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Editors: John Merriman and Jay Winter
Date: 2006
Europe Since 1914: Encyclopedia of the Age of War and Reconstruction
Publisher: Charles Scribner's Sons
Document Type: Country overview
Pages: 13
Content Level: (Level 5)
Lexile Measure: 1350L

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The history of France in the twentieth century was shaped by global developments. This European power was drawn into the economic, social, political, and cultural realignments of Europe and the world after World War I, and then shared in the mixed history of economic growth in the interwar years. After ten years of prosperity, it was drawn into the crisis of the 1930s that culminated in World War II, then went through three decades of prosperity, called the "trente glorieuses" (the glorious thirty years) by French historians, before making the shift toward neoliberalism that began in 1973. Its history is thus particular and characteristic of all European countries passing through "the short twentieth century."

France is a country whose political history and social structures were permanently marked by the effects of the Revolution of 1789, and therefore presents distinctive features, including a bumpy political history with major ruptures. The following pages attempt to combine the conventional economic divisions ("the crisis of the 1930s," "modernization," "the neoliberal shift") with a specific political chronology ("the structural effects of the Republican compact," "the Vichy regime," "Liberation," "the Fourth Republic," "the Fifth Republic," "1968"). They attempt to reveal both the factors of convergence that place France within the scope of global developments and the strong political singularities that have long been preserved and that today are being eroded.


On the eve of World War I, France was a parliamentary democracy with young institutions comparable to those of greater antiquity in Britain. Its Page 1119  |  Top of Article constitutional system, more or less contemporary to those of Italy and Germany when it was defined by the constitutional laws of 1875, changed course when the republicans prevailed over their opponents and established enduring hegemony (1880). They taught and "trained for" universal (male) suffrage, a prerogative restored in 1875, by deploying a political pedagogy in which a mandatory draft, political dramaturgy (Bastille Day, "La Marseillaise," Marianne), and compulsory, free, and secular primary education were the most effective instruments. These measures consolidated their social base (the middle classes) because these policies appeared to be the best means of protecting independent producers and property owners. As the politician Léon Gambetta (1838–1882) put it, "with each property that is created, a citizen is born." To these ends, a broad political reformism designed to solidly integrate the individual-citizen into the state was combined with selective protectionism (the Méline Tariff of 1892). Thus defined, the Republican system ended the constitutional instability that had characterized France since the Revolution.

In 1914 France was unquestionably a great imperial and financial power with powerful technology-based industries (electricity, automobile manufacturing, and cinema). However, small-scale businesses remained the norm in all sectors; the rate of rural flight was therefore lower than in other industrialized countries and industrial concentration was less marked. This enabled Germany to catch up to and overtake France as an economic power before the war. The persistence of small-scale units of production was reflected in France's social structures: 58 percent of the labor force was salaried on the eve of the war (as compared with 66 percent in Germany), and there were 4.7 million French industrial workers, compared to 9.5 million in the United Kingdom and 11 million in Germany. In France, only 28 percent were employed by businesses with more than fifty employees; in contrast, in the United Kingdom and Germany, there were 36 percent and 47 percent in large enterprises.

These factors help to explain the relative weakness of state social reform in France as compared with some neighboring countries, including Germany. Finally, owing to an earlier pattern of low fertility, France was the only European country with significant immigration at the time (1.2 million foreigners in 1913), at rates that still put its population behind that of Germany.

World War I permanently established American economic dominance and, without radically changing the hierarchy of economic powers in Europe, challenged the traditional bases of France's prosperity. The country's financial power was savaged by debt, inflation, and the loss of loans to Russia. Its currency was stabilized late and greatly devalued by comparison with the prewar period; the franc was worth 20 percent of the gold franc of 1914. Russia, where more than 25 percent of French exported capital had been invested before the war, escaped from France's sphere of influence. These new circumstances and the widely held (but entirely illusory) hope for a return to the prewar world corresponded to a fierce determination to "make Germany pay" for the war. It also reflected France's increased stake in its colonial empire. In 1928 that empire became the mother country's lead trading partner. Colonies mobilized forced labor to create those infrastructures needed to produce a profit from the French capital invested there. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that many prominent and propertied people were proud of the French Empire. This self-interested story was well represented in the Parisian Colonial Exhibition of 1931.

