1893 – 1983
A brilliant French journalist and a lifelong champion of European union and women’s rights, Louise Weiss was an influential voice in French and international affairs from the 1920s until her death in 1983. Her cosmopolitan perspective and persistent readiness to challenge the status quo led many to consider her on a par with other architects of European union, such as Jean Monnet (1888–1979) and Robert Schuman (1886–1963). When she was elected to the European Parliament in 1979 at the age of eighty-six, it seemed fitting that she was selected to give the inaugural address, not only because she was that assembly’s oldest member, but also because she was deemed to be the “grandmother of Europe,” a sobriquet conferred on her by the then chancellor of the German Federal Republic, Helmut Schmidt.
Weiss was born in Arras (Pas-de-Calais) on January 25, 1893, the eldest of six children in an upper middle class family of mixed Protestant-Jewish background whose descendants hailed from Alsace. Her father, Paul-Louis Weiss, who was a mining engineer, came from a family of Protestant notables with a long history of public service. He had been born in 1867 in the region of Petite-Pierre near Saverne (Bas-Rhin), but his family had moved to the French interior after the Franco-Prussian War. Her mother, Jeanne Javal, came from a distinguished Alsatian Jewish family who had opted for French citizenship after 1870. Both her great grandfather, Leopold Javal (1804–1872), and grandfather, Emile Javal (1839–1907), had served as deputies of the department of the Yonne, and her great-great-grandfather, Jacques Javal, and his son, Leopold, had also held seats on the Central Consistory, the official representative of French Jewry. Weiss’s family made frequent visits to Alsace where they still had relatives, as well as to Germany and Bohemia, where the Javal family had originated. This multilingual and cosmopolitan environment decisively shaped the young Louise’s outlook. As she later wrote in her memoirs, “One could not have been more European than we were. ... My European imprint was thus inevitable.” The other familial factor that left an indelible stamp on Louise Weiss was her parents’ staunch republican and anticlerical sentiments.
Weiss excelled in her studies and by 1914 she was one of only ten percent of French women to have successfully completed the agrégation. She received degrees in the field of letters from both the Universities of Paris and Oxford, where she had spent a year. Although she had always received encouragement in her studies from her mother, her father disapproved, preferring that she become a housewife rather than pursue a career. That prospect never held much appeal, however. As Weiss wrote in her memoirs: “how could I accept the ordinariness of a family life? What a defeat! ...The alternative before me: to devour the planet or devour myself.”
The outbreak of World War I profoundly influenced Weiss. Eager to contribute to the war effort, she organized a small field hospital in the Côtes-du-Nord for survivors of the trenches. As a witness to the terrible devastation wreaked by the war, she became interested in international affairs and especially the pursuit of peace. Since women were excluded from the political process in France, Weiss turned to a career of journalism as the preferred means of “making war on war.”
Weiss began her journalistic career during World War I, when she began writing for the newspaper, Le Radical, under the pseudonym Louis Lefranc. Her first major breakthrough came in 1919, when she was invited to become a correspondent for the foremost Parisian daily, Le Petit Parisien. That same year she was sent on a tour of the major cities of central Europe, including Prague, where she forged close ties to the Czech nationalist leaders Thomas Masaryk (1850–1937), Eduard Beneš (1884–1948) and Milan Stefanik (1880–1919), the great love of her early years. She was also sent to Moscow in 1921, where she interviewed top Bolshevik leaders including Karl Radek (1885–1939), Lev Kamenev (1883–1936) and Leon Trotsky (1879–1940). She simultaneously undertook a humanitarian mission to evacuate more than a hundred French governesses who found themselves trapped in the Soviet Union after the Bolshevik Revolution. Her principal journalistic endeavor, however, was the co-founding, with Hyacinthe Philouze, of the weekly journal L’Europe Nouvelle, which Weiss edited from its inception in January 1918 until 1934. Under her direction L’Europe Nouvelle rapidly became the premier journal on international affairs. Although it came to be closely associated with the views of Aristide Briand (1862–1932), the principal advocate of Franco-German rapprochement and international coexistence as represented by the League of Nations, it served as a forum for a wide range of opinions and counted among its collaborators statesmen such as Henry de Jouvenel (1876–1935), Pierre Eugene Drieu La Rochelle (1893–1945), Wladimir d’Ormesson (1888–1973), and Georges Bonnet (1889–1973). To further promote what she already called the “science of peace” Weiss also created the Nouvelle Ecole de la Paix in 1930. This institution, which was devoted to adult education, sponsored a series of lectures and seminars delivered by the leading luminaries in the field of international affairs.
