France in the twentieth century  

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
France, 20th century

The History of France from 1914 to the present includes:



In 1914, the territory of France was different from today's France in two important ways: most of Alsace and the northeastern part of Lorraine had been annexed by Germany in 1870 (following the Franco-Prussian War of 1870–71), and the North-African country of Algeria had been established as an integral part of France (a "département") in 1848. Alsace-Lorraine would be restored at the end of World War I (only to be lost again, temporarily, to the Germans a second time during World War II). Calls for Algerian independence became common after 1945, but Algeria was no mere colony. With over a million European residents in Algeria, France refused to grant independence until a bloody colonial war (the Algerian War of Independence) had turned into a French political and civil crisis; Algeria was given its independence in 1962, unleashing a massive wave of immigration from the former colony back to France.


Unlike other European countries, France did not experience a strong population growth in the mid and late 19th century and first half of the 20th century (see Demographics of France). This would be compounded by the massive French losses of World War I — roughly estimated at 1.4 million French dead including civilians (see World War I casualties) (or nearly 10% of the active adult male population) and four times as many wounded (see World War I) — and World War II — estimated at 593,000 French dead (one and a half times the number of U.S. dead), of which 470,000 were civilians (see World War II casualties). From a population of around 39 million in 1880, France still had only a population of 40 million in 1945. The post-war years would bring a massive "baby boom", and with immigration, France reached 50 million in 1968. This growth slowed down in 1974.

Since 1999, France has seen an unprecedented growth in population. In 2004, population growth was 0.68%, almost reaching North American levels (2004 was the year with the highest increase in French population since 1974). France is now well ahead of all other European countries in population growth (except for the Republic of Ireland) and in 2003, France's natural population growth (excluding immigration) was responsible for almost all the natural growth in European population (the population of the European Union increased by 216,000 inhabitants (without immigration), of which 211,000 was the increase in France's population alone, and 5,000 was the increase in all the other countries of the EU combined).

Today, France, with a population of 60 million (or 63 million with overseas territories) is the third most populous country of Europe, behind Russia and Germany.

Immigration in the 20th century differed significantly from that of the previous century. The 1920s saw great influxes from Italy and Poland; in the 1930-50s immigrants cames from Spain and Portugal. Since the 1960s however, the greatest waves of immigrants have been from former French colonies: Algeria (1 million), Morocco (570,000), Tunisia (200,000), Senegal (45,000), Mali (40,000), Cambodia (45,000), Laos (30,000), Vietnam (35,000). Much of this recent immigration was initially economical, but many of these immigrants have remained in France, gained citizenship and integrated into French society. Estimates vary, but of the 60 million people living in France today, close to 4 million claim foreign origin. This massive influx has created tensions in contemporary France, especially over issues of "integration into French society" and the notion of a "French identity", and in recent years the most controversial issues have been with regards to muslim populations (at 7%, Islam is the second largest religion in today's France; see Islam in France).

Eastern-European and North-African Jewish immigration to France largely began in the mid to late 19th century. In 1872, there was an estimated 86,000 Jews living in France, and by 1945 this would increase to 300,000. Many Jews integrated (or attempted to integrate) into French society, although French nationalism lead to anti-semitism in many quarters. The Vichy regime's collaboration with the Nazi holocaust lead to the extermination of 76,000 French Jews (the Vichy authorities however gave preferencial treatment to "integrated" Jews who had been in France from two to five generations and who had fought in World War I or held important administrative positions in the government), and of all other Western European countries, this figure is second only to Germany; but many Jews were also saved by acts of heroism and administrative refusal to participate in the deportation (three quarters of France's Jewish population was spared, a higher proportion than any other European country touched by the holocaust). Since the 1960s, France has experienced a great deal of Jewish immigration from the Mediterranean and North Africa, and the Jewish population in France is estimated at around 600,000 today.