A very small minority called for a more radical modernization of the French economy in the belief that it was the only way to respond to the broad economic changes induced by the war. However, putting these changes into effect would involve profound shifts in the structure of French society and thus an attack on the government's social base. Modernization was therefore subordinated to state reforms intended to strengthen the executive branch and free it from pressures. Fundamental economic and social reform was politically impossible, but modernization plans were formulated time and again (by Georges Clemenceau in 1919, by Alexandre Millerand in 1924, and by André Tardieu in 1930). Thus a stalemate ensued: everyone wanted modernization, but no one could achieve it without alienating the social base on which the Third Republic stood. Thus the institutions of prewar political culture survived the conflagration, and the Radical Party, the expression of the middle classes, although weakened, remained a Page 1120  |  Top of Article pivotal party that made and unmade parliamentary majorities throughout the interwar period. Governments of both the Right (1919–1924, 1926–1932) and the Left (1924–1926) were consequently forced to continue along the path of a politics designed to protect the middle classes, thus perpetuating the political order established before World War I. However, economic depression exposed the weaknesses in this arrangement, weaknesses that would have political consequences in the late 1930s and 1940s.

It would certainly be inaccurate to speak of total stasis in France's economy and society. After the short-lived postwar crisis and the easing of monetary difficulties, the country enjoyed a prosperous decade (the Roaring Twenties) like elsewhere. The country returned to prewar levels of prosperity in 1923 and experienced growth in its Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of nearly 5 percent per year until 1929. The key branches of the second wave of industrialization had shifted to Taylorist "scientific management" to meet the needs of the wartime economy, and these changes were accentuated when peace returned. Fueled by inflation, growth lightened the debt burden and encouraged investment. Transformations in the organization of labor and work, their technical and financial structures, and the organization of markets allowed for marked increases in productivity.

In contrast, older trends put brakes on development. The losses incurred in the war (1.4 million dead, 3 million wounded) and flat birthrates reinforced slow rates of demographic growth. The French population got older, and immigration was the main source of growth (2,715,000 foreigners in 1931, or 7.1 percent of the French population). Women (at least some of them) had access to more skilled jobs, but their employment rate fell beginning in 1921 in comparison to their employment rate in 1911. Women still were denied the vote. The loss of assets invested in Russia, inflation, and the tax system hurt recipients of interest income and changed the distribution of wealth. Farmers took advantage of inflation to pay off their debts, and the number of small, family-owned businesses, protected by duty tariffs and weak competition, remained high. Agriculture (36 percent of the working population) retained its lead over industry (34 percent) and the service sector (30
Demonstration at the Place de Concorde, Paris, 6 February 1934. The economic crises of the early 1930s cul minated in protests by right-wing groups in Paris, which quickly became violent. © BETTMANN/CORBIS Demonstration at the Place de Concorde, Paris, 6 February 1934. The economic crises of the early 1930s cul minated in protests by right-wing groups in Paris, which quickly became violent. © BETTMANN/CORBIS percent), and the rural population outnumbered the urban population until 1931. The traditional industries and agriculture enjoyed far less growth than the technological sector. The Taylorist revolution did not bring with it rising wages capable of sustaining a growth in consumption, and the agricultural sector was not sufficiently integrated into the national market to support an expansion of output.

Consequently, domestic consumption declined after the franc was stabilized in 1928, at a time when industrial production no longer benefited from the export effects of devaluation. The economic crisis of the 1930s arose from a blending together of these two vectors, matched by international economic disorder.


The first symptoms of the crisis preceded the Wall Street crash: a drop in exports beginning in 1927, an early decrease in wholesale prices, especially in Page 1121  |  Top of Article agriculture, and a falling stock market beginning in February 1929. But this economic downturn was not perceived by contemporaries. The crisis became apparent to them only starting in 1931, when the devaluation of the British pound resulted in a collapse of industrial production and a manifold increase in bankruptcies, creating the lasting, although erroneous, sense of a belated crisis that had originated abroad. The crisis further rigidified the structures of an agricultural sector that withdrew into self-subsistence. Its effects on the various branches of industry were uneven, but everywhere it caused a decrease in investment that put a halt to modernization and resulted in aging machinery. From 1928 to 1938, the annual growth rate of GDP stagnated at around 0.3 percent. Farm revenues, in particular, were hard hit; many artisans and merchants were affected by the decline in industrial and commercial profits; and many workers had to leave France owing to rising short-term and long-term unemployment and the influx of tens of thousands of foreign workers.

This situation obliterated the policies of modernization and updating of equipment initiated by Tardieu in 1929. It contributed to the defeat of the Right in favor of the Radical Party (supported by the Socialists) in the elections of 1932. It also fed into the propaganda of the extreme Right groups that had emerged in the 1920s. These groups seized on a political and financial scandal (the Stavisky affair) to push their offensive. On 6 February 1934, they organized a protest in Paris that turned into a deadly riot, and forced the Radical prime minister to resign despite his party's majority, thereby enabling the Right to return to power.

