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9-08-2015, 21:10


The German Empire symbolised to contemporaries in 1900 discipline, union and progress; France was generally seen as a country divided, whose politicians’ antics could scarcely be taken seriously, a society sinking into corruption and impotence. The malevolence of that corruption had been demonstrated in the highest reaches of the army, the Church and politics by the Dreyfus affair, the innocent Captain having been found in 1899 yet again guilty of espionage. The slander against the Jews living in France achieved a degree of viciousness not seen anywhere in a civilised country. Only Russia could compete. Yet, the better-off flocked to France. Paris was acknowledged as perhaps the most beautiful city in the world, certainly the artistic capital of Europe. The Riviera was becoming the holiday playground of European society. Foreigners, of course, realised that there was more to France than the surface glitter of Paris and the Riviera. Few of them could understand a country so varied, so divided and so individualistic. Governments changed so frequently that in any other country such a state of affairs would have meant the nation was close to chaos, ungovernable. Yet, in everyday life, France was a stable country with a strong currency, and well ordered. Europe with monarchs and princes looked askance at republican France with its official trappings derived from the revolution of 1789. Yet France was far more stable than it seemed and by 1914 had achieved a quite remarkable recovery as a great power. Can we now discern more clearly how government and society functioned in France, something that mystified contemporaries? The key to an understanding of this question is that the majority of French people wished to deny their governments and parliaments the opportunities to govern boldly, to introduce new policies and change the course of French life. France was deeply conservative. What most of the French wanted was that nothing should be done that would radically alter the existing state of affairs in town and country or touch their property and savings. Thus the Republic became the symbol of order, the best guarantee of the status quo against those demanding great changes. The monarchist right were now the ‘revolutionaries’, something they had in common with the extreme left. One explanation for this innate conservatism is that France did not experience the impact of rapid population growth and rapid industrialisation. For close on half a century from 1866 to 1906 the occupations of the majority of the working population altered only gradually. Whereas in 1866 half the working population was engaged in agriculture, fisheries and forestry, by 1906 it was still nearly 43 per cent. Employment in industry during the same years scarcely changed at all, from 29 per cent to 30.6 per cent. The tariff protected what was in the main a society of small producers and sellers. In industry small workshops employing less than five people predominated, as did the old, established industrial enterprises of clothing and textiles. But this is not the whole picture. Productivity on the land and in industry rose. New industries such as electricity, chemicals and motor cars developed with considerable success. France possessed large iron reserves in French Lorraine which enabled it to become not only an exporter in iron but also a steel producer. Large works were built at Longwy on the Luxembourg frontier, and the Le Creusot works rivalled Krupps as armament manufacturers. Coal mining in the Pas de Calais developed rapidly in response, but France remained heavily dependent on Britain and Germany for coal imports to cover all its needs. Production figures show that France, with a fairly stable population, was overtaken dramatically as an industrial nation by Germany, whose population increased (see tables above). For this reason France’s success in maintaining its position in exports and production, judged per head of population, can easily be overlooked. In one respect – the provision of capital finance for Europe – France won first place, and the large proportion of its total investment overseas that went to Russia between 1890 and 1914 became a major factor in international relations. The majority of the French people did not wish to face the fact that new problems were arising that required new solutions; they saw the ‘defence’ of the Republic in terms of combating the political aims of the Church and the army. But in the early twentieth century the growth and concentration of industry and a new militancy among groups of workers also threatened the Republic from the left. The majority groups of the parliamentary lower Chamber were determined to defeat these threats from the extreme right or the left. Political power depended on the management of the elected Chamber; governments came and went, but the legislation prepared by the Chamber provided the necessary continuity. Actual office was confined to a number of leading politicians who reappeared in ministry after ministry. In this scheme of things few Frenchmen cared how many ministries were formed. Their frequency, in itself, was a healthy obstacle to too much government, for Frenchmen