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Poincaré Elected President of France

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The First World War was an unprecedented catastrophe that killed millions and set the continent of Europe on the path to further calamity two decades later. But it didn’t come out of nowhere. With the centennial of the outbreak of hostilities coming up in 2014, Erik Sass will be looking back at the lead-up to the war, when seemingly minor moments of friction accumulated until the situation was ready to explode. He'll be covering those events 100 years after they occurred. This is the 52nd installment in the series. (See all entries here.)

January 17, 1913: Poincaré Elected President of France

On January 17, 1913, Raymond Poincaré, a leading conservative politician and the premier and foreign minister of France since January 1912, was elected President of France after a complicated, contentious five-way race, which at times pitted him against his own party and almost saw him involved in not one but two duels.

With the term of President Armand Fallière coming to an end, many French political observers expected Léon Bourgeois, a center-left former prime minister now serving as minister of labor, to win the presidency easily. However Bourgeois, who had struggled with illness since 1904, refused to stand for election, citing his age and declining health. This unexpected withdrawal opened the race wide open, resulting in a political free-for-all.

Poincaré, never slow to seize an opportunity, declared his candidacy just days later, but was immediately challenged from both ends of the political spectrum. From the right came Alexandre Ribot, another former foreign minister and prime minister who had helped forge the all-important alliance with Russia in 1892. From the left came Jules Pams, a progressive Republican serving as agriculture minister, with support from George Clemenceau, a newspaper publisher and leader of the Radical Party. From even further left came the Socialist candidate, Édouard Vaillant, a former member of the Paris Commune with little hope of actually winning.

To make things even more complicated, two other contenders from the center-right also threw their hats in the ring. Paul Deschanel, a member of the Progressivist Republican Party who had famously advocated separation of church and state during the controversy over Catholic control of education around the turn of the century, now served as the president of the Chamber of Deputies. Antonin Dubost, a former journalist and educator respected for his early advocacy of Republican government during the dictatorship of Napoleon III, now served as president of the French Senate.

This complicated presidential race would be decided by an equally complicated, multi-stage balloting procedure in the National Assembly. On January 16, 1913, three preliminary ballots were held, which at one point gave the leftist Pams a slight lead over the conservative Poincaré, with the three other center-right candidates trailing behind. Faced with a possible leftist victory and no hope of clinching the election themselves, Ribot, Deschanel, and Dubost decided to withdraw from the race, leaving Poincaré the de facto choice for center-right Assemblymen.

On January 17, 1913, the Assembly again convened to vote, this time for keeps. Before they could do so, a “Bonapartist” deputy protested that the President of France should be elected by universal suffrage, rather than the votes of Assembly members; meanwhile a lunatic brandishing a revolver was arrested outside the building. Rumors also circulated that Poincaré would be required to fight a duel—or rather, duels—with Clemenceau and Pams over minor points of honor. Nonetheless, voting proceeded with two rounds of balloting, and on the second ballot, Poincaré secured 483 votes against 296 votes for Pams and 69 for Vaillant, giving him the Presidency.

Poincaré’s election was a crucial factor in the lead-up to the First World War for a number of reasons. Poincaré, a native of the lost province of Lorraine, considered Germany the main threat to French national security; indeed, his first statement to the public after winning the presidency was a promise to strengthen the national defenses. And while the French presidency had mostly been viewed as a ceremonial post up to that time, the energetic Poincaré realized that it actually had the potential to confer enormous power through a number of channels, including control of parliamentary procedure, the publicity of the “bully pulpit,” and the appointment of key ministers and officials.

Poincaré didn’t take long to exercise his new power. One of his first moves was to replace the French ambassador to St. Petersburg, Georges Louis, with Théophile Delcassé, who shared Poincaré’s view that Germany’s current trajectory posed an existential threat to France. Indeed, during the Second Moroccan Crisis Delcassé had written: “No durable arrangement can be concluded with Germany. Her mentality is such that one can no longer dream of living in lasting peace with her. Paris, London, and St. Petersburg should be convinced that war is, alas! inescapable and that it is necessary to prepare for it without losing a minute.”

Everyone recognized the significance of Delcassé’s appointment to the important position as French envoy to Russia. On February 21, 1913, the Belgian ambassador to France, Baron Guillaume, reported to the Belgian foreign office that “The news that M. Delcassé is shortly to be appointed Ambassador at Petersburg burst like a bomb here yesterday afternoon. … He was one of the architects of the Franco-Russian alliance, and still more so of the Anglo-French entente.” The implications were grasped as far away as Serbia, where the government was rumored to be encouraged by Delcassé’s appointment, because it meant the Russians would feel more confident in confronting Germany, which in turn meant Serbia would have more support from Russia in its own confrontation with Austria-Hungary.