At the turn of the century almost half of all Frenchmen depended on the land for their living, and up until World War II, France remained a largely rural country (roughly 25% of the population worked on the land in 1950), but the post-war years also saw an unprecedented move to the cities: only around 4% of the French continue to work in farms and 73% live today in large cities. By far the largest of these is Paris, at 2.1 million inhabitants (11 million in the Parisian region), followed by Lille, Lyon, Marseille (upwards of 1.2 million inhabitants each). Much of this urbanization takes place not in the traditional center of the cities, but in the suburbs (or "banlieues") that surround them (the cement and steel housing projects in these areas are called "cités"). With immigration from poorer countries, these "cités" have been the center of racial and class tensions since the 1960s.

French Identity

The loss of regional and traditional culture (language and accent, local customs in dress and food), the poverty of many rural regions and the rise of modern urban structures (housing projects, supermarkets) have created tensions in modern France between traditionalists and progressives. Compounding the loss of regionalisms is the role of the French capital and the centralized French State.

Independentist movements sprung up in Brittany, Corsica and the Basque regions, while the Vichy Regime (echoing Nazi racial propaganda) actively encouraged local "folk" traditions and Catholicism which they saw as truer foundations for the French nation.

Developed from the French Revolution (itself an improvement on the centralized state of the absolute monarchy), the centralized French State in the 20th century has had expansive powers in all aspects of French daily life (social security, industry, education, employment, transportation).

The post-war years also saw the state take control of a number of French industries. The modern political climate has however been for increasing regional power ("decentralization") and for reduced state control in private enterprise ("privatization").

Historical Overview

World War I (1914–1918)

World War I (1914–1918) brought great losses of troops and resources. Fought in large part on French soil, it lead to approximately 1.4 million French dead including civilians (see World War I casualties), and four times as many casualties. The stipulations of the Treaty of Versailles (1919) were severe: Alsace and Lorraine were returned to France; Germany was required to take full responsibility for the war and to pay war reparations; the German industrial Saarland, a coal and steel region, was occupied by France.

Between the Wars (1918-1939)

In the congress of Tours in 1920, the socialist party (SFIO) was split in two and the majority broke away and formed the French Communist Party (Section française de l'internationale communiste). The remaining minority, led by Léon Blum, "kept the old house" and stayed in the SFIO. In 1924 and again in 1932, the Socialists joined with the Radical-Socialist Party in the "Coalitions of the Left" (Cartels des Gauches), but refused actually to join the non-Socialist governments led by the Radicals Edouard Herriot and Edouard Daladier. Daladier resigned under pressure of the far-right leagues after the 6 February 1934 crisis, and conservative Gaston Doumergue was appointed president of the Council. The left-wing had feared a fascist coup d'état as those that had taken place with the 1922 March on Rome and events in Germany. Therefore, under the Comintern's influence, the Communists changed their line and adopted an "antifascist union" line, which led to the Popular Front (1936-38), which won the 1936 elections and brought Blum to power as France's first socialist prime minister. The Popular Front was composed of radicals and socialists, while the communists supported it without participating in it (in much the same way that socialists had supported radicals' governments before World War I without participating in them). Within a year, however, Léon Blum's government collapsed over economic policy, opposition from the bourgeoisie (the famous "200 hundreds families") and also over the issue of the Spanish Civil War (Blum decided that he couldn't afford to support the Spanish Republicans, which led to huge defections among the French left-wing, while Hitler and Mussolini unashamedly armed and supported Franco's troops).

The French far right expanded greatly and theories of race and anti-semitism proliferated in many quarters. Numerous far-right and anti-parliamentarian leagues, similar to the fascist leagues, sprang up, including colonel de la Rocque's Croix-de-Feu 1927-1936 which, like its larger rival the monarchist Action Française (founded in 1898, condemned by Pope Pius XI in 1926, Action Française supported a restoration of the monarchy and of Roman Catholicism as the state religion) advocated national integralism (the belief that society is an organic unity) and organized popular demonstrations in reaction to the Stavisky Affair 1934, hoping to overthrow the government (see 6 February 1934 crisis).

