The French-Australian Dictionary of Biography

Maistre, Paul (1851–1932)

Paul (Louis Paul) Maistre, journalist and author, was born on 17 May 1851 at Cluny in Burgundy, son of Claude Paul Maistre (b. 1819), a liberal in the tradition of the 1848 revolution, and Marguerite Deligny (b. 1825). Cluny would remain his base in France throughout his consular career and beyond.

Paul Maistre was one of France’s longest-serving consular representatives in Australia, although, in the end, not one of the most successful. The bulk of his career in the Ministère des Affaires Étrangères turned around the consular post of Melbourne. His rise in the hierarchy, slow and painful, was hindered by his socio-economic background and his family circumstances. When, in his late fifties, he finally reached the position of consul 2ème classe in charge of the vice-consulate of Melbourne, he unexpectedly encountered the implacable opposition of a small group of members of the Melbourne establishment who obtained his recall by the Quai d’Orsay, thus putting an end to his career in Australia.

Having attended the Lycée Lamartine at Mâcon, Paul Maistre served as a volunteer during the 1870 war. Like his father, he was attracted to the art of writing and at first journalism. His first job was contributing to Le Matin (Paris), Le Phare de la Loire (Nantes) and L’Union républicaine (Mâcon) as their London correspondent. He also gave private lessons in French and German. The English connection probably went back to his father’s exile from France under the Second Empire. In 1873 he married Charlotte Allen, an English orphan from Warwickshire. They had six children and no expectations from either side of the family. Most of their married life was a constant struggle for financial survival.

From 1879 Paul’s father was employed by the French Consulate-General and then the French Embassy in London successively as commis auxiliaire, commis de chancellerie, chancelier and secrétaire-archiviste. In 1881 he persuaded the Quai d’Orsay to employ his son in the same capacity and for a short time father and son worked together as commis de chancellerie in London. Paul was bilingual in French and English, proficient in German and knew some Italian.

In 1885 he was appointed chancelier 3ème classe and in the following year he took up his new staff appointment at the French Consulate in Melbourne.  He served in that post in different capacities until February 1909, with only a single two-year break, from 1898 to the beginning of 1901, in Wales (Cardiff and Swansea). In 1887 Léon Dejardin was appointed consul to Melbourne, then consul-general in 1891, and Maistre served under him for twelve years. He himself progressed to vice-consul in 1892, and in 1905 was promoted to consul 2ème classe.

During his first Melbourne term (1886–1898) Maistre was at times in charge of the consulate or consulate-general, and in 1888 he acted as deputy commissioner of the French Section at the Melbourne International Exhibition.  During this period he also continued his literary and journalistic writing activities, contributing to the Nouvelle Revue Internationale and the Revue Universelle. Oscar Comettant, in Au pays des kangourous et des mines d’or (1890), describes Maistre as ‘un érudit, un écrivain et un poète quand il lui plaît de l’être’. Léon Dejardin was far less enthusiastic. He saw Maistre as a superior clerk rather than as an author or a potential diplomat. He praised, however, the quality of his report writing and year after year recommended his promotion, realising how difficult Maistre found it to support his wife and his six children on his modest salary: according to Dejardin he had become ‘embittered’, even ‘desperate’. The Consul-General supported Maistre’s repeated requests for a move to a European posting, which would have facilitated his children’s education in France. This eventually occurred in 1898. From Dejardin’s point of view such a transfer was the ideal solution: he was reluctant to send negative reports on his Vice-Consul, but ‘after ten years of tête-à-tête with Maistre’, as he put it, he wanted him to go. He cabled the Quai d’Orsay that under no circumstances should they allow him to return to Melbourne.

Dejardin’s last wish was not to be fulfilled. On the proclamation of Federation, the French consular services in Australia were reorganised and the Melbourne post was downgraded to vice-consulate. Dejardin retired to France and the vice-consulate was placed under the control of his rival, Georges Biard d’Aunet, previously ‘Consul-General of France in Sydney’, now titled ‘in Australia’. In February 1901 the original appointee to the newly downgraded post (a certain M. Monnet) came, looked at the situation and refused to take up the post, returning to France on the very same ship which brought him to Australia. Maistre was then offered the vacancy, returning to Melbourne in April after his term in Wales.

Maistre’s second Melbourne term (1901–1909) was far more dramatic than the first. He was now head of the post, at first with the rank of vice-consul and then, from 1905, as consul 2ème classe. However, he was not his own master: he was responsible to the Consul-General in Sydney (Georges Biard d’Aunet until 1905, and Albert Pinard from 1905 until the death in office of the latter in January 1909, just a few weeks before Maistre’s own departure).

