French statesman Raymond Poincaré (1860-1934) served his country as president during World War I (1914-18) and later as prime minister during a series of financial crises. Before the war, he worked to strengthen ties with Great Britain and Russia against the growing threat of Germany. In the postwar period, Poincaré took a strong stand during the Treaty of Versailles discussions, and urged French premier and negotiator Georges Clemenceau to require stiff reparations be paid to France by Germany for its part in the war. When Germany defaulted on payments, Poincaré ordered French troops to occupy the Ruhr, an industrial area in western Germany. During the 1920s, Poincaré took dramatic measures to stabilize the French economy and bring France a period of prosperity. Citing poor health, he left public office in 1929 and died five years later.
Raymond Poincaré was born in Bar-le-Duc, France, on August 20, 1860. He studied law at the University of Pairs, was admitted to the bar in 1882 and went on to practice law in Paris.
In 1887, Poincaré was elected deputy for the French district of Meuse and began his career in politics. He rose to cabinet-level positions in succeeding years, including minister of education and minister of finance. By 1895, he was chosen vice president of the Chamber of Deputies (the legislative assembly of the French Parliament). However, in 1899 he refused the request of French President Émile Loubet (1838-1929) to form a coalition government. Strong-willed, politically conservative and nationalistic, Poincaré refused to accept a Socialist minister into his coalition–he resigned from the Chamber of Deputies in 1903 and instead practiced law and served in the politically less-significant Senate until 1912.
Poincaré Becomes Prime Minister, then President
Poincaré returned to national prominence when he became prime minister in January 1912. In this most powerful position in France, he proved to be a strong leader and foreign minister. To everyone’s surprise, however, the following year he decided to run for the presidency, a relatively less powerful office, and he was elected to the post in January 1913. Unlike earlier presidents, however, Poincaré took an active role in policy formation. His strong sense of nationalism moved him to work diligently to secure France’s defense, strengthening alliances with Britain and Russia and supporting legislation to raise national military service from two years to three. Although he worked for peace, as a native of the Lorraine region, Poincaré was suspicious of Germany, which had seized the area in 1871.
When World War I broke out in August 1914, Poincaré proved to be a strong wartime leader and mainstay of French morale. Indeed, he demonstrated how dedicated he was to a unified France when, in 1917, he asked his longtime political enemy Georges Clemenceau to form a government. Poincaré believed that Clemenceau was the best-qualified man to serve as prime minister and lead the nation, despite his leftist political leanings, to which Poincaré was opposed.
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The Treaty of Versailles and German Reparations
Poincaré soon found himself in serious disagreement with Clemenceau over the terms of the Treaty of Versailles, which was signed in June 1919 and defined the terms of peace following World War I. Poincaré felt strongly that Germany should be subjected to heavy reparations and assume responsibility for starting the war. Although American and British leaders regarded the treaty as overly punitive, the document, which called for substantial financial and territorial reparations from Germany, was not harsh enough to satisfy Poincaré.
Poincaré further demonstrated his aggressive stance toward Germany when he assumed the position of prime minister again in 1922. He was also minister of foreign affairs during this term. When the Germans failed to meet their reparations payment in January 1923, Poincaré ordered French troops to occupy the Ruhr Valley area, an important industrial region in western Germany. Despite the occupation, the German government refused to make the payment. German workers’ passive resistance to French authority wreaked havoc on the German economy. The German mark failed and the French economy also suffered because of the cost of the occupation.
Finally, in 1924, the British and American governments negotiated a settlement that attempted to stabilize the German economy and soften the terms of the reparations. During the same year, Poincaré’s party suffered a defeat in the general election, and he resigned as prime minister.
The Financial Crisis of 1926
Poincaré was not out of office long. In 1926, amidst a serious economic crisis in France, Poincaré was once again asked to form a government and assume the role of prime minister. He moved quickly and forcefully to handle the financial situation by cutting government spending, increasing interest rates, introducing new taxes and stabilizing the value of the franc, basing it on the gold standard. Public confidence soared in the prosperity that followed Poincaré’s handling of the situation. The April 1928 general elections demonstrated popular support for Poincaré’s party and his role as prime minister.
On November 7, 1928, under attack from the Radical-Socialist Party, Poincaré was forced to resign. He acted swiftly to form a new ministry within the week, marking his final term as prime minister. Citing ill health, Poincaré left office in July 1929, and subsequently refused the offer of yet another term as prime minister in 1930.
Poincaré died in Paris on October 15, 1934, at age 74. He had devoted nearly all of his life to public service, and his work as president during World War I, coupled with his financial acumen as prime minister in later years, established his legacy as a great leader and a man who valued his nation above all else.