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Economic Middle Ground: Understanding France in the wake of the Great War

Updated on April 24, 2012
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Often overlooked in the study of economic failures and successes in the wake of the Great War, is the country of France. We often focus on failures such as Soviet Russia, the uprising of the Nazi Party in Germany, the turmoil that Spain faces in the 1930s, the economic slump that Great Britain faces in the 1920s, [1]the United States in their, “Roaring Twenties,” and depression in the 1930s. France often is overlooked because it truly is the middle ground of war consequences. It was not all or nothing for the country of France, because there were successes and failures within the country itself. Much of the countryside had to be rebuilt; whereas Paris stayed afloat as an island of stability.[2] The story of France mirrors very much that of the United States, and their stories are similar because in a couple of instances they are a cause and effect of each other. America generally takes the limelight for her rise and fall during this time period, leaving French history on the same topic in the shadows. In 1920’s French life was decent, but just because the French government lives comfortably for a time does not mean that they are immune to the world’s economic depression,[3] it just takes longer for it to set in. We will discuss multiple reasons as to why depression was delayed. Unfortunately, the late arrival of their depression meant that it lasted longer than other country’s post-war depression. French economic depression sets in middle to late 1929, as the United States stock market crashes. Call it bad timing or call it a deadly combination, but the event of an economic French slump in June 1929[4] and the United States economic failure that same October does not leave a very big margin for success for the country of France. In the course of this paper, the aim is to understand the extensive effects that the Great War has on the world but more specifically on the French economy in the 1920s leading through the 1930s. F. Lee Benns and Mary Elisabeth Seldon state, “France emerged victorious from the first World War only to find herself beset by numerous and perplexing problems. Some of these were solved without too great difficulty, but others produced such differences of opinion among the French people that stalemate and national paralysis at times resulted.[5]” Let us delve into the depths of this statement and discover the easy fixes and hard issues that France experienced in between the two World Wars and what lead to her eventual devastating depression. The aim of this paper is to understand the middle-ground of consequences that France had to endure during this time and what they did as a whole to try to repair their beloved country.

What was the first problem that they had to face? It was that of reconstruction. This was the first aspect that damaged the French economy. There was a great amount of damage done to the country during wartime, mostly in the north and the east countryside.[6] The question then became what France will they rebuild? They are starting with a semi-clean slate and the citizens are well aware that France can never fully be what it once was.[7] They must then decide what areas to focus on and how they would like to achieve their goal of reconstructing their country. The French government promises her people that “losses occasioned by war were to be reimbursed by the state as a matter of right.[8]” As admirable of a promise as this was, it definitely was a few steps back in their economy seeing that the prices of material have nearly quintupled since their promise to the people in 1914. An example of this is, by summer of 1921 the French government had spent over 20,000,000 francs in efforts of restoration.[9] In an attempt to offset some of this cost, the French government rallied up the public and convinced them or somewhat brainwashed them into believing that it was their patriotic duty to aid this cause. The government sold Reconstruction Loans through banks that the government paired up with. An example of a bank that was used was the Crédit du Nord[10] and their company name can be found on many of these loan papers. These loans were for about six percent and helped with reconstruction. As they made strides forward they were also taking backward bounds. The instability of the government made wages decrease and prices to skyrocket. This all relates to the opening quote, “differences of opinion among the French people that stalemate and national paralysis at times resulted,” this section of the quote is speaking on the strikes that began to occur during this time, due to unstable wages. Workers that worked on the railways felt this quite heavily and in return they held several strikes. Within the two years of 1919 and 1920 France suffers 3,926 strikes, 2.4 million strikers and a widespread revolutionary spirit[11]. However, there was the issue of German reparations. Through all of the Reconstruction, France hoped that much of the expenditures would be repaid by Germany. These payments began to flow in to the French government in the summer of 1921. This was truly France’s saving grace or so it seemed at the time. Their economic slump may have hit much quicker if it is not for the German’s aid. Unfortunately, Germany’s aid was not secure and was a bit sporadic or non-existent at times. Prices began to rise again. In a fight against this, the budget of recoverable expenditures was absorbed into the national budget.[12] This helped France out due to the simplification of finances that this brought about. However, all of this mass spending had not caught up with the country yet. As spoken of above, the economic slump did not show its face until June of 1929. France was barely staying afloat as she was trying to keep her promises to her loyal citizens.

