Louise Weiss was one of the foremost European journalists and experts on international affairs of the twentieth century. She is considered an architect of European unity and she is best known for her campaigns on behalf of the peaceful resolution of international conflicts both during the interwar years and during the Cold War. She also worked on behalf of Jewish refugee rights in the late 1930s and was a leading feminist activist who focused on obtaining the right for French women to vote. In 1979, at the age of 86, she was elected to the first European parliament, and as the eldest member of that body, she delivered its inaugural address. She received numerous honors and awards, and the main building of the European Parliament in Strasbourg bears her name.
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 on May 26, 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 86, it seemed fitting that she deliver the inaugural address, not only because she was the 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 (1918-2015).
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 (1867-1945), a prominent mining engineer, came from a family of Protestant notables with a long history of public service. He was born in the region of Petite-Pierre near Saverne (Bas-Rhin), but his family moved to the French interior after the Franco-Prussian War (1870-1871). Her mother, Jeanne Félicie Javal (1871-1956), came from a distinguished Alsatian Jewish family who had opted for French citizenship after 1870. Both her great-grandfather, Léopold Javal (1804–1872), and her grandfather, Émile Javal (1839–1907), had served as deputies of the department of the Yonne in the Burgundy-Franche Comté region, and her great-great-grandfather, Jacques Javal, and his son Léopold 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, whence 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. Both of her parents were deeply influenced by the Dreyfus Affair (1894-1899). Her father even attended the Rennes trial (August 7, 1899-September 9, 1899), when Captain Alfred Dreyfus, who was Jewish, faced a second court-martial for allegedly having sold military secrets to the Germans in 1894. Beginning in late 1897, however, evidence began to surface that showed that Dreyfus had been framed by high-ranking army officers at the time of his original conviction in December 1894. In her memoirs, Weiss recalled that in 1903, a few years after Dreyfus's pardon in September 1899, since the second court martial upheld the original conviction, her mother was not altogether displeased when Louise, at the age of ten, punched a classmate who had called her a Jew and a freethinking dreyfusard.
Weiss excelled in her studies and by 1914 was one of only ten percent of French women to have successfully completed the agrégation, which would have permitted her to teach in a lycée (high school) and some other institutions of higher learning. She received degrees in the field of letters from both the Collège Sévigné in Paris and Oxford University, where she spent a year. Although she 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 appealed to her, however. As Weiss wrote in her memoirs: “[H]ow could I accept the ordinariness of a family life? What a defeat!...The alternative before me: to devour the planet or devour myself.”
World War I and the Interwar Years: Early Journalistic Ventures
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 region of Brittany 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), a naturalized French citizen who became the great love of her early years. In 1921, she was also sent to Moscow, where she interviewed top Bolshevik leaders, including Leon Trotsky (1879–1940). She simultaneously undertook a humanitarian mission to evacuate over 100 French governesses who found themselves trapped in the Soviet Union after the Bolshevik Revolution.
Weiss’s 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 France’s 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 Eugène Drieu La Rochelle (1893–1945), Wladimir d’Ormesson (1888–1973), and Georges Bonnet (1889–1973), who became Foreign Minister in 1938-1939. To further promote what she already called the “science of peace,” Weiss also created the Nouvelle École de la Paix (New School of Peace) in 1930. This institution, which was devoted to adult education, sponsored a series of public 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 in 1934 to relinquish her editorial post at L’Europe Nouvelle, which had always supported Franco-German rapprochement. Weiss also curtailed the activities of the Nouvelle École de la Paix because growing numbers of speakers were beginning to advocate pro-appeasement views. The school, however, continued to operate in a reduced capacity until 1939.
In the mid-1930s Weiss threw herself into a new crusade, this time for women’s rights, especially women’s suffrage. Despite the apparent disjuncture between her interest in conflict resolution and her feminist activities, in Weiss’s mind these two campaigns 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 other feminist organizations, 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 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 helped to unseat Raymond Duplantier, a senator of fifteen years, after he 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, especially her criticism of the decision of Cécile Brunschvicg (1877-1946), Irène Joliot-Curie (1897–1956), and Suzanne Lacore (1875–1975) to join Léon Blum's (1872-1950) 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.
