Jean Monnet, ECSC President

The story of a great international businessman 

Jean Monnet

     Jean Monnet (whom we will also refer to as J.M.) was born in Cognac, Charente, in 1888 to a family of spirit merchants (cognac, brandy). His father, also Jean, was head of a small business that combined the produce of several winegrowers.
     Everyone at that time lived in the shadow of the “grandes maisons”, the majority of which were of Anglo Saxon origin. International trade, in particular long haul export, was order of the day. An upper class dominated a society of peasant winegrowers, and life revolved around the harvest periods and the value per degree hectolitre. Essentially nothing has changed today.
      Not very bright in school, Monnet left aged sixteen, without his baccalauréat, preferring to travel and do business. His father sent him to one of his clients in London, where he was to learn English, something quite strange for a French youngster at the time. It would be of great use to him.
     Very quickly he acclimatised to the business and particularly effective methods of the Anglo Saxons, slowly but surely becoming one of their own and understanding their intellectual way of conducting business, in complete contrast to the French mentality at the time.
     At 18, he left for Canada, where his main client was the prestigious HUDSON BAY COMPANY; he then travelled to USA, RUSSIA, and SCANDINAVIA.
      He founded his own company “La Bordelaise”. Business was not always easy, stocks were at times difficult and cash flow was tight, but the Charentais became an informed and competent businessman. He already had a network of contacts and a broad vision of the world, essential for any big entrepreneur.

In Europe, the First World War changes the course of events

           J.M. returned to France at the age of 26. His brother was fighting the war, but J.M. had been discharged from military service after contracting a disease in Egypt, and felt useless. The military situation could have been better; no agreement had been made between France and Great Britain regarding the provisions necessary for the war effort in terms of:

    • equipment
    • raw materials: sodium nitrate (powder), oil, cereals, metals.

     So this young man without rank, credentials, qualification, or mandate took it upon himself to change the situation.
     His father was a bit surprised, but the family were optimistic. The family’s lawyer, Mr. Benon, contacted the French Prime Minister), René Viviani, who he knew well, and the latter accepted to meet J.M. and hear his ideas. These comprised:

    • A coordinated team effort between France and England, an inter-ally committee to organize for provisions together.
    • The streamlining of cargos to reduce their cost.

     Jean Monnet was capable of setting up such a service, with the help of his networks and his knowledge of the Anglo-Saxons, their methods and language.
     The English are pragmatists, if something solid is presented to them they are inclined to go for it. Monnet knew his friends at HUDSON BAY COMPANY had a powerful fleet of ships and would be sure to help him.
Cognac en Charente

     Socialist Député RENE VIVIANI did not have a reputation for being easy. What’s more he was governing a country in upheaval, hundreds of thousands of whose young men were on the frontlines, with on average 1000 soldiers dying everyday. Marshalls, Generals; thousands of officers were responsible for the war effort. And yet this 26-year-old discharged soldier who had the sole fame of selling Cognac convinced him. Viviani had never seen him before, and at the time J.M. could have passed for an office boy.

     Without a doubt this is when the mystery of MONNET began: his extraordinary power of persuasion.
     VIVIANI sent J.M. to Alexandre MILLERAND, Minister for War, and the “persuasion elixir” had the same effect.

     J.M. went to London with Army Controller General MAUCLAIR, general director of the supply corps, and the two men went to work. Mauclair was astounded by J.M.’s capabilities, the size of his network of contacts, and his knowledge of the administration and business world. J.M. had conquered the director of the supply corps.
     J.M. quickly obtained the support of the Hudson Bay fleet and a loan of 100 million gold francs from the bank of France.
     It was then time to go further and requisition the British and French to create a shared maritime fleet of ships.
     J.M. was now beginning to bother some important people, in particular members of the military, who were not pleased with the powerful influence of this discharged soldier.
     J.M. received support that was to turn out to be crucial from the minister for trade, Etienne Clementel, who made him his permanent representative in London, saving him from the military hierarchy that would gladly have sent him to the front lines. J.M. was lucky. Clementel was a great Minister with a new, open-minded worldview. He was to found the International Chamber of Commerce and reactivate the eminent role of the Advisors for French foreign Trade in the World. In a way he was a kind of anti-Meline, the highly protectionist French minister.