The Serbs weren’t mistaken: On January 29, 1913, the Russian ambassador to France, Izvolsky, sent a secret telegram to the Russian foreign minister, Sazonov, assuring him that Poincaré was strongly sympathetic to Russia, and would support an expanded interpretation of the Franco-Russian alliance, including French support for a more assertive Russian policy in the Balkans. The tangled web of European diplomacy was drawing tighter.

See all installments of the World War I Centennial series here.

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How Cambodian Refugees Started the Pink Doughnut Box Trend
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Like the red-and-green cardboard pizza boxes or white Chinese takeout containers, many doughnut boxes share a certain look regardless of where you buy them. This is especially true in Southern California: Order a dozen crullers from one of the region's many independently-run doughnut shops and you’ll likely receive them in a glossy pink box. According to Great Big Story, this trend can be traced back to an influential immigrant business owner.

In the 1970s, Ted Ngoy moved to Southern California as a refugee from Cambodia. Much of Los Angeles's current doughnut scene is thanks to him: He opened dozens of doughnut shops of his own and helped fellow Cambodian refugees in the area get started in the business. Along with passing down entrepreneurial advice, he also inspired them to choose the light pink boxes that he used in his stores. As Ngoy recalled years later, either he or his business partner, Ning Yen, started the trend after asking their supplier for a cheaper alternative to the traditional white boxes. The company was able to offer them pink boxes at a discount. Because red is considered a lucky color in many Asian cultures, the distinctive shade stuck.

Today, many doughnut places in L.A. County are still owned by Cambodian-American immigrants and their families, and they still use the same old-school packaging Ngoy and his partner popularized 40 years ago.

You can get the full origin story in the video below.

[h/t Great Big Story]

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Pop Culture
Fumbled: The Story of the United States Football League
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There were supposed to be 44 players marching to the field when the visiting Los Angeles Express played their final regular season game against the Orlando Renegades in June 1985.

Thirty-six of them showed up. The team couldn’t afford more.

“We didn’t even have money for tape,” Express quarterback Steve Young said in 1986. “Or ice.” The squad was so poor that Young played fullback during the game. They only had one, and he was injured.

Other teams had ridden school buses to practice, driven three hours for “home games,” or shared dressing room space with the local rodeo. In August 1986, the cash-strapped United States Football League called off the coming season. The league itself would soon vaporize entirely after gambling its future on an antitrust lawsuit against the National Football League. The USFL argued the NFL was monopolizing television time; the NFL countered that the USFL—once seen as a promising upstart—was being victimized by its own reckless expansion and the wild spending of team owners like Donald Trump.

They were both right.

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Spring football. That was David Dixon’s pitch. The New Orleans businessman and football advocate—he helped get the Saints in his state—was a fan of college ball and noticed that spring scrimmages at Tulane University led to a little more excitement in the air. With a fiscally responsible salary cap in place and a 12-team roster, he figured his idea could be profitable. Market research agreed: a hired broadcast research firm asserted 76 percent of fans would watch what Dixon had planned.

He had no intention of grappling with the NFL for viewers. That league’s season aired from September through January, leaving a football drought March through July. And in 1982, a players’ strike led to a shortened NFL season, making the idea of an alternative even more appealing to networks. Along with investors for each team region, Dixon got ABC and the recently-formed ESPN signed to broadcast deals worth a combined $35 million over two years.

When the Chicago Blitz faced the Washington Federals on the USFL’s opening day March 6, 1983, over 39,000 fans braved rain at RFK Stadium in Washington to see it. The Federals lost 28-7, foreshadowing their overall performance as one of the league’s worst. Owner Berl Bernhard would later complain the team played like “untrained gerbils.”

Anything more coordinated might have been too expensive. The USFL had instituted a strict $1.8 million salary cap that first year to avoid franchise overspending, but there were allowances made so each team could grab one or two standout rookies. In 1983, the big acquisition was Heisman Trophy winner Herschel Walker, who opted out of his senior year at Georgia to turn pro. Walker signed with the New Jersey Generals in a three-year, $5 million deal.

Jim Kelly and Steve Young followed. Stan White left the Detroit Lions. Marcus Dupree left college. The rosters were built up from scratch using NFL cast-offs or prospects from nearby colleges, where teams had rights to “territorial” drafts.