This political crisis was radically different from the German crisis of 1933. It did not affect the existing structures of the system and was resolved within their framework. It did not produce reforms in the working of the state, although an attempt in that direction was made by the Right when it returned to power. It did, however, profoundly weaken the political culture that had ensured government stability. Radicalism had presented itself as the embodiment of the values and ethic of the Republic. Its capitulation in the face of the rioting of February 1934 destabilized the groups that had identified with it, allowing them to make other choices and thus making new political coalitions possible. This crisis plunged the country into a phase of institutional instability that rivaled those of the early nineteenth century in France: three constitutions from 1940 to 1958 that were, moreover, preceded or marked by serious ruptures that led to profound changes in political coalitions, culture, and choices. In the short term, however, the political crisis seemed to come down to the rapid succession of governments of the Left (1932–1934) and the Right (1928–1932, 1934–1936), all of which responded to the economic crisis in the same way.

All of these governments emphasized defense of the franc and the maintenance of sound finance to revitalize the economy. They refused devaluation, although it was needed to restore the competitiveness of French goods; they attempted to reduce state spending to reduce the budget deficit; they responded to the drop in agricultural prices by encouraging farmers to reduce production; and then, in 1935, they embarked on a policy of deflation that hit both white-collar and blue-collar government workers and veterans especially hard. There were the beginnings of a recovery, but discontent over these policies contributed to the victory of the Popular Front in May 1936.

This victory resulted from an unprecedented political reconfiguration. Communists, Socialists, and Radicals united to combat the crisis by depriving the "fascist" groups of the key political support of the destabilized middle classes. The Popular Front was thereby able to defend its commitment both to peace and to democracy, threatened both internally and beyond France's borders, especially in Spain entering its civil war. The economic orientations of the program the Popular Front ratified were consequently shaped by the need to consolidate the economic alliance between the middle classes and the working classes against the "two hundred families," the metaphor for financial and propertied elites that supposedly ran the country.

Léon Blum, prime minister during the early days of the Popular Front, oriented his economic policy around these political realities. He drew inspiration from the policies of the New Deal of the U.S. president Franklin Delano Roosevelt (1882–1945), and thus reflected what is now termed a Keynesian interpretation of the crisis, in total contrast to the interpretation of his Page 1122  |  Top of Article predecessors. In the short term, Blum wanted to respond to the contraction of international trade by enlarging the domestic market and to "prime the pump" by boosting public consumption and initiating major public works projects, for instance the electrification of rural areas and the construction of roads, bridges, schools, and stadiums. In the longer term, he hoped to modernize the French economy. Massive strikes forced him to act quickly and under pressure. The measures adopted were in line with his initial program. Wage increases were meant to increase purchasing power, as did the new laws reducing working hours and establishing paid vacations, in that these measures were intended to create more jobs. The few structural reforms envisioned in the program were implemented on the heels of these changes. There was reform of the status of the Bank of France, with stronger state control; there was the creation of a National Wheat Office that guaranteed grain prices and thereby farm prices; and there was nationalization of war-related industries to remove them from the control of arms dealers, all within a stated objective of "moralizing" economic life.

This increase in the role of the state in the economy was not specific to France. However, it had the particularity of favoring economic and financial concentration rather than helping unemployed workers. This targeting of economic measures in the 1930s helped buffer French institutions and preserve the specificities of its economic structures. There were half the number of bankruptcies in 1937 as in 1935, and there was no great migration out of the countryside. France remained the most rural of the industrialized countries.

In the short term, French political and economic life was preserved in its older forms. Yet the experience of the Popular Front did have a lasting impact on French political culture. The Communist Party was integrated into the political mainstream; the Socialist Party (Section Française de l'Internationale Ouvrière, or SFIO) became a governing party; and the Left, henceforth defined in relation to both Republican culture and working-class culture, sought out accommodations, as did portions of the political Right. Others on the right moved in more extreme directions, proclaiming that they would "sooner have Hitler than the Popular Front."

Similarly some employers accepted the new atmosphere in which industrial conflict was conducted; others grew increasingly worried about the shifts in power relations that successful strikes and the exponential growth in union membership brought about. Small employers rejected the modernizing of social relations in companies initiated by the framework of collective bargaining, and the creation of a framework for worker representation in the governing of industry, known as the Matignon agreements. These hardliners engaged in what they termed a "Battle of the Marne" in the face of what they felt to be a major attack on their prerogatives. Their freeze on investment and hiring and the massive flight of capital made any sustained recovery in production impossible, despite a devaluation of the franc, intended as an economic stimulus, to which Blum resigned himself.

