France lost 1,322,000 men in World War I – the greatest percentage in war dead relative to population of any of the belligerents. More than 125,000 of its military men had lost an arm or a leg, and 42,000 had been blinded. France emerged from the war with a large government financial obligation to those disabled by the war, to the 600,000 who had been made widows by the war and to more than 750,000 orphans. France had a labor shortage in its cities and its farmlands. Millions of acres of farmland had gone out of production. Like Britain, France had been an exporter of capital before the war and had become a borrower during the war. After the war, France continued to suffer rising prices, with real wages below what they had been in 1911.
With a labor shortage, France's labor movement was in a stronger bargaining position. And with the economic devastation and the hunger that many unionized workers felt at the end of the war, organized labor was eager to drive for improvements. Many in the labor movement were encouraged by the Bolshevik Revolution, believing that the revolution indicated that the "bourgeoisie" were vulnerable against the strength of worker unity. Like workers elsewhere just after the war, France's labor movement believed in remedy through strikes, and in 1919 and 1920 labor strikes rocked the nation. French workers won the eight-hour workday and a shortened workweek. But they also helped retard France's economic recovery.
The labor movement and the Bolshevik Revolution frightened France's middle class. Many from the middle class had been angered by the Bolsheviks having confiscated French-owned property in Russia and by the Bolsheviks canceling debts owed to the French people who had invested their savings in tsarist bonds – a portion of the 50 percent in foreign investments that the French had lost because of World War I. The Bolshevik confiscations had energized the anti-Bolshevism of France's prime minister, Clemenceau and France's president, Raymond Poincaré. A large section of France's population was anti-Communist. Many associated Communism with the labor movement. And, for the sake of order, many supported government action against the Left. France had become a divided nation.
France had a quick succession of prime ministers. Clemenceau was attacked for not getting more for France at the Paris Peace Conference, and he resigned as prime minister in January 1920. Poincaré's term as president ended a month later. Clemenceau was followed as prime minister by Alexandre Millerand, who was adamantly opposed to labor strikes. Then came the short reign of Georges Leygues as prime minister. And in January 1921 Leygues was followed in turn by Aristide Briand's return as prime minister.
While Briand was in office, the economy continued to decline, and the French were upset with Germany's apparent stall in making reparation payments, which the French wanted for reconstruction. Briand was a man of the Left and an internationalist, and to many French people Briand appeared too soft on the Germans. Briand was forced to resign in January 1922. And following Briand as prime minister was the former president, Poincaré, who also became minister of foreign affairs and was expected to be tough on the Germans.
The Poincaré government introduced financial reforms, and it tried to hold down taxes in order to increase incentives and rebuild the economy. French chemical, textile and metal trades began to recover and advance. France needed to import workers and did so mainly from Italy, Belgium and Spain – people who took the more menial jobs and were resented by most people because they were foreigners.
New technical schools were established. And the French spent billions to repair their nation's war-torn northeast, where factories, farmlands, roads, railways, public buildings and homes had been destroyed and mines flooded. Production in 1919 had been fifty-seven percent of what it had been in 1913, and by 1923, under Poincaré, production rose to 87 percent of that level.
In 1923, parliament turned down an attempt by Poincaré to raise taxes to cover government expenses, which put the country on a course of living beyond its means. Meanwhile in Lorraine, which France won from Germany at the Paris Peace Conference, the French were acting like colonizers and alienating its inhabitants. Lorraine had been integrated economically with Germany and now it was suffering.
Copyright © 1998-2014 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.