Georges Bonnet

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Georges-Étienne Bonnet (23 July 1889 – 18 June 1973) was a French lawyer, economist and politician, who served in the Chamber of Deputies representing the Dordogne for the French Radical Party[1] from 1924 to 1928 and again from 1929 to 1940. He also served as Foreign Minister in 1938 and 1939.

Early life

Bonnet was born in Bassillac, Dordogne, the son of a lawyer. Bonnet's father worked at the Cour de cassation and used his wealth to give his son the best education that money could buy in France. Bonnet was educated at the elite Lycée Henri IV, École supérieue des hautes études and École des sciences politiquesand studied law and political science at the École Libre des Sciences Politiques and the University of Paris. Bonnet began his career as an auditeur at the Conseil d'État]]. In 1911, he launched his political career after he had married Odette Pelletan, the granddaughter of Eugène Pelletan.[2]

In 1914, Bonnet joined the French Army. During the First World War he was a much-decorated soldier who won the French War Cross medal for bravery under fire. In 1918 he served as Director of Demobilization. Bonnet then became the editor of Alfred de Tarde's book L'âme du soldat (The Soul of a Soldier). Bonnet highlighted the passage by de Tarde in which he wrote: "The France of 1914-1917 is more sincerely democratic than it has ever been, and she is in love with command". As a member of the bourgeoisie, Bonnet was in some awe of the camaraderie and fighting spirit of the mostly lower-class poilus and saw it as his duty to record their experiences. He seemed to have been jealous of the toughness of the ordinary French soldiers, who lived under conditions which he could never accept. Bonnet often recounted the story of a poilu, named Lauteau, a happily married man with two children, who was killed while displaying a reckless disregard for his own life while he was repairing a telephone wire that had been severed by German artillery. Bonnet used the story of Lauteau as an example of the Union sacrée in action, as he argued in his 1919 book Lettres à un bourgeois de 1914 that it was love of la patrie that had inspired the poilus to resist.

In 1919, Bonnet served as a Secretary to the French delegation at the infamous Paris Peace Conference of 1919 and wrote a book, Lettres à un bourgeois de 1914, that called for widespread social reforms.


Bonnet was appointed Under-Secretary of State in 1925, the first in a series of ministerial positions throughout the 1920s and the 1930s. During his time as in the Chamber, Bonnet was regarded as a leading expert in financial and economic matters. As a Minister, Bonnet had a reputation for working hard, being always well prepared in parliamentary debates and excelling at political intrigue.[3] In 1931, in response to an appeal for help from China, the League of Nations sent a group of educational experts to suggest improvements to the Chinese educational system. The experts were Carl Heinrich Becker, the former Education Minister of Prussia; the Christian Socialist British historian R. H. Tawney who was the only member of the group who had been to China before, and who could speak some Mandarin; Marian Falski, a senior bureaucrat with the Polish Ministry of Education in charge of all primary schools in Poland; and the famous scientist Paul Langevin of the Collège de France. Bonnet also joined the group, as he was serving as the Director of the Paris-based Institution of Intellectual Co-operation, and the League wanted someone outside of the educational system to serve as the chairman of the group.

By the early months of 1933 he was Édouard Daladier's Finance Minister [4] and found himself obliged to contract, in London, a short-term loan of £30,000,000 to meet France's desperate financial situation. During a Finance Bill debate which lasted for two days without sleep Bonnet made a speech in which he defended orthodox financial methods, cheered by the centre and Right. Daladier was having none of it having fallen out of sympathy with the Bill. Daladier's government fell on October 24th. Bonnet hung on as Finance Minister under the next Chautemps Cabinet. His next crisis were the accusations against him during the famous Stavisky crisis which storm he somehow weathered, but with great difficulty.[5] However Camille Chautemps' Cabinet fell at the end of January 1934 and Bonnet was out.[6]

Hard Left socialist French Premier Léon Blum, effectively exiled Bonnet in January 1937 by appointing him Ambassador to the United States,[7] even though Bonnet did not speak English! Despite his short stay in the United States and his inability to speak English, Bonnet thereafter and for the rest of his life claimed to be an expert on all things American!

