Theophile Delcasse

Theophile Delcasse

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Théophile Delcassé was French Foreign Minister during the First Moroccan Crisis. Delcassé was known to be a politician who wanted to restore French pride after their defeat in the Franco-Prussian war (1870-71) and he was not prepared for Germany to have any influence in Morocco.

Delcassé was born at Parmiers in southern France in 1852. He trained as a journalist and worked for 'La République Française', a newspaper known for its nationalistic overtones. Delcassé was an ardent exponent of France having an overseas empire. A great deal of Africa had been occupied by Great Britain. The British Empire was protected by the Royal Navy and as such France had little opportunity to 'threaten' any British territory in Africa. However, when internal issues threatened the stability of Morocco, this gave Delcassé an opportunity to broaden the imperial ambitions of France. France had already acquired Tunisia in 1881. However, Delcassé knew that France was not in a position just yet to take on Germany. Therefore he embarked on a policy of trying to organise alliances to act as insurance against Germany, which he saw as the natural opponent of France in Europe.

By 1887, Delcassé supported an alliance with Russia. He believed that this would be enough to make Germany wary of a war against France if Russia was allied to France. Delcassé also believed that a Franco-Russian alliance would serve as a useful warning to the British as Delcassé viewed the British as the main rival to the French in Africa.

He had the opportunity to air his beliefs when he was elected into the French Parliament as Deputy for Foix, in his native department of Ariège. Delcassé vigorously spoke out in favour of expanding the colonial budget to finance colonial expansion and he was rewarded with promotion as an undersecretary in the Colonial Office. In 1893, he became Colonial Minister before being appointed as Foreign Minister. His promotion to Foreign Minister alarmed the governments in London and Berlin as both knew about Delcassé's beliefs with regards to colonial expansion and saw him as a threat to stability.

It was while Delcassé was Foreign Minister that France was humiliated at the Fashoda Crisis in 1898. This served to make him even more determined to challenge British supremacy in Africa. Delcassé politically survived the Fashoda Crisis of 1898 by claiming that despite the clash between France and Britain at Fashoda, Germany remained the biggest threat to France. It was a defence that found support in the government and he politically survived the crisis. It caused no surprise that Wilhelm II called Delcassé “the most dangerous man for Germany in France.”

Delcassé decided that the best way forward for France was to strengthen the alliance with Russia. He also believed that the national shame felt after the Fashoda Crisis could be counter-balanced by a more aggressive policy in Africa. To reduce the fears of the British, Delcassé engineered the Franco-British entente. This meant that France was just left with Germany - something that Delcassé had believed would happen regardless. Above all else, Delcassé wanted to revenge the loss of Alsace and Lorraine after the defeat in the Franco-Prussian War - hence why he viewed a clash with Germany as almost inevitable. Politicians in Berlin had a similar view - that a clash with France was almost inevitable. There were political hawks in both governments.

Delcassé's biggest test of diplomatic skill came during the Russo-Japanese War as France was allied to both Russia and Britain at a time when Britain was also allied to Japan, who defeated Russia.

“The key to Delcassé's success was his ability to inspire confidence in those with whom he negotiated.” (D C Watt)

However, he was seen by some in the French Assembly of letting down the nation after the 1905-06 Moroccan Crisis when it was believed that he had let the Germans get away with too much at the expense of French influence there. Delcassé was manoeuvred into resigning in June 1905. Once out of office, his political enemies continued their attack on his diplomatic skills, which further weakened his political reputation.

It was not long before Delcassé returned to political office. He became Minister of the Navy before being appointed French ambassador in St Petersburg. After this position, he became Minister of War before being once again appointed Foreign Minister. However, in October 1915, Delcassé resigned from the government in protest against the Salonika expedition.

However, much credit has to be given to Delcassé for brokering alliances with Britain and Russia. Many in France expected a war with Germany - or even hoped for one to get their revenge after 1870. France was in a much better military position in Western Europe with an alliance with the world's biggest naval power and as such represented a much bigger challenge to Germany. Ironically it may well have been these alliances that triggered an aggressive approach in the French government as 1914 approached. It is possible that the alliances brokered by Delcassé engendered a feeling of strength within the French military that meant that war was not avoided if it could have been - such was the supposed military strength of her allies.

Théophile Delcassé died in 1923.

June 2012