     At the age of 28, J.M. was France’s representative at the Inter-Ally Executive Committee for Resources.
     On 6th April 1917, the US went to war, and J.M. was to work for the Americans (for a rather prolonged period…).
     Louis Loucheur, the new Minister of Defence, did not like Monnet. The military wanted yet again to send him to the front lines. J.M. found himself in the office of the new Prime Minister, George Clemenceau. Having inquired about what J.M. was doing in London, ‘Le Tigre’ was convinced that he was of good use there and allowed him to return.

    When the war was over, J.M., had done a good job and was well known and liked. Clementel gave him a position on an inter-Ally commission in charge of providing supplies to defeated Germany.
     J.M. was now an important international personality. He met Keynes, who introduced him to “cultural economics.”
    In 1919, J.M. was made Assistant Secretary General of the League of Nations (precursor to the United Nations), which was founded in 1920 after the disastrous Treaty of Versailles. It was an old idea adopted by Woodrow Wilson, president of the United States. His Secretary was Sir Eric Drummond.
    J.M. was, in a way, the “Père Joseph” of the League of Nations. He was to accomplish considerable work, sorting out problems in Austria, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Romania …
     He met Aristide Briand, Louise Weiss, Rene Cassin, Titulescu and many more. He became friends with an exciting character who was to play an important role with him, Ludwik Ratchman, who later founded UNICEF and was the forerunner of the right of intervention. He was a doctor of Polish origin, who we shall meet again later.

    J.M. was very disappointed by the failure of the League of Nations. He resigned with the feeling that the machine could no longer function. From his experience of the League of Nations, J.M. would always mistrust international and intergovernmental assemblies. He would remain convinced of the need for “Supranationality”, and would remember when developing his European plans.

     In 1924, J.M. returned to Cognac. The cattle were thin. Stocks had to be sold, and ‘paradise’ with them. People from Charentes will identify…
     Fortunately for J.M., there was the Hudson Bay Company and his friend, Lord Kindersley’s Lazard bank. J.M. left for the US, where he began big business. He worked for Blair & Co investment bank, specialised in loans to nations with plans, no money but many taxpayers.
     He met Foster Dulles, future minister to Eisenhower, McCloy and Walter Lipmann.
    J.M. and his friend Ratchman bailed out the Polish zloty, the Romanian leu, with the Swedish millionaire (if somewhat an embezzler) Ivar Kreuger. They would undertake other financial operations together with the French, in particular René Pleven.
    J.M. founded Bancamerica-Blair, a bank in San Francisco whose financial influence in the world (and its fortune) was immense. In March 1929, the global crisis had practically ruined it.

    In the meantime, the single J.M. fell in love with an Italian woman whose jealous husband, naturally, had no interest in divorce, unsurprising for Italy in the 1930s. The story of Sylvia Bondini Gianini’s divorce and marriage to Jean Monnet is worthy of the best Hollywood screenwriters.
     In short, J.M. succeeded in making Sylvia Russian, in getting her a divorce and in marrying her all in the course of one day, aided by the complicity of Stalin’s first deputy, Molotov, and that of American and French Ambassadors in Moscow. They had two daughters.

     TCHANG KAÏ-CHEK  et  MAY LINGIn 1933, Ratchman who had taken an interest in the deplorable state of the hygiene situation in China (from his position in the League of Nations) had persuaded Sir Eric Drummond that a more general financial aid was essential for China to resolve its problem of extreme poverty.
     After various adventures J.M. was asked to come to Shanghai by Ratchman. Ratchman’s contact is TV Soong, then finance minister for Tchang Kai Chek.
     The father in the Soong family was a pastor who made his fortune by, among other things, selling bibles. He had three sons and three daughters:

  • The eldest daughter married the Chinese finance tycoon M Kung, 73rd generation descendent of Confucius.
  • The second eldest was the wife of Sun Yat Sen, first President of the Chinese Republic and later she became vice president of Mao’s People’s Republic of China.
  • The third is a novel character, May Ling, the wife of Tchang Kai Chek. She died in 2003 at the age of 105. Like many others, J.M. was under her charm.
  • T.V. Soong’s first son was minister for finance, minister for foreign affairs and prime minister.

     J.M. took part in the creation of The China Finance Development Corporation. He was even president of a Chinese railway company.

     J.M. returned to the US and lived in New York with his wife, where he led the life of a well-known, reputable businessman. With the threat of war approaching, J.M. received a mission from the French government to buy fighter planes from the US. It was a complicated affair because of France’s debt due to provisions delivered during WWI. Highly impressed by Roosevelt, J.M. begins networking and making contacts among the President’s entourage.
     He was immediately aware of the turn that events were taking in Germany; he understood very quickly who Hitler was and the mortal danger he represented for Humanity.