In the 1920s, France established an elaborate system of border defences (the Maginot Line) and alliances (see Little Entente) to offset resurgent German strength and in the 1930s, the massive losses of the war led many in France to choose the much maligned appeasement policy guaranteeing peace, even in the face of Hitler's violations of the Versailles treaty and (later) his demands at Munich in 1938. In some milieus in France, including people in the government and the army, there was also a accommodationist movement which saw in Hitler's Germany not a rival that France should confront, but a force that France should accommodate.

Also see: 1920 in France.

World War II (1939-1945)

In September, 1939 Hitler invaded Poland, and France and Great Britain declared war. Both armies were mobilized to the Western Front, but for the next 8 months neither side made a move: this would be called the "Phony War". The German Blitzkrieg began its attack in May 1940, and in six weeks of savage fighting the French lost 130,000 (twice the number of American loses at Normandy in 1944) and the British army was routed (the Dunkirk boat lift). France signed an armistice Nazi Germany on June 22, 1940. Nazi Germany occupied three fifths of France's territory (the Atlantic seaboard and most of France north of the Loire), leaving the rest to the new Vichy collaboration government established on July 10, 1940 under Henri Philippe Pétain. Its senior leaders acquiesced in the plunder of French resources, as well as the sending of French forced labor to Nazi Germany; in doing so, they claimed they hoped to preserve at least some small amount of French sovereignty. After an initial period of double-dealing and passive collaboration with the Nazis, the Vichy regime passed to active participation (largely the work of prime minister Pierre Laval). The Nazi German occupation proved costly as Nazi Germany appropriated a full one-half of France's public sector revenue.

On the other hand, those who refused defeat and collaboration with Nazi Germany, such as Charles de Gaulle, organized the Free French Forces in the UK and coordinated resistance movements in occupied and Vichy France. By august 1944, 260,000 french regulars and 300,000 FFI were fighting in France.

After four years of occupation and strife, Allied forces, including Free France, liberated France in 1944. Paris was liberated on August 25, 1944. On September 10, 1944 Charles de Gaulle installed his provisional government in Paris. This time he remained in Paris until the end of the war, refusing to abandon even when Paris was temporarily threatened by German troops during the Battle of the Bulge in December 1944. But france could now again participate as a nation to the war.In 1945, french army numbered 1,300,000 men, 412,000 of which were fighting in germany and 40,000 in Italy.

Post-War Period (1945-present)

France emerged from World War II to face a series of new problems. After a short period of provisional government initially led by General Charles de Gaulle, a new constitution (October 13, 1946) established the Fourth Republic under a parliamentary form of government controlled by a series of coalitions. The mixed nature of the coalitions and a consequent lack of agreement on measures for dealing with colonial wars in Indochina and Algeria caused successive cabinet crises and changes of government. The war in Indochina ended with French withdrawal in 1954.

The threat of a coup d'état in May 1958 by French army units and French settlers opposed to concessions in the face of Arab nationalist insurrection led to the fall of the French government and a presidential invitation to de Gaulle to form an emergency government to forestall the threat of civil war. Swiftly replacing the existing constitution with one strengthening the powers of the presidency, he became the elected president in December of that year, inaugurating France's Fifth Republic.

In 1959, in an occasion marking the first time in the 20th century that the people of France went to the polls to elect a president by direct ballot, de Gaulle won re-election with a 55% share of the vote, defeating François Mitterrand. Meanwhile, the Algerian War went on raging, with de Gaulle progressively adopting a stance favouring Algeria's independence. This was interpreted by his supporters in 1958 as a form of treason, and part of them, who organized themselves in the OAS terrorist group, rebelled against him during the Algiers putsch of 1961. But De Gaulle managed to put an end to the war by negotiating the Evian Agreements of March 1962 with the FLN.

