Diplomats and Republicans?

Diplomats would embody a bygone world. The idea is not new and the beginnings of the Third Republic were already the scene of a major change in the diplomatic universe: the meeting between old and new elites produced a reinforced esprit de corps.

The religious passions that agitated France in the 1900s aroused the distrust of French diplomats, who sensed complications for the country’s foreign policy. Ambassador Auguste Gérard, stationed in Brussels, sought a historical comparison: “These outbiddings in the midst of anticlericalism are like revolutionary outbiddings at the time of the Terror: the most violent end up being overtaken” (pp. 550-551). A convinced Republican, who had passed through Gambettist circles, Gérard embodied both the renewal of the elites of French diplomacy since 1870 and the quest for a happy medium that served France’s international interests.

It is its environment that is the focus of Isabelle Dasque’s work, a true panorama of a Quai d’Orsay in full transformation at the end of the XIXe century. It covers the biographical trajectories of the 405 diplomats who became plenipotentiary ministers and ambassadors between 1871 and 1914. While the contemporary Quai has been the subject of sociological surveys, “ethnographies” and its operation at other key moments of the XIXe century has given rise to several studies, this period lacked an in-depth study, which contributes to the more general renewal of the history of diplomacy and diplomats.

This study is all the more necessary since the first decades of the Third Republic allow us to test the image of a diplomacy as a bastion of aristocratic elites, this “ghost of Monsieur de Norpois” – a reference to a character from the Searching for lost time – which Isabelle Dasque’s analysis calls into question. The “persistence of the Ancien Régime” in the diplomatic world is in fact shed new light on this social history, which rather shows a recomposition, made of ideological compromises and professional co-optation.

The persistence of the Ancien Régime

The gap between republican ideals and the ruling class of French diplomacy at the beginning of the period may seem considerable. Of the 405 career paths studied, nearly 43% have a particle and a quarter have a title of nobility. Not that these titles are very old, the majority having been awarded since the First Empire. It is easy to mock, as Paul Hervieu does in his collection In Foreign Affairsa bourgeois diplomat calling himself “Armand Gigot de Bretteville”. But this over-representation clearly reflects the aristocratic codes that still govern an environment where the capacity for representation and belonging to a transnational society represent professional assets.

The aristocracy and the old bourgeoisie found themselves in directing their members towards the Carrière, because the specific conditions of the profession favored the economic elites. Until 1872, the agents of the ministry had to prove a personal income of 6000 francs to apply. The Carrière paid little in fact in relation to the expenses that diplomats had to make in the exercise of their functions and selection by money was obvious. In 1908 again, a Camille Barrère refused the embassy in Petersburg due to lack of sufficient financial means.

The presence of many monarchist and conservative diplomats among the senior executives of the Quai marked the 1870s and even tended to be reinforced with the elimination of the Bonapartist elites, who were the most immediate enemy of the Republic (pp. 282-283). It was only in the years 1880-1886 that an administrative purge began, the forms of which were however more modest than in the rest of the senior administration. Removal to less prestigious positions and retirement were often compensated by the granting of decorations or remunerative positions within boards of directors.

Entering the Career

More than a purge, it was through the evolution of the functioning of the ministry that the changes of the 1870s and 1880s would occur. The rapprochement of the three careers inherited from the Revolution (diplomats, consuls and dragomans) became a priority for the reformers, on the grounds of bringing together the elitist diplomatic corps and the meritocratic figure of the consul, whose concern for the fate of his compatriots and their economic interests must counterbalance the abstraction of diplomatic affairs (pp. 253-256).

Although it never fully took place, the project changed the recruitment procedures from 1877, leading to an increasingly formal competition, in addition to the practice of surplusa sort of practical training prior to recruitment. The place of law in the selection procedure is diminishing, in favor of diplomatic history, the leading discipline of the Free School of Political Sciences. The training of diplomats is gradually changing as a result, even if the surplus continues to favor family relations and patronage.