had singularly little faith in their politicians. There existed side by side with the elected government an administration with an ethos of its own and which had little connection with the democratic roots of government. This centralised administration had been little modified through all the constitutional change since its creation in 1800 by Napoleon. It made the head of state the chief executive, while the prefects were the state’s representatives and administrators in each of the ninety geographical departments into which France was divided. They were appointed, and could be transferred or dismissed, by the Ministry of the Interior. The prefects dealt directly with each ministry and on the whole kept aloof from politics; they were hand-picked administrators who carried out the decrees of the state. Each prefect in his department had his own administration which could be appealed against only by putting the case to the Council of State in Paris. The prefects were not, of course, elected; they deliberately did not grow local roots but represented, in theory at least, an impersonal justice. They were powerful men who controlled enormous patronage in their department; they could make appointments to many paid posts from archivists to some grades of schoolteachers, tax collectors and post-office staff. They stood at the head of the social hierarchy, and were a guarantee of stability and conservatism. In this way France was at one and the same time both highly centralised but also decentralised; for the ordinary French citizens ‘government’ in practice meant what the prefect and his administration did, not what was happening in far-off Paris. France has had the good fortune to attract to this type of higher administrative service, over a long period of time, many capable men. The Republic stood for the defence of property and a well-ordered, static society. At the same time it was identified in the minds of its supporters as the bastion of the enlightenment and so, curiously, despite their frozen attitude towards the desirability of social change, republicans saw themselves as the people who believed in progress and the modern age. This was only possible because they could identify an ‘enemy to progress’ in the Church and its teachings. More passion was expended on the question of the proper role of the Church and the state during the first three decades of the Third Republic than on social questions. In every village the secular schoolteacher represented the Republic and led the ranks of the enlightened; the priest led the faithful and the Church demanded liberty to care for the spiritual welfare of Catholics not only in worship but also in education. Republicans decried the influence of the Church as obscurantist and resisted especially its attempts to capture the minds of the rising generation of young French people. The Church was supported by the monarchists, most of the old aristocracy and the wealthier sections of society; but ‘class’ division was by no means so complete and simple as this suggests: the Church supporters were not just the rich and powerful. The peasantry was divided: in the west and Lorraine, they were conservative and supported the Church; elsewhere anti-clericalism was widespread. In the towns, the less well-off middle classes and lower officials were generally fervid in their anti-clericalism. Their demand for a ‘separation’ of state and Church meant in practice that the Church should lose certain rights, most importantly, its right to separate schools. The Catholic Church in France by supporting the losing monarchial cause was responsible in good part for its own difficulties. In the 1890s the Vatican wisely decided on a change and counselled French Catholics to ‘rally’ to the Republic and to accept it; but the ralliement was rejected by most of the French Catholic bishops and the Church’s monarchist supporters. The Dreyfus affair polarised the conflict with the Church, the monarchists and the army on one side and the republicans on the other. Whether one individual Jewish captain was actually guilty or not of the espionage of which he stood accused seemed to matter little when the honour of the army or Republic was at stake. Dreyfus’s cause united all republicans and they triumphed. In May 1902, though the electoral vote was close, the republicans won some 370 seats and the opposition was reduced to 220. There then followed three years of sweeping legislation against the Church. Church schools were closed wholesale; a number of religious orders were banned; in 1904 members of surviving religious orders were banned from teaching. In December 1905 a Law of Separation between Church and state was passed. This law represents both the culmination of republican anti-clericalism and the beginning of a better relationship. Freedom of worship was guaranteed and, despite the opposition of the Vatican, the bitter struggle was gradually brought to a close. Anti-clericalism declined, and the monarchist right lost its last opportunity of enlisting mass support with the help of the Church. Extreme anti-clerical governments were now followed by more moderate republicans in power. French governments before 1904 remained dependent not on one party but on the support