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Édouard Herriot

(1872—1957)


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(b. Troyes, 5 July 1872; d. Lyons, 26 Mar. 1957)

French; Prime Minister 1924–5, 1932–3, President of the National Assembly 1936–40, 1941–55 Edouard Herriot was, like his rival for the leadership of the inter-war Radical Party Daladier, a product of the state educational system created by the Third Republic and a passionate defender of the principles of the French Revolution. The son of a junior army officer who died when he was a child, Herriot had a brilliant educational career and became a lycée teacher at Lyons in 1904. In 1907, he was elected mayor of Lyons, which became his power base for the whole of his life. He was elected to the Senate in 1907 and held a number of ministerial offices during the First World War. His national prominence dates from the early 1920s, when he took control of the near moribund Radical Party and recreated its image as the voice of progressive reformism. In the 1924 general elections he formed a successful coalition with the Socialist Party and was able to force the right-wing President of the Republic Millerand to resign. Appointed Prime Minister, he embarked on a programme of reconciliation with Germany, recognized the Soviet Union, and gave strong support to the League of Nations. He was, however, much less successful in dealing with France's chronic inflation problems and was forced to resign office when opposition from the privately owned Bank of France threatened to destroy the currency. What Herriot called ‘the wall of money’ durably shaped his subsequent attitudes. He felt compelled to join the government of national unity formed by Poincaré in 1926, and bitterly resented the opportunity this gave to Daladier to take over the Radical Party. In the early 1930s, however, he was back in the saddle and formed another successful electoral coalition with the Socialists in 1932. The government he formed was no more able to deal with economic problems than its predecessors and also had to face a worsening international situation. By now the regime itself was under severe pressure from disaffected social groups and Herriot was president of the Chamber of Deputies when it was attacked by right-wing groups on 6 February 1934. He was uneasy about the left-wing alliance of Communists, Socialists, and Radicals and refused to join any of the Popular Front governments formed after the 1936 elections, preferring instead the Chamber presidency.

It was as Chamber president that he participated in the dramatic events of July 1940 which led to the suicide of the Third Republic and the installation of the Vichy regime of Pétain. Although he made no attempt to lead an opposition to Pétain's legal coup, he did what he could to defend the prerogatives of the French parliament and indicated his disapproval of Vichy's anti-Semitism by sending back his legion d'honneur decoration. As the symbol of the Third Republic's political traditions, he was deprived of his Lyons town hall and was placed under house arrest. In the last days of Vichy, he was unwise enough to negotiate with Laval for a possible summoning of the National Assembly; it was lucky for his subsequent reputation that he was deported to Germany. On his return to France, he earned de Gaulle's lasting contempt by refusing to join his provisional government and demonstrated his commitment to the political values of his youth by leading the campaign for the restoration of the Third Republic. His efforts in this respect were wholly unsuccessful; over 90 per cent of the electorate rejected a return to the past. But the emergence of a parliamentary regime very similar in practice, if not in principle, to the Third Republic enabled him to return to the centre of politics. He regained his presidency of the National Assembly, and used his office to shore up the shaky authority of the coalition governments of the Fourth Republic. He also intervened in national policy debates by opposing French participation in the European Defence Community and supporting the reformist programme of Mendès France. By the time of his death in 1957, he was regarded as the patriarch of the Republic.

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Subjects: Politics.


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