly reduce the capacity of Germany to pay.

It is true that we are leaving America out of account. But there is reason to believe that were such a settlement effected, America would not come in to complicate and upset the arrangements by pressing her demands.

Now, it is necessary to say that the alternative to some such arrangement — for I do not wish to pin myself to any particular figures — is that England will sooner or later ask France to begin to pay the interest on her debt to England: that, indeed, the debt shall be funded. Were such a demand made definitely, France could not refuse. Refusal in the circumstances would mean repudiation, and repudiation would mean the collapse of French credit. There would be no Reparations from Germany except such trifling amounts as can be obtained directly from the Ruhr, and France would undoubtedly in the long run be faced with the prospect of ruin.

I am convinced that it is on such lines that France and England will eventually agree. After all, France will obtain the greater part of what she asks.


But there remains the question of security. For me, there is only one way in which France can obtain security. It is not by exchanging the Allies of the war, England, America, Italy, Russia, for a number of small and in some cases inefficient States, — for which, however, I have the greatest respect, — nor is it by keeping in perpetuity an army in the Rhineland or even in the Ruhr. Sooner or later, in these conditions, Germany will recover and Germany will fight. I understand the German calculation is that when that day comes, the struggle will be confined to France and Germany. There is obviously little prospect of America coming in again, while England, if the present strained relations continue, will inevitably turn her back on the Continent. Poland, treaty or no treaty, will hardly dare to move with Russia waiting to seize her opportunity. And as for Rumania and Czechoslovakia, everybody who knows the conditions must be aware that they would be running grave risks ware they to intervene.

Where, then, does security lie? It lies, first, in the commercialization of the German debt and in the restoration of tolerable relations. It lies, next, in the establishment of the League of Nations on a sounder footing, with Germany included in the comity of nations. It lies, thirdly, in the permanent disarmament of the Rhineland and in the establishment of a League of Nations police army on the Rhine, a police army which would be small and, if you please, ineffective so far as force is concerned, but which would nevertheless carry the flags of all the nations, who would thus be directly attacked were Germany to become once more aggressive. It should be the business of France and of England and of Germany to make the League so powerful that warfare would become impossible. There should be — as my friend, M. Leon Bourgeois, one of the greatest of French statesmen, long ago demanded — an international headquarters staff whose duty it would be perpetually’to study the situation and to give warning whenever any danger-spot in Europe is about to break into flames. It would then be for the whole of the nations which compose the League to come up with their fire engines and their hosepipes and extinguish the conflagration. Surely, France and England can work together to this end!

When France and England are again friends, the greatest step forward will have been taken in the settlement of Europe. Business has been retarded by the disagreeable sentiments which developed between the two countries that must be the pillars of the Continent for many years to come. It does not much matter whether France or England is right. What does matter is that while they are pulling in opposite directions there can be no reconstruction.

It is possible— though not probable — that even before this article is published the Labor Party will have gone out of power. In that case, it will in all likelihood have been succeeded by the Liberal Party, and the Liberal Party will have profited by the better spirit that has been developed by the Labor Party. After the unwise tactics of last year, England has surely learned the lesson that the French people will not change their purpose because of threats or denunciations. Nothing, indeed, could have supported M. Poincare so much as the opposition of Lord Curzon. To range the whole world against France will not mend matters, because as anybody who has the slightest sense of the psychology of the French knows, they merely harden their hearts if an attempt is made to command them. France is far more responsive to cordiality than to coercion.

While the American experts with their colleagues were searching for practical solutions, and while the British Government was seeking to get on better terms with France, in France there was growing up a clearer understanding that mere constraint, especially when that constraint was applied by France alone, would not produce fruitful results. There was a trend toward the Left; and the Governments of the two countries were approaching each other and trying to find a common ground. Nevertheless, it must not be supposed that the parties of the Left are prepared to sacrifice essential French interests. They cannot permit Germany to escape any more than the parties of the Right could release their grip. They must have regard to the financial needs of France, and these financial needs are real.

But the outlook is more hopeful because the Left favors international solutions and does not believe that a nation acting alone can accomplish anything in a world in which we are all interdependent. Unless something happens to upset all these calculations, I therefore feel one may confidently predict that the advent of the Labor Party in England and the changes which must be wrought by the elections in France will bring about a completely changed situation. Before the end of this year European harmony should be restored, and Europe, realizing its solidarity, should be able to invite America to cooperate fully in the reconstruction of the world.