Paul Deschanel, the uncommon President

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Paul Deschanel was born in Brussels in 1855. Moving back to Paris a few years later (his parents had fled France for Belgium in the context of home political instability), Paul started literary studies before he followed his father’s footsteps into politics.

Back in the day, a politician career was more than signing treaties and shaking hands… The 30-year-old deputy did not hesitate to incriminate Georges Clemenceau, future head of the government, for having taken part in the “Panama Affair” – a corruption scandal which had provoked a general outcry in the 1890s. To settle the misunderstanding, Clemenceau and Deschanel fought in a sword duel!

Though he lost the duel (without serious injuries but his own honor’s), Paul got in the race for the Presidency and was appointed head of the State in 1920.

A few months later, the new President was doing his official duties on the Mediterranean coast. Invited to Nice, he gave a well-acclaimed speech: to please his cheering audience some more, he repeated it – word for word. In Menton, he picked up flowers thrown at him and sent them back.

During a train journey in May, he fell out the window of his compartment: it was approximately midnight. The President in pajamas eventually came across workers who did not recognize him but cared for his wounds and offered him a place to stay. (Only the wife of the worker who had found Paul seemed to realize they had a special guest, because “his feet were clean”.)

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May, 25th edition of Le Petit Journal covering the incident. (Source: ETC)

Some other events, may they be true or just made up in papers covering Deschanel’s mental state, include him talking to deputies in a park and compulsively struggling to climb a nearby tree, or going for a half-naked swim in a lake without a warning. The health of the President was slightly but surely deteriorating, day after day. Finally, in September 1920, he decided to resign from his position after 7 months and 3 days in office.

He recovered quite well a few months after, and even got back to political duties – on a smaller scale. But no other incident was ever reported. After all, it’s a good point of comparison to put things in perspective: Presidents used to quit their jobs because their mental health plummeted. Nowadays, we elect the maddest ones.


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