IN his classic study Britain and France between Two Wars, Arnold Wolfers characterised ‘British support’ as the ‘conditio sine qua non’ of French security policy. Wolfers argued that only an alliance with Britain would enable France to deter a German bid to revise the Treaty of Versailles by force. France's ‘entire post-war foreign policy’, he judged, could be characterised as ‘a continuous struggle to get Britain to pledge her support to France’.1 This conclusion has rightly become a cornerstone of the historiography of international relations between the wars. Yet there has been surprisingly little examination of the precise character of the security commitment desired from Britain by France.2 Historians have tended to assume that throughout the inter-war period French policy aimed consistently at a resurrection of the 1914–18 military alliance.3 This judgement does not hold up to careful scrutiny. The essay that follows will argue that the commitment sought from Britain between 1919 and 1925 evolved from that of a traditional military ally to that of joint-guarantor of a Europe-wide system of inter-locking arbitration and mutual assistance pacts.
The question of Britain's role in French strategic conceptions goes straight to the heart of the wider issue of France's national security policy after the First World War. The historiography of this period has tended to represent this policy in essentially static terms as devoted slavishly to strict enforcement of the Treaty of Versailles and a military alliance with Britain.4 Where scholars have identified changes in policy, they have usually attributed this to incoherence, poor judgement or a lack of will.5 But the standard interpretation ignores important evidence of reflection and adaptation among French policy elites during this period.6 It also fails to identify fundamental changes in security policy as it evolved from a traditional focus on exclusive alliances and strategic preponderance towards a multi-lateral strategy aimed at enmeshing Britain and Germany in a Europe-wide system of political and legal commitments. Britain was crucial to both the traditional and multi-lateral strategies. In the traditional conception, a Franco–British alliance constituted the only viable balance against German power in Europe. The traditional approach proved unworkable. It was out of step not only with British policy objectives but also with growing popular support for pacifism and international reconciliation inside France. It lost ground gradually, though never completely, to a strategy aimed at creating a Europe-wide regime of mutual assistance and compulsory arbitration that would include Germany and be under-written by France and Britain. A careful look at the conceptual underpinnings of French security policy provides a new perspective on both the evolution of this policy and the course of Franco–British relations after the First World War.
‘Traditional’ and ‘multi-lateral’ provide useful conceptual categories for understanding different currents in French security policy after the First World War. The traditional approach relied primarily on force, or the threat of force, to deter and coerce Germany. Multi-lateralism, conversely, attached greater emphasis to the constraining power of legal and normative restraints. These restraints rested ultimately on the threat of force to impose the rule of law. But this threat was implicit and embedded in a system of mutual obligations. In the traditional approach, conversely, the threat of armed force constituted a fundamental organising principle.
At the heart of the traditional vision of national security was the concept of the balance of power and the practice of constructing exclusive alliance blocs. After 1919, the overwhelming priority was to provide France with long-term security against another German invasion. The German threat to France's survival as a European power had been driven home between 1914 and 1918 by the loss of nearly 1.4 million soldiers and the wholesale destruction of France's industrial heartland. The aim was to prevent another national catastrophe by maintaining permanent strategic preponderance over Germany. This would be achieved first by maintaining armed forces capable of enforcing the Versailles peace treaty and second by forging traditional alliances with those states sharing an interest in preventing another German bid for continental predominance.
This traditional prescription for security reflected the cultural predispositions of the vast majority of French diplomats and soldiers (the permanent officials chiefly responsible for the formulation of foreign and defence policy). The intellectual preparation given to aspiring diplomats in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries placed great emphasis on the long tradition of the balance of power in French policy. More than eighty per cent of foreign ministry personnel had attended the École libre des sciences politiques. Here they were taught that international relations were essentially the pursuit of national interests by professional diplomats within the wider context of the changes in the international balance of power. This understanding of world politics was embedded in the extremely competitive entrance examinations (concours) sat by candidates before for admission to the Quai d’Orsay. Attention to the national interest and the balance of power had animated the formulation of foreign policy before 1914 and was widely credited with having assured France's salvation during the opening phase of the war by delivering crucial alliances with Russia and Great Britain.7
Power politics were equally central to prevailing conceptions of national security among professional soldiers. Exclusive alliances and the use of military force were represented as ‘part of the ineluctable pattern of the modern world’.8 The military perspective was of particular importance after 1918. In the aftermath of victory, the prestige of the army high command was greater than at any point since the height of the First Empire. Senior military chiefs Ferdinand Foch and Philippe Pétain were considered national saviours and possessed immense symbolic capital. This allowed them to exercise often decisive influence over the making of national security policy. Both Foch and Pétain also enjoyed warm relations with nationalist politicians of the centre-right and right in both the chamber of deputies and the senate. It was among this constituency, not coincidentally, that traditional prescriptions for security enjoyed the greatest support in parliament.9
Multi-lateral strategies based on the rule of international law, conversely, enjoyed limited support among policy elites in 1919. The origins of this approach can be traced to trans-national movements for peace through the rule of international law that emerged on both sides of the Atlantic during the second half of the nineteenth century. French ‘internationalists’ of both the liberal and socialist variety had played an active role in this movement from its beginnings through to the outbreak of war in 1914.10 The experience of war provided internationalists with a window of opportunity through which to bring the doctrine of ‘peace through law’ to the centre of discourse on international politics. Traditional power politics were widely, though not universally, discredited as central causes of war in the public spheres of western democracies. The political rhetoric of American president Woodrow Wilson, in particular his call for a new world order based on the rule of law, functioned as a magnetic pole for internationalists of all nationalities who advocated a new approach to world politics.11 Wilson's widely publicised speeches gave early expression to profound changes in the normative environment in which states would formulate their foreign and defence policies after 1918. At the Paris Peace Conference in early 1919, Wilson took the lead in pushing through a liberal conception of the League of Nations that relied on arbitration and the power of ‘world opinion’ to enforce a new international legal regime. War against other ‘civilised’ states was no longer a legitimate tool of policy in Europe. To an unprecedented degree, international legitimacy now flowed from the discourses of collective security, disarmament and the rule of law rather than those of alliance politics and the balance of power.12
Enthusiasm for a new approach to international order in France was restricted for the most part to the centre-left and left of the political spectrum. Nor, despite Wilson's enormous popularity during the early phases of the peace conference, did most French internationalists embrace the Wilsonian conception without reservation. This was because French internationalism was of a more muscular character than the Anglo-Saxon variety. The use of force was never divorced from the rule of law in French international thought. Sanctions, including military sanctions, were therefore central to the French proposals for a ‘society of nations’ rejected by the British and Americans at the peace conference.13
Support for internationalist doctrines had never held much attraction for the more forthrightly nationalist politics on the right of French politics. This is important because the end of the First World War marked the zenith of nationalist enthusiasm in post-revolutionary France. The Bloc national, the centre-right coalition of Radical Socialists and nationalist republicans that triumphed in parliamentary elections of November 1919, favoured a traditional prescription of strong alliances and strategic preponderance as the best strategy for national security. For Bloc national leaders such as Alexandre Millerand, the conservative nationalist who combined the posts of premier and foreign minister in the first coalition government, internationalist projects such as the League of Nations were a potentially dangerous distraction from the core issue of the Franco–German balance of power.14 And Millerand represented a powerful current in French opinion at the war's end. ‘If the spirit of the world has changed’ proclaimed an editorial in Le Temps, the influential daily newspaper of the political centre with close ties to the foreign ministry, ‘that of Germany is untouched by this and remains dominated by pride, megalomania and a lust for conquest’.15 The mood in France in 1919 was distinguished by a visceral resentment and suspicion of Germany as well as a determination to see that country pay for the damage caused by the war. Every French government of the post-war period considered some kind of arrangement with Britain essential to the realisation of this aim.
