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Third Republic 1919-1936 Between the Wars

On 3 August 1914 France went to war against Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire, joining forces with Britain and Russia; these allies were later joined by Italy and the United States. The French emerged victorious from the four-year conflict but, like all the European countries which took part in the Great War, France had been dealt a heavy blow. The north and east of the country had been laid waste; the war effort had drained the public purse and the national economy and temporarily halted social advances. Worst of all, the war had inflicted human loss on a terrible scale: almost 1.5 million young men were killed and almost three million wounded; and the birth rate was falling to disastrous levels, in a country whose population growth was already very low.

The War had rallied political parties to the defence of the nation, leading to the formation of the Union Sacrée, symbolized by the strong personality of Georges Clémenceau, the "Father of Victory". He remained in power until January 1920.

Political life in the 1920s was dominated from then on by right-wing coalitions, except for the period 1924-1926 when the Cartel des Gauches (an alliance between Socialists and Radicals) was in power. Since December 1920, when the French Communist Party was formed, the Socialist Left had been divided.

In every town and village of France, monuments dedicated to those who died during the "Great War" stand as a reminder of the bloodiest episode in the history of France. The massive decimation of young men dealt a lasting blow to the demographic growth of France. The economic effects were no less serious, for material losses were heavy; they have been estimated at a quarter of the national wealth.

Yet the Third Republic emerged strengthened by the victory of the union sacrée of a wide range of political parties united in the sacred cause of defending the nation. Raymond Poincaré's National Union dominated political life in the 1920s. Only the Socialist left was excluded; this force had been split in two since the founding of the Communist Party in December 1920.

The historical experience of the Jews in France differed from that of the rest of modern Europe. This difference stemmed from the changes brought about by the French Revolution of 1789, which made French Jews the first national Jewish population emancipated from the medieval legal and administrative strictures of ghetto life. Prior to 1789, Jews living in Paris were considered foreigners. Elsewhere in France, their status varied: there were legal restrictions in the east, while some Jews in some communities in southwest France could vote in the Estates General. Statutes passed in 1790 and 1791 by the Revolutionary government granted Jews full civil rights throughout France.

During the 19th century, Judaism in France identified with the values of the revolution and Republican France. Many Jews adopted a secularized identity - officially members of a distinct religion, but living with a French cultural and ethnic identity. However, in the last quarter of the nineteenth century, Jews came under attack from an increasingly polemical conservative wing of French politics, which included the Jews as a target of their general attacks against the liberal tendencies of the Third Republic.

The French right, which combined a strong nationalism with a radical socialism, made anti-Semitism a major part of its platform. The Dreyfus affair (1894-1906), in which a Jewish French Army officer was accused falsely of treason and then exonerated, seemed to be the lightning rod for the forces of anti-Semitism in France. In the end, though, the supporters of Dreyfus won. The anti-Semitic storm abated, and soon the worst aspects of it were forgotten temporarily with the spirit of the union sacree' of the First World War.

The most powerful of these voices, Charles Maurras and his Action Francaise, emerged in the midst of the drama, and would continue to make anti-Semitism a part of extreme conservative opinion for many more decades. L'Action francaise was a nationalist, pro-catholic and monarchic movement. They actively boycotted Jewish establishments, sought to expel Jews from public office and recruited only catholics. The movement sought homogeneity through its uniform recruitment of catholics. The catholic, nationalistic demeanor of the organization positioned one religious component against another.The rhetoric that reverberated from meetings was violently anti-Semitic. Meetings manifested themselves into rallies against the jewish community.

Dissatisfaction with the Parliamentary regime grew in consequence of its failure to solve the nation's financial problems. In 1922 the political organization known as the Action Francaise assembled 20,000 people at a great meeting in Paris, at which resolutions were adopted demanding the convocation of the States General. Numerous trade organizations and a number of leading journals, including the widely- circulated Paris newspaper, Le Matin, gave their support. A national committee was presently formed and now, with the appearance on April 9, 1923 of the first number of a monthly magazine entitled Cahiers des Etats Generauz, the movement has been definitely launched on a national scale.

The program of the National Committee, signed by ten prominent industrialists and publicists, presents a severe indictment, far more severe than most foreign critics have cared to frame, of the existing political and constitutional system of France, together with an outline of the proposed remedies. The remedy for this situation which, the program declared, was sapping the life of France and leading the nation to ruin, was not at all in the overthrow of the existing constitutional system, but in the addition of a new representative body which shall speak for the true interests of the State. And what are those true interests? They were declared to be found centered in the innumerable industrial, commercial, agricultural and professional organizations which are now actively at work in every part of France, in the corporate associations of employers and workers and in the family. It was these organizations, and not the individual, that were said to be the true units of representation.

It was not the opinions of the individual citizen, sometimes wise but more often ignorant, prejudiced or unimportant, that ought to be reflected in the action of Parliament or of the Government, but the opinions of the economic and social groups which every progressive society naturally forms. Individual voting, accordingly, while valuable as emphasizing a common allegiance, was declared to be artificial and imperfect as an expression of what the country really wants, because the corporate opinion of organized social interests, the only opinion which actually governs people in their daily lives, is denied any share in the process.