On 28 June 1937, Bonnet returned to France when Premier Camille Chautemps appointed him once again Finance Minister[8]. Bonnet's first major act as Finance Minister was to oversee the devaluation of the franc, the second devaluation in less than nine months, with the value of the franc going from 110.8 francs per British pound to 147.20.[14] The devaluation was forced on Bonnet since the 10 billion francs that had been set aside in September 1936 in a currency reserve fund to defend the value of the franc after that year's devaluation had been spent by mid-1937. As Finance Minister, Bonnet imposed sharp cuts in military spending. He felt that the costs of the arms race with Germany were such that it was better for France to reach an understanding that might end the arms race rather than continue to spend gargantuan sums on the military. Besides the economic problems associated with budgetary stability and his attempts to maintain the value of the franc against currency speculation, Bonnet was concerned with the social conflict caused by the need for increased taxation and the decreased social services to pay for arms.

In a meeting with Franz von Papen, then the German Ambassador to Austria, in November 1937, Bonnet and Chautemps expressed the hope that an understanding might be reached in which France might accept Central and Eastern Europe as Germany's exclusive sphere of influence in return for German acceptance of Western Europe as France's sphere of influence. Moreover, Bonnet became the leading spokesman within the French Cabinet for the idea that the French alliance system in Eastern Europe, the so-called cordon sanitaire, was a net liability that would served only to embroil France in conflicts with Germany. This view proved to be prophetic. Bonnet believed that French interests should always take precedence over other nations' interests; he regarded himself as a "realist", and his thinking on foreign policy tended to be coloured in equal measure by pragmatism and insularity.

Bonnet's cuts in military spending led to a clash with the War Minister Édouard Daladier, who persuaded the Cabinet to rescind the most severe cuts to the French Army budget by pointing out that in the current international climate, the Army needed more funding, not less. Since the Ministers of the Air and the Marine were not as substantial personalities as Daladier, the French Navy and French Air Force could not reverse the Finance Minister's cuts In January 1938, after the fall of Chautemps' government, Bonnet made a serious effort to form a new government but in the end had to content himself with being appointed Minister of State.[9]

On 10 April 1938, after the fall of the second Blum government, Bonnet was appointed Foreign Minister under Daladier as Premier again (despite their quarrel in 1937, they had reconciled). In 1938 and 1939, there were three factions within the French government. One, the "peace lobby", was led by Bonnet who sort a rapprochement with Germany. One of Bonnet's first tasks at the Quai d'Orsay was to try to make friends with Italy, in keeping with the greater part of French opinion, and although his Italian policy of rapprochement was to prove an interminable series of failures, he never ceased to hope.[10] This became obvious when Mussolini made his savage attack on France in his famous speech at Genoa on May 15th; The communist Spanish Government had succeeded in stopping Franco's Aragon offensive with the help of French armament sent there in the two previous months. Mussolini declared that Italy and France appeared to be "on the opposite sides of the barricade; we desire the victory of Franco!" and declared the Stresa concords "dead and buried". Bonnet's initially unsuccessful response in Cabinet was to close the Catalan frontier to armaments. It however was closed on June 13th.[11]


See Munich Agreement

A majority of the French felt uninterested in the Czechoslovakia crisis, and certainly, despite France's treaties with the Czechs, were not prepared to "fight for the Czechs", if contemporary observers are taken into account.[12] Bonnet claimed that the 'threatened invasion' of Czechoslovakia by Germany on 21 May 1938 was largely a show put up by the Czechs for the purpose of testing the British and French reaction, which Bonnet and Daladier 'could never quite forgive'. However, Bonnet told the Chamber that "it would be inadvisable for the Czech Government to grant minority rights to the Sudeten Germans which would be out of all proportion with their numerical Importance" (over 3,000,000!)[13]. Bonnet was known to want to avoid the danger of war over Czechoslovakia and was very pleased when the Lord Runciman Mission was announced.[14] Also, he consistently minimised the part America was playing by declaring her material role in European affairs to be nil; he also implied that her moral role was of no importance.[15] A feature of French conduct was the discouragement by Bonnet to any energetic move in Czechoslovakia's favour coming, not only from France, but also from Britain. Bonnet spent his time suggesting to the British Ambassador that France would not 'march'[16].