Second aspect that we must analyze is the effect of unemployment on European countries at this time, and how it works in favor of France in this instance. This aspect of French government can definitely be counted as a success for France. There are two reasons that support this reasoning and we will discuss them as follows. Firstly, France houses a large number of immigrated workers. These workers were present in order to aid with the lack of workers during the Great War.[13] Their presence helped the French economy out considerably through the trying times of the war and was a great opportunity for people who were in surrounding countries who were out of work. Upon the French soldiers return, French government halted most new immigration and those who have consequently lost their jobs simply returned to their home country. This left France with a consistent amount of available workers and puts them in a much better position than most countries are facing at this time. This left France with a much lower percentage of unemployment than other European countries during this time period. In January of 1934, unemployment was around 332,000 but just one year later it peaked at 503,000 which was still only 4.3 percent of France’s population.[14]Although many women lost their jobs during this time, it did not affect their families too harshly seeing that their jobs are only lost to their husbands, the same amount of money was flowing into each household. Secondly, countries such as Germany or Great Britain’s economy weighed heavier on mass-produced goods than the French economy.[15] France weighed heavier on agriculture. When the depression hits, the agricultural realm is hit pretty hard and the price of crops such as wheat and wine plummet quiet significantly. Wine prices fall by about 60 percent and wheat prices are down about 40 percent.[16] However, organized labour even within the community of agriculture, continued to thrive during this time against all odds. In this aspect, France was not doing as well as her surrounding countries. It is not the best conditions but the country of France keeps fighting for economic survival no matter what.

Thus far, we have discussed one aspect of French economic failure and one aspect of French economic success. Now to be presented is a topic that falls perfectly under the title of, “middle ground.” After the war, as Paris attempted to start anew, she pushed many of her industries and factories into the suburbs.[17] This lends itself to the sporadic success of France as a whole. This action is filed under sporadic because this action helped the improvement of the city of Paris but on the flipside it also caused many suburbs to be degraded and left much of the French countryside impoverished. These industries were pushed into the suburbs because in the 1920s Parisian suburbs were growing exponentially. The higher the number of inhabitants grew the higher the number of available workers existed. With a plethoric amount of people, a shift of industries into the suburbs seemed like the perfect solution for the economy at the time. Unfortunately, this led to an area that was prone to Communist attraction. Less than perfect working conditions combined with poor living conditions made it the perfect spot for Communist infiltration. This then led to a downfall of the 1930s. However, the city of Paris held on for as long as she could as a major capitol. She never lost that title, but it definitely started to look a little different than it had previous to the war. In an effort to save the city and provide housing within Paris, the government enacted an office that had been around since 1914. This was known as the Public Office for Cheap Housing. The war had put this office’s efforts on hold; but as Paris was trying to salvage herself this office comes in as the perfect solution. These housing sections were seven-story buildings that were made like the economy option of a new car. It served its purpose, it was built well, but there was nothing extra or fancy about it. All of these buildings were made of red brick and came to be known as the “red-brick” belt of Paris. Many new places of residence were created as well for the upper class, but the government did not neglect the poorer population and provided for them as well.[18] These living conditions were not perfect by any means but they are better than what individuals had before and during the war as far as city living was concerned. It was not until the late 1930s did many of these resident homes have electricity and most still are not hooked up to the main city sewer system at this time. The city had to fill in her new boots. It was just a slow and steady process that was an era of trial and error. Although it she was facing turbulent times, a testimony to the city of Paris staying afloat was that in June of 1919 the Treaty of Versailles was signed in the city of Paris. This document is a major component of European history and it was signed within the city limits.[19] To elaborate on the success of Paris during this time, let us discuss a small fraction of the social aspects that she offered during this time. Paris continued to be a hub for artists and authors within the confines of the 1920s. This is finely documented with the event of the Exposition of the Decorative Arts in 1925. This event helped with consumerism within the city and highlighted the decent times that Paris was experiencing. The city continued to hold such expositions even through the tough times in the 1930s, but none of these events measured up to the grandeur of the expositions in the 1920s. This launched the style of art-deco as the official unofficial style of the war period. From there it took off all over the world as a new style in the art world. It has had a lasting effect and it can all be traced back to 1925 in Paris. This is just one more example of how Paris was doing alright during this time.