The term "integral" itself has an historical pedigree that links it with various movements associated directly with the lineages of the Counter-Enlightenment. Specifically, it has a broad association with various French right-wing intellectual movements. There is the "integral nationalism" of Charles Maurras, "integral experience" of Henri Bergson, or the "integral humanism" of Jacques Maritain. In general, "integralists" are seen as staunchly traditionalist or fundamentalist in their outlook. They themselves tend to view their integralism as a defense of some form of "sacred" patrimony. There are also more generic political designations of integralism, as in "integral nationalism," to refer to formations of ultranationalism that intersected, most notably in Germany, with Nazism, and in "integral socialism," an effort to fuse "a primitive idealistic socialism and Marxist realism". Thus, the term is generally used to designate a range of idiosyncratic "fundamentalisms," most often, though by no means exclusively, of a right-wing provenance.

This political culture, communal, anti-individualistic, and antirationalistic, represented at first a rejection of the heritage of the Enlightenment and the French Revolution, and later the creation of a comprehensive alternative, an intellectual, moral, and political framework that alone could ensure the perpetuity of a human collectivity in which all strata and all classes of society would be perfectly integrated. Fascism wished to rectify the most disastrous consequences of modernization of the European continent and to provide a solution to the atomization of society, its fragmentation into antagonistic groups, and the alienation of the individual in a free market economy. Fascism rebelled against the dehumanization that modernization had introduced into human relationships, but it was also very eager to retain the benefits of progress and never advocated a return to a hypothetical golden age. Fascism rebelled against modernity inasmuch as modernity was identified with the rationalism, optimism, and humanism of the eighteenth century, but it was not a reactionary or an anti-revolutionary movement.

By the 1930s the situation in France had become again difficult for Jews. A combative French nationalism had emerged in reaction to France's postwar economic and political decline. It had, as one of its foundations, a widespread xenophobia. Caught in this backlash against foreigners were Jews of foreign ancestry living in France. Many French Jews could trace their ancestry for generations. But another sizable segment of the Jewish population, perhaps as many as 75,000 or so, had arrived in France as part of the flood of 300,000 immigrants and refugees that lasted during the postwar period from 1919 until the very eve of the Second World War. Some 55,000 of these arrived after 1933 as a result of the Nazis taking power in Germany.

The traditional view is that after the Great War French diplomats and military were obsessed with Great Britain and with taking no initiative without British backing, while French strategy was concerned with sheltering behind an impregnable Maginot line, in the absence of a strong alliance with Great Britain. There was a broad consistency in French strategy in the inter war period. Although fortifications were important to French defence, policy was mainly focused on carrying a war outside of French territory and not being trapped behind the Maginot line. In the mid-1930s the French hoped for British neutrality, relying on a military entente with Italy as abridge to allies in East Central Europe. In the French strategy of distant fronts, eastern allies would bear the brunt of fighting German force.

One day after Hitler came to power, or on 31 January, 1933, M. Edouard Daladier became Premier of France. With short interruptions he remained in office, either as Premier or as Minister of War, for some seven years. He was at the head of his government during the first part of World War II. Daladier was War Minister from December 1932 through January 1934 and from June 1936 through May 1940.

On 1 February, 1933, desiring to acquaint himself with the military situation, Daladier consulted General Maxime Weygand. Weygand had a high opinion of the ability of the German military leaders. He knew about the German rearmament being under way, or thought he did, but estimated that it would take about ten more years before Germany could reach the 1914 stage of efficiency. By next year (1934), the Maginot Line would be completed to cover the French side of the German frontier, and then France would be impregnable to any attack from the east. Weygand considered that Poland, due to poor leadership and lack of proper equipment, should be classed as an international nuisance, of no special military value. Of Czechoslovakia he had a high opinion. Belgium was half French, half Fleming, the latter largely favorable to Germany; consequently he would not trust Belgium. The British Army was not dependable in a crisis; but Weygand believed that the British Navy was most efficient, and that British sea power was of outstanding importance. In general there did not seem to be any danger of a general war during the next ten years. Based on the foregoing estimate of the situation, the French government, with the consent of the War Department, postponed some contemplated increases in the French Army and in military equipment, in order to reduce the budget and thereby have more funds available for desired social measures.

Edouard Daladier was a French politician who was born in 1884 at Carpentras and died in 1970. He became leader of the radical socialists in 1927 and in 1933 was Minister of War and Prime Minister. At the end of 1933 the Stavisky accounting scandal, which involved several politicians, fed the campaigns of the far right against the parliamentary mode. Fascist leagues (French Action) and organizations of war veterans (Cross-of-Fire) organized on February 6th, 1934 a demonstration in Paris against corruption, and the members of a league try the attack of the Palate-Bourbon. Overwhelmed, the police opens fire, making about fifteen deaths and several hundreds of casualties. Daladier resigned. In 1934 he was again Prime Minister and in 1936 he was War Minister and in 1939 once again Prime Minister and supported appeasement towards Hitler and the Nazis.

