Defeat by the Germans, brutal German occupation and economic exploitation, the spectacle of French collaboration with the enemy—all this was followed by a liberation that, despite the part played in it by the Fighting French and the French Resistance movement, was clearly the work of American, British, and Soviet arms.
Nor had France since the early nineteenth century kept pace with the leading industrial nations in production, finance, or population growth. Only a rising birth rate gave cause for optimism. Hundreds of thousands of French men and women decided to have children—a clear sign of the recovery that lay ahead.
The arrival of nearly a million refugees from the colonial war in Algeria in 1962-1963 and the influx of almost 4 million foreign workers made France, already a cosmopolitan nation, even more so, and assured the nation a labor supply on which to base its rapid industrial expansion.
The French government-in-exile, led by General de Gaulle, had easily reestablished in liberated France the old republican forms of government, called the Fourth Republic. But after de Gaulle temporarily retired from politics in 1946, the Fourth Republic began to look like the Third. Cabinets lasted on an average only a few months; to the old splinter parties was added a Communist party of renewed strength, openly dedicated to revolutionary change. After nine years of war, Indochina was lost in 1954; in the same year an active rebellion against the French in Algeria; Morocco and Tunisia were both lost in 1956, and the crisis deepened.
In 1958 de Gaulle took power again. A plebiscite confirmed a new constitution. The constitution of the new Fifth Republic provided for a president to be elected for a seven-year term by direct popular vote. An absolute majority was required, and, if not achieved in a first election, was to be obtained in a runoff between the two candidates with the most votes.
Elected outright in 1958, de Gaulle was reelected to a second term in 1965 in such a runoff. Under the new constitution the French president appointed the premier, who could dissolve the legislature and order new elections at any time after the first year. Thus the new constitution gave the executive more power, the legislature much less.
De Gaulle’s enemies soon called him a dictator, the personification of French haughtiness and superiority. He was obstinate, opinionated, and authoritarian; yet he was also consistent, clear, capable, and utterly committed to creating a stable and progressive French state. He intended that France be taken seriously in world affairs.
To this end he fought to keep Britain out of the Common Market, worked to prevent American dominance in Europe, and sought to establish a creditable French military presence. He did not want to see France bled by further colonial wars, and though he believed strongly in the unity of all French-speaking peoples (seeking even to establish a separate cultural mission to the French-speaking people of Quebec), he nonetheless worked out a settlement making Algeria independent in 1962.
Starting with Marshall Plan aid in 1947, great economic and social changes began in France. A full-scale reorientation of the economy was undertaken in accordance with the practices of modern industry. Helped by foreign investment, especially American, France began to experience a real boom. Prosperity meant that for the first time the French, by the hundreds of thousands, bought cars, television sets, and record players; that they traveled in ever growing numbers; that they experienced fearful traffic jams; and that those who found the new ways unsettling blamed all the changes on the Americans.
Those who feared that France would adopt the new British-American culture emphasized the continuity, unity, complexity, and alleged purity of the French language, and looked for their own cultural influences to offset Americanization and “Coca-Colanization.”
De Gaulle retained a strong personal dislike of les Anglo-Saxons. The thought of such supranational bodies as the Common Market and NATO that could rob France of sovereignty even to a small degree was uncomfortable, and talk of a United States of Europe was totally unacceptable. He spoke instead of Europe des patries, a “Europe of fatherlands,” in which France would take the lead.
But to do this France must have its own atomic weapons. Therefore de Gaulle refused to join the United States, Great Britain, and the Soviet Union in a treaty barring atomic tests, and France continued to test nuclear weapons in the atmosphere, exploding its first hydrogen bomb in 1968. Vigorously opposed to communism at home, de Gaulle nonetheless came to terms with the Soviet Union; the Soviets, he argued, no longer represented the threat to the general peace that they had represented in the 1950s. In balancing the scales against the industrial and military power of the United States and Britain, France needed friends. To South America, to Canada, to Poland, and to Romania, de Gaulle carried his message that France would be the leader of Europe.
In the spring of 1968, however, while de Gaulle was in Romania, Paris erupted. The French universities had been ignored by the regime in a period when the young throughout western Europe were bursting with resentment against “the machine civilization” of the cold war society. Students in Paris occupied university buildings, fought the police, and eventually drew a reluctant Communist party into the battle in order that it not lose the support of the French workers, who had already begun to strike in sympathy with the students.
De Gaulle returned to Paris, assured himself of army support, proposed a referendum, which he was obliged to abandon in favor of new elections, and then won a great victory at the polls, obtaining larger majority in the legislature than before. His new minister of education, acknowledging the legitimacy of many of the grievances of the students, pushed through the legislature a reform bill decentralizing the educational system. De Gaulle now staked his political future on the issue of regional reform in a public referendum—and lost. As he had done before, he withdrew into private life. In the 1969 elections the Gaullists were returned to office with a substantial majority, and Georges Pompidou (1911-1974) became president of France.
France now entered more readily into competition rather than confrontation with its former allies. To make the French more competitive, the franc was devalued. The veto against Britain’s entry into the Common Market was abandoned, and, without rejoining NATO, France began more formal cooperation with it. An economic recession began in 1973, however, and public confidence wavered.
France returned to governments that could administer programs only with the help of complex coalitions, as the aristocratic Valery Giscard d’ Estaing (1926– became president. Fearful of the left, and ultimately beset by political scandal, Giscard did not press the social reform his platform had promised. From 1972 to 1977 the Socialist and Communist parties formed a common front to oppose the right and center parties, but the communists withdrew in 1977.
In 1981 an able Socialist party regular who had worked to broaden the socialist base by weakening the communists, their traditional enemies, won the presidential election. This man, Francois Mitterrand (1916– ), brought four communists into his cabinet and announced plans to nationalize certain sectors of industry. At the same time, Mitterrand took a strongly anti-Soviet stance over the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan, which had begun in December 1979.
He declared himself committed to a mixed-enterprise economy and to cooperation with the Americans in their efforts to renew disarmament talks while seeking to base a nuclear missile force within Europe. In 1986 France began a graduated process of industrial privatization, achieved by 1993, and in 1995, Mitterand retired.
France was one of the first countries to face the problem of large-scale immigration from former colonies, followed by substantial new immigration from politically unstable, repressive, or poverty-stricken states. At first France accepted Muslim immigrants from North Africa and French-speaking blacks from sub-Saharan Africa, but by the 1990s public opinion was turning against the influx of immigrants, many of whom were in fact refugees.
In 1993 France restricted entry and passed laws making it possible to expel foreigners more easily. In the meantime the same problem—that of international “boat people”—became serious in the United States, to which thousands of Cubans and Haitians were fleeing. Germans% attractive to workers from the Balkans and Turkey, experienced anti-immigrant rioting.
Britain had long since closed its doors to much Commonwealth immigration, especially South Asian and West Indian. France thus joined other Western nations in turning to more restrictive policies in the face of a worldwide problem that no one nation could solve and that calls for action from the United Nations barely seemed to touch.