The pivotal role of Britain in all conceptions of French national security was rooted in the experience of the Great War. British participation in that conflict had been vital to France's survival. The manpower contribution of Britain and its empire had been critical. The terrible human cost of the war, combined with long-standing anxieties concerning France's demographic inferiority in relation to Germany, ensured that it would remain so in any future conflict with Germany. The role of British sea-power was equally crucial. The Royal Navy had contained the German fleet, protected allied commerce and imposed an increasingly effective naval blockade on the Central Powers. France had also been dependent on the British merchant shipping for nearly half of the imports required to maintain its war industry and feed its population. Also vital was British financial power which, combined with its ability to raise loans in the United States, had kept the Allied war effort going from late 1915. Britain and France had managed to overcome centuries of national rivalry to coordinate their efforts in a remarkable strategic partnership that culminated in a unified command in spring 1918 and victory the following November.16
These various factors received careful consideration in studies of the ‘lessons’ of the Great War prepared by the French army general staff during the 1920s. Particular importance was attributed to the role of economic warfare, which was judged ‘the single most important factor in the internal collapse which preceded the defeat of the German armies on the western front’.17 And there were other, less measurable but no less important, characteristics that made an entente with Britain so desirable. ‘With its navy, its military potential, its immense economic resources and especially its fidelity to engagements’, observed the French ambassador in London in early 1922, ‘Britain is as precious an ally in war-time as its political influence, moral authority and loyalty make it in peace-time’.18 All of this was of critical importance given that Germany had retained the demographic and industrial resources to mount another bid for continental dominance. French intelligence estimated in 1920 that German industrial potential was three times greater than that of France. It further warned that German reserves of manpower would soon be more than double those of France.19 In an era of industrial war, these advantages were decisive and made the full participation of Britain absolutely crucial to prospects of success in a future European war. To refuse to recognise this, yet another assessment warned, ‘would be to misunderstand the true balance of power in Europe’.20
The problem for French policy was that the British held quite different conceptions of security. Germany had been Britain's second largest export market before 1914. British policy inclined increasingly towards a relatively swift reintegration of Germany into the international political and economic system in the hope that it might serve as an engine of European recovery. The trauma of war, moreover, had produced very different attitudes towards the Entente in Britain. Public attitudes were characterised by a pervasive aversion to future military adventures in Europe.21 British policy makers recognised Britain's vital interests on the continent. At the same time, the force of public opinion, combined with firm opposition to any militarisation of foreign policy among most political elites, all but precluded advance military preparations with France. As early as 1925, the Chief of the Imperial General staff could observe that ‘The true strategic position of Great Britain is on the Rhine’.22 Yet, as late as 1938, the Chiefs of Staff could dismiss the idea of joint planning with France by observing that ‘the very term “staff conversations” has a sinister purport and gives an impression … of mutually assumed military collaboration’.23 Added to this was the legacy of centuries of bitter national rivalry that had not been eradicated by the war. Lord Curzon, soon to be foreign secretary, observed before the Paris peace conference had even started that ‘We have been brought, for reasons of national safety, into an alliance with the French, which I hope will last, but their national character is different from ours in many cases. I am afraid that the Great Power from whom we most have to fear in the future is France’.24 British participation in French schemes of security was vital. But it would be difficult to secure.
Georges Clemenceau, head of government in France from November 1917 through January 1920, understood all of this. He therefore placed crucial importance on continuing the wartime relationship with the ‘Anglo-Saxon’ powers and agreed to fundamental compromises in order to obtain this goal.25 He advised the chamber of deputies in December 1918 that the peace-time unity of the wartime Allies would be his ‘directing thought’ during peace negotiations. ‘To this unity’, he pledged ‘I will make every sacrifice’.26 Clemenceau held to his word. He made far-reaching concessions to the original French security programme in order to obtain post-war strategic commitments from Britain and the USA. The initial French plan envisaged a complete overthrow of the European balance of power. It called for detaching the industrial and coal-rich region of the Rhineland from the rest of Germany. A new state would be created and placed under permanent military occupation to serve as a strategic buffer between Germany and its western neighbours. This programme, considered the absolute minimum requirement for French security by the vast majority of soldiers, diplomats and conservative politicians, was unacceptable to both the British and the Americans. Clemenceau was therefore forced to renounce his claim for an independent Rhineland. In return, he secured three ‘guarantees’. The first was Allied occupation of the left bank of the Rhine and key bridgeheads on the right bank for at least fifteen years. The second was the permanent demilitarisation of this region as well as a fifty kilometre strip on the right bank. The third was a joint British and American promise to come immediately to the aid of France in the event of future unprovoked German aggression.27 These guarantees constituted the core of French security policy as expressed in the Treaty of Versailles. The effectiveness of all three, however, depended on a continuing commitment among the victor powers to uphold the treaty. The early 1920s would witness the swift erosion of this commitment.
The British and American guarantees of assistance evaporated with the definitive refusal of the US congress to ratify the Treaty of Versailles in March 1920.28 A central pillar of Clemenceau's security policy was thus removed. There was therefore no longer a well-defined role for Britain in French policy when the first Bloc national government of Alexandre Millerand came to power.
This state of affairs would endure over the next two years while tensions with Britain increased over issues of treaty enforcement and disarmament. Millerand's policy, which would endure after he left the government to become an unusually interventionist president of the Republic in September 1920, was based on the assumption that the war-time Entente would continue to function through the machinery of the allied supreme council and the council of ambassadors. Millerand's focus shifted to coercive measures to force German compliance with the treaty and to building a coalition of states in east-central Europe to deter German revisionism. Both of these priorities created tensions with Britain, which were exacerbated by diverging policies over Turkey and Soviet Russia.
The importance attached to coercion in French policy was given notable expression in the Millerand government's unilateral decision to occupy Frankfurt, Darmstadt and three other towns as a response to German treaty violations on 6 April 1920. This move met with anger in London and illustrated the growing fissures in the Entente over German treaty compliance.29 There were also divergences over eastern Europe. The alliances binding France to Poland (1921) and, more loosely, to Czechoslovakia (1924) were early exercises in ‘extended deterrence’. Their aim was dissuade Germany from any attempt to revise the territorial settlement to its east. This was particularly the case with the Franco–Polish alliance, which included a secret military convention aimed at Germany. Even together, however, these new states could not fulfil the role played by Imperial Russia before 1914 as an ‘eastern counter-weight’ to German power. French policymakers were united in the judgement that only a close alliance with Great Britain could provide a deterrent capable of dissuading German revision in the long term.30 The British, however, refused all strategic commitments east of the Rhine and viewed French alliance-building in this region with suspicion. The Lloyd George government favoured flexibility over the problem of German treaty fulfilment and was deeply suspicious of French projects in eastern Europe.31 French policy would agonise on the horns of this dilemma for the entire inter-war period.
Despite the emphasis on alliances and treaty compliance in the security policies of both Millerand and his successor Georges Leygues, there was also a willingness to engage with Germany in projects for industrial collaboration and payment of reparation ‘in kind’. These initiatives were championed by Jacques Seydoux, director of commercial relations at the foreign ministry and one of the most influential voices in French policy making. They had foundered however—not least as a result of British opposition.32 It was in this context that Seydoux argued in a widely circulated memorandum in August 1921 for a more coherent security and reparations policy based on Franco–British co-operation. ‘Since the armistice’, he observed:33
At the same time, Seydoux acknowledged, French efforts to obtain German compliance had been most successful when supported by Britain. He concluded that France had two realistic policy options. The first, ‘a policy of force’, would mean the occupation of the Ruhr industrial basin to extract reparations directly from the German economy. It might also lead to ‘the destruction of the Reich’. Such a course, Seydoux rightly predicted, would lead to a serious breakdown in relations with Britain. The alternative was to co-operate with the British to obtain German treaty fulfilment and perhaps even participation in wider projects for European recovery. Seydoux plainly favoured the latter approach. He advised that coercive diplomacy in the form of a threat to occupy the Ruhr need not be abandoned entirely. But it should be exercised with caution and within the context of entente with Britain. ‘It is essential’, he urged ‘that Britain understands that France pursues no other goal in Europe beyond the conservation of its security, that we seek neither conquest nor hegemony, but that it is necessary for the peace of the world that Germany ceases to be the perpetual enemy of all order’.34
… the British government has pursued its own policy towards Germany aimed at maintaining a European balance of power favourable to its own interests … It has very naturally sought to shackle French policy, striving not only to prevent a Franco-German accord but also the employment of force by France to oblige Germany to execute the clauses of the peace treaty. The British aim is to maintain sufficient points of friction between France and Germany to make any conversation impossible but to intervene each time that this friction becomes too serious.
Seydoux re-iterated this argument several months later in another missive on the importance of Franco–British co-operation, the chief conclusion of which was that France ‘cannot remain at peace in Europe if we are not in accord with Great Britain … It is the whole of French policy in Europe that is at stake at the moment. The course of events depends solely on the speed with which we take this decision and the precision of the language we use in London’.35 The Franco–British Entente, Seydoux urged, must serve as a source of strength for France in its dealings with Germany.
Seydoux's analysis found a receptive audience with Aristide Briand, who had assumed the portfolios of premier and foreign minister in January 1921. A formidable political operator with an acute sense of the possible, Briand's long career was characterised by an unsystematic and non-doctrinaire approach to politics.36 It is unlikely that Briand, who was famously allergic to paperwork of all kinds, read Seydoux's two memoranda cited above. But it is virtually certain that they were read by Philippe Berthelot. As secretary general, Berthelot was the senior permanent official at the foreign minister and, in many ways, the polar opposite of his minister. If Briand read little and wrote even less, Berthelot read voraciously and drafted most of the dozens of ‘instructions’ that appeared in the minister’s name each day. Despite their very different styles, the two men shared a pragmatic approach to international politics. Both, moreover, were in agreement that a new approach was needed to resolve France's security problem.37
Briand had adopted a relatively hard-line upon assuming the premiership. In March 1921, in response to German defiance over reparations, he ordered the occupation of the Ruhr towns of Düsseldorf, Duisburg and Ruhrort. These coercive measures, which were taken in agreement with the British, did not satisfy the majority of parliamentary and public opinion which, led by President Millerand, called for the immediate occupation of the entire Ruhr basin. Briand did not agree. He preferred co-operation with Britain. To achieve this, he was willing to compromise on strict treaty enforcement.38
Briand's preference for an understanding with Britain as the basis of French security policy was only reinforced by the experience of the Washington Conference on naval disarmament which opened in November 1921. Denunciations of French militarism and imperialism reached a crescendo in the international press after the French delegation resisted concerted Anglo-American pressure to limit France's naval power. The conference was a disaster for the French government's campaign to influence world opinion in favour of its desire for long-term security.39
The Briand government's response was to refashion French security policy. The goal of the programme that resulted was to create a Europe-wide security system anchored by a Franco–British strategic partnership.40 This new strategy was inspired, in part, by the multi-lateral four-power treaty for Pacific security agreed at Washington. The objective was to construct a European equivalent anchored by a bi-lateral treaty with Britain. The novelty and significance of the French negotiating position as it evolved under Briand has not been recognised in the existing literature.41 What emerged in late 1921 and early 1922 was an approach to security that departed from traditional practices in two distinct ways. First, it aimed at enmeshing Germany in a multi-lateral system that would provide political and legal constraints on its freedom of action. At the heart of this system, however, would be a bilateral agreement with Britain. Second, a full-blown military alliance with Britain was not a necessary pre-requisite. Crucial importance was instead attached to a British political commitment. Both of these innovations were responses to the new international norms of the post-1918 era.