      In June of 1940, J.M. returned to Paris, the war had started and the French army had been crushed. Paul Reynaud’s government was in Bordeaux and the Germans were in Paris. J.M. went to London.
      One could say that the French prime minister at the time then found himself in the middle of an Elizabethan play, where the majority of the actors were trying to unite France and the United Kingdom as one nation to continue the war effort.
      For those who may have forgotten, the French Navy was one of the most powerful in the world in 1940, and most importantly, it was intact. The union of France and Britain had a strategic potential, but it was a failure. In the meantime Petain took over from Reynaud and signed the armistice with Hitler.
      On 17 June 1940, Jean and Sylvia Monnet invited General De Gaulle to dinner at their home. Sylvia is claimed to have said “So, General, you have come to London on business” to which De Gaulle replied, “No Madame, I am here to save the honour of France.” Evidently things got off to a bad start. But Monnet always had problems with people in the military, having been discharged from service.
     The day after, on the 18 June, J.M. could no longer be President of the Coordinating Committee, as Vichy’s France was no longer at war. After Churchill suggested he be in charge of purchases from the US he became Vice President of the British Supply Council and British civil servant. Remember that after his time in China, J.M. started frequenting Roosevelt’s peers. This time he made his way in close to the top, and even government members in Washington figure among his friends, including Harry Hopkins, confidant of the President and most of all Felix Frankfurter, a Supreme Court judge.
     Frankfurter is probably the person who initiated J.M. into the world of law, explaining how American democracy functioned and instilling in him the notion of federalism, the passion of the law state, and the separation of powers that were so dear to Montesquieu and Tocqueville.
     Even though he may never have read Voltaire, J.M. was "un enfant des Lumières" without knowing it, like many French for that matter.
    Plugged into the inner circle, J.M. actively participated in the Victory Program.

    But he was given a job to do in Algiers by Roosevelt: be the president’s personal representative. The situation was a confused one in Algiers: Nogues, Darlan, and Giraud were all navigating between the Allies and Vichy, and there was a need for order to be restored before the planned landing in Italy.
    Of course De Gaulle was in London, and for J.M. this was a man to be taken down, a future dictator. Unfortunately, he would prove to have a lasting influence on Roosevelt with regard to this idea, which would be damaging to the leader of free France.
    To sum up, the Americans wanted Giraud to be in charge of a provisional government in Algiers over which they would have complete control to be able to marginalise De Gaulle.
    In reality the US president’s special envoy, vice president of the British Supply Council, did not have an enviable role, but his pragmatism would see him through. All in all, like it or not, he would help the general.
     The allies had no choice but to accept the French National council of the Resistance’s recognition of De Gaulle’s legitimacy as leader of free France.
    Jean Monnet went into provisional government with Général De Gaulle. This is where the destinies of the two men divide, and a battle begins over the conception of Europe that today is far from over.
    In September 1945, J.M. goes back to his homeland, but not for long. He is soon called to the US as president of the French Supply Council. This man will have been a ‘big supplier’. Since the end of the Lend-Lease program, Franco-American business relations went back to being under common law. If France wanted a loan, it had to go by the Export-Import Bank, a kind of export-credit insurance.
    Roosevelt had died and was replaced by Truman, the man often seen in braces, who was less Francophobe than his predecessor.
    De Gaulle went to USA where he received a triumphant welcome from La Guardia, mayor of New York and friend of France. J.M. and De Gaulle met again, and though they didn’t like each other, each recognised the value of the other.

    These two were both great Frenchmen, whose fates were to love their country devotedly in their own way. The soldier and the businessman forgot their differences in order to rebuild and modernise France.
    J.M. was appointed Head of the Commissariat Général au Plan, and answered directly to the French President. He had everybody’s unanimous support, including that of the Communists, who he would involve minimally. At the Commissariat Headquarters, Rue de Martignac, action stations were at the ready. J.M. was surrounded by great men, among others: Etienne Hirsch, Pierre Uri, René Marjolin, Federic Joliot Curie, Louis Armand, who would all be joined by Paul Delouvrier, Jacques Van Helmont, and André Fontaine who would stay with J.M. to the end.


    Young generations do not realise what these men accomplished. The Provisional government and the subsequent 4th Republic re-built a country that had been bled dry, profoundly damaged by two world wars in 25 years.

