Prewar Years: France

An unwillingness to be involved in Europe was not a consideration for the French government. Indeed, it could be argued that, whereas British problems largely stemmed from malaise and inaction, French weaknesses were exacerbated by a certain bias for action. The end result of this was that, to some degree, we can point to France as the instigator of many of the dangers that began to circle Europe on the eve of the First World War.

France entered the twentieth century in yet another of its episodic periods of unrest and upheaval. The Third Republic was neither loved nor respected, as it had been formed in 1871 upon the defeat of the Second Empire at the hands of the Prusso-German forces during the Franco-Prussian War. Thus, the Republic was born of a chaotic period of humiliation, not just in military terms, but also in terms of territorial loss. As reparations for France’s role in the war against it, Germany had, in 1871, annexed the French provinces of Alsace and Lorraine (Elsaß and Lothringen), including the important cities of Strasbourg, Mülhausen, and Metz. Restoration of the two provinces became the rallying cry of French honour, and a thorny issue for decades was that the Republic was unable to build France up to challenge Germany for their return. Indeed, by the turn of the century, German industry was outstripping French quite considerably, and the German population was growing nearly twice as fast. French art at the time, typified by the works of Alphonse de Neuville, emphasised the hopeless situation in which France found itself; Neuville’s paintings usually depicted heroic, yet doomed, last stands of French soldiers during the Franco-Prussian War.


Alsace-Lorraine/Elsaß-Lothringen. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In order to mitigate the growing threat on its eastern border, France sought to isolate Germany. To that end, in 1894 the Quai d’Orsay signed the Franco-Russian Alliance into the statutes; this united Russia and France in a military treaty designed to surround the Germans and thus cause them to remain passive. Ultimately, Paris hoped that the alliance would permit it to reoccupy Alsace-Lorraine, reversing the humiliation of 1871.

Yet the Franco-Russian Alliance was a dangerous move for Paris. For one, it demonstrated a clear, hostile intent against Germany, which Berlin would not necessarily countenance. Overt belligerence was also likely to alienate the British who, though avoiding continental affairs, still held dynastic ties with Germany, and were not about to permit another Europe-wide conflagration. Of immediate concern, though, were the terms that made the treaty so attractive to the Russians. Russia had long coveted the Bosphorus and Dardanelles Strait, which permitted entry to the Mediterranean from the Black Sea. Russian access to the Straits, however, was regulated by the 1878 Treaty of Berlin, since Russian control was seen as an intolerable threat to Ottoman national security (the Bosphorus, of course, bisecting the Turkish capital, Constantinople.) Any negotiation permitting Russian control of the Straits would therefore enrage the Ottoman government. So, too, would it once more anger the British, whose financial investments in Turkey – and holdings in India – would be threatened by the prospects of the Russian Navy’s Black Sea Fleet being able to break out of the Black Sea. Furthermore, France itself had invested heavily in Ottoman infrastructure; a threat to the Ottoman Empire by Russia, facilitated by France, would therefore directly endanger France’s balance of payments.

It was this schizophrenic approach to foreign affairs that largely defined France throughout the early years of the twentieth century. This, too, was the result of a curious disconnection and divestment of power among French policy-makers. Supposedly, foreign policy was to be crafted at the Centrale, the French version of Britain’s Foreign Office, or Germany’s Auswärtiges Amt. In practice, however, French governments were notoriously short-lived, and foreign ministers barely had time to install themselves in their offices before they were dismissed. As a result, a succession of top diplomats, all with differing agendas, entered the Centrale. None of them stayed long enough to have a direct bearing on events. Because of this, foreign policy was often divested to the ambassadors and consuls in the various cities of Europe. That is to say, junior diplomats would privately negotiate their own deals with their host states, without direction from Paris. This often led to wildly divergent policy. Between 1910 and 1914, for instance, the French ambassadors to Germany and Britain, Jules and Paul Cambon, advocated French rapprochement with Germany, arguing that nothing favourable could come of alienating Germany. Often, however, they were contradicted by their compatriots in St. Petersburg or at home, in Paris. At the same time that Jules Cambon was assuring the Germans, in 1912, that France had no ill will towards Berlin, in Paris his new superior, Raymond Poincaré, was announcing that France would do everything within its power – including going to war – to return Alsace-Lorraine.