The early outlines of the new French conception are evident in the minutes of a summit meeting between Briand and Lloyd George in London on 21 December 1921. Briand stressed the need for a ‘solid entente’ that would allow his government to reduce its military expenditures (and so ease British anxieties about French designs for continental hegemony). Such an entente, he argued, must take the form of ‘a substantial alliance in which the two powers guaranteed one another's reciprocal interests across the globe and would come to the aid of one another when necessary’. This would facilitate the creation of ‘a broader security pact’ that would include France, Britain, Belgium and other interested states. ‘Germany’ Briand observed, ‘must be part of this pact’. Germany would be bound in a wider system that would not only prevent it from using violence to revise the peace settlement but would also help shape its future behaviour as a responsible state. ‘Within this system of guarantees’ the French premier predicted ‘the Germans are likely to renounce their warlike designs’ because its character would ‘aid German democracy, prepare the return of Germany to the community of nations and thus have a stabilising effect on Europe’.42
Lloyd George responded that British public opinion feared being drawn into quarrels in Eastern Europe and would not countenance a military alliance with any other state. He also made clear that the price for any political guarantee would be French participation in a worldwide financial and economic conference to which both Germany and the USSR would be invited. It was understood that the schedule for reparations payments would be up for renegotiation at such a conference and that Germany would be granted a moratorium in order restore order to its finances.43
The prospect of security talks with Britain prompted a series of memoranda by senior foreign ministry officials in Paris. The most original contribution to this process came from Jacques Seydoux, who used the example of Europe stabilisation after the Napoleonic Wars to argue for enmeshing Germany in a new multi-lateral security system. Seydoux compared the project outlined by Briand in London to the strategy of the ‘Holy Alliance’ at Aachen in 1818, in which France was invited to ‘unite its councils’ to the efforts of Austria, Britain, Prussia and Russia to ‘work together to maintain existing treaties’. This move, he observed, had laid the foundations for the European ‘concert’ that endured through to the middle of that century.44 Seydoux suggested that a similar level of stabilisation might be achieved by granting Germany a moratorium and obtaining, in return, political collaboration. Such collaboration, Seydoux predicted in a revealing passage, would ‘[b]y rehabilitating Germany from a moral point of view, engage it all the more in the execution of the treaty. There would then be no problem in agreeing to Germany entry into the League of Nations’.45 Seydoux's constructive prescription for stability and security was a far cry from the uncompromising approach commonly attributed to French policy at this juncture.
Other senior foreign ministry mandarins exhibited little interest in Seydoux's idea and argued for a more traditional alliance with Britain. Jules Laroche, deputy director of political and commercial affairs at the ministry, agreed that an ‘entente’ of four or more states would be useful to provide reassurance to Britain and Germany. But he also stressed that such an arrangement would ‘necessarily be rather vague and general’ and that real security required an alliance with Britain.46 Henri Fromageot, the influential chief legal counsellor at the Quai d’Orsay, agreed with Laroche, extolling the deterrent value of a Franco–British alliance while making only passing reference to a wider entente.47 The French ambassador in London, the Comte de Saint-Aulaire, drafted terms for an exclusive alliance which he forwarded to Paris in the expectation that they would serve as the basis for French policy. His draft was a veritable distillation of the traditional approach to security. It contained only one clause relating to ‘co-operation’ with third parties committed to ‘maintaining the political status quo’. It not only envisaged regular Franco–British staff talks and a military convention but also contained provisions aimed at French and British support for Rhenish separatism.48 France's military leadership, interestingly, does not seem to have been consulted at all before the Cannes summit. The high command had already made clear to Briand its preference for coercion as the best means of ensuring both German compliance and French security.49 Most senior generals, moreover, continued to harbour illusions of an independent Rhineland that were profoundly antithetical to the strategy of engagement towards which Briand was moving.50
Frustratingly, it is impossible to know the views of Briand's chief advisor at this point. Berthelot was caught up in a parliamentary row and resigned on 27 December 1921.51 This left the policy machine without its chief engineer. Briand, as a result, went to meet Lloyd George at Cannes in early January 1922 without the raft of preparatory memoranda that would normally constitute the sinews of policy making. The resulting paucity of documentation has led historians to assume that Saint-Aulaire's project represented the French negotiating position. The multilateral strategy advocated by Seydoux and articulated by Briand in London has been either ignored or dismissed as window dressing for the core aim of a military alliance.52 Yet Briand's commitment to a new strategy is evident in the stenographic records of the Franco–British summit meetings in Cannes. Saint-Aulaire's draft treaty was relegated to the files as, eventually, were hopes to add staff talks and a military convention to the bi-lateral pact with Britain.
The fact is that there was no hope that any British government would agree to a traditional military alliance. British foreign secretary Lord Curzon captured the extent to which the changed international atmosphere placed restrictions on policy makers in a memo to his cabinet colleagues before the Cannes summit. Curzon stressed that any arrangement that appeared to be ‘an attempt to revive the old policy of State alliances dominating and controlling the future of Europe’ would cause ‘profound difficulties … at a time when such arrangements are believed to have been superseded by the newer conceptions embodied in the League of Nations, in international courts and conferences, and in the theory of corporate action as opposed to the rival grouping of powers’.53 Briand, with his acute political antennae, recognised the limits beyond which the British would not go. His response was to opt for a strategy of enmeshing both Britain and Germany in a multi-lateral system. He made this intention clear in both the French and British press before the summit in Cannes. In the Daily Mail, he emphasised that an ‘alliance pact’ between France and Britain ‘must constitute the kernel of a wider arrangement’ modelled on the Pacific four-power pact.54 Two days later, an editorial was placed in Le Temps representing a Franco–British pact as ‘the sole means of restoring prosperity and bringing Germany … back into the family of nations’.55
Briand outlined his strategy of creating a wider European security system anchored by a Franco–British alliance at the first of a series of meetings with Lloyd George at Cannes.56 He argued that French insecurity was at the heart of Europe's ‘malaise’. Other challenges facing Europe could not be tackled without bolstering post-war order with a Franco–British pact. Such a pact, Briand argued, must constitute the essential foundation of a ‘larger conception’ that would bind the states of Europe together and ensure their security and prosperity. Such a conception, Briand argued, would need to take the form of a regional security system in which:
Arbitration would thus underpin inter-locking political commitments in a system embracing all signatories of the Versailles treaty. Germany would be admitted on the condition that it renounced aggression and accepted the principle of compulsory arbitration. The same offer could be extended to Soviet Russia. A regional system of this kind, Briand insisted, would strengthen the League and therefore gain the whole-hearted support of the mainstream left-wing parties in both France and Britain.57
France and Great Britain, united in some kind of arrangement which remains to be found, would be surrounded by all of the peoples who had signed the Treaty of Versailles in a general entente. All of these nations would engage to consult together in the event of trouble and to examine the causes of conflict in a manner permitting their amiable settlement. In the event that this proves impossible, the arbitration [of the disagreement] will be guaranteed by Great Britain and France. It will thus be possible to maintain the peace in any circumstances.
On 8 January 1922, the French delegation produced a draft Franco–British security pact that included a provision for joint war planning between the French and British army and naval staffs. The proposal further stipulated that the Franco–British ‘arrangement’ would underpin a wider regional pact that would provide security ‘in a still more precise manner than that of the stipulations of the Covenant’.58 Briand and his team could not have been surprised when Lloyd George rejected staff talks as ‘precisely the sort of engagement that the British public loathes the most’. The British prime minister offered instead a pledge to come to France's assistance in the event of unprovoked aggression.
Briand, supported by Laroche, immediately indicated that he was willing to sacrifice staff conversations and assured Lloyd George all mention of military collaboration could be excised from the proposed bi-lateral pact. He pressed forward with the idea of a regional entente, however, observing that such a system need not entail precise measures of military coercion. Lloyd George observed that such an engagement ‘would bind together all of the powers that posed a danger to European peace: Russia, Germany, Poland, Hungary and Bulgaria’. Briand agreed, responding that ‘this is precisely the goal that must be achieved’. If a Franco–British entente could be placed alongside the wider arrangement, the French premier argued, ‘we will have fashioned a solid political system that can usefully support the League of Nations’.59
The prevailing historiographical judgement, that the multi-lateral dimension was a throwaway appendix to the French negotiating position, does not square with the fact that Briand returned to this theme repeatedly in three subsequent Franco–British summit meetings in Cannes on 4, 5 and 8 January 1922. The project was more than a mere repackaging exercise, intended to lure the British into what was essentially an old-fashioned alliance. It was an ambitious effort to secure British participation in a Europe-wide security regime intended to buttress the collective security provisions of the League Covenant. Briand's focus shifted to securing a bi-lateral pact with Britain only after he came under intense pressure to deliver such an agreement from president Millerand, the nationalist press and even his own cabinet. Millerand took the extraordinary measure of convening a meeting of the council of ministers without the premier where it was agreed that a Franco–British pact could not be signed without prior cabinet debate and approval. This virtually ruled out an arrangement of any kind. Briand was left little choice but to resign, which he did in dramatic fashion before the chamber on 12 January 1922.60 Efforts to negotiate a replacement for the British guarantee of 1919 ended in abject failure.
