Four years of devastation

Four years of fighting in the First World War had left France a shattered country. Over a million Frenchmen had become casualties (1.4 million French soldiers dead, 4% of its population - between 27 and 30% of soldiers conscripted from 1912 to 1915 had been killed), whole towns and villages had been destroyed, industries wrecked, and entire tracts of the country had been turned into apocalyptic wastelands.

After the First World War, France – somewhat understandably – pushed for harsh terms on the Central Powers – and particularly Germany. Its Prime Minister, Raymond Poincare, advocated strong action against Germany and it was during his tenure of office that the Ruhr Valley in Germany was occupied by French troops – a clear reminder to the German population of the French Governments attitude towards Germany. This was partly motivated by previous humiliations the French had suffered after being on the losing side of the 1871 war with Germany.

French prisoners of war during the First World War.

​One of the main considerations for France post-war, was its long-term security. They were acutely aware of the likelihood of future conflicts with their neighbour and rival, given the history of previous French-German conflicts, and were aware that Germany with a population of 67 million, outnumbered the 42 million French. They were always viewed as the main (and to some, only) enemy. 

A French propaganda poster from 1917, portraying Prussia as an octopus stretching out its tentacles and stating that "War is the National Industry of Prussia."

The Maginot Line

​As a result of these insecurities, the French invested huge sums in building a series of fortifications known as the Maginot line, strategically placed on the frontier between France and Germany.

Although imposing looking, they relied on any future German attack being launched directly on their border, rather than simply bypassing the fortifications and invading France via Belgium.

This would prove to be a costly miscalculation.

1930's colourised photo showing part of the Maginot line facing towards Germany.

The Locarno Treaties

​In 1926, Aristide Briand became Poincare’s Foreign Minister and unlike his superior, he felt that any attempts to keep Germany permanently supressed were bound to fail, and it was better to come to an understanding with their former enemy instead.

During this period, the Locarno Treaties were signed, allowing Germany to become a member of the League of Nations, and seeing the removal of occupation troops from Germany’s soil.

The New York Times, September 9, 1926.

Political instability

​One of the main problems that plagued France after the First World War was political instability. Its political system saw a wide range of groups vying for power which resulted in a series of unstable or weak governments. Between the end of the First World War and the start of the Second (a period of just over twenty years, the Prime Minister changed 38 times (with some individuals serving as Prime Minister on two of three separate occasions), with a range of different political ideologies finding themselves in power, and with varying degrees of success. 

French politics became increasingly chaotic, constantly moving back and forth between right and left, and seemingly without a clear objective.

Some notable examples that illustrate this ongoing upheaval were:

The aforementioned Raymond Poincaré, a centre-right politician, served three times as Prime Minister of France, the first time before the First World War.

His second term lasted two years (1922–1924) and his third three years (1926-1929). France’s ongoing financial issues resulted in him being voted of office in 1924 and ill-health forced his resignation and the end of his third term in 1929.

Paul Painlevé – a leftist politican - served twice as Prime Minister. His first term in 1917 lasted only 9 weeks, from September to November. His second term lasted a little longer: April – October 1925.

During this second brief term, he found himself unable to remedy France’s ongoing financial issues due to the devaluation of the Franc, and he was forced to resign.

Frédéric François-Marsal – served as Prime Minister for 7 days in 1924. With such a short term of office, it is unsurprising that there appears to be little in the way of political achievements attributed to him.

The right-wing Pierre Laval served as Prime Minister twice: His first term lasting just over a year (1931–1932) and his second around six months (1935-1936). His second term was cut short when he looked to contain the  threat posed by Hitler's Germany and pursued foreign policies favourable to Italy and the Soviet Union. But his handling of the Abyssinia Crisis, when his secret negotiations with the British Foreign Minister, Samuel Hoare, to help end the Second Italo-Ethiopian War by appeasing Fascist Italy (Hoare-Laval Pact) - were uncovered by the media, which forced his resignation.

André Tardieu, a moderate conservative served as Prime Minister three times – twice in the same year! – His first term of office (1929–1930) ended when he was deposed by Camille Chautemps – who lasted ten days - before Tardieu then returned as Prime Minister – serving from March to December in 1930. He then served again for four months in 1932. He introduced a program of welfare measures, including public works, social insurance, and free secondary schooling, and he encouraged modern techniques in industry. 

Leon Blum – the first Socialist Prime Minister – was in office twice during the 1930’s. His first term lasting a year (1936 – 1937) and his second a month (March – April 1938). He passed a series of reforms that improved worker’s rights, nationalised the arms industry, supported small and medium sized businesses, raised the compulsory education age to 14 and undertook a major public works programme. However, his attempts to adopt a neutral stance over the neighbouring Spanish Civil War led to his downfall and resignation in 1937.

Camille Chautemps, a Radical politician, became Prime Minister three times, his first brief time of office seeing him running the country for less than two weeks (1930). For his second term, he managed two months (November 1933 – January 1934) although by his third attempt, he had significantly improved on this by managing eight months. He was known as a skilful negotiator and successful as creating coalition governments although his second term of office was cut short when he was forced to resign due to being implemented in a corruption scandal known as the Stavisky Affair.

Such a revolving door of short-lived governments during the 1920’s and 1930’s go some why to explain why France was a divided and fractured country during this period. Additionally, corruption was rife and a constant problem as well. Internal bickering and disputes continually flared up, even as across the border, their traditional enemy Germany, was shaking off the shackles of the Treaty of Versailles, and growing in military strength. 

Members of the Popular Front - a coalition of Communists, Socialists, and other left-wing political parties which emerged in France during the 1930s to oppose the rise of Fascism, especially the Nazis in Germany.

Furthermore, France was struggling to balance the books financially, partly due to these weak or unstable governments being too cautious to raise taxes – less it resulted in them being voted out. The Great Depression of 1929 further aggravated these issues – as the U.S. President, Herbert Hoover, suggested a moratorium (temporary halt) on the reparation payments Germany were obliged to make as part of the terms of the Treaty of Versailles. A financially strapped France – who were one of the recipients of these payments, unsurprisingly objected to this, suspecting that the payments if suspended, would never recommence in the future (which turned out to be correct as they were cancelled altogether in 1932).

​Édouard Daladier

​Édouard Daladier became Prime Minister in 1938 and the last one before the outbreak of World War Two. He had recognised the growing threat from Hitler and attempted to take steps to counter it by speeding up French rearmament and attempting to honour the terms of the French-Czechoslovakia alliance (although eventually he was forced to agree to the terms of the Munich Agreement on 30th September).

Although Daladier was relieved to have avoided war, he felt that the agreement he had signed was a shameful treaty that had betrayed Czechoslovakia, France's most loyal ally in Eastern Europe.

Regardless of his actions, by this stage, thwarting an increasingly aggressive Hitler and his plans for European domination was increasingly likely to fail, and ultimately all the Munich Agreement achieved was to temporarily halt German ambitions. Unfortunately, the short delay provided scant opportunity for France to sufficiently strengthen its defences and make the appropriate military preparations, as events in 1940 would sadly demonstrate.