Saturday, November 20, 2004

Alexandre Millerand, commissaire-général

I am presenting a paper at a graduate symposium tomorrow. The title: No Place like Alsace: The Fate of Regions in France, 1918-1925. It describes the attitude of the French administration to regional institutions and how the question of their preservation influence the discourse on national territorial reform and decentralization. The Herriot government ultimately decided no territory could have political institutions that were not granted by the state, and Alsace would be abolished. Abolishing the example of Alsace-Lorraine undermined the discourse of reform.

Writing the paper, I realized that a great article about French republicanism was emerging. But in the context of a twenty minute presentation two-thirds (perhaps more) of what I wrote has been cut out. One person whom I had come to appreciate is Alexandre Millerand (1859-1943). He was best known as the minister of war during WWI and prime minister and president in the mid-1920s. He also spent over a year (1919-1920) as the commissaire-général, a special office created as the executive head of Alsace-Lorraine during the transitional period.

Millerand might have appeared to be the perfect candidate for this job. In his opinion recovery of Alsace-Lorraine was the minimal condition for French victory. (He realized that full gallicization was preferred). He learned to appreciated Alsatian institutions, and he wanted to extend them through out France. His pet projects were the creation of other territorial executives (like the commissaire-général) and regional parliaments, both with the ability to create policy and law independently of Paris. There were other things he wanted as well: the German pension laws, which he had preserved for retired Alsatians, was more comprehensive than French and should become the national standard. There were other ways in which Millerand wanted to reform from the region to the nation.

Looking at the "fine print" I have become more conflicted about Millerand. Whereas he seems to be a fan of the region, I realized that he had some anti-democratic tendencies. He was a socialist, but his positions continually drifted to the right. He was unimpressed with popularly-elected officials: he preferred assemblies that were composed of indirectly chosen professionals. That example resembled the Alsatian lower house, a senate that was composed of imperial appointments and representatives of guilds, universities, municipal councils. The upper house was the body of popularly elected representatives. Alsatians fought for the latter; Germany imposed the former. He was not the only politician of the era who preferred government by experts rather than democracy. However, there are some important questions about how this affected his image of territorial France. Which regionalism did Millerand like: the republic that Alsatians tried to create, or the authoritarian institutions that the German Empire used to limit popular sovereignty?


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