Briand's efforts at Cannes are instructive nonetheless. They demonstrate, first, that the premier and several of his senior advisors were more flexible over the question of Britain's precise role in French security policy than has hitherto been supposed. The priority was to obtain a political entente with Britain that would allow France to engage with Germany from a position of strength. A full-blown military alliance was less important. Secondly, the Cannes negotiations reveal the extent to which multi-lateral thinking had penetrated the highest levels of the French policy establishment four years before the negotiation of the Locarno agreements if 1925. Multi-lateralism and enmeshment would not disappear from the machinery of policy. Seydoux, along with two of Briand's chief collaborators in Cannes, Jules Laroche and René Massigli, would play important roles in the resurrection of this strategy in 1924. Finally, the episode illuminates the emerging fault-lines in the chamber of deputies over security policy. Radical and Socialist deputies, including party leaders Edouard Herriot and Léon Blum, expressed support for Briand's policy of engagement. Indeed, Briand's strategy in resigning was probably aimed at positioning himself to play a leading foreign policy role in a Radical-dominated government after the next national elections. The mainstream of the Bloc national, meanwhile, clamoured for a return to coercion and a military alliance with Britain.61
Raymond Poincaré replaced Briand as premier and foreign minister on 15 January 1922. While acknowledging the sharp differences in policy-making style between Briand and Poincaré, recent scholarship has tended to play down the differences in substance.62 A careful look at negotiations for a security pact with the British, however, reveals fundamental differences in policy conceptions of the two leaders. Although both attached great importance to reviving the Entente, Poincaré aimed at a military alliance and was not interested in a wider European system that would include Germany as well as Britain. On 19 January, he outlined his ‘political programme’ to parliament. Britain, in Poincaré’s vision, was to play the role of a loyal partner, supporting France's defence of its legal rights and backing this up with a traditional military alliance.63
The gulf between the British position and the new direction in French policy was apparent when Poincaré met with Lloyd George for the first time in mid-January. The French premier insisted that any pact must take the form of a reciprocal alliance and must also include a military convention. Referring with approval to the pre-1914 staff talks, he observed that ‘… a guarantee pact that is not accompanied by a document indicating the number and quality of troops to be placed at the disposition of France in case of need would be, in a word, ineffective’. Lloyd George responded that ‘If Britain promises to come to the aid of France … you must have confidence that her word and this must suffice’. Otherwise, he warned, a pact was impossible.64 Poincaré, misinformed by Saint-Aulaire, erroneously interpreted this as an initial bargaining position.65 He set to work personally on a nineteen page memorandum entitled ‘Conditions for a Franco-British Pact’ that resurrected proposals for joint military planning and a pledge to ‘concert together’ in the event of German aggression in Eastern Europe. A draft treaty was forwarded to London on 26 January 1922 which contained further approving references to the pre-1914 military arrangements between the two countries.66 Saint-Aulaire compounded this ill-judged initiative by suggesting that the military convention and promise to consult over eastern Europe could take the traditional form of a secret exchange of letters appended to the treaty.67
Poincaré’s policy was a significant departure from that of Briand in both style and substance. Where Briand understood that a traditional military alliance was impossible, Poincaré pressed ahead with demands for just such an arrangement. Briand was typically vague about the structure and functioning of the multi-lateral security regime he proposed. Arbitration pacts and mutual assistance were to act together to enmesh and thus constrain German revisionism in a policy vision that reflected the changes in the international atmosphere after 1918. Poincaré, conversely, was characteristically precise in his proposals for a Franco–British military alliance.
There was absolutely no chance that any British government would agree to Poincaré’s conditions, which were inspired by pre-1914 practices and aimed to organise the European balance of power against Germany. Lloyd George, for his part, vowed never to ‘hand over of Europe to the tender mercies of M. Poincaré and the French militarists’. His cabinet colleagues agreed.68 Negotiations for a security pact sputtered along until the summer of 1922. But Franco–British relations deteriorated into mutual recriminations over the failure of the Genoa Conference, the Rapallo Treaty between Germany and Soviet Russia and a mounting crisis in Turkey. The window of opportunity for a Franco–British security pact had long passed when Saint-Aulaire observed that British public opinion considered ‘our version of the pact to be a war machine’. He judged that ‘a veritable psychological divorce’ existed between France and Britain.69
Yet the desire for a British commitment remained. The tactics employed by the Poincaré government changed. The middle of 1922 witnessed the beginnings of a tentative effort to obtain a security pact as a pre-requisite to participation in British projects for international arms limitation.70 The French policy establishment was divided over this issue. War minister André Maginot and the army and naval staffs were implacably opposed to participating in a multi-lateral arms disarmament regime. But a number of junior officials, mainly within the foreign ministry's Service français de la Société des Nations, argued for a policy of engagement with the League as the best way to obtain a pact with Britain. A ‘Draft Treaty of Mutual Assistance’ was drawn up with substantial input from French representatives to establish the security conditions necessary for arms reductions. This document was criticised as insufficient by the military-dominated Secrétariat général of the Conseil Supérieur de la Défense Nationale (SGDN). ‘The only immediate and truly effective means of assuring the security necessary for arms reduction’ the SGDN observed ‘would be a series of very precise special conventions between Britain and France envisaging pre-determined hypotheses for conflict’.71 Poincaré hesitated through early 1923 before finally ordering the French delegation in Geneva to distance themselves from negotiations.72 He could not yet bring himself to accept a multi-lateral approach.
Military demands for a traditional alliance with Britain remained divorced from reality. Negotiations concerning mutual assistance and arms limitation took place against the background of a complete collapse in Franco–British relations by mid-1923. Bitter disagreements over policy towards Turkey had led to a full-blown crisis in September 1922. The fall of Lloyd George and advent of a Conservative government changed little in this regard. Contending perspectives on reparations, war debts and security culminated in the French decision finally to occupy the Ruhr in January 1923. British attempts to mediate a resolution to the Franco–German standoff were rebuffed. Lord Curzon, still foreign secretary and more suspicious than ever of France, accused the Poincaré government publicly of striving for European domination.73
There was some justification to this charge. German defiance and tensions with Britain had revived talk within Poincaré’s inner circle of transforming the European balance of power with the creation of an independent Rhineland. On 27 November 1922, Poincaré ended an important planning meeting to prepare the Ruhr operation with the prediction that ‘By March or April we will witness the disorganisation of Germany’.74 Yet, co-existing with this ‘best-case’ expectation, was a more concrete two-fold strategy aimed at compelling Germany to recognise the legitimacy of the Versailles Treaty and inducing Britain to make a commitment to France. Poincaré outlined these objectives in another meeting with his chief advisors on 3 December 1922. The German reparations debt was to be internationalised, Britain and the USA would agree to a link between reparations and war debts and, most importantly for the purposes of this essay, France's security dilemma was to be resolved through a pact with Great Britain. The Ruhr operation was in a fundamental sense aimed at ending the drift and deadlock over these key issues. By taking unilateral action to compel German treaty fulfilment, the Poincaré government was also attempting to force Britain's hand on the issue of security.75 A British commitment, within the context of a wider policy of coercion and deterrence, remained at the forefront of Poincaré’s preoccupations during the Ruhr crisis.
The importance of such a commitment only increased when projects to detach the Rhineland from the Reich failed utterly in late 1923. It was further driven home when the costs of the occupation regime helped bring France's currency under severe pressure several months later.76 The Poincaré government had little choice but to accept the arbitration of an international committee of financial experts to end the dispute over reparations. The internationalisation of Germany's reparations debt, significantly, ran parallel to a return to multi-lateralism and enmeshment in security policy making in the spring of 1924.
Over the course of 1924, French policy moved away from pursuit of a traditional alliance with Britain against Germany back towards the creation of a Europe-wide network of regional mutual assistance and arbitration that included Germany but was organised around a Franco–British axis. The policy that resulted combined traditional power political aims (in the form of an exclusive security pact with Britain) with an increased emphasis on multi-lateralism and arbitration (in a system aimed at bolstering League processes of mutual assistance). The dynamics driving this process were both external and internal. Externally, France's policy options were increasingly restricted. It required British and American financial assistance to stabilise the franc and resolve the reparations impasse. But its chief political bargaining counter, the occupation of the Ruhr, had become a costly liability. Just as significantly, the advent of a Labour government in Britain seemed to rule out all hope of resurrecting the war-time alliance. The new cabinet, in which Ramsay MacDonald assumed the posts of prime minister and foreign secretary, was committed to internationalist principles and the League of Nations. MacDonald dismissed the very concept of military guarantees as retrograde and ‘a renewed edition of the balance of power’.77
The evolution of attitudes inside France was just as important but is usually overlooked. Public weariness induced by five years of international tension combined with a delayed reaction to the trauma of the Great War brought about a sea change in popular attitudes. A large and influential pacifist movement, concentrated on the centre-left and left of the political spectrum, emerged as an influential force in the French public sphere. Especially prominent were civil society groupings such as veterans’ organisations, feminist associations and teachers’ unions, all of whom intervened to shape public discourse on the questions of war, peace and security.78 The League of Nations was at the centre of the alternative conception of security articulated by this movement. Civil society associations in support of the League appeared across France.