The Battle for Refugee Asylum, 1938-1939
In the late 1930s Weiss turned her attention back to international affairs. Aggrieved by the plight of Jewish refugees from Central Europe, in December 1938 she persuaded Foreign Minister Georges Bonnet 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, who served as the committee's general secretary, helped secure visas for 1,000 Jewish refugee children from Germany and Austria to enter France after Kristallnacht (November 9–10, 1938). She also secured permission in 1939 for several hundred refugees stranded on board the S.S. Saint-Louis and S.S. Flandre, who had been denied permission to disembark either in Cuba or the United States, to settle temporarily in France. Throughout 1939 Weiss also served as vice-chair of the Intercomité des Oeuvres Françaises d'Assistance aux Réfugiés (Intercommittee), created that year to better coordinate refugee assistance. In her capacity as a refugee advocate, Weiss fought vigorously, albeit unsuccessfully, to break down the protectionist barriers erected by artisan and commercial associations, which feared competition from refugee-owned firms.
The Nazi Occupation
After France’s defeat in June 1940, Weiss volunteered to go on a mission to the United States on behalf of the Vichy government, in an effort to obtain pharmaceuticals, medical supplies, and food for children, which had become scarce 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 many Americans feared this aid would fall into German hands. Upon her return to France in December 1940, Weiss returned to her family home in Paris. When she learned that her name appeared on a Gestapo list of Jews to be targeted, she tricked a French bureaucrat into giving her a certificate of “non-apparence à la race juive” (“non-affiliation with the Jewish race”). She succeeded in this endeavor in part because she had secured a baptismal certificate from the Reformed Church of France. In August 1943, after her brother was arrested by the Milice, the French paramilitary police, on charges of aiding the resistance, she went into hiding under a false name. For several weeks during the Occupation, Nazi officers lived in her home in Paris, from which they stole furniture and paintings, as well as some boxes of personal correspondence from the 1920s and 1930s.
Post-War Activities and the Politics of Realpolitik
After the war several of Weiss’s 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 several sessions of the Nuremberg Trials in her capacity as a journalist. After French women obtained the right to vote in 1944, Weiss briefly considered a political career and ran unsuccessfully on the Radical ticket for city council of Magny-les-Hameaux, a small town northwest of Paris where her father had served as mayor (1935-1940). 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 sociologist Gaston Bouthoul (1896–1980).
In the 1950s and 1960s Weiss embarked on a period of extensive travel, including visits to the Far East, the Middle East, Africa, and Alaska. She wrote numerous articles for French magazines and newspapers; she even took up filmmaking, ultimately making some 37 documentaries for French television. 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, and she became an outspoken opponent of Algerian independence. 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” (Bess, 33).
Weiss concluded her world travels in the 1970s. She thereafter embarked on a new crusade to carve out a special role for Europe in the Cold War. In 1979, at the age of 86, she successfully ran on a Gaullist ticket for the European Parliament. As the eldest member elected to that body, she was nominated 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 can be argued that Weiss’s goal always remained the same—the achievement of peace—but that the means she envisioned to achieve this goal changed over time.
Weiss also became more conservative in her feminist views. She generated considerable controversy in 1973 when she published an anti-abortion pamphlet, “Lettre à un embryon” (Letter to an embryo. Paris: Julliard, 1973). Her anti-abortion stance placed her squarely at odds with the position advocated by the major feminist organization at the time, the Movement de Libération des Femmes, which had published a manifesto in 1971 demanding the legalization of abortion, which had hitherto been illegal.
Legacy: A Lifetime of Achievements
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 Weiss 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 (1918-1982), Helmut Schmidt, Simone Veil (1927-2017), and Vaclav Havel (1936-2011).