of a number of political groupings in the Chamber; these groups represented the majority of socially conservative voters: the peasants who owned their land, shopkeepers, craftsmen, civil servants and pensioners with small savings. Governments were formed around groups of the centre, sometimes veering more to the ‘left’ and sometimes to the ‘right’. But ‘left’ in the French parliamentary sense did not mean socialism. Once the predominant groupings of radical republicans had succeeded in defeating the Church, their radicalism was mild indeed. They stood for defending the interests of the peasant land proprietors, the shopkeepers, the less well-off in society; their socialism went no further than wishing to introduce a graduated income tax. The radical republicans were not, in fact, in the least bit radical but were ‘firmly attached to the principle of private property’ and rejected ‘the idea of initiating class struggles among our citizens’. Their reforming record down to 1914 was indeed meagre. Even progressive income tax had to wait until 1917 before it became effective. Socialism developed late but rapidly in France. Jean Jaurès and the more orthodox Marxist, Jules Guesde, led the parliamentary party, which gained 103 deputies and 1 million votes in the elections of 1914. But they never shared power with the parties of the centre for two reasons: the Socialist Party adhered to the line laid down in the International Socialist Congress of 1904 by refusing to cooperate in government with bourgeois parties, and in any case it was excluded by all the anti-socialist groups, which could unite on this one common enmity. Besides the extreme left, the extreme right was also ranged against the Republic. From the debris of the Dreyfus case there had emerged a small group of writers led by Charles Maurras who formed the Comité de l’Action Française. Under the cloak of being a royalist movement, Maurras’s ideas were really typical of some aspects of later fascism; fanatically anti-democratic and anti-parliamentarian, he hated Protestants, Jews, Freemasons and naturalised French people. An aristocratic elite would rule the country and destroy the socialism of the masses. The Action Française movement could not really appeal to the masses with its openly elitist aims. Yet, it appealed to a great variety of supporters. Pius X saw in the movement an ally against the godless Republic; its hatreds attracted the support of the disgruntled, but it did not become a significant political movement before the war of 1914. The Action Française movement enjoyed notoriety through its daily paper of the same name, distributed by uniformed toughs, the so-called Camelots du roi; uninhibited by libel laws, the paper outdid the rest of the press in slander. Far more significant than right extremists was the revolutionary workers’ movement known as syndicalism, which emerged during the early years of the twentieth century. The factory worker had become a significant and growing element of society between 1880 and 1914. The trade unions, or syndicats, really got under way in the 1890s. Unlike the parliamentary Socialists, the syndicalists believed that the worker should have no confidence in the parliamentary Republic, which was permanently dominated ‘by the propertied’. The unions were brought together in the Confédération Générale du Travail (CGT). By 1906 the CGT firmly adhered to a programme of direct action, of creating the new state not through parliament but by action directly affecting society; its ultimate weapon, its members believed, would be the general strike. They accepted violence also as a justifiable means to bring about the ‘social revolution’. The attitude of the CGT had much in common with the British phase of revolutionary trade unionism in the 1830s. Although most workers did not join the syndicalist CGT – only some 7 per cent in 1911 – nevertheless with 700,000 members their impact was considerable; they organised frequent violent strikes which were then ruthlessly put down by the army. The syndicalists declared they would not fight for the Republic and on 27 July 1914 demonstrated against war. Socialism, by being divided as a movement – for syndicalists rejected any community of interest with parliamentary Socialists – was much weakened in France. The result was a deep alienation of a large group of working men from the Third Republic. The defence of the fatherland, the almost unanimous patriotism in 1914 against the common enemy, was to mask this alienation for a time. The assertiveness of France in the wider world stands in remarkable contrast to the conservatism of French society at home. The national humiliation and defeat at German hands in the war of 1870–1 did not turn France in on itself, the growing disparity between French and German power after 1870, whether looked at in terms of population or industrial production, did not, as might be expected, inhibit France’s efforts abroad. The choice confronting France towards the end of the nineteenth century was clear. A policy of reconciliation and trust in imperial Germany could have been followed. This would have been based on the fact that Germany had not exploited its superior strength for twenty-five years to foist another ruinous