Aristide Briand was born in Nantes on 28 March 1862, into a family of café owners whose ancestors worked the land. After studying law, he was admitted to the bar in Saint-Nazaire before moving to Paris where he worked for La Lanterne, the populist anti-clerical newspaper founded by Eugène Mayer. Alongside Jean Jaurès, he struggled to maintain unity between the opposing currents within the French socialist movement. After being elected as a parliamentary representative in 1902, he went on to hold many political posts. He was a brilliant speaker and was chosen as rapporteur of the bill for the separation of the Church and the State, which was passed in 1905. In 1906, he was entrusted with his first ministerial portfolio in charge of public instruction and worship. He succeeded Georges Clemenceau as Prime Minister in 1909, and one of his many noteworthy successes was to pass the bill for workers' and farmers' pensions (April 1910).
On the eve of World War 1, while supporting the lengthening of military service, Aristide Briand urged the world's political leaders to seek peaceful solutions to their differences. However, when war was declared, he entered the "sacred union" mixed party government as Justice Minister and Vice-President of the Council, and gave his support to the command during the Battle of the Marne. He played an important role as head of the government and Minister of Foreign Affairs from 1915 to 1917, notably organising the Salonika expedition and coordinating military and economic operations with the Allies. The four years of war had bled Europe dry. The former belligerents, who had borrowed heavily to keep up supplies to their troops, were economically devastated by the end of the conflict. In France, the richest and most industrialised regions had been extremely hard hit. With almost one and a half million dead and more than a million seriously wounded, a large section of the population had been wiped out. War pensions and the costs of reconstruction were a drain on the treasury. The peace treaty, signed with Germany on 28 June 1919 in Versailles, stipulated that Germany must pay reparations for the damage caused by the war. The thorny question of settling these reparations was to become one of the main issues presiding over Franco-German relations for a decade or so and the source of much contention between the Allies themselves.
In the aftermath of the war, Aristide Briand was a partisan of the strict application of the Treaty of Versailles and firmly believed that Germany should be forced to pay reparations for the war. He would nevertheless abandon this stance in favour of a more peaceful approach in the framework of the League of Nations, and from then on he concentrated his efforts on improving relations with Germany. At the Cannes conference in January 1922, he was open to the proposal of alleviating German debt in return for a guarantee of French borders. His position was severly criticised by Alexandre Millerand, president of the Republic, and he was forced to resign. As the French representative of the League of Nations in 1924, he continued to advocate a policy of conciliation, conscious that Franco-German relations could only be improved by making certain concessions. He expressed his views thus: "I believe that peace within our nation, political and social peace, is the ultimate wish of the entire country... The desire for peace, in a country such as France, which has suffered so much from the war and, since the armistice, has been subjected to a series of challenges and provocations that would justify impatience, is proof of patience". Once again Minister of Foreign Affairs in 1925, Aristide Briand pursued his policy of reconciliation with Germany, seeing it as the only way to establish lasting peace in Europe. He struck up a dialogue with his German counterpart, Gustav Stresemann, who was also a partisan of the policy of conciliation. At the Locarno conference, which brought together the representatives of Germany, Belgium, Italy, France and Great Britain, he signed the treaty with Germany to guarantee the borders of France and Belgium and established a pact for mutual assistance on 16 October 1925. After Locarno, he supported Germany's application to join the League of Nations, which would be accepted the following year. In December 1926 he and his German counterpart, Gustav Stresemann, were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
For some, the Locarno agreements and the admission of Germany into the League of Nations marked the beginning of a new era announcing the end of Franco-German antagonism, but for Aristide Briand it was only the first step on the road to peace. The absence of the United States from the League of Nations weakened the influence of the organisation. In 1927, he embarked on a mission to coax the United States out of its isolationist position. By calling out "to the American nation", he gained the support of its powerful pacifist organizations. On 27 August 1928, the Briand-Kellogg Pact, so named after the US Secretary of State with whom Briand had negotiated the pact, "outlawed" war: "Article 1: All signatory states solemnly declare in the name of their respective peoples that they condemn the reliance on war in order to resolve international differences and renounce the use of war as an instrument of national policy in their mutual relations. Article 2: All signatory states recognise that the settlement or resolution of any differences or conflicts that may arise between them, regardless of the nature or origin of these differences or conflicts, should be sought through peaceful means only." Despite being approved by fifty-seven countries, including Germany, Japan and the Soviet Union, this pact had only a moral value since it did not define the sanctions that would apply to any country that failed to respect its dispositions. Moreover, the United States, which was enjoying a period of economic prosperity at the time, was reticent about getting involved in an eventual European conflict.
Aristide Briand then decided to embark upon a new and resolutely European policy. In September 1929, during a speech in Geneva, he took up an idea previously put forward by Count Coudenhove-Kalergi, the Austrian diplomat who had founded the Pan-Europa movement, and suggested the creation of a regional union, a "European Federation" whose competence would extend mainly to economic matters and would not encroach upon national sovereignty. This proposal met with great success and the delegates of the twenty-seven European states commissioned him to produce a memorandum on the subject. This memorandum was presented to them in May 1930. In it Aristide Briand took his project a step further. Falling within the framework of the League of Nations, this institution would be composed of a European Union Conference, a representative body bringing together representatives of all the European government members of the League of Nations, a permanent Political Committee, an executive body, which would be presided over in turn by the different member states, and a Secretariat. One of the main aims would be "the creation of common market to raise the level of well-being to a maximum amongst all the peoples of the European community".
The memorandum did not receive the same welcome as his initial words at the League of Nations. In France and around the world, Aristide Briand's vision met with increasing resistance. The greatest obstacle was the persistence of nationalism. While the principle of cooperation was not questioned, the idea of a full political and economic European union was far from popular. It was the political aspect of the project, especially the mention of "federal links", that awakened suspicion. A commission was created to study the proposal on 23 September 1930 and Aristide Briand was elected to preside over it. Although the commission was charged with studying the practicalities of a possible collaboration at the heart of Europe, it would not come up with any results. Throughout his diplomatic career Aristide Briand, known as the "pilgrim of peace" never ceased to look for opportunities to establish peace in Europe. Sadly, his project for a united Europe was unable to resist the economic crisis and the rise of dictatorships that would ensue. Aristide Briand died on 7 March 1932.