Another effect of this decentralised diplomacy was that, when the Centrale did make policy, it often endangered other French diplomatic efforts. The Franco-Russian Alliance, for instance, jeopardised the enormous French loans to Constantinople. In 1912, at the same time that France was preaching calm in the Balkans and attempting to defuse Austrian agitation against Serbia, Paris also approved a rearmaments loan to Belgrade that was the equivalent of twice the value of Serbia’s entire annual budget. In large parts, France also encouraged Russia to follow its aspirations to unite the Slavic people of the Balkans, while also providing assurances to Austria-Hungary and its client states that it was not doing so. Meanwhile, despite the incompetence of the Centrale, which nearly brought France to war with Britain over Fashoda, the astonishing work of Jules Cambon’s brother Paul in London led to the signing of the Entente Cordiale, an agreement between the two empires, in 1904. Ultimately, this would resolve into the Triple Entente, between France, Britain, and Russia, signed in 1907.

The agreements with Britain and Russia, both formerly enemies but arguably, in their own rights, the most powerful states in Europe, gave France a new confidence in European affairs. Depending on one’s interpretation, this either led to a new lease of self-assurance, or else of reckless aggression. In a series of diplomatic gambles, the French threatened Germany with war, knowing that Berlin was unready and supposing that its new allies would support it; in fact, the entente agreements were merely understandings rather than alliances, and the Centrale presumed a great deal. In 1905, for example, Kaiser Wilhelm II visited Morocco, formerly an Ottoman province but now (nominally) independent, albeit under French protection. The German emperor called for an international conference, in which he would announce his support for total Moroccan sovereignty, and insisted that the French should withdraw their influence from the region. In response, the Centrale, under Foreign Minister Theóphile Delcassé, threatened war. The French Army mobilised along the German border. Ultimately, though, Delcassé’s premier refused to risk armed conflict, though at the resulting conference the French were supported in their claims by Britain, and Germany was forced to back down.

Six years later, Morocco again became a flashpoint, after the French deployed significant numbers of troops to “safeguard” their interests in the country. Seeing this as a breach of the treaty terms from 1905, the Germans sent a warship, the SMS Panther, to Agadir, as a symbolic show of force. Once more, France threatened war, declaring the German ship to be a hostile influence. In fact, the Panther was a decrepit, pre-Dreadnought cruiser, due to be scrapped; even so, the French arguments swayed the British into pressuring Berlin to back down.

Gen. Joseph Joffre - The French Commander-in-C...

Joseph Joffre, commander-in-chief of the French Army.(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The belligerent French responses to these admittedly provocative acts by the Germans were the worrying result of an extraordinary rise to power of the French Army’s General Staff, under the leadership of General Joseph Joffre. The Centrale’s position in French policy-making was somewhat erratic, owing to the strangely weak and changeable nature of French government; Poincaré, who wrecked the Cambon brothers’ attempts at mediation with the Germans, was one of the longer-lived of the French foreign ministers, but even he lasted only a few days longer than one year in the role. The army leadership, on the other hand, was a steady constant. By outlasting every one of the ministers who supposedly had oversight over him, Joffre was able, in his own right, to fashion and influence policy himself. Joffre had been a young officer when Paris was besieged by the Germans in 1871, and thereafter had served as a military engineer in French overseas colonies, where the solution to most threats to French rule was the use of overwhelming force. With a background in a new cult of the offensive, Joffre saw military power as the only guarantee of foreign policy. Thus, French policy – certainly between 1900 and 1914 – centred largely on rearmament and bolstering France’s would-be allies in the event of a war with Germany. It was French money, for instance, that financed Russian Prime Minister Sergei Witte’s Trans-Siberian Railway, designed from the outset to shuttle large numbers of troops rapidly from one end of the country to the other. As we have seen, France financed Serbia’s massive rearmament, which would surely bring it into conflict with Austria-Hungary, Germany’s single reliable ally on the continent. This was precisely the point. To Joffre, war with Germany was an inevitability, but it was a fight that France could not win by itself. Thus, France needed to guarantee that, in the event of war, it would be supported. But by whom? It was unlikely that a war confined to the west would bring Russia into play, and Joffre’s plan to give the French a strategic advantage in the west – named Plan XVI – involved invading Belgium to get to Germany’s industrialised Ruhr Valley. If this were to happen, the least France could expect was that Britain would renege on any defensive agreement with France, since Britain had guaranteed Belgian neutrality. At worst, it might compel the British to declare war on France. Thus, Plan XVI was unworkable, but this would place the French at a severe disadvantage.

