Georges Clemenceau, nicknamed Le Tigre (The Tiger) and Père la Victoire (Father of Victory), was a French statesman who served as Prime Minister twice and led France to an ultimate victory in World War One.
Best remembered on the international stage for his role in the Treaty of Versailles, Clemenceau was a member of the Radical Socialist Party (a right of centre organisation) and dominated French politics for several decades. His plain speaking and relatively radical politics, which included constant advocation for the separation of church and state, helped shape the political landscape of fin-de-siecle and early 20th century France.
Here are 10 facts about Le Tigre.
1. He grew up in a radical household
Clemenceau was born in 1841, in a rural region of France. His father, Benjamin, was a political activist and a deep hater of Catholicism: both were sentiments he instilled in his son.
The young Georges studied at the Lycée in Nantes, before obtaining a degree in medicine in Paris. While studying, he quickly became involved in student politics and was arrested for political agitation and criticism of the Napoleon III regime. After founding several Republican literary magazines and penning several articles, Clemenceau left for America in 1865.
2. He was elected to the Chamber of Deputies
Clemenceau returned to France in 1870 and quickly found himself embroiled in French politics: he was elected mayor of the 18th arrondissement and elected to the National Assembly too.
The National Assembly became the Chamber of Deputies in 1875, and Clemenceau remained politically active and often highly critical of the government whilst there, much to the frustration of his critics.
3. He publicly divorced his wife in 1891
Whilst in America, Clemenceau married Mary Eliza Plummer, whom he had previously taught horseback riding to whilst she was a schoolgirl. The pair returned to France and had 3 children together.
Clemenceau was notoriously and openly unfaithful, but when Mary took a lover, the family’s tutor, Clemenceau humiliated her: she was jailed for two weeks on his orders, stripped of French citizenship, divorced (Clemenceau kept custody of their children) and sent back to America.
4. He fought over a dozen duels in his life
Clemenceau often used duels to settle political scores, especially over cases of slander. In 1892, he duelled with Paul Déroulède, a politician who had levelled accusations of corruptions at him. Despite multiple shots being fired, neither man was injured.
Duelling experience led Clemenceau to maintain high levels of fitness throughout his life, including fencing every morning well into his seventies.
5. He became Prime Minister in 1907
After successfully passing legislation in 1905 which formally separated the church and state in France, the radicals won a significant victory in the 1906 elections. This government was headed up by Ferdinand Sarrien, who appointed Clemenceau as minister of the interior in the cabinet.
After earning himself a reputation as something of a strongman in French politics, Clemenceau became Prime Minister following the resignation of Sarrien in October 1906. A bastion of law and order, with little time for rights for women or the working classes, Clemenceau earned the nickname Le Tigre in the role.
However, his victory was relatively short-lived. He was forced to resign in July 1909 after a dispute on the state of the navy.
6. He served a second term as Prime Minister of France
Clemenceau still wielded political influence when war broke out in August 1914, and he quickly began to criticise the government’s efforts. Although his newspaper and writings were censored, his opinions and voice found their way to some of the more senior circles of governments.
By 1917, French prospects were looking weak, and the then Prime Minister, Paul Painlevé, was about to open negotiations for a peace treaty with Germany, which ruined him politically when it was announced publicly. Clemenceau was one of the few senior politicians left standing, and he stepped into the role of Prime Minister in November 1917.
7. He supported a policy of total war
Despite heavy French losses on the Western Front of World War One, the French people rallied behind Clemenceau, who supported a policy of total war and la guerre jusqu’au bout (war until the end). He visited the poilus (French infantrymen) in the trenches to boost morale and continued to use positive and inspirational rhetoric in a successful attempt to rally spirits.
Eventually, Clemenceau’s strategy paid off. It became clear in the spring and summer of 1918 that Germany could not win the war, and did not have enough manpower to consolidate its gains. France and her allies achieved the victory Clemenceau had long said they could.
8. He was nearly assassinated
In February 1919, Clemenceau was shot by an anarchist, Émile Cottin, in the back: he survived, although one of the bullets lodged in his ribs, too close to his vital organs to be removed.
Reportedly Clemenceau used to joke: “we have just won the most terrible war in history, yet here is a Frenchman who misses his target 6 out of 7 times at point-blank range.”
9. He oversaw the Paris Peace Conference in 1919
The armistice of World War One was signed on 11 November 1918, but it took months to hash out the precise terms of the peace treaty. Clemenceau was determined to punish Germany for their role as aggressors in the war, and also because he felt that German industry had actually been strengthened rather than weakened by the fighting.
He was also keen to ensure that the disputed border in the Rhineland between France and Germany was secured: as part of the Treaty of Versailles, Allied troops were to be stationed there for 15 years to provide France with a sense of security it had previously been lacking.
Clemenceau was also keen to ensure Germany faced the biggest possible reparations bill, partly out of personal conviction and in part out of political necessity. Eventually, an independent reparations committee was founded in order to determine exactly how much Germany could and should pay.
10. He resigned in January 1920
Clemenceau resigned as prime minister in January 1920 and took no further part in domestic French politics. He toured the east coast of America in 1922, giving lectures in which he defended French demands like reparations and war debts and viscerally condemned American isolationism. His lectures were popular and well-received but achieved few tangible results.
He wrote short biographies of Demosthenes and Claude Monet, as well as a first draft of his memoirs before his death in 1929. Much to the frustration of historians, Clemenceau burned his letters before his death, leaving something of a vacuum on some of the more controversial aspects of his life.