At Versailles

Part II

It was unfortunate, perhaps, that Clemenceau himself did not establish good personal relations with the leader of either country [England and the United States]. Where Wilson and Lloyd George frequently dropped in on each other and met over small lunches or dinners during the Peace Conference, Clemenceau preferred to eat alone or with his small circle of advisers. "That has its disadvantages," said Lloyd George. "If you meet for social purposes, you can raise a point. If you find that you are progressing satisfactorily, you can proceed, otherwise you can drop it." Clemenceau had never cared for ordinary social life at the best of times. In Paris in 1919, he saved his flagging energies for the negotiations.

Clemenceau was the oldest of the three and, although he was robust for his age, the strain told. The eczema on his hands was so bad that he wore gloves to hide it. He also had trouble sleeping. He woke up very early, often at three, and read until seven, when he made himself a simple breakfast of gruel. He then worked again until his masseur and trainer arrived for his physical exercises (which usually included his favorite, fencing).

He spent the morning in meetings but almost always went home for his standard lunch of boiled eggs and a glass of water, worked again all afternoon, and after an equally simple supper of milk and bread, went to bed by nine. Very occasionally, he took tea at Lloyd George's flat in the Rue Nitot, where the cook baked his favorite, langues de chat.

Clemenceau did not much like either Wilson or Lloyd George. "I find myself," he said in a phrase that went round Paris, "between Jesus Christ on the one hand, and Napoleon Bonaparte on the other." Wilson puzzled him: "I do not think he is a bad man, but I have not yet made up my mind as to how much of him is good!" He also found him priggish and arrogant. "What ignorance of Europe and how difficult all understandings were with him! He believed you could do everything by formulas and his fourteen points. God himself was content with ten commandments. Wilson modestly inflicted fourteen points on us ... the fourteen commandments of the most empty theory!"

Lloyd George, as far as Clemenceau was concerned, was more amusing but also more devious and untrustworthy. In the long and acrimonious negotiations over control of the Middle East, Clemenceau was driven into rages at Lloyd George's attempts to wriggle out of their agreements. The two men shared certain traits --- both had started out as radicals in politics, both were ruthlessly efficient --- but there were equally significant differences. Clemenceau was an intellectual, Lloyd George was not. Clemenceau was rational, Lloyd George intuitive. Clemenceau had the tastes and values of an eighteenth-century gentleman; Lloyd George was resolutely middle-class.

Clemenceau also had problems closer to home. "There are only two perfectly useless things in the world," he quipped. "One is an appendix and the other is Poincaré!" A small, dapper man, France's president was fussy, legalistic, pedantic, very cautious and very Catholic. He was a republican, but a conservative one. Clemenceau came to despise him during the Dreyfus affair, when Poincaré carefully avoided taking a stand. "A lively little beast, dry, disagreeable, and not courageous," Clemenceau told an American friend. "This prudence has preserved it up to the present day --- a somewhat unpleasant animal, as you see, of which, luckily, only one specimen is known." Clemenceau had been attacking Poincaré for years and even spread rumors about Poincaré's wife. "You wish to sleep with Madame Poincaré?" he would shout out. "OK my friend, it's fixed."

During the war, Clemenceau, who like many leading French politicians had his own newspaper, criticized the president, often unfairly, for the failings of the French military. L'Homme Libre (renamed L'Homme Enchâiné after the censors got busy on its pages) carried editorial after editorial, written by Clemenceau himself, castigating the inadequate medical care for wounded soldiers and the shortages of crucial munitions. The conduct of the war was a disaster, those in charge utterly incompetent. Poincaré was outraged. "He knows very well that he is not telling the truth," he complained, "that the constitution leaves me no rights."

Poincaré returned the hatred. "Madman," he wrote in his diary. "Old, moronic, vain man." But on crucial issues, curiously, the two men tended to agree. Both detested and feared Germany. Poincaré had also fought against the defeatists during the darkest period of the war and had brought Clemenceau in as prime minister because he recognized his will to defeat Germany. For a brief period there had been something of a truce. "Now, Raymond old chum," Clemenceau had said before his first cabinet meeting, "are we going to fall in love?" Six months later, Poincaré was complaining bitterly that Clemenceau was not consulting him. After the victory the two men embraced publicly in Metz, capital of the recovered province of Lorraine, but their relations remained difficult.

Poincaré was full of complaints about Clemenceau's conduct of affairs. The armistice had come too soon: French troops should have pushed farther into Germany. France was being heavy-handed in Alsace and Lorraine. As a native of Lorraine, Poincaré still had contacts there, who warned him that many of the inhabitants were pro-German and that the French authorities were handling them tactlessly. Clemenceau was neglecting France's financial problems. He was also making a mess of foreign policy, giving away far too much to the British and the Americans and expressing little interest in German colonies or the Middle East. Poincaré was infuriated when Clemenceau conceded that English would be an official language at the Peace Conference alongside French. And he couldn't bear his rival's popular adulation. "All Frenchmen believe in him like a new god," he wrote. "And me, I am insulted in the popular press.... I am hardly talked about other than to be insulted."

To the dismay of Poincaré and the powerful colonial lobby Clemenceau cared little about acquiring Germany's colonies, and was not much interested in the Middle East. His few brief remarks about war aims before the conference opened were deliberately vague, enough to reassure the French public but not to tie him down to any rigid set of demands. Official statements during the war had referred merely to the liberation of Belgium and the occupied French territories, freedom for oppressed peoples and, inevitably, Alsace-Lorraine. His job, as he told the Chamber of Deputies, was to make war.

As for peace, he told a journalist, "Is it necessary to announce ahead of time all that one wants to do? No!" On December 29, 1918, Clemenceau was pressed by his critics in the Chamber to be more precise. He refused. "The question of the peace is an enormous one," he said. The negotiations were going to be tricky. "I am going to have to make claims, but I will not say here what they are." He might well have to give way on some in the greater interest of France. He asked for a vote of confidence. It went 398 to 93 in his favor. His main challenge now was his allies.

--- From Paris 1919
Margaret MacMillan
©2002, Random House

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