The combination of increased demand and constraints on supply arising from the stance of employers caused a sharp rise in prices and doomed the economic policies of the Popular Front to failure. On the eve of the war France had not emerged from the crisis: its industrial production was 10 to 20 percent lower than in 1929, national revenues were similarly down, and the colonial markets accounted for 30 percent of exports (12 percent in 1913). Moreover, as the country fell back on its traditional structures it appeared to be turning into an old country—becoming "Malthusian" in the language of the day. The mortality rate surpassed the birthrate; only 30 percent of the population was younger than age twenty in 1936, and the population was scarcely larger than it had been in 1914, despite the reintegration of Alsace-Lorraine into the Republic.


"Not enough arms, not enough children, not enough allies," was the accusation soon made by Marshall Philippe Pétain (1856–1951), who blamed the defeat of 1940 on the "spirit of exuberance" that the Popular Front had supposedly encouraged, thereby undermining France's institutions. Pétain ignored the considerable armament effort initiated in April 1938 and the passing of a pronatalist policy, known as the "Family Code" in 1939, a set of measures that could not have had any effect when the war came. Pétain also ignored the Page 1123  |  Top of Article
French Communist election poster, 1937. Members of the most prominent banking families in France are declared to be "against the nation." BRIDGEMAN ART LIBRARY French Communist election poster, 1937. Members of the most prominent banking families in France are declared to be "against the nation." BRIDGEMAN ART LIBRARY serious mistakes made by France's high command. More generally he underestimated the way Frenchmen and women approached the problem of war and peace, which in 1940 was by reflecting on the massacres of 1914–1918. Veterans were pacifists in France, opposing assertive nationalism as a recipe for another bloody war. These men, four million of them in veterans' associations, knew what war was. They believed it must never happen again. They were agents of cultural demobilization, not at all like German or Italian veterans of the period. French veterans were trapped between their revulsion at the idea of another war and the growing threat of a European war, following the Italian invasion of Ethiopia, the Spanish civil war, and successful conquest of Austria and Czechoslovakia by Adolf Hitler (1889–1945).

Once war broke out in 1939, and the German army succeeded in its daring breakthrough of 1940, the French Third Republic was effectively dead. Few mourned its passing. Defeat enabled the new authorities under Marshall Pétain to succeed where "modernizers" of every stripe had previously failed. After the signing of the armistice, parliament voted to give full powers to the "hero of Verdun." Marshall Pétain took advantage of this unique moment to lay the foundations of what he termed a "national revolution." More than half of France was occupied; the Communist Party was outlawed; most elite groups rallied around him; most people breathed a sigh of relief that another bloodbath like that of 1914–1918 was not imminent. Thus Pétain and his circle could break not only with the 1930s but also with the political model and principles inherited from 1789. An authoritarian French state replaced the Republic. This hybrid regime, sometimes described as a "pluralist dictatorship," drew its support from traditional conservatives, but also from promoters of a "new order" that came out of the "nonconformists of the 1930s": young technocrats who advocated a strong, centralized state; modernizers disillusioned Page 1124  |  Top of Article by the compromises of the Third Republic; and some adherents to Christian socialism or fascism. The national community promoted by the regime presupposed the elimination of "anti-France" elements through policies of exclusion and repression targeting communists, Freemasons, and Jews. Thus the politics of Léon Blum, symbolizing the 1930s, were what had to be stamped out, well in advance of any German requirements to do so. In its place a new political order valorized "work, family, homeland." However, this conservative and paternalistic discourse came hand in hand with interventionist and modernizing programs. Restrictions on raw materials and the need for reconstruction after defeat in 1940 made at least some planning of production and infrastructures indispensable, and private business management collaborated closely with state engineers within the organizational committees established by the regime. Its economic strategy, however, was impeded or complicated by the combined circumstances of the war and the presence and demands of the Germans. From the end of 1942, France was increasingly a police state, increasingly dominated by extremists more and more tied up in a civil war with the Resistance, a dirty war that has left scars on France to this day.


The political landscape at the end of World War II was different in all respects from that after World War I. Liberalism, which was held responsible for the crisis of the 1930s, for fascism, and for the war, was unanimously condemned, and the desire for a return to the status quo ante bellum that had prevailed in 1919 was replaced by the exact opposite, a general hope for radical change and a nearly unanimous rallying to the principle of state regulation of the economy and society.