Within these circles, a pact with Britain was desirable mainly as a means to reinforce the League. In early 1924, the influential journalist Jean Herbette (who would soon be named France's first ambassador to the USSR) urged Poincaré to cease ‘vainly endeavouring to overcome Britain's aversion to alliances’. The Franco–British entente, he argued, should adapt to ‘the new principle that has arisen in the world … the juridical methods of the League of Nations’.79 Britain and France, according to this alternative conception, would constitute the central pillars of a new legal and moral regime in international society. If this approach to international relations never dominated security policy making, it was too influential to be ignored.80 The British chargé d’affaires in Paris understood this when reported ‘a distinct advance in certain sections of French public opinion towards the League, so much so that even M. Poincaré himself has felt constrained to give it lip service’.81
The evolution of public sentiment was reflected in the changing character of parliamentary discourse. As Nicolas Roussellier has shown, dominant representations of France's international role in the chamber of deputies evolved away from that of victor and enforcer of the peace treaty towards that of a peace-loving nation that desired above all international conciliation. Support for engagement and multi-lateralism coalesced on the left and centre-left to become a central element in the electoral platform of the Cartel des gauches coalition. The leader of this coalition, Radical party chief Edouard Herriot, pledged to place arbitration and the League of Nations at the centre of French security policy. Herriot assumed the portfolios of premier and foreign minister when the Cartel triumphed in the national elections of May 1924.82
France's professional diplomats for the most part remained sceptical of internationalism. But a new direction in French policy was also under consideration within the Quai d’Orsay well before the victory of the Cartel. Jacques Seydoux was once again a prominent voice in this process. On 4 February, Seydoux renewed his advocacy of a multi-lateral strategy anchored by entente with Britain. Such a policy would only be possible, he judged, if Britain abandoned ‘its perpetual practice of grouping the scattered forces of Europe against France’ and France ceased ‘all practices that give the impression that we are pursuing a policy of encirclement or dislocation of Germany’.83 Political director Peretti de la Rocca agreed that France ‘must tranquilise the British entirely concerning our intentions in the Ruhr and the Rhineland’.84
It was within this context that in early 1924 Poincaré instructed Jules Laroche, now the second-ranking official within the foreign ministry, to prepare an analysis of the security problem for circulation to senior officials within the diplomatic and military establishment. In the resulting memorandum, Laroche asserted that France had two choices: it could either mount a bid for permanent strategic predominance through control of the Rhineland or pursue security through a multi-lateral strategy aimed at constructing an inter-dependent system of binding mutual assistance pacts. The first option, he observed, had been tried and had failed largely because Britain had opposed France's Ruhr occupation. Britain, Laroche insisted, would never accept French domination of the Rhineland. ‘At the moment it is our power that [the British] fear because they see our evident military strength and refuse to acknowledge the latent threat of German militarism’.85 He therefore recommended an alternative policy that combined deterrence with a multi-lateral strategy to enmesh both Britain and Germany: France should take the lead in the construction of ‘a pact or a system of pacts between interested nations providing security guarantees in the form of automatic sanctions that would extend to the use of armed force’. The initial phase of this system would be the construction of a Franco–British–Belgian pact ‘inspired by the old treaties of guarantee, but more precise and more clearly adapted to prevailing circumstances’. This was the chief deterrent element in his proposal. He then put forward a strategy of enmeshment to bind Britain to the wider European status quo. France would need to incorporate the new states in Eastern Europe in its security strategy. The British, however, were sure to object to any military commitment to the new states of Eastern Europe. He argued that the best way to answer British objections would be to erect ‘a wider security system’ alongside the Franco–British–Belgian agreement. Such a system would be constituted by a series of reciprocal non-aggression accords and, crucially, would include Germany as well as the ‘successor states’ to the east.86
Laroche's memorandum resurrected the strategy first mooted under Briand in 1921–2. France and Britain would underwrite an inter-locking system of regional pacts that included Germany and extended to Eastern Europe. This was a decisive departure from the traditional policy of a Franco–British alliance pursued by the Poincaré government since January 1922. It was for this reason Laroche's diagnosis met with energetic resistance from the military establishment. Army chief of staff general Marie-Eugène Debeney insisted that ‘this new idea of pacts’ could function as a worthwhile security guarantee ‘only if it is made absolutely clear that each pact will be followed by a military convention’. He added that ‘In order to impose our will on Germany in wartime as well as peacetime it is essential that we secure alliances’.87 Marshal Philippe Pétain, commander-in-chief designate, also insisted on the need to ensure ‘automatic military sanctions’.88 Foch accepted that regional pacts might bolster the position of the eastern European successor states. But he warned that the security for France could be assured only by a permanent occupation of the Rhineland or by a military alliance with Britain.89 France's military leadership opposed any substantive departure from the traditional approach to security. It would be overridden only after a series of confrontations with Cartel politicians over the coming year.
By this time Poincaré had also come to recognise that the traditional prescription was out of step with both external possibilities and the mood inside France. On the eve of his electoral defeat, Poincaré had set out a revised security policy advocating a system of pacts between Germany and its neighbours ‘with the adhesion of Britain’.90 The move towards greater multi-lateralism accelerated and expanded under Herriot. The Cartel’s foreign policy embraced the concept of inter-locking mutual assistance pacts that included compulsory arbitration accords. It went beyond both Briand's strategy of 1921–2 and Laroche's recommendations to link regional pacts explicitly to the collective security provisions in the League Covenant. This allowed French policy to invoke the legitimacy of the League while at the same time using the strategy of interlocking pacts based on automatic mutual assistance to close the ‘gaps’ in the Covenant. The culmination of this process was the Geneva Protocol.
The initial steps down this road were taken during meetings between Herriot and Macdonald in June and July 1924. The French premier stated at the outset that he wanted a security commitment from Britain and was prepared to make concessions on reparations and the Ruhr to achieve this. The plan the French presented was a three-tier system, based on Laroche's blueprint, that combined deterrence and multi-lateralism. A general pact would be open to all. This would be supplemented by arbitration agreements between Germany and its neighbours. At the heart of the French proposal, however, was a mutual assistance pact open only to former allies. MacDonald and the foreign office remained unmoved and would commit only to renew discussion of the security issue after agreement was reached on the implementation of the a revised reparations regime. At the London Conference, which opened several weeks later, the German reparations debt was internationalised and a revised payment schedule (the Dawes Plan) was agreed. The French delegation promised to evacuate the Ruhr within one year and, under intense pressure from the British and American delegations, renounced its right to impose unilateral military sanctions in the event of future German defaults in reparations payments. The Herriot government thus gave up its most effective means of coercing German treaty compliance. But it failed to obtain a security commitment from Britain in return.91
Security, predictably, remained the focal point of policy debates in Paris. On 5 August, Laroche prepared another note on security for his colleagues. ‘We know the British do not want a pact’ he observed in a covering letter ‘but we must put their backs to the wall and force them to tell us why’.92 Laroche's revised conception, which served as the basis for an official note sent to the British government on 11 August, called for three ‘supplementary permanent guarantees’. The first was the ‘organisation’ of European security around ‘the nucleus of a Franco-British defensive pact’. This pact would be ‘completed’ by a series of defensive pacts with those states neighbouring Germany. The second ‘guarantee’ was a network of reciprocal non-aggression pacts to be signed by these same states and Germany. The third was the ‘reinforcement of the effective authority of the League of Nations’ by the ‘effective organisation of mutual assistance’ against states guilty of aggression.93 The strategy of placing mutual assistance under, rather than parallel to, the legal umbrella of the League, was a significant innovation that reflected the ideological commitment of the Cartel to internationalism. But it also aimed at drawing Britain into a wider role in Europe by playing on the legitimacy enjoyed by the League.94
The final step in developing the conceptual architecture of a multi-lateral security policy was the decision to use compulsory arbitration to define aggression. A major weakness in the League Covenant, from the French point of view, was that it provided no precise means to identify the aggressor against whom signatories were obliged to act. The Quai d’Orsay had been contemplating a more substantial role for arbitration in French policy for some time.95 In August 1924, Herriot collaborated with Joseph Paul-Boncour, an independent socialist and leading parliamentary voice on foreign and defence policy, to place compulsory arbitration at the centre of French security policy. The objective was to render mutual assistance under regional pacts as automatic as possible. States who refused either to accept arbitration or to abide by the decision of the International Court would automatically be identified as aggressors. Fromageot and Laroche, crucially, accepted this innovation as the best means to secure a binding security commitment from Britain.96 Compulsory arbitration complemented the legalist reflexes of the French political and foreign policy establishment. But it was also an expression of the fundamental French aim to construct a security system that would cement the status quo. The policy that was emerging was a hybrid that incorporated the goal of a British pledge of immediate assistance within a multi-lateral framework that reflected the internationalist orientations of the new Herriot government.
