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In this lesson, we explore the rebuilding of the entirety of French society in the decades after World War II, from the economic recovery aided greatly by the United States to the changes in the structure of French government.

Post-War France

Most people know someone who has had a house fire. It’s a terrible thing to have happen. Even if the entire house doesn’t burn down, nearly everything is ruined by smoke and water damage. Entire families end up having to start all over.In France, at the end of WWII, this situation existed all around the country, only the devastation was even more complete as families lost members and their entire life savings, and politically, France had been turned upside down by the German occupation. The most important question facing France in 1945 was how to rebuild France – from its homes to its entire government – largely from scratch.

France in WWII

France joined Great Britain in declaring war on Germany in 1940 only months after Germany invaded Poland to begin WWII.

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The same year, Germany invaded France, and the poorly supplied and disorganized French forces offered little resistance on the French mainland. By June 1940, for instance, Germany had such sufficient control of Paris that Hitler comfortably toured the French capital. By 1942, Germany had full control of all of France, and what French forces remained in North Africa operated in conjunction with British and American forces there.The fighting that liberated France, beginning with the D-Day invasion of the coast of Normandy on June 6, 1944, was some of the fiercest of the war. As Allied forces pushed the German lines back across France, the French countryside was devastated.

France emerged from WWII technically victorious alongside its American and British allies, but the German occupation and intense fighting of the war left French society, its economy and infrastructure utterly ruined.

Post-War Recovery and Politics

Immediately after the war, nearly all of France exhibited the devastation of the war. Major thoroughfares were bombed out, making transportation impossible, and its once great cities had been reduced to rubble.

Those French who had survived the horrors of war were living on little actual food, as the countryside had been stripped clean of food by the retreating Germans. Inflation skyrocketed and the French economy was virtually nonexistent.In response, the United States rushed to French aid, and France became one of the largest recipients of U.S.

Marshall Plan aid, a program which gifted huge sums of cash to Western European countries to help rebuild European infrastructure. While the money was certainly intended to rebuild Europe, it was also intended to kickstart capitalist economies and markets in Europe, hoping to give the United States trading partners on the continent and ward off the spread of communism from Eastern Europe.After WWII, many of the leaders of the French government that had collaborated with the Nazis, nicknamed Vichy France, were imprisoned for treason.

In its place, the provisional government first instituted by French statesman and commander Charles de Gaulle in North Africa took control of French affairs. The provisional government made preparations for a Constituent Assembly, which drew up a new French Constitution. The Constitution reinstalled many institutions of France prior to WWII, including a powerful National Assembly.

After the Constitution went into effect, de Gaulle resigned as French president, fully expecting to be reelected. Instead, the French government in the 1940s and 1950s elected a series of socialist and centrist coalition governments. The resulting coalition governments were wracked by indecision caused by the diversity of political opinions within the National Assembly and the inability of any party to gain a majority of seats.Regardless of the political instability, the French economic recovery continued unabated, encouraged by the substantial economic contributions made by the U.S. through the Marshall Plan.

Additionally, France began cooperating with its regional partners in Western Europe, hoping to both avoid future military conflict and encourage economic growth throughout the region. Indeed, France was a founding member of the six-state European Coal and Steel Community in 1951.The ECSC facilitated the movement of the key industrial components of coal and steel throughout Western Europe and removed trading restrictions between the participating countries. The success of this agreement fostered the later creation of the European Economic Community, which in turn became today’s European Union.

France was also a founding member of both the United Nations and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).

Decolonization and de Gaulle

As France was rebuilding domestically, nationalist movements were growing in French colonies in Africa and Asia. France’s colonies were incredibly important to the psyche of the French people, and, as a result, France resisted the independence movements in its colonies. The French people viewed their colonies paternalistically, believing the French had a duty to improve and modernize the foreign lands under their control. Furthermore, the empire was an important part of the French national identity, and its possible collapse spurred fears of a decrease in France’s relevancy internationally.As a result, France fought harder than other European countries to maintain its colonies abroad. For example, French forces fought guerrilla movements for over a decade after WWII in French Indochina (present-day Vietnam).

In addition, France fought a bloody war in the 1950s in Algeria that cost hundreds of thousands of Algerian lives. Indeed, Algerian independence was not recognized until 1962 and even then was so unpopular among the French that it led to several assassination attempts on President Charles de Gaulle’s life.The Algerian War was so controversial that it led to a political crisis in France. Facing the possibility of civil war breaking out over the Algeria situation, the French Parliament insisted Charles de Gaulle return as president of France.

He was elected president by France’s Parliament in December 1958, and parliament also granted de Gaulle the power to radically alter the French Constitution as he saw fit.Over the following decade, de Gaulle reorganized the French government, maintaining the French Parliament but concentrating most real power to enact change into his own hands. Regardless, he was reelected in 1965, and de Gaulle maneuvered internationally to improve French influence abroad. He reached out to cooperate with other French-speaking countries and even tried to develop better relations with countries in Eastern Europe under Soviet influence. As NATO and the UN were largely dominated by the United States and the United Kingdom, he lessened French involvement in those organizations and continuously blocked the UK’s attempt to join the European Economic Community out of fear it would decrease French regional influence.

In 1969, de Gaulle organized a national referendum, which would reform the upper house of the French government, the Senate. If the reforms were not accepted by the French people, de Gaulle claimed he would resign. True to his word, de Gaulle stepped down soon after the referendum was defeated. His legacy remained, however, and de Gaulle’s chosen successor, Georges Pompidou, was elected president the same year.

Lesson Summary

The devastation wreaked in France by WWII was nearly total. Its infrastructure and economy were ruined, its cities destroyed and the French that had survived the German occupation had little to eat and often even less money.

France was greatly aided in its recovery by a huge influx of U.S. cash through the Marshall Plan. Marshall Plan aid stimulated the rebuilding of the French countryside and the growth of French industry, and France helped itself through increased European economic integration.However, the rebuilding of the French economy could not stop France from losing her colonies.

With the once mighty French Empire so important to the French psyche, France fought hard to hold onto her colonies, only relinquishing Algeria and Vietnam after long and bloody conflicts. Without its colonies, French international influence survived through the patriotic foreign policy maneuvers of the regime of Charles de Gaulle, who changed the very structures of the French republic.

Learning Outcomes

After finishing this lesson, you should be able to:

  • Describe conditions in France immediately following WWII
  • Understand the significance of the Marshall Plan to rebuilding France
  • Recall that France lost some colonies during the rebuilding phase
  • Discuss the influence of Charles de Gaulle on the French Republic

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