In France this orientation was formulated while the war was going on, clandestinely in March 1944, when various elements in the Resistance against the occupying forces and the Vichy government, united around General Charles de Gaulle, ratified the National Council of the Resistance (Charter of the Conseil National de la Resistance, or CNR). From 1940 to 1944, the defeat, shortages, German greed, and the needs of the French state greatly increased employers' willingness to accept a certain amount of state interventionism. At the same time, state intervention was supported by the trade union federation, the Confédération Générale du Travail (CGT), which had emerged from the Resistance strengthened and unified, and by the French Communist Party (Parti Communiste Français, or PCF), now the foremost party in France (26.1 percent of the vote in May 1946). The charter of the National Council of the Resistance called for a "true economic and social democracy" that would redefine the Republican social contract. In particular, it provided for the nationalization of key industrial sectors, thus removing them from the influence of "financial feudal systems;" it established mechanisms for democratic economic planning, and for a system of social security.

It is evident that the two shocks of 1940 and 1944—defeat and liberation—converted skeptics into supporters of state intervention. This consensual embrace of the welfare state and expansionist and voluntaristic policies to encourage returns on investment then, and only then, allowed for structural responses to the economic and social crises that had begun in the early 1930s. Owing to the new power relations, it was possible even to adopt and adapt some structural reforms made by the Vichy regime, to the extent that they did not particularly reflect its ideological and political orientations. France's economy underwent a lasting shift into a type of mixed economy in which private enterprise coexisted with a nationalized sector and incentive-based economic planning. It was supported by a new generation of modernizing technocrats and the newly created state instruments of national economic planning and public finance. The central role of the state in the money markets and in the structures of production and distribution thus became a characteristic trait of French capitalism that persisted into the 1960s, despite the return to power of the "liberals" in 1952.

The signatories of the CNR charter almost unanimously rejected the idea of a return to the political institutions of the Third Republic, but they were acutely divided on what should replace them. The recent experience of the Vichy government undermined any idea of strengthening the powers of the executive, even under de Gaulle. The latter, who believed a strong executive was indispensable, preferred to leave the provisional Page 1125  |  Top of Article
German Field Marshall Erwin Rommel and his staff inspect Atlantic sea wall fortifications in France, March 1944. The fortifications failed to repel the Allied D-Day assault that began ten weeks later. © BETTMANN-CORBIS German Field Marshall Erwin Rommel and his staff inspect Atlantic sea wall fortifications in France, March 1944. The fortifications failed to repel the Allied D-Day assault that began ten weeks later. © BETTMANN-CORBIS government in January 1946 rather than yield to opposing views.

The new constitution, adopted in October represented a compromise within a tripartite coalition (the SFIO, the PCF, and the Mouvement Républicain Populaire, or MRP, a new political formation coming out of the Christian Resistance that soon attracted large portions of the prewar Right). This constitution opened with a preamble reaffirming the rights and freedoms of man and the citizen consecrated in 1789, and established as constitutional principles the reforms put into effect by the provisional government, including the extension of universal suffrage to women, relatively late in comparison with most countries in Western Europe. It laid the foundations for a union of French-speaking peoples, but nonetheless spectacularly ignored the hopes for independence of France's colonies, although those hopes had been magnified everywhere by the war. Apart from these innovations, the new regime was not much different from that of the previous Republic and it remained a regime founded on inherently unstable coalitions.


The structural reforms put in place with the Liberation, the rebuilding of French industry, aid under the Marshall Plan, the relative stabilization of Western finances and economies from 1947 to 1949, and the first two plans that coordinated public investment and allocated American aid to the priority sectors enabled the French economy by 1950 to return to and then to surpass its 1929 industrial and agricultural levels. France entered an unprecedented phase of economic expansion. Growth, mainly channeled into the industrial and service sectors, was nonetheless general. From 1950 to 1958, there was a 40–50 percent increase Page 1126  |  Top of Article in national income, in purchasing power, consumption, industrial production, exports, and returns on investment. These trends reflected better integration into the international marketplace, and a marked growth in domestic consumption owing to the baby boom, producing a population of 47 million in 1962 as opposed to 40.3 million in 1946. There was a wider distribution of income, in part reflecting the fact that there were twice as many salaried workers in 1967 as in 1949. Owing to a marked increase in the average period young people spent in education and a generalization of the system of retirement benefits, the total working population barely increased during these years.

Industry and, to a lesser extent, agriculture responded to increased demand with increases in productivity made possible by growth in investments and an increase in the length of the workday that made it longer than in neighboring countries. These changes caused the country to enter a "silent revolution" that accelerated from 1954. Self-employment decreased in favor of salaried employment (65.7 percent of the workforce in 1954), and agriculture entered a phase of a growing concentration of farms and an acceleration of rural flight.