Arbitration was in this way combined with ‘security’ and ‘disarmament’ to constitute the three conceptual pillars of French security policy for the next decade. Herriot unveiled this policy in his celebrated speech before the Fifth Assembly of the League in Geneva, where he heralded the formula ‘arbitrage, sécurité, désarmement’ as opening the way for durable peace in Europe. The aim was to draw the MacDonald government into discussion of a multi-lateral security system that would incorporate compulsory arbitration into existing schemes for regional pacts.
A team of political heavyweights, led by Briand, was sent to Geneva to negotiate for France. Five aspects of the resulting ‘Protocol for the Pacific Settlement of International Disputes’ were of particular importance for the role of Britain in French security policy. First, and most importantly, the Protocol provided for ‘particular accords’ between signatory states aimed at enhancing arrangements for mutual assistance. This opened the way for a Franco–British or Franco–Belgian–British regional mutual assistance pact under the auspices of both the Protocol and the League. Secondly, compulsory arbitration would become the basis upon which aggressors were to be identified. Sanctions would apply automatically to any state that either refused to submit to arbitration or refused to accept the ruling of the Permanent Court. Thirdly, decision making within the League Council was streamlined. A two-thirds majority within the League Council, rather than the unanimity required under the Covenant, would suffice to impose sanctions and trigger mutual assistance pacts. British assistance under the Protocol would therefore be less hindered by the complex collective security machinery laid down by the Covenant. Fourthly, French negotiators succeeded in including a clause declaring that any violation of Rhineland demilitarised zone must automatically be judged an act of aggression. Finally, the Protocol was a Europe-wide regime providing additional obligations as well as additional security guarantees for all signatory states. British participation in the Protocol therefore entailed an enhanced security commitment to the ‘successor states’ in eastern Europe. This aspect of the Protocol, more than any other, doomed it to failure.97
The Geneva Protocol marked a decisive step away from security through traditional alliances and the balance of power. France had given up its quest for a full-blown military alliance and opted for a British guarantee embedded in a multi-lateral regime that included Germany. It was expected that the Weimar Republic would take part in both general and regional accords and also join the League of Nations. In doing so it would accept the obligations and responsibilities incumbent on all League members and be subject to automatic sanctions under the Protocol should it resort to force to obtain treaty revision. The focus of French security strategy was now to incorporate and constrain rather than coerce and deter.
The moral and, if necessary, material force of Britain would be part of constraining machinery erected by the Protocol (as long as it was ratified in London). The implementation of the Protocol, furthermore, was tied to the opening of an international conference on arms reduction. This was the price of British participation in the new legal regime. French security policy was adapting to the changed international norms of the post-1918 era as well as the limits of Britain's willingness to commit itself to European security.98
The policy of the Protocol was therefore much more than a mere repackaging of the traditional approach. This is demonstrated, not least, by the bitter opposition it provoked among senior diplomats and soldiers. From London Saint-Aulaire denounced the very idea of treating Germany as an equal as ‘monstrous’ and ‘a negation of the Franco–British alliance’.99 France's military establishment were bitterly opposed. Army chief of staff general Marie-Eugène Debeney dismissed it as ‘dangerous’ and ‘naïve’.100 Military opposition was distilled in a general staff memorandum which concluded that:101
The position of the military establishment was clear: the security of France could not be based on arbitration as long as Germany continued to pose a threat to national survival.
The compulsory peaceful settlement of all international differences, or more briefly arbitration, which is the base of the protocol, will increase as an element of security only to the extent that it enters genuinely in the practice of international moral standards and replaces the warrior spirit that continues to animate certain peoples partisan to the ‘right of force’.
Herriot would not be deterred and resolved to assert his government's control over the policy machine. In late 1924, rumours of an impending purge of France's senior diplomats proved well-founded. The following months witnessed an important changing of the guard among senior diplomatic personnel.102 A new generation of officials, led by Laroche but including Alexis Léger, Charles Corbin, Paul Bargeton, Paul Claudel and René Massigli, emerged at this time to exercise ever-greater influence on foreign policy making. All were convinced of the importance of entente with Britain. All, moreover, had disapproved of the politics of confrontation under Poincaré. Although most were sceptical of the League's ability to provide security on its own, all were amenable to using it as a mechanism to obtain a commitment from Britain. At the same time, Peretti and Saint-Aulaire, the most determined opponents of a new approach within the Quai d’Orsay, were progressively side-lined from decision making. Peretti was on ‘holiday’ in September and October 1924 and would be replaced as political director by Laroche upon his return. Saint-Aulaire was removed from the London embassy in December.103 Their successors would become the technicians of Briandist multi-lateralism through to the middle of the 1930s.
Both Laroche and Fromageot defended government policy vigorously in a crucial meeting of the important Commission d’études of the Conseil Supérieur de la Défense Nationale [CSDN] in November 1924.104 But military resistance was only finally overcome at an extraordinary meeting of the CSDN on 15 November 1924.105 Herriot, Paul-Boncour and Briand defended the Protocol from repeated broadsides by Debeney, Pétain and Foch. Briand was particularly forceful, stressing the deterrent effect of the Protocol and sweeping aside the arguments of France's most celebrated soldiers. Had such a system been in place in 1914, he argued, the position of Britain would have been clarified and Germany would not dared to have resorted to war. When objections to German participation were raised, Briand brushed these aside as well, insisting that there would be no hope of a ‘particular’ security accord with Britain unless the general accord was opened up to German participation.106 The 15 November meeting of the CSDN was a true watershed moment in the history of French security policy after the First World War. Government policy was approved and military domination of security policy was brought to an end.
The Geneva Protocol was never implemented. It was recognised in London as an attempt to use the language of Geneva to obtain a binding British commitment in both eastern and western Europe.107 The advent of a Conservative government under Stanley Baldwin in November 1924 sealed its fate. This should not, however, obscure its fundamental importance. All of its central features—multi-lateral accords, the inviolable status of the demilitarised Rhineland, binding arbitration agreements and a commitment from Britain—remained at the heart of French policy for the next decade.
The importance attached to the Protocol by key policy elites was evident not least in their stubborn refusal to accept its demise. Despite clear indications that the Conservative government would not ratify the Protocol, Herriot and his collaborators remained hopeful that British public opinion would force it to reconsider.108 After Austen Chamberlain, foreign secretary, rejected the accord before the House of Commons in March 1925, Herriot appeared before the chamber foreign affairs commission and asserted that ‘The Protocol is essentially a mechanism for the effective administration and implementation of the Covenant. As a consequence, Britain will one day or another come to understand this. This is why, for my part, I am convinced that France must remain very firmly committed to the doctrine of the Protocol’.109 Briand, who was by this time head of the French delegation in Geneva, concurred. ‘It is very possible’, he insisted ‘that Great Britain will return to the spirit of the Protocol and make proposals under another name. The Church as well as the Labour and Liberal parties all, at the end of the day, support the spirit of the Protocol’.110 This optimism was unfounded. But it reflected the commitment to a new strategy of multi-lateral entanglement at the very highest levels of government.
The ‘doctrine of the Protocol’ was central to the French response to German proposals for a Rhineland security pact of 9 February 1925. These proposals reprised an earlier offer made by the Cuno government but rejected by Poincaré in late 1922. They went further, however, in offering to guarantee the demilitarised status of the Rhineland and to conclude arbitration treaties with ‘all other states’ in order to ‘guarantee the peaceful settlement of juridical and political conflicts’.111 Germany was offering in effect to renounce, at least for the time being, recourse to force to obtain treaty revision in eastern Europe. In return, however, it demanded tacit acknowledgement that the rules for security in the east were different than those in the west.
The German proposals were not unexpected. The French government was aware that a similar document had been submitted to the British more than two weeks previously. Herriot had observed even before the German missive arrived on his desk that the ‘ideal solution’ would be ‘the combination of a direct accord [with Britain] and some variant of the Geneva pact’. The crucial first step was to establish a preliminary understanding with Britain that would present Germany with a united front.112 This became the over-riding priority in virtually all of the negotiations leading to the Locarno Accords. In mid-February 1925, Massigli, Fromageot and Laroche collaborated on an important study of France's security requirements. They began on a note of caution, speculating that the German offer was an attempt to split the Entente and secure the early evacuation of the Rhineland. It was absolutely essential, they argued, that a bi-lateral (France–Britain) or tri-lateral (France–Belgium–Britain) pact be concluded along side any four-power Rhineland treaty that included Germany. Such a pact would ‘provide an indispensable element of force without which the guarantee system would be weakened in a fundamental sense’.113 Deterrence remained central to security conceptions within the Quai d’Orsay. But it was now embedded in a multi-lateral strategy of enmeshment.
