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Money Problems, Prosperity, the Military and Charles de Gaulle

In France, as in Britain, conditions were not right for a Leninist model revolution. The Great War was over and people could express their frustrations by voting, and where people could vote they were not about to take up arms to enforce their political opinions. The status quo in France was strong enough to defeat with any Leftist coup, and by 1924 France was enjoying the beginnings of economic recovery. Its capital, Paris, was attracting people from around the globe. Students, teachers, artists, and tourists were arriving from abroad, spending their money and becoming a valuable source of income for the nation.

The United States dollar went further in France than it did in the United States, and many Americans interested in the arts flocked to Paris, escaping what to many appeared to be the aridity and narrowness of American culture. This included some American black veterans, who found in France less of the discrimination that they had experienced in the United States. And with them came Jazz.

One problem that remained in France was the same problem that Italy had before Mussolini took power: an unstable parliamentary government. At the beginning of 1924 the government could not repay its short-term debts. For money with which to pay government debts, parliament finally approved a plan to raise taxes, and taxes fell hardest on those with modest incomes, while many with wealth took advantage of loopholes in the tax law. Having failed to convince the public that the increase in taxes was a necessity to be shared equally by all, the middle of France's spectrum of voters drove the conservatives from power. They were replaced by a leftist-moderate coalition government headed by Edouard Herriot, an eloquent former professor of literature.

Josephine Baker

Josephine Baker doing the Charleston in Paris in 1926. Colonial experience gave some French men an appreciation of black beauty. Many of the French also liked American jazz. But many, including women, saw it as a threat to "white civilization." (Wikimedia Commons)

The new government favored more state controls over the economy. And the new government appeared less absorbed by anti-Communism and less given to hatred of Germany. The new government extended official recognition to the Soviet Union. It favored more of an accommodation with Germany, and it approved of a revision in reparation payments by Germany.

A major problem confronting the new government was inflation and the falling value of France's currency, the franc, which was not on gold as it had been before the war. And the new government was burdened by people of wealth who were sending their money abroad, accelerating the decline of the franc – while capital was badly needed at home to help finance reconstruction. The Herriot government asked Parliament for a law to control the flight of capital. It sought a shift of the tax burden more toward those with wealth. The great financial houses in France rallied against the Herriot government. Banks refused to make loans, and the press described Herriot's government as engaging in socialism and undermining the capitalist system. Parliament refused to approve a law limiting the export of capital, and capital continued to flee the country. Enough people shifted their sympathies away from Herriot that in April, 1925, his government fell.

In the fourteen months that followed, other governments were formed and fell. And financial chaos continued. Hooked on the notion that reparation payments from Germany would relieve the money problem, the government continued to borrow. By 1926 the government treasury was empty, and again the government could not repay its short-term debts. The franc was at a new low – 50 francs to one American dollar. There were French who saw Americans as having plotted the franc's fall, and there were a few attacks on busses filled with American tourists. But more common were crowds of women storming department stores and small shops, rushing to convert their falling francs into durable goods.

Conservatives and Prosperity

The French nation responded to the emergency by bringing Raymond Poincaré back to power as prime minister. (premier). Poincaré cut government spending and raised taxes. He balanced the budget and paid off government debts. The franc recovered, and, in 1928, Poincaré pegged the franc at 25 to the dollar (20 percent of its prewar value). And the franc was then tied to gold, as it had been before the war. And with the economy improving, the government's treasury in 1929 reached a surplus of 90 billion francs. The French were enjoying prosperity, built largely by private initiative and partly by the government having ended wartime restrictions. France's economy was benefiting from factory methods imported from the United States – which had at first been resisted by France's labor unions. And France's agriculture had been adopting more scientific methods, with agriculture remaining prosperous and as France's greatest source of wealth.

The Military and Charles de Gaulle

Meanwhile, military service had been reduced to one year. Many were leaving the military because of low pay. Some in the military high command were opposed to giving up horses, and men in the high command were rejecting what they considered "utopian" thinking about mechanized warfare. They were ignoring or were at odds with one of France's brighter junior military officers, Charles de Gaulle, a teacher of history at France's military academy, Saint-Cyr, and a provocative writer on military subjects. In 1927, after twelve years without a promotion, de Gaulle, at the age of thirty-seven, was finally elevated to the rank of major.

While de Gaulle was being ignored, France's military planners won approval for a new defensive line, called the Maginot Line, consisting of tons of steel and concrete, which was to span the length of France's border with Germany. France's military leadership was fighting the war in 1914-17 again, when defensive warfare was supreme. They had missed the point then, and they were still confused. Warfare was still changing. World War II would be mobile as was the war in Western Europe near its close. The Maginot Line was without much defensive value.

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