The traditional support base of radicalism remained more numerous (and more powerful) than elsewhere. In 1954, 26 percent of the workforce was still in agriculture, accounting for 14 percent of the GDP. Their discontent, unable to make itself heard via traditional channels, was expressed in unprecedented forms: roadblocks by farmers, and the creation of the Union for the Defense of Tradesmen and Artisans, led by Pierre Poujade.

Some believed that the "ball and chain" of colonialism was putting a brake on the processes of modernization. However, they had difficulty making themselves heard by a France clinging all the more tightly to its colonial empire inasmuch as it served as a "compensatory myth" after the trials undergone from 1940 to 1944. The mother country was intent on retaining its sovereignty within the framework of a unilaterally defined French Union that it declared to be inviolable. It granted reforms but refused to negotiate them, describing any other attitude as "capitulation." It repressed insurgencies in Sétif and Madagascar; it entered the war in Indochina in 1946, and seemed to begin decolonization after the French defeat at Dien Bien Phu in 1954. Prime Minister Pierre Mendès-France worked to end colonial domination in Tunisia and Morocco, but no one seemed willing or able to avoid a bloody war over Algerian independence, which lasted until 1962.

Reluctant decolonization was one facet of French history at this time; political paralysis was another. The weakness of the constitutional structure was evident. There were twenty-five governments formed between 1947 and 1958, all unable to hold together unstable coalitions when hard choices had to be made over finance, education, and the European Defense Community. Then the country entered into the Algerian "war without a name"—nameless in part because it was a domestic revolt: Algeria was not a colony but an integral part of France. This brutal struggle, marked by widespread torture practiced by French soldiers within living memory of the torture of Resistance fighters by the Nazis and their allies, hastened the process of disintegration of the Fourth Republic. There was an attempted coup d'état in Algeria on 13 May 1958, uniting the defenders of "French Algeria" and those fiercely opposed to "party government." In some ways similar to the violent protests of 1934, the coup of 1958 was crushed through the mobilization of the Republican mainstream. But this time, instead of leading to a Popular Front, the failed right-wing plot brought General de Gaulle to power. The Gaullist republic he inaugurated was one in which he had full powers to restore calm to Algeria and prepare a new constitution, that of the Fifth Republic.


The constitution, submitted to the country in a referendum in September 1958, was approved by 80 percent of French voters. It maintained a parliamentary framework but ensured the dominance of the executive, endowing it with increased powers. For the first time since the 1930s, a government structure emerged that offered both legitimacy and stability. In 1962 a constitutional amendment was passed instituting the principle of direct election of the president of the Republic by universal suffrage. De Gaulle's party, the Union for the New Republic (Union pour la Nouvelle République, or UNR), won 256 out of 475 seats in the legislative elections Page 1127  |  Top of Article of 1962. The UNR's growth came at the expense of the traditional parties of the Right. In opposition, the Socialist Party remained divided over the question of Algeria and entered a major crisis from which it did not recover; consequently, the Communist Party became the main opposition party but fell below the 20 percent share of the electorate for the first time since the Liberation of 1944. "There is nothing left between us and the Communists," summed up the novelist André Malraux (1901–1976), one of de Gaulle's most able allies.

The crisis of 1958 and de Gaulle's undeniable charisma enabled him to succeed where Pierre Mendès-France (and so many others before him) had failed. He managed to reform the government; he resigned himself to decolonization after four more years of war in Algeria that led France to the brink of civil war; and he hastened the course of the "silent revolution" that French society had entered from the mid-1950s.

General de Gaulle was always imbued with a "certain idea of France" and believed that it "could not be France without grandeur," that the country was "only truly herself in the first rank." He held modernization of its political institutions to be the necessary condition for fulfilling his plans. With the aim of freeing the country from American domination, and becoming "the greatest of the small," he separated French armed forces from NATO; he made overtures to the Eastern bloc countries, and oversaw France's emergence as a nuclear power.

France's acceptance of the Treaty of Rome (1957) and full membership in the European Union, coincided paradoxically with the return to power of the one French leader who had elevated the defense of national sovereignty into an absolute imperative. General de Gaulle opposed an integrated Europe of "Esperanto and Volapuk," and conceived of the building of Europe only as an instrument for the generalization and extension of French ideas and French power. To this end, he established closer ties with Germany, "still divided and weakened," and opposed European Economic Community (EEC) membership for Great Britain, which he viewed as America's Trojan Horse in Europe.