Weiss’s faith in the League of Nations began to waver in the early 1930s, particularly when she realized the League was not prepared to use force to stave off the Nazi threat. She became an early and outspoken opponent of appeasement and was one of the few journalists to devote significant attention to the Nazi persecution of political dissidents and Jews. Her growing disenchantment with pacifism led her to relinquish her editorial post at L’Europe Nouvelle in 1934. She immediately threw herself into a new crusade, this time for women’s rights and especially women’s suffrage. Despite the apparent disjuncture between these two causes, in Weiss’s mind they were linked, since she believed that the participation of women in the political sphere would help avoid the outbreak of war.
In October 1934 Weiss created a new organization, La Femme Nouvelle, which established its headquarters on the Champs Elysées and quickly emerged as the most energetic and activist of feminist organizations. Unlike its counterparts, La Femme Nouvelle devoted itself exclusively to securing the vote. Although Weiss maintained ties to other feminist leaders, she believed they had been too tepid in their tactics and too beholden to the major political parties. She therefore decided that the best way to attract attention to her cause was to embark on a series of sensational propaganda stunts, including the interruption of major sporting events, such as the national soccer championship and the Grand Prix horse race at Longchamps, where she arranged for airplanes to drop leaflets attached to socks bearing the slogan: “Even if you give us the vote, your socks will still get darned.” She scored a major success when she unseated Raymond Duplantier, a senator of fifteen years, after he had declared: “These women wish to be deputies. Well then! No, since they remain what they have always been: whores.” Weiss also ran as a write-in candidate from the district of Montmartre during the 1935 municipal elections and again during the 1936 legislative elections, in which she attracted as many as 19,000 votes. Despite these successes, Weiss’s relationship with other feminist leaders remained frosty. Many of them were put off by her public criticism of their tactics and especially her criticism of the decision of Cécile Brunschvicg, Irène Joliot-Curie (1897–1956) and Suzanne Lacore (1875 or 1877–1975) to join Léon Blum’s first cabinet in 1936 as junior ministers without securing a promise from Blum to make women’s suffrage a priority. In her memoirs Weiss suggested that she had initially been approached by Blum for such a post but had declined saying: “I have struggled, not for the sake of being nominated, but for the right to be elected.” However, other feminist leaders have refuted this account.
In the late 1930s Weiss turned her attention back to international affairs. Aggrieved by the plight of Jewish refugees from Central Europe, she persuaded Foreign Minister Georges Bonnet in December 1938 to create a government-sponsored refugee committee—the Comité Central des Réfugiés, also known as the Bonnet Committee. As a result of her decisive personality and intolerance for bureaucratic ineptitude, Weiss helped secure visas for one thousand Jewish refugee children from Germany and Austria to enter France after Kristallnacht (November 9–10, 1938), secured permission for several hundred refugees stranded on board the S.S. Saint-Louis and S.S. Flandre to settle temporarily in France, and fought vigorously, albeit unsuccessfully, to break down the protectionist barriers erected by artisan and commercial associations which feared competition from refugee owned firms.
After the defeat of France in 1940, Weiss volunteered to go on a mission to the United States on behalf of the Vichy government in an effort to obtain pharmaceuticals and medical supplies that had become difficult to acquire due to the British boycott. Although she scored a modest success, securing a promise from the American Red Cross to provide several hundred kilograms of supplies, her mission was not entirely successful, since most Americans believed this aid would only help Nazi Germany. After she returned to France in December 1940, Weiss went back to her family home in Paris (she tricked a French bureaucrat into giving her a certificate of “non-apparence à la race juive”). In August, 1943, after her brother was nearly arrested by the Milice, the paramilitary police, on charges of aiding the resistance, she went into hiding and edited a resistance newspaper, La Nouvelle République.