During his new term in Melbourne a great deal of Maistre’s time was dedicated to the reform of the Alliance Française de Victoria, very much along the lines that Biard d’Aunet had imposed on the more recently founded Sydney Alliance, focusing on its educational and cultural mission, rather than on social functions.  One would therefore have expected a good understanding between the local vice-consul and the remote consul-general, especially given the tension between Maistre and the now departed Dejardin. This, however, is not what occurred. Biard d’Aunet also recognised that Maistre was hard-working and conscientious and had a thorough knowledge of the consular system, but he found him reserved, excessively shy and difficult to communicate with, presumably on account of what he called his ‘honourable but modest’ background. Consul-General Biard d’Aunet deplored that due to his financial circumstances Maistre was not in a position to invite important people to his home, and, not being an ‘homme du monde’, did not mix easily with them. Both Biard d’Aunet and his successor Albert Pinard found that the rapport between the consulate- general in Sydney and the Melbourne vice-consulate left a lot to be desired, blaming Maistre’s personality for this. Biard d’Aunet further suggested that Maistre had served in Melbourne in a subordinate position for far too long to be able to command the moral authority required for his new role.

Although he appeared ‘to have been a gregarious personality with a wide circle of friends’ (Thornton-Smith 1994, 4), Maistre might have had a problem relating to his superiors, as well as to the women in the Melbourne establishment.

Although the Alliance française de Victoria was founded by Mme Mouchette, a teacher and native speaker of French, it gradually lost sight of its original purpose and became a pretext for social gatherings for a small group of society women, predominantly English-speaking but professing a love of the French language and French culture. Pedagogical pursuits were neglected and the main activities were teas, dances and evenings of light entertainment. Once in charge of the vice-consulate, Maistre was determined to restore the Alliance to its primary objective and re-establish its links with France, the Paris head office, the local French community and the teaching profession. Having consulted in person with the Paris headquarters of the Alliance during his 1906 leave in France, Maistre felt emboldened to assert his demands. On his return he wrote a document entitled ‘Notes sur l’Alliance Française de Victoria : sa fondation, ses statuts ; son but et ses moyens d’action’, which defined his principal objectives. The most important was the promotion of the French language by means of lectures, talks, exhibitions, publications, competitions, examinations, prizes and scholarships. Maistre further advocated the observance by the Alliance committee of its own constitution and of the Paris regulations governing local branches. He also suggested that the committee include more native speakers of French, a better gender balance and some men with business experience. All the changes put forward by Maistre were opposed and indeed sabotaged by the core of the old committee. When the Secretary-General of the Paris Alliance, Léon Defourmantelle, confirmed the organisation’s total support of the Consul’s proposals, Maistre’s opponents resigned and a new committee, predominantly of native speakers, was set up, with Maistre as president.

However, the opponents, led by the former president Lady Holroyd and the former French co-president Mme Crivelli, a long-established expatriate who identified herself with the local establishment, sought to put an end to the Consul’s appointment to Melbourne. They used their connections with the Foreign Office in London to request that the British Ambassador in Paris demand Maistre’s recall. This was four years after the signature of the Entente cordiale and Stephen Pichon, the French Minister for Foreign Affairs, yielded to the British pressure. Without giving Maistre the right of reply and in spite of the support Maistre received from the Melbourne French community, as well as from the Australian public and officials and the press, the Quai d’Orsay ordered him home. He sailed back to France on 25 February 1909.

This recall also put an end to Maistre’s other duties in Melbourne. At different times Paul Maistre represented Imperial Russia and Italy as acting consul for the former and acting consul-general for the latter, which earned him the title of Commander in the Order of St Stanislaus (1908) and also a royal decoration from the Italian government. At the time of his recall the only French honour he had received was his appointment as Officier d’Académie in 1889.

Although there is no evidence that the Quai d’Orsay ever apologised to Paul Maistre for the way he was treated in the last year of his Melbourne posting, almost immediately after his return to France he was appointed consul 1ère classe in charge of the French Consulate at Santiago de Cuba (decree of 3 April 1909). Maistre embarked for Cuba on 21 June to take up his new post, but, by mid-September, he realised that his health, already adversely affected by his Melbourne experience, would not stand up to the climate of Cuba. His application for early retirement was approved, and on 31 December 1909 he was awarded the Légion d’honneur.

We have no trace of Maistre’s activities between his retirement and his death in 1932 in his birth town of Cluny other than producing two monographs.

His work as a writer was never given any weight by his superiors, although the reports he produced during his first term in Melbourne were duly praised by Consul-General Léon Dejardin. Most of his writings are about Australia. His articles (in French) in the Melbourne weekly Table Talk, under the well-chosen nom de plume Paul Le Franc, his five ‘semi-fictional’ short stories, as C. B. Thornton-Smith characterised his ‘Scènes de la vie australienne’ published  in the Nouvelle Revue Internationale between 1894 and 1897, also under the nom de plume Paul Le Franc, and Dans la brousse australienne, a first-person account of a hunting trip with a group of French and Australian friends to Gippsland, as well as a more formal book on the Commonwealth of Australia (1913), all portray different facets of Australian life.