In the end of the 1960s, however, French society grew tired of the heavy-handed, patriarchal Gaullist approach, and of the incompatibilities between modern life and old traditions and institutions. This led to the students' revolts of events of May 1968, with a variety of demands including educational, labor and governmental reforms, sexual and artistic freedom, and the end of the Vietnam War. The student protest movement quickly joined with labor and mass strikes erupted. At one point, de Gaulle went to see troops in Baden-Baden, possibly to secure the help of the army in case it were needed to maintain public order. But after a month-long general strike, most of French people aspired to order, and the June 1968 legislative elections saw a majority of Gaullists in parliament. Still, May 1968 was a turning point in French social relations, with the Grenelle Agreements, in the direction of more personal freedoms and less social control, be it in work relations, education or in private life.

In April 1969, de Gaulle resigned following the defeat in a national referendum of government proposals for decentralization, through the creation of 21 regions with limited political powers. He was succeeded by the Gaullist Georges Pompidou (1969-74), who died during his term. Pompidou's succession pitted the Gaullists against the more classical conservatives who eventually won, headed by the Independent Republican Valéry Giscard d'Estaing (1974-81).

Social movements continued after May 1968. They included the occupation of the Lip factory in 1973, which led to an experience in workers' self-management, supported by the CFDT, the Unified Socialist Party (PSU) and all of the far-left movements. LIP workers participated to the Larzac demonstrations against the extension of a military camps (in which José Bové was present). Maoism and autonomism became quite popular in far-left movements, opposing both the Socialist Party and the Communist Party.

While France continues to revere its rich history and independence, French leaders increasingly tie the future of France to the continued development of the European Union (EU).

The 1972 Common Program between the Socialist Party (PS), the Communist Party (PCF) and the Left Radical Party (PRG) prepared the victory of the Left at the 1981 presidential election, during which for the first time in the Fifth Republic a left-wing candidate won. François Mitterrand, re-elected in 1988, followed a left-wing inspired social and economic program, formulated in the 110 Propositions for France electoral program. However, reforms came to a stop in 1983. Mitterrand's two terms were marked by two cohabitations, the first one in 1986-88 with Jacques Chirac as Prime minister.

Mitterrand stressed the importance of European integration and advocated the ratification of the Maastricht Treaty on European economic and political union, which France's electorate narrowly approved in September 1992.

The conservative President Jacques Chirac assumed office May 17, 1995, after a campaign focused on the need to combat France's stubbornly high unemployment rate. The center of domestic attention soon shifted, however, to the economic reform and belt-tightening measures required for France to meet the criteria for Economic and Monetary Union (EMU) laid out by the Maastricht Treaty. In late 1995, France experienced its greatest labor unrest in at least a decade, as employees protested government cutbacks.

Image:Bush and Chirac.jpg
President Chirac and United States President George W. Bush talk over issues during the 27th G8 summit, July 21, 2001.

On the foreign and security policy front, Chirac took a more assertive approach to protecting French peacekeepers in the former Yugoslavia and helped promote the Dayton Agreement negotiated in Dayton, Ohio and signed in Paris in December 1995. The French have stood among the strongest supporters of NATO and EU policy in the Balkans.



By the end of the 19th century, France had joined the industrial era. But it had joined late, and comparatively it had lost in the competition with its war-footing neighbor Germany, and with its trade-based chief rival across the Channel, Great Britain. France had great industry and infrastructure and factories, by 1900; but compared to Germany and Britain was "behind", so that people spoke of and French politicians complained of "the French backwardness (le retard français)".

In 1870 the first signs of French industrial and general economic decline started to appear, compared to their new neighbor in Bismarck's newly-united Germany, appeared during the Franco-Prussian War. The total defeat of France, in this conflict, was less a demonstration of French weakness than it was of German militarism and industrial strength. This in contrast to France's occupation of Germany during the Napoleonic wars. A huge sum had to be paid to Germany to end the war which provided the latter with even more capital.

By 1914, however, German armament and general industrialization had out-distanced not only France but all of its neighbors. Just before 1914, France was producing about one-sixth as much Coal as Germany, made less than a third as much Pig iron and a quarter as much Steel. <ref>Roberts, J: "History of the World.". Penguin, 1994.</ref> In a scenario recounted best in Barbara Tuchman's book The Guns of August<ref>Tuchman, Barbara W.. The Guns of August (New York : Ballantine, 1994) ISBN 0-345-38623-X</ref>, France together with Germany's other competitors had entered a "war-footing" rearmament race which, once again, temporarily stimulated spending while reducing saving and investment.

