The Growing Pains Of Modern France

AT THE HEART OF A TIGER: CLEMENCEAU AND HIS WORLD 1841-1929 By Gregor Dallas Carroll & Graf 620 pp., $28.95

THE circumstances sound freshly familiar: fortifications around a seat of government, defending ``the people'' not against a foreign power but against another branch of domestic government; a mini-civil war - pitting the rural population against a hard core of urban radicals - that bloodies the streets of the capital; and Draconian measures, including cutoff of basic supplies and, subsequently, wide-scale press censorship, to force the surrender and silence of rebel forces.

Elements of the recent ill-fated Moscow rebellion, you say. But they are also pieces of the vivid picture Gregor Dallas paints of the Paris Commune of March 1871 in his biography of French statesman and man of his times Georges Clemenceau.

The similarities between the Moscow of 1993 and the Paris of a century ago, when the ``communards'' battled the national government set up in Versailles, suggest just one of the interests of a book chronicling French political growing pains of the last century. Today as we watch Russia and much of Eastern Europe march, with varying success, toward ``democracy,'' it can be enlightening to review how the same path was cleared by one of our era's established democracies.

When Dallas describes the ill-fated Commune as ``a nostalgia for a golden past ... an eight-week passion that devoured tens of thousands,'' his words come to life in part because solid research allows him to paint captivating pictures of the Montmartre barricades or the battle of Neuilly. Yet the interest is more than simply historical because the reader's ears still ring with the Russian parliamentarians' bitter nostalgia for the lost glory of the Soviet Union, and with the booming tanks that slammed Moscow's White House to end a rebellion.

This book is titled ``At the Heart of a Tiger,'' but the subtitle - ``Clemenceau and His World 1841-1929'' - suggests the book's real interest. Dallas recounts the emergence of modern France through an emblematic personality: Clemenceau the positivist, the writer, the orator, the firm believer in the French Revolution, and especially, the iron will that at times seems to have singlehandedly held off the Germans during World War I.

When the physical sciences fail to answer the enigmas of life as Clemenceau thought they would, when the mob mentality of the Commune and the bigoted chauvinism of northern France's coal miners sour his faith in the common man of the Revolution, and when the aftermath of the Great War leaves him uneasily predicting another war shortly - it is a whole era's dashed hopes, and not just those of one historic figure, that we feel.

Yet it was Prime Minister Clemenceau who deeply impressed the allies with his frequent visits to the French trenches - Dallas tells us he would take to his grave a small bouquet of dusty flowers a soldier offered him on one of those visits - and again Clemenceau who, like Britain's Lady Thatcher in the Falklands war, refused to entertain the idea of defeat because of the affront it presented to his sense of France.

Unlike Lady Thatcher, however, Clemenceau was always the reluctant politician, preferring his writings - for a myriad of political newspapers he founded, and in books and essays on everything from post-Civil-War America and the Dreyfus Affair, to Claude Monet's waterlilies - to the limitations he felt in statesmanship. That may go some way to explaining why he remains so little known both outside, and, to a degree, inside France.

Dallas's book can be an uneven read, at times (especially in the beginning, in a winded look at scientific theory in the 19th century) unclear on how particular forces of an era influenced Clemenceau. But anyone with an interest in European history, France, Paris - or in getting some perspective on the democratization efforts of our day - will profit from this read.

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