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President Paul Deschanel (Third Republic, France)

Last modified: 2018-06-28 by ivan sache
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Paul Deschanel's standard - Image by Željko Heimer, 10 December 2004

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Biography of Paul Deschanel

Paul Deschanel (1855-1922) was born in Schaerbeek/Schaarbeek, near Brussels, where his father had exiled during the Second Empire. Young Deschanel was Victor Hugo's godchild and grew up in Paris, where hisfamily came back after the amnistia proclaimed by Napoléon III in 1859. Paul Deschanel was appointed Secretary in the Ministry of the Interior in 1876, then Secretary of the President of the Council and Préfet in 1877.
Elected Representative in 1885, Deschanel presided the Chamber from 1898 to 1902 and from 1912 to 1920. He was an unsuccessful candidate to the Presidency in 1913 against Raymond Poincaré.
On 16 November 1919, the first general election since 1914 was organized in France. The center and right parties set up the Bloc national républicain, whose aims were the strict implementation of the treaty of Versailles (l'Allemagne paiera, "Germany Shall Pay"), the indemnification of war victims, and the defense of "civilization against Bolshevism". The latter item of the program was illustrated by the famous poster showing the "Bolshevik peril" as a scary man with a knife between the teeth. The picture was intended to recall the slaughter of the Russian imperial family in Ekaterinburg. The big strikes that took place in the first months of 1919 also favoured the Bloc national.
The Bloc national easily defeated its opponents, mostly the Radicals and the Socialists. The electoral system increased the importance of the victory of the Bloc national, which won 2/3 of the seats; the Radicals lost half of their Representatives, whereas the Socialist increased their representation. Out of the 616 Representatives, 369 were newcomers. Since several of them, mostly from the Bloc national were war veterans, the Chamber was nicknamed the chambre bleu horizon, as a reference to the colour of the French uniforms.
The new session of the Parliament opened in a very consensual and patriotic atmosphere, since Representatives from Alsace-Lorraine returned for the first time in the Palais-Bourbon since 1870. The consensus, however, broke down for the election of the President of the Republic. Georges Clémenceau, the architect of the victory, believed he would be easily elected, without even being a formal candidate. However, the Parliament mistrusted him. Clémenceau as the President would be very authoritarian and would rule the country, which was the role of the Parliament and not of the President at that time. Aristide Briand, who hated Clémenceau, reminded the Catholic Representatives that Clémenceau was extremely non-religious, and proposed Paul Deschanel as a better candidate. Deschanel defeated Clémenceau in a preliminary vote by a small margin; Clémenceau withdrew from the competition and the public life.

Paul Deschanel was elected President of the Republic on 17 January 1920. Alexandre Millerand was appointed President of the Council on 20 January 1920 and set up a government with members from the Bloc national and Radicals, also in the majority in the Senate.
Deschanel's mental health quickly declined. In May 1920, the President fell out of the window of the Presidential train near Orléans; a railway worker named Rateau found him walking on the railways, and was told: Mon ami, ça va vous étonner, mais je suis le Président de la République ! (My friend, don't be surprised, I am the President of the Republic!). On 10 September, Deschanel was seen bathing, completely naked, in a basin of the castle of Rambouillet. He resigned on 21 September 1920, was sent into a convalescent home and was elected Senator in 1921. He was succeeded by Alexandre Millerand.
Paul Deschanel, a very refined and cultured writer, was elected at the Académie Française in 1899.

Ivan Sache, 8 December 2004

Flag of Paul Deschanel

The personal flag of Paul Deschanel is shown in the 1923 Supplement of the Album des pavillons, guidons, flammes de toutes les puissances maritimes [f9r23], as a French Tricolore with the monogram of the President, composed of the letters "P D" in gold, in the center of the white stripe. A smaller, black and white image published in Emblèmes et Pavillons [eep], No. 1, confirms the design of the flag.

Dominique Cureau & Jaume Ollé, 8 December 2004