In the event the 'pacifists' were in a majority in the Cabinet: Bonnet, de Monzie, the Minister of Public Works, Pomaret, Minister of Labour, and Camille Chautemps, the Vice-premier, whose views were similar to those of Flandin, Caillaux, and Mistler - President of the Chamber's Foreign Affairs Committee. The various options of going to war over Czechoslovakia were discussed in Cabinet, with Bonnet producing General Gamelin's report on France's military. Both dwelt upon France's weak points. The bottom line: 'was Czechoslovakia absolutely essential to the continued existence of France?'[17] Finally Lord Runciman produced his report on September 18th his conclusion being that the Czechs and the Sudetens could no longer live together. In the London Evening Standard of September 16th Flandin warned England that the French people would 'refuse to fight a war to save peace'. "The great majority of the French press had by this time already impressed on its readers that the transfer of the Sudetenland (to Germany) was the only solution. M. Lauzanne, writing in the Matin said not to do so would be a "great crime". After a trip by Daladier and Bonnet to London on September 18th the French accepted the 'Anglo-French Plan'. The majority of the French Cabinet now accepted the dismemberment of Czechoslovakia which meant, in effect, the breakdown of France's cordon sanitaire system of Eastern alliances. The semi-official Press implied it was all the fault of the Czechs [behaviour] anyway. M. Roche, writing in the République, reflecting the views of Bonnet, stated: [18]

If the Czechs reject the London Plan, it will be their own Lookout. There is no treaty that we know of which would compel us to intervene. Since all the advice we gave the Czechs was ignored every Frenchman is entitled to say that Prague has no claim on him; for Prague refused to see the dangers for which it was heading.

M. de Lacroix, the French Minister in Prague, was instructed by Bonnet to call on President Benes, together with Newton, the British Minister, to inform him that if the Czech Government did not accept the Anglo-French Plan, it must do so at its own risk. France would not go to war for Czechoslovakia. This they did in September 21st. The Czech Government rejected this plan and proposed that the dispute be submitted to arbitration, in accordance with the German-Czech arbitration treaty (Locarno).[19]

It was announced that Hitler, Chamberlain, Mussolini and Daladier were to meet at Munich on September 27th. Bonnet announced that it would 'spare the lives of millions of Europeans'. It is clear Bonnet was heavily involved in all these deliberations.[20] At the conclusion of the conference Daladier told a D.N.B Press Agency correspondent:

I think the Munich meeting may prove to be an historical date in the life of Europe. Thanks to the great comprehension shown by the four Great Western Powers war has been avoided, and a peace with honour assured. It was a great pleasure for me to find that there was no feeling of hatred or hostility towards France in Germany.

All along the way from the hotel to the aerodrome Daladier was the subject of warm ovations. All the way to his plane the crowds were cheering him. He arrived at Le Bourget to the same large cheering crowds. He waved cheerfully. Large crowds cheered him all the way to the War Office. Bonnet sat next to him. The Paris Press that day described Munich as an unspeakably happy event.[21]


Since 1933 the Germans had regularly raise the Colonies Question, their colonies, developed at vast cost by them, ad been stolen from them at Versailles and allotted as league of Nations Mandates to Britain and France. The French Government announced in November 1938 that no colonies held by them, including mandates, would ever be returned to Germany and published a communiqué to this effect. Bonnet was not by any means pleased. In pursuing his policy of rapprochment with Germany he wanted to keep colonies in reserve as a possible bargaining counter.[22] He had worked very hard, almost since Munich, for a Franco-German 'no war' declaration.


  1. Werth, Alexander, France and Munich, Hamish Hamilton, London, 1939/republished by Howard Fertig, New York, 1969, pps: 135 & 252.
  2. Werth, 1939/1969, p.135.
  3. May, Ernest Strange Victory, New York: Hill & Wang, 2000 page 160.
  4. Werth, 1939/1969, p.136.
  5. Werth, 1939/1969, p.136-7.
  6. Werth, Alexander, France in Ferment, Jarrolds Publishers, London, 1935, pps:67-8, 74, 110.
  7. Werth, 1939/1969, p.137.
  8. Werth, 1939/1969, p.137.
  9. Werth, 1939/1969, p.137.
  10. Werth, 1939/1969, pps: 143 & 175-7.
  11. Werth, 1939/1969, p.162-4.
  12. Werth, 1939/1969, p.146.
  13. Werth, 1939/1969, p.156-7.
  14. Werth, 1939/1969, 205 & 207.
  15. Werth, 1939/1969, p.212.
  16. Werth, 1939/1969, pps:223 & 230.
  17. Werth, 1939/1969, p.252-4.
  18. Werth, 1939/1969, pps: 260-4.
  19. Werth, 1939/1969, pps:266-7.
  20. Werth, 1939/1969, pps:310-314.
  21. Werth, 1939/1969, pps: 318-320
  22. Werth, 1939/1969, p.361.