The problem remained, though, that France could not maintain its standing in the first "rank" of world powers without a strong and competitive economy. The postwar break with more than half a century of protectionism underscored this need. The state implemented policies to update the country's industrial plant and infrastructure. At the same time, steps were taken both to increase agricultural productivity and to reduce the number of agricultural workers (15.6 percent of the workforce in 1968). Demographic growth and the development of consumer demand also supported economic growth. The birthrate decreased beginning in the mid-1960s, as it did everywhere else in Europe and North America, but the French population continued to grow because of immigration. First there was the return of more than a million French citizens from North Africa to the mainland in the 1960s. Secondly, immigrant workers were welcomed to fill in gaps in an expanding workforce, especially at low skill levels. The foreign population thus doubled between 1954 (1.7 million) and 1975 (3.4 million). Under the influence of these combined factors, the 1960s were the most productive of the three postwar decades of growth. The structural changes that had been under way since the mid-1950s accelerated. Independent employment decreased, with a corresponding increase in salaried workers (about 85 percent of the workforce in the mid 1970s). The number of agricultural workers remained higher than in other countries (12 percent of the workforce), but these men and women modernized their equipment and strategies, enabling the average size of farms to increase.

There were other massive changes in the structure of the workforce in these years. The relative decline in the number of skilled workers, the emergence of a new working class, and the growing ranks of managers, engineers, and technicians (almost 10 percent of the workforce) profoundly affected the secondary sector of industrial workers (40.2 percent of the workforce in 1968). The tertiary or service sector (44.2 percent) was revolutionized too.

These changes produced tension and conflict. Miners affected by the country's conversion from coal to oil energy went on a long strike in 1963. In 1966, trade unions struggled against Gaullist labor policies. At the same time, the baby boom generation was coming of age. Many groups of young people broke with the bureaucratic, authoritarian, and hierarchical structures that they encountered Page 1128  |  Top of Article everywhere, in school, in universities, in business, and in the state. Here is the background to 1968.


This crisis was part of a global phenomenon that mainly (but not exclusively) affected industrialized countries. Two decades of economic growth did not still doubts about what kind of society France had become. Demographic growth, an increase in the period of life in education for a substantial part of the population, changing sexual mores—the contraceptive pill became widely available in the mid-1960s—and growing consumer demand brought into high relief a new social group: youth. The crisis that was born in the Latin Quarter before igniting all of France cannot be understood without reference to these structural and generational factors at work everywhere. However, France's tradition of trade unionism, the nature of the Gaullist regime, and the extent of the upheavals within French society combined to render the crisis more complex and more polyvalent than it was elsewhere. France was the only industrialized country that had to face this transnational crisis with a Republican structure and government that was barely ten years old. Influenced by anxieties raised by the economic and social changes of the postwar period, the country experienced what could be described either as a "crisis of belated modernity" or as an accumulation of crises (generational and cultural, social, and political) that in other countries remained apart. In France, a wide array of developments lay behind the upheaval of 1968, at which time the country passed from an industrial crisis and a general strike markedly broader in scope than that of 1936, and then into a political crisis.

The increased importance of the presidency within the government and de Gaulle as the personal embodiment of power almost immediately made him the major target of all those who took to the streets in 1968. But his power also gave him the institutional and political means to prevail, when a crisis of this kind would have swept from power any of the governments of the Fourth Republic. In the short term the crisis of 1968 ended in a victory of the Gaullists that strengthened their parliamentary majority. An embittered de Gaulle attributed this paradoxical victory to "the party of fear." For him personally, the victory was ephemeral. The crisis had revealed the extent of the imbalances between the demands and values of a rejuvenated and modernized France and those of power structures that in many respects remained patriarchal. This lack of fit between politics and society was tacitly recognized within the Gaullist camp. In 1969 General de Gaulle chose to retire after his defeat in a referendum that had the air of a last will and testament. After Georges Pompidou's brief presidency, the election of Valéry Giscard d'Estaing put an end to the "Gaullist state."

The regime survived the crisis of 1968, and then showed its resiliency in adjusting to the shift of power to the Socialist Party in 1981, under François Mitterrand, and then to various moments in 1986 and 1995 when the president was a man of the Left or Right and the prime minister was of the opposite party. Crises in governments became less important as European integration proceeded apace.

As in 1934, so in 1968: French Republican political culture survived a systemic crisis. But also as in 1934, albeit in a radically different mode, the political system and the founding culture of the Gaullist Republic underwent marked changes. So did French society. After 1968 we can see a clear path toward cultural liberalization, marked by the lowering of the voting age to eighteen, liberalization of radio and television, and the passage of liberal abortion and divorce laws. Older family forms began to atrophy, as was the case throughout Western Europe.