war on France. Alternatively, France could follow a deterrent policy. Unable ever to be strong enough to match Germany alone, it could with the help of an ally contain it by making the chances of success for Germany in war much more hazardous. This was the policy generally followed by the governments of the Third Republic after 1890. They first sought an alliance with tsarist Russia and, after its conclusion in 1894, made its maintenance the bedrock of French foreign policy. The alliance made it possible for France to continue to conduct policy as a great power despite its relative inferiority in population and production. Reliance on good relations with Germany would have made it dependent on Germany’s goodwill, a weaker and in the end junior partner as long as relationships were seen purely in terms of national power. The path to the alliance with Russia was smoothed by the large loans raised on the Paris money market which Russia needed for its industrial and military development. From close on 3,000 million francs in 1890, they rose to 12,400 million francs in 1914, representing between a third and a quarter of the total of France’s foreign investments. The defensive military pacts concluded in 1892 and 1894 survived all the strains of the French– Russian relationship down to 1914. The Russians after all were not keen to risk a war with Germany over France’s imperial ambitions and the French did not want to become embroiled in war over Russian Slav ambitions in the Balkans. At crucial moments of tension support for each other was half-hearted. Therefore, it made good sense to reach settlements with Britain in Africa and, more than that, offer support against Germany. That became the basis of the Anglo-French entente concluded in 1904, never an alliance but, nevertheless, an increasing British commitment over the next ten years to assist France militarily if threatened or attacked by Germany. Britain made good its promises during the two Moroccan crises of 1905 and 1911. The year 1912 was also critical in French history. Raymond Poincaré, a tough nationalist, impeccable republican, orthodox anti-clerical and conservative in social questions, became premier, and subsequently president in 1913. Army appropriations were increased; even so in 1913 the French army of 540,000 would be facing a German army of 850,000 if war should break out – a catastrophic prospect. To reduce this gap a bill lengthening service in the French army from two to three years became law in 1913. The French Chamber had turned away from the left Socialists, and the army became more respectable in the eyes of the leading politicians in power, as it had proved a valuable and reliable instrument in crushing strikes and revolutionary syndicalism. Poincaré was determined that France should never find itself at the mercy of Germany. A strong alliance with Russia became the most cherished objective of his diplomacy. So he reversed earlier French policy and assured the Russians in 1912 that they could count on French support if their Balkan policy led to conflict with Austria- Hungary; if Germany then supported its ally, France would come to the aid of Russia. This was a most significant new interpretation and extension of the original Franco-Russian alliance of 1894; it ceased to be wholly defensive. Poincaré also encouraged the Russians to reach naval agreements with the British. Against the growing power of Germany, Poincaré saw that France was faced with a grim choice: either to abandon its status as a great power and to give in to German demands (the manner of their presentation had been amply demonstrated during the Moroccan crisis of 1911) or to strengthen its own forces and draw as close as it could to its Russian ally (even at the risk of being sucked into war by purely Russian Balkan interests) and to the British entente partner. In staff conversations the Russians in 1912 agreed to resume their offensive military role and to start their attack on East Prussia on the fifteenth day of mobilisation. France had come through its years of ‘risk’ giving up very little. The other side of the coin is that imperial Germany had not exploited its military superiority during the years from 1905 to 1911 by launching a so-called ‘preventive’ war. The years from 1912 to 1914 marked a vital change. Fatalism about the inevitability of war was spreading among those who controlled policy, and ever larger armies were being trained for this eventuality on all sides of the continent. With Poincaré as France’s president, Russia would not again be left in the lurch by its ally whenever Russia judged its vital interest to be at stake in the Balkans and the Ottoman Empire. But French diplomacy conflicted increasingly with public sentiment. There was strong domestic opposition to strengthening the army; foreign dangers, the left believed, were being deliberately exaggerated by the right. On the very eve of war in 1914, the French elections gave the majority to the pacifist groups of the left. But it was too late. Poincaré’s support for Russia did not waver during the critical final days before the outbreak of war and was a crucial factor in the decision the tsar and his ministers took to mobilise, which made war inevitable in 1914.