WWI Centennial: Crisis In France Over Military Service Law

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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 August, 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 121st installment in the series.

June 6, 1914: Crisis In France Over Military Service Law 

As the European arms race accelerated in 1912 and 1913, France’s response was the Three-Year Service Law, which aimed to increase the size of the standing army by extending conscripts’ term of service from two to three years. A key victory for conservative President Raymond Poincaré (above, left) the law was bitterly opposed by the left (always a powerful force in France) for a whole slew of reasons: Socialists attacked it as a symptom of growing “militarism” and feared the army would suppress workers’ demonstrations, while the more moderate Radicals said the law was passed at the behest of France’s ally Russia, practically making France a vassal of the tsar.

In the elections of April and May 1914, the left swept to power with major victories by both the Radicals and Socialists, forcing the cabinet of center-right Premier Gaston Doumergue to resign on June 2 and setting the stage for an all-out assault on the Three-Year Service Law. But Poincaré was determined to save it, declaring in a speech on June 1 that France “needs an army … capable of rapid mobilization.” On June 3, the Socialist leader Jean Jaurès (above, center) attacked Poincaré’s speech as “frankly unconstitutional” (at that time the presidency was supposed to be a ceremonial office) and the battle lines were drawn.

Now Poincaré began a frantic search for someone—anyone—in the new Chamber of Deputies who could cobble together a new government that would uphold the Three-Year Service Law. His task was a little easier because the Radical leader, Joseph Caillaux, was temporarily out of the game following his wife’s murder of the newspaper editor Gaston Calmette—but Caillaux would return to the arena as soon as her trial was over, so time was of the essence.

On June 4, Poincaré offered the job of Premier to an inoffensive moderate socialist, René Viviani (above, right), who attempted to square the political circle by promising that the Three-Year Service Law might be revised at a later date, if “external circumstances” allowed—meaning if the Franco-Russian Alliance no longer required it. But this offended the Radical members of his proposed government, who said it just proved that France was a Russian vassal after all, and on June 6 the cabinet fell apart. 

Now Poincaré’s job became even harder thanks to his friend Maurice Paléologue, the French ambassador to Russia, who (probably not coincidentally) happened to return to France on June 5 at the height of the political crisis.  A staunch supporter of the Russian alliance, but not the most suave politician, Paléologue bluntly declared he wouldn’t return to Russia if the Three-Year Service Law were overturned at home—a bizarre and totally inappropriate statement from a serving diplomat. Outraged, the leftists accused Paléologue of using foreign policy to hijack domestic politics; Paléologue explained, a bit melodramatically, that he simply couldn’t face the Russians if France let them down.

On June 7, Poincaré went back to the drawing board, offering the premiership to five leading leftist politicians, but was turned down by every single one. Eventually a moderate, Alexandre Ribot, agreed to try forming a government even though it was a long shot—and as expected on June 12 the new Chamber of Deputies rejected his proposed cabinet amid catcalls and shouts to end the Three-Year Service Law.

With war looming, France was adrift and its alliance with Russia in peril. Poincaré had to act fast.

See the previous installment or all entries.

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