Since its opening in 1872, Sciences Po has welcomed thousands of British students from neighbouring universities across the Channel. Among the very first Brits to enrol at the university was Sir Austen Chamberlain, an ambitious Cambridge graduate with a brilliant future in European diplomacy. Best known for his role negotiating the Locarno Treaties, for which he was jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, Chamberlain held the position of Foreign Secretary in the inter-war years from 1924 – 1929. What did he take away from his time as the only British student in Sciences Po’s Class of 1886, and how was that to shape his policy during such a pivotal period in Europe’s history?
Quite extensively it would turn out, as several commentators have recorded. Historian Gaynor Johnson notes the importance of the British Foreign Secretary’s fondness for the French, which would become an unvarying feature of his diplomacy: “It is important to realise that Chamberlain's Francophile tendencies did not stem merely from the opportunities that presented themselves when he was foreign secretary, but from a life-long love affair with the country, its culture and its language.” It was a love affair that blossomed during his nine month sojourn at Sciences Po.
Nine happy months and one life-long love affair
In his memoir, Down the Years, Chamberlain fondly recalls “those happy months” spent in Paris, expressing gratitude to the Frenchmen he mixed with almost exclusively: for the “cordial first welcome” they extended and for their “hospitality constantly renewed”. It was the decision of Austen’s father, politician Joseph Chamberlain, to send his son to study first in Paris and then Berlin, in the hope that he might glimpse the cogs rotating Europe at close range. Along with his half-brother Neville, who would go on to become one of Britain’s most unpopular Prime Ministers, Austen was reared from the first for politics. In Paris he would be introduced to the upper echelons of the French political scene, dining regularly at the home of future Prime Minister Alexandre Ribot and his wife, or attending the opera with Georges Clemenceau.
Down the Years provides a vivid account of life inside a still fledgling Sciences Po. As one of the school’s earliest international recruits and with a father whose policies had made an impression abroad, Chamberlain won the privilege of a personal welcome by Sciences Po’s founder Émile Boutmy. Though “no great Lover of the English”, the university’s President was to receive and guide his new student with “the greatest kindness”. On his personal recommendation, Chamberlain took classes in European diplomatic and political history, the French Constitution, and “Finances in a Democracy”.
Lectures by celebrated French historian Albert Sorel seem to have made a particular impression on Chamberlain: “The wide sweep of his survey, the clarity of his style, the vigour and conviction of his delivery enchanted me… I found history rescued from the dry-as-dusts and related to the living problems of the day”. Meanwhile, his memoir also recounts a less fortunate encounter with former French Finance Minister Léon Say, who dedicated an entire lecture to critiquing a manifesto written by Chamberlain’s father, “the famous Joe”. But having heard Say’s harsh criticism at length, Chamberlain still manages to see in him yet another example of the unfaltering French politeness. The professor called his student over after the lecture, apologising and hoping that he had not caused offense by the opinions he felt obliged to express.
Conference attended by Chamberlain at Sciences Po in 1937 - Photo: Paris-Soir
“A Singular Grand Reception”
65 years later, it was the staff at Sciences Po’s own turn to express their appreciation for an esteemed former student. In 1937 Chamberlain “joyously agreed to pass by the rue Saint-Guillaume and relive some of the memories of his youth”. The visit won this enthusiastic account from Pierre Rain, Sciences Po’s librarian at the time:
“The afternoon of 21 January saw a singular grand reception in the School’s new amphitheatre, as the British statesman and the most prominent members of Sciences Po’s staff exchanged a mixture of compliments and humorous remarks. All those who had the pleasure of attending took away a special memory.”
Rain compliments Chamberlain’s “correct and even elegant French” and speech filled with “plenty of very British humour”. His crowning moment, however, comes in the course of “a sparkling firework of a lecture” by French intellectual André Siegfried, an academic who gained world renown for his commentaries on American, Canadian, and British politics:
"The highlight of this meeting on the 21 January was a lecture by André Siegfried, who chose as his subject: 'the British psychology'. At the moment the professor was preparing to give his speech, we saw Sir Austen, who naturally had been sat on President Tirard’s right, rise in some agitation, and descend from the platform in order to (what a mishap!)... sit himself down in the lower rows of the auditorium, amongst the students. Cue thunderous applause at this gesture, so charming in its spontaneity.”
Though born too early to have been taught by Siegfried during his own time at Sciences Po, Chamberlain once again proves his ease in the company of his alma mater.
Chamberlain descends from the platform to sit amongst the students - Photo: Paris-Soir
An Entente Cordiale
This mutual appreciation between Chamberlain and his host country, began while he was a student and sustained throughout his life, was to have profound diplomatic implications during his five years in office. The politician’s ease in French society and immaculate grasp of the French language won the affection of more than his early acquaintances at Sciences Po. Of particular importance for Europe, they helped him earn the respect of French Prime Minister Aristide Briand, with whom he was to collaborate numerously across his years as Foreign Secretary.
Would Locarno have been possible without such a cordial relationship between Chamberlain and Briand? Many historians, including Gaynor Johnson, have seen the relationship between the French and British statesmen as a major factor enabling the treaty’s success. Chamberlain himself praised Briand lavishly for his role. Recalling a speech by Briand at the close of Locarno, he wrote: “As I listened I felt my love for France justified, for in Briand’s words I heard the voice of all that is noblest and most generous in the soul of the French nation.” Then proving that the feelings were, once again, mutual, he goes on to recall the words of Briand to his wife: “without your husband I would never have attempted it!’"
Chamberlain’s tendencies as a Francophile seem to have trumped all other alliances, with his esteem for Briand and for Briand’s home country almost blurring together in the above quotation. The impression left by his first happy months as a student in France would stay with the Foreign Secretary throughout his life. Chamberlain’s experience of Parisian political society would play a formative role in British diplomatic policy across a formative period in the history of Europe.
- ‘Austen Chamberlain and Britain's Relations with France, 1924–1929’, Gaynor Johnson, Diplomacy and Statecraft (17.4), 2007
- Austen Chamberlain, Down the Years, 1935
- The Austen Chamberlain Diary Letters, ed. Robert C. Self, 1995
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