Weiss herself received numerous awards. Although she failed in her 1975 campaign to be elected to the Académie 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 to 1938 to José Imbert, an architect, and she had an adopted son from whom she became estranged. Her funeral was held in the Reformed Church of the Annunciation in Paris, to which she had expressed gratitude at the end of her life for having protected her during the Occupation by providing her with a baptismal certificate.
In 1993 the French Republic celebrated the centennial of Weiss’s birth, which occasioned the publication of a volume Louise Weiss l’Européenne (Lausanne, Switz.; Centre de Recherches Européenes, 1994), as well as a biographical film with the same title. On December 14, 1999, the President of France, Jacques Chirac, and the President of the European Parliament, Nicole Fontaine, laid a plaque to commemorate the inauguration of the Louise Weiss building at the European Parliament in Strasbourg, which serves as the parliament's principal building in which the plenary sessions are held. In 1989 a small park in Strasbourg's historic section was renamed Le Square Louise Weiss, and a street is named after her in the 13th arrondissement of Paris. In addition, in 1995 the city of Saverne, located near her father’s birthplace, created the Louise Weiss museum in the Castle Rohan, to house the collection of private belongings, including numerous photographs from her travels, that she bequeathed to the city. She also bequeathed her correspondence and manuscripts to the Bibliothèque Nationale de France in Paris, where they can be consulted by scholars.
Bariéty, Jacques. "D'une guerre à l'autre: Louise Weiss à la recherche de la paix (1918-1939),” in L'Idée de paix en France et ses représentations au xxe siècle, edited by Alain-René Michel and Robert Vandenbussche, 95-106. Lille: Publications de l'Institut de recherches historiques du Septentrion, Open Edition Books, 2018.
Bell, David, Douglas Johnson, and Peter Morris, eds. A Biographical Dictionary of French Political Leaders since 1870. New York: Prentice Hall, 1990.
Bess, Michael. Realism, Utopia, and the Mushroom Cloud: Four Activist Intellectuals and Their Strategies for Peace, 1945–1989. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1993.
Bertin, Célia. Louise Weiss. Paris: Albin Michel, 1999.
Caron, Vicki. Uneasy Asylum: France and the Jewish Refugee Crisis, 1933–1942. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1999.
Conte, Arthur. Grandes françaises du xxe siècle. Paris: Plon, 1995.
Dénechère, Yves. "La Contribution des Françaises à l'idée d'Europe et à la construction européenne au XXe siècle,” Parlement[s], Revue d'histoire politique, 2007/3 (n0 HS 3), 73-85.
Duclert, Vincent, and Christophe Prochasson. Dictionnaire critique de la république. Paris: Flammarion, 2002.
Fondation Jean Monnet. Louise Weiss l’Européenne. Lausanne: Centre de recherches européennes, 1994.
Hause, Steven C., with Anne R. Kenney. Women’s Suffrage and Social Politics in the French Third Republic. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1984.
Kapnist, Elisabeth, director. Louise Weiss, l’Européenne. VHS film, 52 min., 1993.
Kershaw, Angela. "Louise Weiss: Fin de siècle chez une femme du siècle," Romance Studies, vol. 18, no. 1 (June 2000), 45-55.
McMillan, James F. France and Women 1789–1914: Gender, Society and Politics. London and New York: Routledge, 2000.
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Rabaut, Jean. Histoire des féminismes français. Paris: Stock, 1978.
Smith, Paul. Feminism and the Third Republic: Women’s Political and Civil Rights in France, 1918–1945. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996.
Weiss, Louise. Mémoires d’une européene. 3 vols. (revised edition). Paris: Albin Michel, 1978–1980.
Winkler, Evelyne. Louise Weiss: Une journaliste-voyageuse, au coeur de la construction européene (Paris: L'Harmattan, 2017).
Zand, Nicole. “La Mort de Louise Weiss: Européenne et féministe.” Le Monde, May 28, 1983.