In drafting a list of ‘ideas’ to serve as the basis for a French response, Laroche acknowledged the need to engage with Germany. Democratic transformation across the Rhine, he observed, would be a major boon for the peace of Europe. While recognising the risks of such a policy, he argued that France had no choice but to ‘facilitate any solution that will encourage the progress of democratic and pacifist ideas in Germany’.114 Such an observation, from the pen of the senior permanent official at the foreign ministry in early 1925, illustrates the extent to which alternative conceptions of security existed alongside more traditional convictions in the minds of key policy makers. Jacques Seydoux concurred with Laroche, observing once again that there could be no security and reconstruction in Europe without engaging Germany. He recognised German ambitions to revise the Polish and Czechoslovak frontiers. But he argued that these ambitions could best be contained within the framework of a regional security arrangement including France and placed under the League of Nations.115
There was general agreement, moreover, that any Rhineland pact must be contingent on German entry into the League. Massigli, Fromageot and Laroche observed that ‘The premier consequence of a German guarantee integrated into the structures of the League of Nations would be to restrict [Germany’s] freedom of action in other domains, which it would conserve if it remained outside the League’. Herriot approved of this, observing that ‘German membership in the League constitutes a supplementary guarantee that should not be under-estimated as it would impose the same obligations on Germany as on other members’.116 This emphasis on the constraining power of the League was a fundamental departure from the traditional strategies for security pursued in particular by Poincaré and Millerand.
Herriot and Briand resolved together that imposing the ‘legal regime of the Covenant’ on Germany must be ‘a precondition to all future negotiations’.117 On 11 March, Herriot appeared before the chamber foreign affairs commission to describe the wider objective of French policy as the establishment of a ‘regime of arbitration’. France, he insisted, could not return to the ‘isolation and insecurity’ of the Poincaré era. ‘We do not have an option’, he argued, ‘we must engage both Britain and Germany in a durable system of security and such a regime can only be achieved under the juridical system of the League of Nations’.118 The twin aims of a British commitment and a more robust League were combined in a policy that was an amalgamation of the traditional and multi-lateral approaches to security. Germany would be enmeshed in a Europe-wide framework organised around a Franco–British political entente.
There remained the question of security east of the Rhine. Germany refused to guarantee its eastern frontiers and Britain was unwilling to make a strategic commitment to this region. There was general agreement that the Rhineland pact must not compromise France's right to fulfil its alliance obligations to Poland and Czechoslovakia. The best way to ensure this was to embed the western pact under the umbrella of the League Covenant. This would ensure that France retained the legal right to intervene in the event of war between Germany and the eastern states. It would also, it was observed, reaffirm the obligations of both Britain and Germany toward Poland and Czechoslovakia as members of the League. Finally, arbitration treaties between Germany and Poland and Germany and Czechoslovakia should be guaranteed by both Britain and France. These treaties would have to be concluded at the same time as the accords between the western states to constitute an ‘inseparable whole’.119
There was an uncomfortable corollary to bringing the envisaged pacts and treaties under League auspices. The Franco–Polish alliance, with its secret military convention, was fundamentally incompatible with the new strategy. This tension was acknowledged within the Quai d’Orsay. The solution recommended by the directorate of political and commercial affairs was to subordinate the Franco–Polish treaty to the League Covenant: ‘It will be essential to revise the  treaty with Poland to eliminate any clause creating a casus foederis that would not also be justified, indeed commanded, by the Covenant of the League of Nations or by any protocol completing this pact’. The alliance with Poland would not be allowed to undermine chances of securing a binding British commitment on the Rhine.120 ‘The pact on offer’, concluded Massigli, Laroche and Fromageot, ‘could constitute a serious guarantee of peace’. To refuse to engage with Germany, on the other hand, would only give credibility to charges of French militarism in Britain and play into the hands of German efforts to split the Entente.121
The foundations of this policy were shaken when Britain refused to sign a separate pact. Although Chamberlain favoured such a commitment but was opposed by the majority of the Baldwin cabinet.122 He informed Herriot on 6 March that there would be no separate Franco–British or Franco–Belgian–British pact. Although he was given advance warning of this decision by the French embassy in London, Herriot acted shocked and convinced Chamberlain that a major crisis was in the making. After threatening to resign, Chamberlain was given permission to pursue a four or five-power agreement that included Germany. In offering this to Herriot, he assured him that Britain and France would consult before negotiations with Germany were begun. He also promised not to support any German attempt to secure an early evacuation of the Rhineland.123
The British refusal to negotiate a separate pact was a debilitating blow nonetheless. There was disagreement as to how to respond. Massigli submitted that France must hold fast to the principles of the Geneva Protocol and refuse the British offer of a pact limited to western Europe.124 The new ambassador in London, Aimé de Fleuriau, countered that France had no choice but to accept a pact limited to western Europe. Such an arrangement, he argued, would guarantee the inviolable status of the Rhineland and was the maximum France could hope to obtain from any British government for the foreseeable future.125 Herriot and Laroche accepted the latter argument. On 16 March 1925, they collaborated to draft two documents that laid down the essentials of French policy. France would accept a western mutual assistance pact. But this pact must preserve intact the occupation regime in the Rhineland as well as the demilitarised status of that region for all time. Germany, moreover, would need to join the League of Nations without preconditions and ‘accept all of the engagements in the Covenant’. Just as important were the arbitration treaties to be concluded between Germany and its eastern neighbours. These treaties would be guaranteed by Britain and France and be attached to the western guarantee to form a single general settlement. A western treaty must not open the way to treaty revision in the east. It was envisaged, finally, that negotiations for a western security pact would proceed in two stages. France, Britain and Belgium would agree on a memorandum which would then be presented to the German government as a united negotiating position.126
The League of Nations was allotted an increasingly important role in what had become a thoroughly multi-lateral strategy based on inter-locking mutual assistance and arbitration pacts. Briand observed on 18 March 1925 that ‘[t]he more one examines the situation, the greater one's certitude that the strongest guarantee of our security lies within the framework of the League of Nations … German entry into the League would lay the foundations of a powerful system of security’.127 If most foreign ministry officials were reluctant to go so far, there can be no doubt that they considered the League a useful mechanism for enmeshing both Britain and Germany in a multi-lateral system. Jacques Seydoux returned to the analogy of 1815 to argue that ‘What we all desire in Europe is peace; to achieve this, it is essential to enlist Germany in our efforts by admitting her into the League of Nations’. He added, however, that only full British participation could induce German good faith in this enterprise. ‘We must profit from the German offers to engage both Germany and Great Britain to the furthest extent possible on the road to security’. Herriot agreed, writing in the margins that Seydoux's views ‘accord exactly with my own’ and that ‘[w]e must now prepare our own response and obtain the adhesion of the British to our conception of the essential points of discussion’.128
Enmeshing Britain was therefore at least as important as integrating Germany. Herriot described the policy of prior consultation with Britain as ‘a method of bringing us as close as possible to a Franco-Belgian-British pact’.129 The Franco–British guarantee of the German–Polish and German–Czechoslovak arbitration accords was an attempt to bring eastern Europe within the envisaged security regime: ‘Given that Britain refuses to guarantee the frontiers of Poland and Czechoslovakia directly’ Herriot explained, ‘my policy is to get [the British] to guarantee the arbitration treaties, which will guarantee these frontiers’.130 Fromageot added that a Franco–British guarantee would establish not only France's right to intervene in a conflict in eastern Europe but also a British moral and political support for French intervention terms less ambiguous than those of the League Covenant.131 Laroche admitted to Benes that ‘the greatest interest that a pact with Germany holds for us is that it provides a means to obtain a British engagement of assistance’. Yet he also observed that the western pact held out the possibility of ‘bringing Britain, little by little, into a wider policy of European solidarity’.132 These observations provide yet another illustration of the way traditional and multi-lateralist currents co-existed in the policy conceptions of key officials. The role allotted to Britain had evolved from that of a traditional military ally to that of a joint under-writer of a Europe-wide security system aimed at including, constraining and, if possible, reforming Germany. The threat of force did not disappear entirely from this approach. But it was implicit and linked to the rule of law rather than explicit in an alliance directed against Germany. ‘The chief attraction for us in this affair’ Laroche observed on 24 March, ‘is to have a document with the signature of Britain, which is indispensable to validate the signature of Germany’.133
A comprehensive security strategy was thus in already place when the Herriot ministry fell in mid-April 1925 as a result of its inability to resolve France’s continuing financial crisis. Briand replaced Herriot as foreign minister in a new government led by Paul Painlevé on 17 April 1925.134 The Locarno Accords have long been associated with Briand. Yet his policy was based in all of its essentials on that laid down by Herriot. The one significant modification was forced on Briand when the British refused to guarantee the eastern arbitration and objected to all language implying that the eastern and western treaties were part of the same larger agreement.135 In response, the French government tried to argue that a British guarantee of the eastern arbitration accords had an ‘essentially moral character’ and was thus distinct from the commitment on the Rhine. The joint guarantee, it was suggested, could be watered down to a commitment to mediate to prevent hostilities.136
The British were unmoved. Chamberlain advised French statesman Henry de Jouvenel that the juridical and system-building aspects of the French proposal were antithetical to the most basic instincts of British policy makers:137
The attempt to smuggle the principles of the Geneva Protocol into the guarantee treaties therefore failed as utterly as every previous effort to secure a British commitment to Eastern Europe. All references to a joint guarantee and a general accord were ultimately excised from the final text sent by Briand to Stresemann on 16 June 1925.138
The French and the British tend to approach questions from very different perspectives, which is the natural result of their national characters and their history. The Latin spirit is more logical than ours. It is always inclined to try to push arguments and situations to their logical conclusion. It is in our nature, conversely, to avoid these conclusions. The simple fact that they are logical is enough to frighten us. … It is worth remembering that our common law and our constitution are not the result of legislative measures and are not integrated into a juridical system. … In seeking to engage us in obligations that are greater and more extensive than we are ready to accept [France] is in danger of rendering it impossible for us to make the contribution to general security that would otherwise be in our power able to give.
