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10-08-2015, 22:16

FRANCE: EXPECTATIONS OF GRANDEUR

The history of France for nearly a quarter century after the war was dominated by one man, Charles de Gaulle (1890 –1970), who possessed an unshakable faith in his own historic mission to reestablish the greatness of the French nation. During the war, de Gaulle had assumed leadership of resistance groups known as the “Free French,” and he played an important role in ensuring the establishment of a French provisional government after the war. But the creation immediately following the war of the Fourth Republic, with a return to a multiparty parliamentary system that de Gaulle considered inefficient, led him to withdraw temporarily from politics. Eventually, he formed the French Popular Movement, a political organization based on conservative principles that blamed the party system for France’s political mess and called for a stronger presidency, a goal—and role—that de Gaulle finally achieved in 1958. At the time of his election as president, the fragile political stability of the Fourth Republic was shaken by a crisis in Algeria, France’s large North African colony. The French army, having suffered a humiliating defeat in Indochina in 1954, was determined to resist demands for independence by Algeria’s Muslim majority. Independence was also opposed by the large French community living in Algeria. But a strong antiwar movement among French intellectuals and church leaders led to bitter divisions in France that opened the door to the possibility of civil war. The panic-stricken leaders of the Fourth Republic offered to let de Gaulle take over the government and revise the constitution. In 1958, de Gaulle drafted a new constitution for a Fifth Republic that greatly enhanced the power of the French president, who now had the right to choose the prime minister, dissolve parliament, and supervise both defense and foreign policy. As the new president, de Gaulle sought to return France to a position of power and influence. In the belief that an independent role in the Cold War might enhance France’s stature, he pulled France out of the NATO high command. He sought to increase French prestige in the Third World by consenting to Algerian independence despite strenuous opposition from the army and offered French colonies in Africa membership in a new French community of nations under French tutelage. France invested heavily in the nuclear arms race and exploded its first nuclear bomb in 1960. Despite his successes, however, de Gaulle did not really achieve his ambitious goals of world power. Although the cost of the nuclear program increased the defense budget, de Gaulle did not neglect the French economy. Economic decision making was centralized, a reflection of the overall centralization undertaken by the Gaullist government. Between 1958 and 1968, the French gross national product (GNP) experienced an annual increase of 5.5 percent, faster than that of the United States. By the end of the Gaullist era, France was a major industrial producer and exporter, particularly in such areas as automobiles and armaments. Nevertheless, problems remained. The expansion of traditional industries, such as coal, steel, and railroads, which had all been nationalized, led to large government deficits. The cost of living increased faster than in the rest of Europe. Public dissatisfaction with the government’s inability to deal with these problems soon led to more violent ac- tion. In May 1968, a series of student protests, provoked by conditions in the country’s anachronistic educational system as well as the ongoing war in Vietnam, was followed by a general strike by the labor unions. Although de Gaulle managed to restore order, the events of May 1968 seriously undermined popular respect for the aloof and imperious president. Tired and discouraged, de Gaulle resigned from office in April 1969 and died within a year. During the 1970s, the French economic situation worsened, bringing about a political shift to the left. By 1981, the Socialists had become the dominant party in the National Assembly, and the veteran Socialist leader, François Mitterrand (1916 –1996), was elected president. Mitterrand’s first concern was to resolve France’s economic difficulties. In 1982, he froze prices and wages in the hope of reducing the huge budget deficit and high inflation. Mitterrand also passed a number of measures to aid workers: an increased minimum wage, expanded social benefits, a mandatory fifth week of paid vacation for salaried workers, a thirty-nine-hour workweek, and higher taxes for the rich. Mitterrand’s administrative reforms included both centralization (nationalization of banks and industry) and decentralization (granting local governments greater powers). Their victory also convinced the Socialists that they could enact some of their more radical reforms. Consequently, the government nationalized the steel industry, major banks, the space and electronics industries, and important insurance firms.

 

 

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