It is hard to tell what Jean Monnet’s eventual reputation will be. At the moment, his name is enough of a household word to have appeared in the Sunday, March 12, New York Times crossword puzzle: forty-four down, “originator of the Common Market.” The American diplomat Robert Murphy considered Jean Monnet “the most influential man in France of his generation, …in many respects more remarkable than de Gaulle himself.” Yet Jean Monnet was always more celebrated outside France than within. Although these memoirs reached the French best-seller list for thirteen weeks in 1976, there was virtual silence in the book columns. It was as if Monnet’s voice had become a mere object of nostalgia.
Jean Monnet’s position in France was always anomalous. He stood outside all the usual networks of influence in his own country. He never ran for elective office, preferring, he tells us, to further one project at a time from behind the scenes. He was not a fonctionnaire. Indeed he was usually at pains to exclude civil servants, whom he regarded as irremediably hidebound, from the private conversations in which he pressed some new departure on political leaders. Nor was he an intellectual in the French mold. He was a halting and pedestrian speaker and writer who impressed by force of conviction rather than by brilliance, an “intermittent genius” as the French political journalists Serge and Merry Bromberger called him. He was not even a technocrat, though he surrounded himself with them. He had no specialized economic or administrative training, and was notorious for getting his statistics muddled.
Jean Monnet also managed to miss most of the experiences that shaped his compatriots’ attitudes in this century. He escaped most of the impress of the French school system, abandoning his desultory studies after the first “bac” to sell his father’s cognac in Winnipeg and Chicago before he was out of his teens. He spent the First World War in London. During postwar reconstruction he was in Geneva, as deputy secretary-general of the League of Nations. He witnessed the Depression from Shanghai and the Popular Front from New York, where he was working as an international banker. He was in London during the collapse of 1940 and in Washington at the Liberation. His view of the world could hardly resemble that of most of his compatriots.
Jean Monnet claims that his influence rested simply upon having clear, sensible ideas at crucial moments. That, along with unlimited self-confidence and a worldwide network of friends. Monnet learned at once to sidestep the screen of underlings and go right to the top. In September 1914, unknown and not yet thirty, he wangled an interview with Premier Viviani and explained to him that Britain and France must pool their overseas purchases and shipping. As these steps were indeed forced upon them, Monnet emerged as the principal French economic official in wartime London.
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.