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Twentieth Century France Essay

Prior to 1871 Commune in Paris, France experienced fluctuations in the political institutions from monarchy to republic, marked by the bloody revolutionary and Napoleonic era, and a succession of regimes. Yet with all the socio-political upheavals and the static characteristic of politics in France, there is and always be a clash between the traditionalists and the liberalists which will persists up to the present and possibly until the future.

Since 1870, the French have experienced the survival of Republican forms, the traumas of two world wars and several colonial ones, modernization of the economy, transformation of societal structures and mores, and more than lingering attention to intellectual and cultural questions. The Third republic of 1870 required much maneuvering, and luck before its organic laws were formulated by 1875. The Repression of the Commune of Paris in 1871 and facing down the monarchists gave the republic respectability by 1880.

From 1872 to 1880 there was a remarkable economic prosperity in foreign trading and industrial farming. The popularly elected deputies of the parliament had also gained ascendancy over the over the executive branch of the president and the cabinet. Republican forces succeeded in wrestling control over the educational system away from the church in the 1880s and finally separated the church from the state in 1905.

The republic was shaken by scandals over the presidential abuses, parliamentary bribery in the projected building of the Panama Canal, and the court-martial of the Jewish army captain Alfred Dreyfus as an alleged spy. The ultimate effect of the long-drawn-out Dreyfus Affair, however, was to discredit further the remnants of antirepublican aristocrats, army officers, and the clergy to solidify the republic. Industrialization proceeded rapidly though at a slower pace than Germany or Britain.

Along with other major European powers and often in competitive rivalry with them, France engaged in a burst of imperialism, adding substantial holdings in Africa and Asia by 1914. Diplomatically, it escaped from the isolation imposed upon it until 1890 by the shrewd statesmanship of Bismarck. By 1914, French diplomats had forged a system of alliances including a defensive military pact with Russia, and an Entente Cordiale with Britain. Paris in the pre-1914 era until 1940 was the center for French and foreign artistic and literary figures.

When the World War I began in August 1914, the French anticipated a brief conflict in which they could recover both the territory, Alsace-Lorraine, and the prestige lost in 1871. In fact, French troops marched into along war of attrition and emerged shaken by the losses and casualties on a greater scale than other belligerents. The Treaty of Versailles temporarily restored French ascendancy, but the Great Depression of 1930s, with its consequences of domestic political-social polarization, and the challenge of the Nazi Germany spelled disaster for France by 1940.

At home, Socialist premier Leon Blum’s popular front of socialists, communists, and the radical-socialists in the 1936-37 preserved the republic against the threat of the fascists groups, such as the Action Francaise, and enacted a wide range of social and economic reforms. A foreign policy of appeasement of Adolph Hitler throughout the 1930s was adopted because of the painful memories of World War I, internal dissension, and uninspired leadership. Appeasement, however, failed to maintain international peace, and the World War II finally began in September 1939.

Guided by a antiquated military strategy, the French armies suffered blitzkrieg defeat by the Hitler’s panzers in May 1940. From the rubble rose the collaborationist Vichy government under the Marsal Henry Philippe Petain, the Free French movement of the Charles de Gaulle, and the resistance movement within France. De Gaulle managed by 1943 to coordinate the anti-German activities of his Free French Forces in London then in Algiers with the resistance groups in occupied France. Allied victory brought liberation in 1944 and had ushered in the Fourth Republic by 1946.

The Fourth Republic strongly resembled the Third in the political form and practice. Until 1947 the Communist, the Socialist, and the liberal Catholic parties worked together to deal with the reconstruction of the country. In 1947, however, the Communists moved into the opposition, and the rise of the Gaullist right in the form of the Rassemblement du people francais placed the Socialists and the center parties in the quandary of forming fragile coalitions to preserve the republic against the left and right challengers.

The Fourth Republic legislated many economic and social reforms, nationalizing several large banks, insurance companies, and war-related industries; finally enfranchising French women; and expanding the previously feeble warfare benefits of French men, women and children. Under Jean Monnet’s plan, and with US aid , the republic also built the substructure for a modern economy, tied in with the European Economic Community. To meet the Soviet threat in the Cold War, France, in 1949, joined the North Atlantic Treaty Organization but began to develop its own nuclear arsenal.

Hostility from the Communist left and the Gaullist right weakened the republic and its ability to cope with the colonial wars in Indochina and Algeria. On the verge of civil war over the Algerian question in 1958, the French called the de Gaulle out of retirement to resolve the situation. His price was the right to draft a new constitution to be submitted to a referendum. The price was paid and the Fifth Republic was born, with the 1958 election of De Gaulle as President. The new republic gave more power to the executive than to the previously dominant parliament.

Having liquidated the Algerian War in 1962 and introduced prosperity and stability, de Gaulle nonetheless faced a large-scale student-worker revoltin the 1968. He weathered the crisis but left the office of the following year. The Gaullist party and its moderate partners continued to dominate politics through the 1970s under de Gaulle’s successors, George Pompidou and Valery Giscard D’Estaing. An energy crisis contributed to the rising inflation and unemployment in the 1970s. The general elections of 1981 produced a dramatic change of direction.

Socialist Francois Mitterand edged the incumbent Giscard out of Presidency, and the Socialists gained the solid majority in the parliament. Mitterand immediately proposed measures to create new jobs, shorten working hours, and extend welfare benefits. He also took steps to nationalize several large banks and selected industries while decentralizing administrative authority. In foreign affairs the new president reaffirmed France’s commitment to NATO and took a more critical stance towards USSR than had his predecessor.

In 1982 and 1983, a deteriorating economy forced Mitterand to curtail his social welfare programs and adopt unpopular austerity measures. When the Socialists lost their parliamentary majority in 1986, he had to appoint Gaullist leader Jacques Chirac as premier. This marked the beginning of a cohabitation system in which the President shared power with his prime minister. Over Mitterand’s opposition, Chirac lowered taxes and pushed through a privatization plan, selling off many of the banks and industries previously nationalized by the Socialists.

After Mitterand was reelected to the presidency in 1988, his party regained enough strength in the parliament to oust Chirac in favor of a Socialist, Michael Rocard. Events after 1872 were strikingly similar with that of the past. The Commune for instance bears a striking resemblance to the initial state of the Revolutionary Era. Domestic violence was still there as is the social factions within the so-called Republic and France still claims colonies or territories outside.

Additionally, the power the state had previously enjoyed during the revolutionary and Napoleonic era is reminisced again during the third Republic’s attempt to recover their former colonies, their coalition with other states and the extensive influence the Germans had on the nation-state. Also, France was even more participative of joining in external wars and there were persistence of the authoritarian government as in the past.

Work Cited

Couperie, P. Paris through the Ages. NY: George Brazillier, 1977.


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