World War I Centennial: 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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January 17, 2013 - 10:38pm
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