    De Gaulle left power but for once it was not good news for J.M. The Marshall Plan was put in place and thanks in part to J.M.’s tremendous prestige in the US, France was well provided for.
    Our globetrotter settled down in the Chevreuse Valley near MONFORT with his wife and children. He would stay there until the end of his life, with occasional escapes to Ile de Ré.
    J.M. at 60 was, like many of his contemporaries, obsessed by the war. Let us remember 1914’s poilus (‘hairy ones’ in French, used to refer to the French soldiers of WW1) singing “the war to end all wars”. J.M.’s answer to this obsession was  Europe, Supranational Europe.
    The immediate question that the Allies asked themselves was with regard to the situation in Germany. “What to do?” was an all-the-more pertinent question considering the clearer soviet threat.
    Most likely “advised” by J.M., the Americans asked Robert Schuman, then minister for foreign affairs, to make a proposition.
    A man from Limoges here played a big role; Bernard Clappier, Schuman’s cabinet director (and future Governor of Banque de France) helped J.M. to put together a draft to make the pooling of coal and steel possible under the aegis of a High Supranational Authority. Unfortunately these raw materials were the two instruments par excellence used by nations for war.
    J.M. and Clappier did not have much difficulty in convincing R. Schuman, and Germany’s Adenauer accepted this proposition like a gift from heaven.

  • The draft was the Schuman declaration on 9 May 1950.
  • The treaty of Paris created the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC) between France, Germany, Italy, Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg, on 18 April 1951.

     Jean Monnet was the first president of the High Authority, who set up office in Luxembourg with his entire team.
     The Monnet Construction’s first treaty with a ratchet clause was in place, but what followed would be more difficult.
     We saw earlier how the question of Germany was being raised in light of the Soviet threat. Should West Germany be re-armed? Some proposed a de-militarised zone. The subject was a sensitive one, with German re-armament very unpopular in France.
     J.M. had an idea that was in the spirit of European Integration: the E.D.C. (European Defence Community), but he could be said to have gone too far, too fast here. There would have been general outcry if there were a common, and therefore supranational army, with the Germans under US control. The Gaullists, the Communists and P. Mendes France rejected the project in the National Assembly.
     On 5 October 1955 J.M. created the Action Committee for the United States of Europe. This time he officially stated its real intention: the committee was its own instrument of combat, and was under its own exclusive and effective control. The members included, among others:

  • For France: Guy Mollet (SFIO), Edgard FAURE (Radical Party), Antoine Pinay (CNI), René Pleven (MRP), Boudaloux (CFDT), Bottereau (CGT), (there was no Gaullist!).
  • For Italy: Giovani MALGONI, Ugo LA MALFA, DE GASPERI.
  • For Germany: Herbert WETNER (SPD), Walter SCHEEL.
  • For Belgium: Auguste COOL Paul Henri. SPAAK.
  • For The Netherlands: Max KOHNSTAMN.

    A group of staff brought together the ‘fidèles’: J Van Helmont, A. Fontaine to whom would join Paul Delouvrier, Pierre Uri, René MArjolin, Etienne Hirsh… and some of the ECSC civil servants: Walter Halstein, Jean Rey, Emile Noel, Jean Francois Deniau, and also outside consultants like Felix Frankfurter and enigmatic Professor Rieben, de Lausanne who was president up to his death of the Monnet Foundation in Switzerland.

    Later, others joined the committee, Valéry Gisgard d’Estaing, Edgard Pisani, Félix Gaillard, Maurice Faure, Helmut Schmidt, Douglas Home, Pietro Nenni, Amintore Fanfani.
    The Action Committee of the United States of Europe was to meet 18 times, for the first time in Paris on 18 January 1956 and the last time in 1975. It was the “matrix” of two large treaties:

  • The EURATOM Treaty (1957)
  • The founding treaty for the European Economic Community: the Treaty of Rome

Jean MONNET passed away in 1979.
He entered the Hall of Fame on 9th November 1988.

     For my part I met Jean Monnet many times in his committee office at avenue Foch in Paris. We did not share the same views. I was for a Europe of nations whereas he was a federalist. He never held it against me. We were both Charentais. He was 75 and I wasn’t yet 30, but we understood each other very well.
     In 1969, I was invited by J.M. to take part as an observer in the committee meeting at Bundestag at Bonn. On that occasion I accompanied J.M. to dinner, treated by Chancellor Willie Brand, and the future Chancellor Helmut Schmidt, then minister for defence was among those present. My father had been drafted thirty years previously to the day.

Copyright 2007- Alain Villefayaud


  • JEAN MONNET l'inspirateur - Pascal FONTAINE chez J.GRANCHER