To draw a line in the sand, the USFL had advertising play up the differences between the NFL’s product and their own. Their slogan, “When Football Was Fun,” was a swipe at the NFL’s increasingly draconian rules regarding players having any personality. They also advised teams to run a series of marketable halftime attractions. The Denver Gold once offered a money-back guarantee for attendees who weren’t satisfied. During one Houston Gamblers game, boxer George Foreman officiated a wedding. Cars were given away at Tampa Bay Bandits games. The NFL, the upstart argued, stood for the No Fun League.

For a while, it appeared to be working. The Panthers, which had invaded the city occupied by the Detroit Lions, averaged 60,000 fans per game, higher than their NFL counterparts. ABC was pleased with steady ratings. The league was still conservative in their spending.

That would change—many would argue for the worse—with the arrival of Donald Trump.

Despite Walker’s abilities on the field, his New Jersey Generals ended the inaugural 1983 season at 6-12, one of the worst records in the league. The excitement having worn off, owner J. Walter Duncan decided to sell the team to real estate investor Trump for a reported $5-9 million.

A fixture of New York media who was putting the finishing touches on Trump Tower, Trump introduced two extremes to the USFL. His presence gave the league far more press attention than it had ever received, but his bombastic approach to business guaranteed he wouldn’t be satisfied with an informal salary cap. Trump spent and spent some more, recruiting players to improve the Generals. Another Heisman winner, quarterback Doug Flutie, was signed to a five-year, $7 million contract, the largest in pro football at the time. Trump even pursued Lawrence Taylor, then a player for the New York Giants, who signed a contract saying that, after his Giants contract expired, he’d join Trump’s team. The Giants wound up buying out the Taylor/Trump contract for $750,000 and quadrupled Taylor’s salary, and Trump wound up with pages of publicity.

Trump’s approach was effective: the Generals improved to 14-4 in their sophomore season. But it also had a domino effect. In order to compete with the elevated bar of talent, other team owners began spending more, too. In a race to defray costs, the USFL approved six expansion teams that paid a buy-in of $6 million each to the league.

It did little to patch the seams. Teams were so cash-strapped that simple amenities became luxuries. The Michigan Panthers dined on burnt spaghetti and took yellow school buses to training camp; players would race to cash checks knowing the last in line stood a chance of having one bounce. When losses became too great, teams began to merge with one another: The Washington Federals became the Orlando Renegades. By the 1985 season, the USFL was down to 14 teams. And because the ABC contract required the league to have teams in certain top TV markets, ABC started withholding checks.

Trump was unmoved. Since taking over the Generals, he had been petitioning behind the scenes for the other owners to pursue a shift to a fall season, where they would compete with the NFL head on. A few owners countered that fans had already voiced their preference for a spring schedule. Some thought it would be tantamount to league suicide.

Trump continued to push. By the end of the 1984 season, he had swayed opinion enough for the USFL to plan on one final spring block in 1985 before making the move to fall in 1986.

In order to make that transition, they would have to win a massive lawsuit against the NFL.

In the mid-1980s, three major networks meant that three major broadcast contracts would be up for grabs—and the NFL owned all three. To Trump and the USFL, this constituted a monopoly. They filed suit in October 1984. By the time it went to trial in May 1986, the league had shrunk from 18 teams to 14, hadn’t hosted a game since July 1985, kept only threadbare rosters, and was losing what existing television deals it had by migrating to smaller markets (a major part of the NFL’s case was that the real reason for the lawsuit, and the moves to smaller markets, was to make the league an attractive takeover prospect for the NFL). The ruling—which could have forced the NFL to drop one of the three network deals—would effectively become the deciding factor of whether the USFL would continue operations.

They came close. A New York jury deliberated for 31 hours over five days. After the verdict, jurors told press that half believed the NFL was guilty of being a monopoly and were prepared to offer the USFL up to $300 million in damages; the other half thought the USFL had been crippled by its own irresponsible expansion efforts. Neither side would budge.

To avoid a hung jury, it was decided they would find in favor of the USFL but only award damages in the amount of $1. One juror told the Los Angeles Times that she thought it would be an indication for the judge to calculate proper damages.

He didn’t. The USFL was awarded treble damages for $3 in total, an amount that grew slightly with interest after time for appeal. The NFL sent them a payment of $3.76. (Less famously, the NFL was also ordered to pay $5.5 million in legal fees.)

Rudy Shiffer, vice-president of the Memphis Showboats, summed up the USFL's fate shortly after the ruling was handed down. “We’re dead,” he said.

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