By accepting the British position over Eastern Europe, French policy makers admitted the principle that European security was divisible and that different rules applied in the west than in the east. This was a mortal blow to the ‘doctrine of the Protocol’. Yet, in accepting the limits to Britain's European commitment, Briand was adhering to Herriot's driving principle of placing Franco–British co-operation at the heart of French security planning. No amount of obduracy on the part of France would have induced the British to extend their commitments to Eastern Europe. The can be little doubt that Herriot, like Briand, would eventually have been forced to accept the limited British commitment that was on offer. The alternative, as Briand pointed out repeatedly during and after negotiations for the Rhineland pact, was a return to the politics of confrontation.
The absolute priority accorded to Britain by Briand reflected the views of many senior diplomats. From London de Fleuriau underlined the supreme importance of the Entente. Of the various accords under consideration, he argued, ‘only the Rhineland pact offers us a durable guarantee … we must [therefore] not tie its fate to that of conventions that are of an entirely different character such as arbitration treaties’. Proceeding in complete accord with the British, he added, ‘is a procedure that will draw them ever closer to us in the event that negotiations with Germany fail’.139 Philippe Berthelot, restored to the post of secretary general at the foreign ministry immediately upon Briand's return, dismissed the idea of guaranteeing arbitration as an attempt to achieve security with ‘words’. Reliable commitments, he argued, must rest on ‘shared interests’. Although an advocate of Franco–German reconciliation, Berthelot's more traditional instincts ensured that he would maintain a healthy scepticism of the League throughout his long tenure as secretary general. And he was doubtful of the very concept of a guarantee. The British, he predicted, would never surrender their freedom to interpret their own interests and act accordingly.140 This judgement was borne out when the British insisted that only ‘flagrant’ violations of the demilitarised zone could trigger their guarantee and reserved the right to interpret themselves the precise meaning of ‘flagrant’.141 Massigli pointed out that this qualification undermined the automatic character of the accords. Fromageot agreed but expressed the majority view in arguing that limited British participation in French projects was better than none at all.142
Critics of the Rhineland pact strategy from outside the foreign ministry were marginalised altogether. The archives of the general staff and CSDN reveal that army chief General Philippe Pétain and his staff were kept apprised of negotiations but not consulted. Marshal Foch, who remained convinced that France's best hope for security was ‘to remain on the Rhine with uplifted weapons’, tried to intervene in policy debates but was ignored.143 France's military chiefs were informed of policy developments but not consulted. ‘Only Britain can provide the political and diplomatic support necessary to engage Germany in a system of security capable of assuring the peace of Europe’ Laroche advised sceptical members of the high command in early September. The present negotiations were a window of opportunity before the Reich recovered its strength. It was essential, he argued, to reinforce those elements inside German favourable to democracy and peace. ‘The role of diplomacy to our national defence is more important than ever’ he asserted.144
Despite the limited success of French efforts to draw Britain into a Europe-wide security system, the strategy of prior co-ordination with the British paid significant dividends. German efforts to exploit differences between the French and British negotiating positions, first at a conference of legal experts in London in early September and then at Locarno in October, were almost completely unsuccessful. Briand and his team were able to resist German pressure to link a four-power security pact to an early evacuation of the Rhineland. The important exception to this general trend was Germany's refusal to accept a French guarantee of its arbitration treaties with Poland and Czechoslovakia. The Germans argued that such a guarantee constituted a form of encirclement and was unacceptable. Briand gave way when he did not receive British support on this issue. But he did obtain wording which reaffirmed France's right to intervene in support of Poland and Czechoslovakia under the Covenant. In the final ‘Treaty of Mutual Guarantee’, France obtained a clear British commitment to defend not only the Franco–German and German–Belgian frontiers but also the demilitarised Rhineland. Germany, moreover, agreed to joint the League of Nations and accept the obligations that its membership entailed. It also made a binding commitment not to resort to force in its efforts to revise the peace settlement in the east.145
These results together constituted significant successes for French security. They were obtained, however, at the expense of more traditional methods. There was no military component to Locarno. Indeed the multi-lateral character of the Rhineland pact precluded exclusive military arrangements.146 The threat of force remained in the form of the specific guarantees given by Britain to France and Belgium. But these were a far cry from the robust military alliance desired by French policy makers through most of the early 1920s. France's ability to coerce German treaty compliance, moreover, was seriously curtailed. Any future attempt to respond unilaterally to a German treaty violation would need to conform to the Locarno regime. France's security rested more than ever on its ability to make a strong legal case. The Locarno Accords consolidated the ascendance of the legalism, multi-lateralism and enmeshment that had first appeared in France's security policy under Briand in late 1921.
The new orientation of French policy had far-reaching implications for the structure of France's armed forces and the specifics of its military strategy. Far-reaching reforms introduced in 1927–8 resulted in a profound re-structuring of the French army into a short-service training cadre for a mobilised nation-in-arms. This rendered it incapable of any large-scale offensive action without full mobilisation. The corresponding evolution of French military strategy towards a fundamentally defensive conception resting on the inviolability of national soil was given material expression in the massive barrier of steel and concrete erected along the Franco–German frontier after 1928.147 Unilateral military action to compel German compliance with the Versailles treaty was a distant memory as construction began on the Maginot Line. Political and legal restraints to state behaviour replaced the overt threat of military force in a security policy that would culminate five years later in proposals for European federation.
Two central conclusions emerge from the foregoing analysis. The first is that the role allotted to Britain in French security policy after 1918 was far more varied than historians have assumed. Under Clemenceau Britain was envisaged as co-sponsor of the post-war order established by the Versailles Treaty. The British and American guarantees extended to France as part of this settlement were not traditional alliances. With the advent of the Bloc National in 1919, however, France sought a traditional military alliance with Britain. When Briand revised this strategy, renouncing the demand for joint-war-planning as part of a Franco–British pact and mooting a policy of multi-lateral engagement, he was forced to resign by a cabinet revolt led by President Millerand. Poincaré then resumed the quest for a full-blown military alliance but succeeded only in alienating a succession of British governments. The election of the Cartel des Gauches coalition in May 1924 heralded a major change in security policy (even if preliminary adjustments were already underway within the foreign ministry). Herriot and his advisors desired an exclusive Franco–British pact as part of a wider strategy to strengthen the League of Nations. They proved willing to adapt their aims, however, in order to obtain a binding British co-sponsorship of a Europe-wide multi-lateral system of political and legal constraints designed to prevent violent revision of the post-war order. When Britain refused this co-operation, Briand's team chose to accept the more limited British commitment to Western Europe that was on offer. The result was Locarno.
The second conclusion, which flows from the first, is that the multi-lateral current in French security policy was much more influential during the early 1920s than has commonly been supposed. Nor should the evolution of this policy be attributed solely to Britain's refusal to agree to a military alliance. Such an interpretation ignores the importance of developments inside France and cannot explain why French policy makers adapted to the challenges of this period in the way that they did. British policy should instead be understood as part of the wider internal and external structural environment in which French policy was made after 1919. The security strategy that evolved during this period was a marriage of the traditional balance of power reflexes of French security professionals with the muscular internationalist doctrines of Cartel political leaders. The result was a juridical multi-lateral approach to security that culminated in the Locarno Accords.
The multi-lateral strategy for security in place from September 1924 was by no means a mere reformulation of the traditional approach in terms more acceptable to Britain. Security policy under Millerand and Poincaré aimed aligning France and Britain in a balance of power against Germany. Under Briand and Herriot the aim was to enmesh Germany in a political and legal regime organised around close Franco–British co-operation. The distinction between the two policy conceptions is fundamental. The traditional conception sought to exclude Germany from the mainsprings of French security while the multi-lateral alternative sought to include the Reich in a Europe-wide system. These distinctions were all too apparent to those advocates of traditional methods within the French policy machine who mounted such bitter opposition to the Geneva Protocol in late 1924. The foreign ministry's commitment to juridical multi-lateralism would lead it over the following decade to embark on a series of futile attempts to extend the Locarno framework into Eastern Europe and the Mediterranean. Projects for a ‘Mediterranean Locarno’, a ‘Danubian Pact’ and an ‘Eastern Locarno’ would all founder on the familiar shoals of German intransigence and British unwillingness to make strategic commitments east of the Rhine. Jean-Baptiste Duroselle criticised these initiatives as inspired by ‘illusions of pactomania’.148
There is certainly merit to this critique. Yet it is important to remember that the future was unknowable to French decision makers in the mid-1920s. It was impossible to foresee how swiftly the security architecture devised at Locarno would be overthrown after 1933. Moreover, the strategy of exclusive alliances and strategic preponderance held out no prospect of establishing European international relations on any basis other than a precarious balance of military power. For many statesmen living in the shadow of the Great War, such an alternative was a counsel of despair.
*I should wish to thank Robert Boyce, Campbell Craig, John Ferris, Talbot Imlay, Robert Young, and the anonymous referees for their helpful comments on earlier drafts of this article.