His attitude to his host country was complex and not devoid of contradictions. Although married to an English woman and having spent some of his formative years in London, he was critical of Australia’s close copying of English customs and institutions. Generally sympathetic to ‘ordinary Australians’, with a preference for bushmen above urban dwellers, he showed a definite prejudice against Protestants, Scots and their attitude to business as he perceived it. (This was probably motivated by the anti-French sentiments and policies of some of Victoria’s Protestant politicians.) When it came to comparing Continental Europeans (especially Germans and the French) with Australians of English background, his preference clearly went to the former. However, he admired Australia’s younger generations, their healthy attitude to life, their openness and dynamism, their love of sport and their growing interest in music, literature and the arts.

Maistre was aware of Australia’s limitations as a continent, especially the harsh interior, but in Dans la brousse australienne he revealed a deep love of the bush and a sensitivity to its beauty and grandeur, and what he called its ‘magic’.

Although sharing his white contemporaries’ low opinion of the level of civilisation attained by Aboriginal Australians, he readily acknowledged that the wretched state of many of the original inhabitants had been brought about by the presence of the colonisers and he strongly condemned their ill-treatment by the latter. Like many of his contemporaries, he believed that Aboriginal Australians were unsuited for work in white man’s society and were bound to decay and die out.

Maistre acknowledged Australia’s rapid progress, especially in its urban centres (which, incidentally, he found ‘artificial’) but he attributed it to exceptionally favourable circumstances such as auspicious geography, plentiful natural resources, an absence of threat from inside and outside, and, not the least, bountiful support in the form of the provision of capital and skills from the mother country.

Although professionally committed to free trade, he admitted it was protectionism that allowed the inhabitants of the continent to enjoy a high standard of living. Maistre was in two minds about the determination of Australians to limit immigration, even from Britain, but he was openly in favour of the White Australia policy.

While he had reservations about what he saw as the inordinate power of the trade unions and the excessive control of the State in regulating many aspects of life, he could not help but admire the nascent Australian democracy. In Maistre’s opinion, the Constitution of 1901, which invested power in the people, without buffers between the electors and the elected, was ‘one of the most radical political instruments created’. He thought that Federation, having abolished the artificial customs barriers so thoroughly contrary to the interests of all the colonies, would eventually lead to the unity of the Commonwealth and the weakening, and eventually the abolition, of State borders. No doubt, some links to the mother country survived, especially as regards external relations, but they were tenuous and did not affect life within the Commonwealth.

Although his diplomatic career in Australia ended in failure, his writings demonstrate a perceptive and largely sympathetic interest in a country on the cusp of nationhood.

Image: The title page of Paul Maistre’s Commonwealth of Australia (1913).

Author: Ivan Barko, Emeritus Professor, University of Sydney, September 2020

Note: Special thanks to Sibylle Duhautois, French historian and research assistant for ISFAR, who located most of the French sources used for this entry.

Keywords: Paul Maistre, Australia at Federation, Quai d’Orsay, social classes in diplomacy, Melbourne, Alliance Française

References:

Kirsop, Wallace, 2001, ‘Paul Maistre’s First Farewell’, Explorations 31, pp. 37–38.

Maistre, Paul, Personal File, Archives du Ministère des Affaires Étrangères, La Courneuve.

Maistre, Paul, ‘Scènes de la vie australienne’, in Nouvelle Revue Internationale, Paris-Madrid, (‘Le Squatter’,1894, 1er semestre, pp. 42–49; ‘Le Sélecteur’, 1895, 1er semestre, pp. 198–204, 276–279, 363–368; ‘Les Chercheurs d’or’, 1896, 1er semestre, pp. 273–81, 598–607; ‘De mineur  à ministre’, 1896, 2ème semestre, pp. 781–788; ‘Messieurs les tondeurs’, 1897, 1er semestre, pp. 41–48, 217–226.)

Maistre, Paul, 1901, Notes pratiques à l’usage des consuls et des armateurs : naufrages et avaries ; accidents en mer ; abordages ; jet de marchandises ; emprunts à la grosse ; hypothèques maritimes, etc., Paris, A. Challamet.

Maistre, Paul, 1901, Dans la brousse australienne : scènes de chasse, Paris, Mongrédien et Cie.

Maistre, Paul, 1911, ‘Cuba, étude de géographie économique’, Paris, Librairie Ch. Delagrave.

Maistre, Paul, 1913, Le Commonwealth d’Australie ; étude de géographie physique et économique, Paris, Librairie Ch. Delagrave.

Maistre, Paul, 1997, ‘Scènes de la vie australienne : De mineur à ministre’, translated and introduced by C. B. Thornton-Smith, Explorations 23, pp.13–32.

Thornton-Smith, C. B., 1991, ‘The Australian Semi-Fictions of Paul Maistre’, in Bruce Merry (ed.), Essays in Honour of Keith Val Sinclair, Townsville, James Cook University of North Queensland, pp. 83–99.

Thornton-Smith, C. B., 1994, ‘Paul Maistre, Vice-Consul and Later Consul for France in Victoria, 1886–1898, 1901–1908’, Explorations 17, pp. 3–47.