This modernization is accompanied by real generational conflicts, which do not completely overlap social divisions. Philippe Berthelot, a rising star of the Quai at the beginning of the XXe century, mocks during his stay in Petersburg an embassy counselor who “cannot get used to believing that there are people without titles” and gives him “Baron Berthelot” (p. 495). Professional cultures intersect, the younger generation readily accusing established diplomats of being inactive and attached to a culture of dilettantism.

The initial entry into the Carrière was not, however, the only major development: the renewal of executives was done, for a quarter of the 405 people studied, by a later entry, after careers begun in the prefecture or colonial affairs. Conversely, the skills of certain diplomats were sought elsewhere, as shown by the close appointments of Paul Beau (1902-1907) and Antony Klobukowski (1908-1910) as governors-general of Indochina. Behind these appointments, however, loomed the specter of political interventions: while diplomats did not disdain to activate some minister or parliamentarian to obtain a position, the desire to limit external appointments would precipitate a new esprit de corps.

Building a body

This professional consensus of the diplomats of the Republic in fact brings together old and new elites in the defense of their own territory. If the legitimacy of a Léon Say or a Théophile Delcassé to occupy ambassadorial positions is not disputed, the profile of the thirty other politicians appointed to such positions sometimes makes people grind their teeth. Similarly, the refusal of access to the body of figures too associated with radicals or – the case rarely arises – of Jews seems widely shared.

The strengthening of a body membership can be seen in the successive creation of a Friendly Association for Mutual Aid of Foreign Affairs (1884) and then a Professional Association of Civil Servants and Agents of the Ministry (1907). In both cases, the involvement of senior executives of the ministry reflects a corporatist logic that aims to defend career diplomats and their interests, particularly material and financial. These associations reflect the convergence of the elites of the Quai républicain and the defense of administrative recruitment rules can embody both a bureaucratic modernity and the defense of well-understood interests (p. 647).

The construction of the body is also observed in its shared convictions, which combine adherence to the Republic, conservatism and patriotism. The experience of humiliation in the face of Prussia constitutes fertile ground for this rapprochement and diplomats of all generations find themselves in support of a policy of expansion. In the 1880s, Freycinet is criticized for his caution in Egypt, Ferry praised for his offensive in Asia. New fields of French influence are sought, as demonstrated by the creation of the Alliance Française, strongly supported by diplomats Jules Jusserand and Paul Cambon.

The defense of the prestige of the Republic, sometimes threatened by the protocol of the monarchical capitals, is a common hobbyhorse: republicanism and aristocratic prestige easily find a way to combine when a Barrère recommends in 1907 to buy the Palazzo Farnese to house the embassy in Rome, in order to stand up to the buildings that Germany owns there. Finally, history brings together the different veins of diplomats, as shown by the massive membership of the Diplomatic History Society founded in 1886 and the attraction exerted by the great figures of the national diplomatic tradition, starting with Richelieu and the inevitable Talleyrand.

Shared obsolescence

Beyond a hypothetical struggle between supporters of the old and new worlds, the first decades of the Third Republic, as studied by Isabelle Dasque, rather show the coagulation of profiles that mix belonging to traditional elites and incorporation of republican practices. The construction of a new esprit de corps is the first consequence: replacing the aristocratic evidence, this esprit de corps takes up the attachment to tradition and puts it at the service of the republican regime.

In doing so, the diplomacy of the Republic maintains a strong attachment to the great principles inherited from XIXe century, starting with that of the European Concert. Great diplomacy is carried out in Europe – as shown by the hierarchy of posts abroad – and is based mainly on the agreement of the powers. It is in Vienna and not on the Bosphorus that one finds “true statesmen, proper women and sovereigns of real water”, as Melchior de Voguë wrote in 1875 (p. 405). The disintegration of this Concert, evident in the years 1890-1900 and accelerated by the Balkan crises, arouses shared consternation.

From then on, the obsolescence that threatens is not so much that of the aristocratic diplomats as that of an entire body. The events of the First World War in fact accelerate the decline of the old diplomatic style, in favor of multilateralism, economic diplomacy, the growing role of the media and even a Soviet “plebeian diplomacy” that the most radical of the diplomats of the Republic could not have imagined.