If, however, the Balkan region was the trigger of the conflict, then Russia would almost certainly enter the war, given its interests in the area, and its guarantees to Serbia. Thus, if Joffre’s “inevitable” conflict required that France have a dependable ally, France’s best hope was to militarise a region – namely the Balkans – in which Russia had vested interests.

Thus, the French Republic entered the twentieth century in a position of serious insecurity. The fragility of governments led to a multivocal diplomatic system which did not easily permit longterm agreements to be created. Yet there were some constants in French decision-making. One was that Germany was the eternal enemy, and the recovery of Alsace-Lorraine was a preoccupation of most of the successive governments. Most French officials believed that this would require another war with Germany, but they were also keenly aware that France would be incapable of defeating Germany by itself. France thus allied with Russia, and came to an agreement with Britain. These agreements, however, were themselves weak and often counter to other French policy. The one, clear direction provided by anyone in power in France was given by Joseph Joffre, commander-in-chief of the French Army, and arguably, it was this direction that contributed, to a great degree, to the rising, simmering tensions that threatened to boil over – and would do so in 1914.


Further reading

  • Andrew, Christopher. Théophile Delcassé and the Making of the Entente Cordiale: A Reappraisal of French Foreign Policy, 1898-1905. New York. St. Martin’s Press. 1968.

  • Fitzpatrick, Matthew P. (ed.) Liberal Imperialism in Europe. Basingstoke. Palgrave Macmillan. 2012.

  • Hayne, M.B. The French Foreign Office and the Origins of the First World War 1898-1914. Oxford. Clarendon Press. 1993.
  • Hovde, Brynjolf J. “French Socialism and the Triple Entente, 1893-1914.” Journal of Political Economy 34, 4 (August 1926): 458-478.

  • Keiger, John F. V. France and the Origins of the First World War. New York. St. Martin’s Press. 1983.
  • Williamson, Samuel R. The Politics of Grand Strategy: Britain and France Prepare for War, 1904-1914. Cambridge. Harvard University Press. 1969.

1 Comment

Filed under 1900-1914

One response to “Prewar Years: France

  1. Belgian

    Nicely put, as history is told by the victors France’s role in the build up to WWI is often underestimated. France was the only power seeking for territorial (re)gain in Western Europe.
    Alsace-Lorraine became a goal in foreign policy as much as it became a means of restoring their prestige. If losing the Colonial Wars to Britain and the Napoleonic Wars (in which France took on the entire continent) allready tarnished their prestige, the loss of the Franco-Prussian War left it in shambles. The very war that was meant to restore their prestige and credibilty resulted in humiliation, seizure of Alsace-Lorraine and the formation of Germany.
    With Germany now being the new dominant land power in Europe, France had no other means than forging a geopolitical situation in which it could take back what it lost.
    Alsace-Lorraine became a symbol of lost power and prestige and had to be taken back at any cost.
    And half a century later their (quite brilliant) diplomacy paid of.

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