The highest military men in France laid the foundations of fascism and capitulation to Germany. As far back as 1934 Weygand, then Commander-in-Chief, told Pétain, then Minister of War, that in case of defeat Pétain could become the Hindenburg of France. Weygand was said by Pertinax [André Géraud, who for nearly thirty years wrote for the Echo de Paris, a journal of the Right] to have had "a burning aversion for the Left, the socialists, the Free Masons, democracy, parliamentary institutions, which became a frenzy after his retirement in January, 1935." Pétain, in turn, "was cut to the heart by that fear of a social upheaval which in so many a conservative had silenced every feeling of patriotism." Obviously these chiefs believed that the main enemy was at home.

From 1935 Petain made propaganda everywhere for the pro-Getman, pro-fascist Laval. Henri Philippe Petain was the world-famed hero of Verdun, the idol of the French Army, the savior of the French people. Petain did the impossible. The battle of the Marne in the first German drive, had proved to the Germans that Paris could not be reached by that route, so to the Crown Prince was intrusted the task of attacking the French line at Verdun, of overwhelming it, and of piercing the defense. But the strategic decisions of Verdun were not his. Henri Philippe Petain had gone on the retired list with the rank of colonel before he was called to the front, and was over sixty years of age when he took command of Verdun. General Pétain decided to hold Verdun, and he issued the famous order, "They shall not pass" (Us ne passeront pas). After eight months of fighting in 1915, after eight months of the most dramatic and terrible conflict in human history, the French had made good their boast. Petain had won for France what some regarded as the greatest battle in her thousand years of military history. Petain was then one of the world's most famous soldiers, his country's supreme hope. In April 1917, he was made Chief of Staff of the Ministry of War, and on May 15, 1917, Commander-in-chief of all the French armies operating on the French front. But Pétain, the hero of Verdun, was a fraud. On all critical occasions at Verdun he was pessimistic to the point of defeatism. Clemenceau and Foch had to speak to him in a way that a commanding officer was never before addressed in public. But the crimes and incompetences of the great military leaders had heen hushed up. Pétain's World War I reputation was a fake.

One of the first to warn of the military danger from Germany was General Charles de Gaulle, of the French Army. He foresaw that blitzkrieg would be the logical result of the new German tactics. As early as 1934, he published a book urging the need to adopt regulations similar to those of Germany. In his opinion a mechanized force of 100,000 men, using the German method, could easily defeat a force several times its size, but not equipped or trained as the German Army was. The French General Staff did not favor radical changes.

Daladier asserted: "General De Gaulle systematized the [armored] doctrine with an incomparable brilliance, but, in my opinion, was mistaken to tie his concept to a professional army. For as much... as I understand the need for armored divisions, I say that I am hostile to the creation of a professional corps of 100,000 men that risks being engaged in an offensive adventure..."

Paul Reynaud's ambition was to become another Clemenceau. Reynaud was a campaigner for a Franco-German entente based on economic co-operation and was re-elected in 1928 for Paris and made his name as a representative of free-market conservatism on the one hand and (after the rise of Hitler) a vigorous anti-Nazi foreign policy on the other. An opponent of appeasement, Reynaud became a strong supporter of the military ideas of Charles De Gaulle. One of the first to advocate firmness towards Mussolini and Hitler, he had in 1935, when addressing the Parliament, praised a project for a professional army conceived by de Gaulle. His opposition to appeasement and to the Munich agreement was forceful but ineffective and his plea for an alliance with Stalin's Soviet Union also found no takers and made him enemies on the right.

In June 1934, in the face of the threat which Germany under the Nazi regime constitutes, the USSR sought alliances near the Western democracies. This new policy was concretized by the signature of a pact of mutual assistance with France in May 1935. At the same time, Moscow required the Communist parties to make alliances with the national bourgeoisies against Fascism. This policy produced Popular fronts in Spain, in Belgium, in Greece, in the United States, in Chile, in India, in Indo-China, in Philippines, and in China. On 27 July 1934 a unity pact was concluded between the Socialist and Communists parties in France. It stressed the fight against Fascism and envisages the organization of campaigns and common meetings.

Laval's early political sympathies were with the Socialist Party of Jaurès, but after the Great War he began a journey away from the left. He was certainly a man who had convictions. He believed in conciliation between nations and classes, justly proud of his record in settling industrial disputes. Above all he loathed war. He had a loathing of communism -- and of its headquarters, the Soviet Union. After serving as minister of labour in 1932, Laval held the ministry of foreign affairs (1934-1935), in which office he concluded a mutual military assistance pact with the Soviet Union. In June 1935 he once more became premier and minister of foreign affairs.

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Page last modified: 11-07-2011 02:58:41 ZULU