The First World War -- the "Great War" -- however produced an economic outcome disastrous for all parties, not just for the German losers. As predicted by Keynes in his bitter post-Versailles Conference book, The Economic Consequences of the Peace<ref>Keynes, John Maynard. The Economic Consequences of the Peace (London : Macmillan, 1919)</ref>, the heavy war reparations imposed upon Germany not only were insufficient to fuel French economic recovery, they greatly damaged a Germany which might have become France's leading trade and industrial development partner, thereby seriously damaging France as well.

And their very heavy loss of life, in the "Great War", robbed France of a generation of its youth, and of some of the youthful imagination necessary for facing Germany again, only 25 years later, in the Second World War, when a by-then aged French general staff was ill-prepared and entirely-defensive up against an even more militant German economy and army. Damaged by the Great Depression, the older leaders left in France were reluctant to assume a "war-footing" economy yet again, and France was overrun and occupied by Nazi Germany, and its wartime economy turned entirely to supporting Germany and the German war effort.

The great hardships of wartime, and of the immediate post-war period, were succeeded by a period of steady economic development, in France, now often fondly recalled there as The Thirty Glorious Years (Les Trente Glorieuses). Alternating policies of "interventionist" and "free market" ideas enabled the French to build a society in which both industrial and technological advances could be made but also worker security and privileges established and protected. By the end of the 20th century, France once again was among the leading economic powers of the world, although by the year 2000 there already was some fraying around the edges: people in France and elsewhere were asking whether France alone, without becoming even more an integral part of a pan-European economy, would have sufficient market presence to maintain its position, and that worker security and those privileges, in an increasingly "Globalized" and "transnational" economic world.


Twentieth century French literature was profoundly shaped by the historical events of the century and was also shaped by -- and a contributor to -- the century's political, philosophical, moral, and artistic crises.

Twentieth century French literature did not undergo an isolated development and reveals the influence of writers and genres from around the world, including Walt Whitman, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Franz Kafka, John Dos Passos, Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, Luigi Pirandello, the British and American detective novel, James Joyce, Jorge Luis Borges, Bertold Brecht and many others. In turn, French literature has also had a radical impact on world literature.

Because of the creative spirit of the French literary and artistic movements at the beginning of the century, France gained the reputation as being the necessary destination for writers and artists. Important foreign writers who have lived and worked in France (especially Paris) in the twentieth century include: Oscar Wilde, Gertrude Stein, Ernest Hemingway, William S. Burroughs, Henry Miller, Anaïs Nin, James Joyce, Samuel Beckett, Julio Cortázar, Vladimir Nabokov, Eugène Ionesco. Some of the most important works of the century in French were written by foreign authors (Eugène Ionesco, Samuel Beckett).

For Americans in the 1920s and 1930s (including the so-called "Lost Generation"), part of the fascination with France was also linked to freedom from Prohibition. For African-Americans in the twentieth century (such as James Baldwin), France was also more accepting of race and permitted greater freedom (in a similar way, Jazz was embraced by the French faster than in some areas in America). A similar sense of freedom from political oppression or from intolerance (such as anti-homosexual discrimination) has drawn other authors and writers to France. France has also been more permissive in terms of censorship, and many important foreign language novels were originally published in France while being banned in America: Joyce's Ulysses (published by Sylvia Beach in Paris, 1922), Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita and William S. Burroughs's Naked Lunch (both published by Olympia Press), and Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer (published by Obelisk Press).


Following on the radical developments of Impressionism and Post-Impressionism at the end of the nineteenth century, the first half of the twentieth century in France saw the even more revolutionary experiments of cubism, dada and surrealism, artistic movements that would have a major impact on western, and eventually world, art. After World War II, while French artists explored such tendencies as tachism, fluxus and new realism, France's preeminence in the visual arts was eclipsed by developments elsewhere (the United States in particular).

See also

Political crisis


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