After the war several colleagues appealed to her to resume direction of L’Europe Nouvelle. She refused, however, since her earlier pacifism had now given way to a more Machiavellian view of the world in which she believed that peace, and indeed, western values, could be preserved only when backed by military might. In 1945 she attended the Nuremberg Trials in her capacity as a journalist. Now that French women had been granted the vote she briefly considered a political career and ran unsuccessfully for city council of Magny-les-Hameaux, a small town northwest of Paris, on the Radical ticket. Thereafter, she moved to the political right, where she remained until the end of her career. From 1964 to 1970 she served as secretary general of L’Institut de Polémologie (Peace Studies Institute), which she co-founded with the sociologist Gaston Bouthoul (1896–1980). In the 1950s and 1960s she embarked on a period of extensive travel, including visits to the Far East, the Middle East, Africa, and Alaska. She wrote numerous articles for prominent French magazines and newspapers; she even took up filmmaking, ultimately making some thirty-seven documentaries. Although these films display a fascination with ancient cultures, they also reveal how profoundly pessimistic Weiss’s outlook had become, since brute force was depicted as the chief determinant of behavior everywhere in the world. Weiss also felt dismay at the prospect of decolonization. In her view the West, and especially Europe, had a special duty “not only to save but to impose upon the world those moral values that have constituted the greatness of humanity until today.”
She concluded her world travels in the 1970s and embarked on a new crusade to carve out a special role for Europe in the Cold War. In 1979 she successfully ran on a Gaullist ticket for the European Parliament and, as the eldest member elected to that body, she was selected to deliver the inaugural address. Although she used this occasion to call on Europeans to unite on the basis of common culture and not merely shared economic interests, her principal desire was to see Europe emerge as a superpower in the world, replete with its own military force, so that it could offset the influence of the two existing superpowers—the United States and the Soviet Union. Although some of Weiss’s biographers have described her increasingly Machiavellian and cynical view of the world as a repudiation of her earlier idealism and belief in international coexistence, it could be argued that Weiss’s goal always remained the same—the achievement of peace—but that the means she envisioned of achieving this goal changed over time.
Weiss was acutely conscious that her life constituted a testament to her epoch. She referred to herself as “a twentieth-century French woman” and she even wrote her own epitaph, a poem entitled “Louise l’Européene.” In addition to her journalistic writings her major literary legacy was her six-volume autobiography, Mémoires d’une européene, which appeared between 1968 and 1976. She also wrote several accounts of her travels, as well as a number of novels, including Délivrance (1936); La Marseillaise, 2 vols. (1945–1947); Sabine Legrand (1951); and Dernières Voluptés (1979). In 1971 she established the Fondation Louise Weiss in Strasbourg to give an annual prize to the person or institution who contributed most to the advancement of the “science of peace”; this award has gone to such individuals as Anwar Sadat, Helmut Schmidt, Simone Veil and Vaclav Havel. Weiss herself received numerous awards. Although she failed in her 1975 campaign to get elected to the Academie Française, she was promoted in 1976 to the rank of Grand Officer of the Legion of Honor and in 1980 she was named, together with Marguerite Yourcenar, Personality of the Year. She was briefly married from 1934–1938 to José Imbert, an architect, and she had an adopted son from whom she became estranged. Her funeral was held in a Reform Church. In 1993 the French Republic celebrated the centennial of her birth, which occasioned the publication of a volume Louise Weiss l’Européenne (1994) as well as a biographical film with the same title.
Kapnist, Elisabeth, director. Louise Weiss, l’Européenne. VHS film, 52 min., 1993; Bell, David, Douglas Johnson, and Peter Morris, eds. A Biographical Dictionary of French Political Leaders since 1870. New York: 1990; Bess, Michael. Realism, Utopia, and the Mushroom Cloud: Four Activist Intellectuals and Their Strategies for Peace, 1945–1989. Chicago and London: 1993; Bertin, Célia. Louise Weiss. Paris: 1999; Caron, Vicki. Uneasy Asylum: France and the Jewish Refugee Crisis, 1933–1942. Stanford, CA: 1999; Conte, Arthur. Grandes françaises du xxe siècle. Paris: 1995; Duclert, Vincent, and Christophe Prochasson. Dictionnaire critique de la république. Paris: 2002; Fondation Jean Monnet, Centre de recherches europeennes, Louise Weiss l’Européenne. Lausanne: 1994; McMillan, James F. France and Women 1789–1914: Gender, Society and Politics. London and New York: 2000; Idem. Housewife or Harlot: The Place of Women in French Society 1870–1940. New York: 1981; Hause, Steven C., with Anne R. Kenney. Women’s Suffrage and Social Politics in the French Third Republic. Princeton, NJ: 1984; Rabaut, Jean, Histoire des féminismes français. Paris: 1978; Smith, Paul, Feminism and the Third Republic: Women’s Political and Civil Rights in France, 1918–1945. Oxford: 1996; Weiss, Louise, Mémoires d’une européene, 3 vols. (revised edition), Paris: 1978–1980; Zand, Nicole. “La Mort de Louise Weiss: Européenne et féministe.” Le Monde, May 28, 1983.