France was stepping into a new European order that was birthed from the end of the Great War. The Central Powers had collapsed with the end of the war ushering in a new European era.[20] Although some aspects were negative, economically speaking it was almost better. Or at least better off than most European countries and it least through the 1920s. Those may be a lot of contingents but the facts still are the same. Upon the arrival of 1929, a babied France could hardly cushion the blow of change. The collapse of the French economy was a new experience for shocked French citizens. The French historian, Seignobos wrote, “not even during the French Revolution had the state dealt such a blow to private property…[21]” France was a country and culture who prided herself in deep-rooted traditions and values and a loss in the economic realm caused French citizens to suffer in new arenas. An example of this would be the entertainment industry, because it was not a lack of talent but a lack of finance that caused industries to decline. They still pushed through and produced many great artist, authors, athletes, and scholars but they just had to work a little harder at the time to get to where they are. Sacrifices had to be made from every citizen. After living out nearly a decade of semi-lavish lifestyle, this was not an easy change for Frenchman. This may have been another reason that the depression lasted so long in France is because her citizens had such trouble adjusting. However, that is all speculation and it no one could ever know exact reasons why events fold out the way that they do. Earlier it was mentioned that the failure of the United States and France were a semi cause and effect of each other. When the United States’ economy crashed they recalled loans from other countries that were dependent on that money. European countries such as Germany based their economy around exports. Without a stable country to ship materials to, Germany itself soon collapsed. France seemed to survive this aspect because as mentioned above France was not as dependent of mass-produced goods as other European countries were at the time. [22] However, the world is one giant connected web and when one country or component fails then everyone suffers in some manner. France may not have felt the impact of the U.S. economy the same way that Germany had, but she still felt it in her own way. In this aspect, the United States failure was a small reason that the French economy subsequently failed.

The breadth and depth of this topic cannot fully be summed up not only in a paper but not even in a single book. This was just an overview of some aspects that led to success and failures that individuals most likely were not aware of. This is not a topic that is commonly discussed, but definitely should be. France experienced easy fixes and hard fixes to their economy during this time as we discussed. This topic is important because it helps us understand cause and effect. In the instance of the United States economy failing, French industries being pushed into the suburbs, France bringing in immigrants during wartime, and making promises that the government was unsure that they could keep, we see their effects. Everything has a cause and a consequence and it is important to understand the causes of failures in our past so that we can make a point to not repeat them. Also, that failures do not need to be viewed only as total failures. Much can be learned from the middle-ground consequences that France faced and understanding them is the first step in not repeating them.


[1] Hultquist, Clark. "The Road to War." History 411. The University of Montevallo. Jeter Hall. April 2 2012.

[2] Charles Sowerwine, France Since 1870: Culture, Politics and Society (New York: PALGRAVE, 2001), 138.

[3] F. Lee Benns and Mary Elisabeth Seldon, Europe: 1914-1939 (New York: Meredith Publishing Company, 1965), 311.

[4] Charles Sowerwine, France Since 1870: Culture, Politics and Society (New York: PALGRAVE, 2001), 138.

[5] F. Lee Benns and Mary Elisabeth Seldon, Europe: 1914-1939 (New York: Meredith Publishing Company, 1965), 301.

[6] Colin Jones, Paris: Biography of a City (New York: Penguin Group, 2004), 385.

[7] Charles Sowerwine, France Since 1870: Culture, Politics and Society (New York: PALGRAVE, 2001), 121.

[8] F. Lee Benns and Mary Elisabeth Seldon, Europe: 1914-1939 (New York: Meredith Publishing Company, 1965), 303.

[9] F. Lee Benns and Mary Elisabeth Seldon, Europe: 1914-1939 (New York: Meredith Publishing Company, 1965), 303-304.

[10] Alan Forrest, French History since Napoleon, edited by Martin S. Alexander (London: Arnold Publishers, 1999), 123.

[11] Charles Sowerwine, France Since 1870: Culture, Politics and Society (New York: PALGRAVE, 2001), 130.

[12] F. Lee Benns and Mary Elisabeth Seldon, Europe: 1914-1939 (New York: Meredith Publishing Company, 1965), 305-306.

[13] Charles Sowerwine, France Since 1870: Culture, Politics and Society (New York: PALGRAVE, 2001), 139.

[14] Charles Sowerwine, France Since 1870: Culture, Politics and Society (New York: PALGRAVE, 2001), 139.

[15] Charles Sowerwine, France Since 1870: Culture, Politics and Society (New York: PALGRAVE, 2001), 139.

[16] Julian Jackson, French History since Napoleon, edited by Martin S. Alexander (London: Arnold Publishers, 1999), 226.

[17] Charles Sowerwine, France Since 1870: Culture, Politics and Society (New York: PALGRAVE, 2001), 140.

[18] Colin Jones, Paris: Biography of a City (New York: Penguin Group, 2004), 394-395.

[19] J.P.T. Bury, France: 1814-1940 (London, Methuen & CO, 1985) 248.

[20] J.P.T. Bury, France: 1814-1940 (London, Methuen & CO, 1985) 249.

[21] J.P.T. Bury, France: 1814-1940 (London, Methuen & CO, 1985) 261.

[22] F. Lee Benns and Mary Elisabeth Seldon, Europe: 1914-1939 (New York: Meredith Publishing Company, 1965), 138- 339.

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