June 02, 2004

*French History: Politics Before WWII, Part One

This series is by no means a comprehensive history of France, but may put WWII in some context.

Brief Introduction.
Culture Before WWII.

The Third Republic was troubled from the start. Calls for reform began almost immediately after its formation in the 1870s and grew more intense after World War I. The lack of a promised strong executive branch led to problems within the government, and the Republic was fading well before 1940.

When the Third Republic's Constitution was adopted, a system of checks and balances was put in place that was supposed to make government more efficient under a strong executive. In reality, the democratically-elected Lower House had most of the power and the President was relegated to the role of figurehead. The Upper House, or Senate, had limited power as well.

Unlike the Senate, the Lower House consisted of men who were not socially elite. They were schoolteachers, rural leaders, etc. The democratization of French politics began a chasm between political institutions and the social elites. In the aftermath of the Dreyfus Affair, the Radical Party came into power. With them came the elites' worst nightmare: the career politician. One of the first things the Radicals did was raise their political salaries.

Several groups popped up to address the growing disillusionment with the Republic. One of them was led by Charles Maurras, who founded Action francaise, which was a monarchist group that was particularly influential in the 1920s. His group was intellectual rather than political and attracted a healthy following of students from the French Quarter. The group faded around 1926 when the Vatican condemned it. Already some younger members had grown impatient with its lack of action and moved on to more radical movements.

The reform groups that grew out of the political right generally had the same goals, including but not limited to: modernization and technical competence, efficiency and organization, and a stronger executive branch. Unfortunately, the groups lacked charismatic leaders to help push their agenda. Even with a right-wing majority in Parliament in 1919, the right-wing reform movement was stalled. The post-war government was preoccupied with reconstruction, inflation, and budget problems.

The left-wing reform groups also had their goals: streamlined government, educational reforms which would give all children the same education until age 13, nationalization of key industries, and a restructuring of politics that would place the economy first. Like the right, the left failed to see their ideology through. Financial crises kept the government from making any real changes in the late 1910s and early 1920s.

By 1926 France was enjoying a booming economy and financial stability. Reformists once again moved to the forefront. At this time fractured political groups were moving to realign with one another, and parliamentary fighting undermined the reform movements. A modernization bill that had been the subject of much fanfare was never even voted on. In 1932 the Depression caught up with France and politics became even more volatile.

Politics Before WWII, Part Two.

Posted by Jennifer at June 2, 2004 11:57 AM