In the 1970s and 1980s a major downturn in the international economy produced major shifts in political life. First came a move to the Left to cope with the problems of the time; then a move to the Right, which is now termed the "neoliberal shift." In 1981, the victory of the Left united behind François Mitterrand seemed to underscore a return to a Popular Front. There were four Communists in the government. Prime Minister Pierre Mauroy responded to the situation triggered by the 1973 oil crisis by returning to a Keynesian approach. The first measures adopted were rooted in the traditions of the Left: taxation of the wealthiest, a new wave of nationalization that affected some large banking and industrial sectors, lowering the retirement age to sixty, and the thirty-nine-hour work week. Subsequent measures turned toward cultural Page 1129  |  Top of Article liberalization: the abolition of capital punishment, the creation of a high authority to guarantee the independence of radio and television. These measures set the country on the path to decentralization.

But the Left's return to power coincided with the deepening of an economic crisis whose causes and effects proved to be more complex and more permanent than they had first appeared during the crisis of 1973: the slowing of growth, technological revolution in all sectors that meant the end of full employment and the emergence of structural unemployment (around 10 percent), saturation of the market in durable consumer goods, and so forth. These new circumstances and external constraints (integration into the European monetary system that made currencies interdependent) led France to abandon its path of singularity in relation to Europe. The French political system, now fairly similar to those of neighboring countries, accepted alternating governments or cohabitation between a liberalized Right and a Social-Democratized Left. The emergence of the Green Party and the National Front attest, in different modes, to the broadscale changes at work within it.

Beginning in 1983 the government shifted to a neoliberal approach, one that for a long time remained less radical than in Great Britain. In some twenty years it dismantled the structure of nationalized industries, and redefined its social security and pension systems. In 2000, 16 percent of the population was older than sixty-five, 25 percent younger than nineteen. Paying for the elderly was a problem looming in the future. This was true everywhere, and throughout these years, the notion of French particularism, its otherness, began to fade. Scientific and technical advances, a greater emphasis on European integration, globalization, and outsourcing underscored the disappearance of the structural differences that had characterized France for two centuries. Now France was just as "postindustrial" as everyone else. In 2001 the primary sector of employment had fallen to 3.5 percent of the workforce and the secondary sector to 25.4 percent (of which 2.6 million still consisted of skilled workers), as compared with 71.1 percent for the service sector (75.2 percent of the GDP). At the same time economic insecurity and regionally concentrated unemployment, especially among immigrant youth became endemic.

These upheavals hurt the welfare state and the foundations of the Republican social contract as redefined at the Liberation. They undermined social cohesion and "French-style" Republican integration. After World War II, France generally succeeded in integrating a very substantial number of immigrants. The number of foreigners doubled from 1945 to 1965, and their enlarged recruitment pool became more markedly Mediterranean. In 1999, one French citizen out of four had foreign ancestry within fewer than three generations. Among them, 38.4 percent were from Europe and 22.3 percent from North Africa. Beginning in the 1980s, protectionist measures restricted immigration. In 1993, the government considered reforming citizenship rules; until then based on place of birth; if you were born in France, you were French. School dropout rates, unemployment, and the crisis of the inner cities above all affected first- and second-generation immigrants (the "beurs"). France's colonial past and the Algerian war, that "past that will not pass," brought with them negative perceptions of the North African immigrant population. These tensions were expressed in the upsurge of the National Front, which outpolled the Socialist Party in the presidential elections of 2002. On the other side, Muslims increasingly rejected the notion that all French were the same. Many retreated into identity politics, defending the wearing of the veil by Muslim girls in schools, thereby undermining the French model of secularism and integration.

It was in this environment that France experienced a national identity crisis magnified by the emergence of new regional, European, and international forms of political decision making. A crisis in the political realm was characterized, as it was everywhere else in Europe, by a decrease in trade union and political affiliation, by voter abstention, and by the increasingly salient role played by groups on the margins of the political system.


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Hazareesingh, Sudhir. Political Traditions in Modern France. Oxford, U.K., 1994.

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Kritzman, Lawrence D., ed., The Columbia History of Twentieth-Century French Thought. New York, 2006.

Kuisel, Richard F. Capitalism in Modern France: Renovation and Economic Management in the Twentieth Century. Cambridge, U.K., 1981.

Margairaz, Michel. L'état, les finances, et l'économie: Histoire d'une conversion, 1932–1952. 2 vols. Paris, 1991.

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Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX3447000366