The Cold War--France

Figure 1.--Here German children in 1948 watch Franco-American war games on the Rhine. The press caption read, "Children watchFranco-American war games: German children standing on wrecked craft (left) watch French tanks move along bank of Rhine River, Aug. 17, during joint American and French maneuvers in Speyer area of Grrmany. On river is camouflagged U.S, barge manned by members of the 2nd Squadron of the U.S. Constabulary Regiment. The joint maneuvers were first held since war." Notice that the French are still using American Sherman tanks, which were basiclly obsolete in the final year of the War. The parents of these childrebn were watching the Allies as well. And it is at this point, early in the Cold War that the outcome of the Cold War was largely determined. The Americans and the West Germans launched a currency reform that would set the German Econonomic Miracle in motion and with it that of Western Europe. And in response, Stalin ordered a blockade of West Berlin. Truman's response was the Berlin Air Lift and it largely detrmined the outcome of the Cold War. Truman made it clear that the United States would neither backdown from Soviet threats or abandon the German people to Soviet tyranny. And West Germany's decesion to become an American ally and adopt both democracy and capitalism was the key pieces leading to the Soviet defeat in the Cold War. France was a fifferent matter. France became one of the founding member's of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). After DeGualle's election, however, France reduced its commiment to NATO and attempted to cut a separate deal with the Soviets.

The Cold War at its heart was a struggle for the soul of Germany. Here Stalin had undercut Soviet Cold War prosopects by the Red Army orgy of rape at the end of the War and reparations imposed in its eastern occupation zone and culminated by a brazen effort to seize West Berlin leading to the Allied Airlift. There were, however, two countries which might have voted in the Communists--France and Italy. This would have undercut American efforts to defend Western Europe. France was saved from going Communist by General DeGualle and the Free French Movement. The Cold War is often seen as a bi-polar struggle between East and West. The reality was much more complicated. France had been humbled by the Germans in World War II. After the War, France attempted resurrect its colonial empire. This led to two failed colonial wars (Vietnam and Algeria). In search of an indendent defense capability, France under General De Gaulle built an atomic bomb--the Force de Frappe. France also pulled out the NATO combined command. French leaders as a cornerstone of its foreign policy sought to develop a new relationship with Germany and out of that effort the European Union has grown helping to fashion a new Europe. The collapse of the Soviet threat has resulted in major shifts in the European-American relationship.

World War II: The Fall of France (June 1940)

The fall of France in June 1940 was a turning point in European history. France had since the Middle Ages been one of the leading powers in Europe. At times France under Louis XIV and Napoleon, France dominated Europe. The rapid defeat of the French Army by the German Army startled the world (May-June 1940). The French Army had been the cornerstone of Allied resistance to the Germans in World War I and had been seen as the most powerful military force in the world at the time. France's defeat in 1940 fundamentally changed the image of France in the world. France would continue to be important in the post-War world, but would no longer be seen as one of Great Powers and would not have a seat at the tow mahor conferences at the end of the War -- Yalta (February 1945)and Potsdam (July 1945).

Economic Recovery

The great hardships of the German occupation continued into the immediate post-War era. One of the principal problems confronting France after World War II was rebuilding the country's shattered economy. Unlike Germany and the German occupied East, however, war damage was relatively limited. The quick collapse of the French Army (June 1940) and the German Army (August 1944) meantg that a wide swath of the country was untouched physically by the War. That is not to say there ws not significant damage. The allies had targheted industrial plants supporting the Germn war effort such as Renault truck plants. Port citities supporting the U-boat effort were also targetted. A major dislocation was the agricultural economy. The most serious damage came from the Allied Transportation Plan designed to cut off German troops manning the Atlantic Wall in preparation for D-Day, bridges and railway infrastructures were a shables. Another report suggests that 1.2 million buildings were destroyed or damaged. [Asselain, p. 108.] Repairing the damage took several years. Because of of price and marketing controls as well as German seizures, many farmers withdrew from the market, chosing to reduce planting and acerage tilled. This meant serious harvest shortfalls in 1943-45. [Mouré, pp. 272-73.] This was something easily rectified. Farm infrastructure and farmers were not damaged and killed. Once farmers were able to obtain reasonable prices for their harvests. The industrial recovery was more difficult. France negotiated a treaty with the United States cancelled a large part of its still unpaid World War I debt, a sum amounting to some $2 billion. The arrangement was known as the Blum-Byrnes agreement (accord Blum-Byrnes) (1946). The agreement was negotiated by Secretary of State James F. Byrnes and representatives of the French government Léon Blum and Jean Monnet. Industrial reconstruction began even before the war ended (1945). French economic recovery was promoted by a baby boom which began even durung the German occupation (1942). We are not sure just why it began during the German occupation, I don't think this was the case for most other countries. The Provisional Government (PG) led by Charles de Gaulle and composed of communists, socialists and Gaullists, took many bold steps. We are not sure about the economic consequences of many of these actions. The PG nationalized key economic sectors (energy, air transport, savings banks, insurance companies ) and large corporations (such as Renault). They also created a Social Security system and works councils and set up a welfare system. he Commissariat général du Plan was created to begin national economic planning (1946). Jean Monnet is put in charge. The First Plan was the Plan de modernisation et d’équipement (1947-52). This focused on key economic activities (energy, steel, cement, transport, and agriculture equipment). Up to this time, French agriculture was largely unmechanized. The Second Plan had broader aims, dealing with housing construction, urban development, scientific research, manufacturing industries (1954-57). [Asselain, p. 112.] The Communist Party had gained great prestige during the WAr as a result of their role in the Resistance. The economic plight of the people created more support for the Party which in national multiparty elections ganered as much as 23 percent of the vote, making it one of the country's principal political prties and participated in various goverments.

Fourth Republic (1945-58)

The Communist Party had gained great prestige as a result of their role in the Resistance. The economic plight of the people created more support for the Party which in national multiparty elections ganered as much as 23 percent of the vote, making it one of the country's principal political prties and participated in various goverments. (The Communist Party today only commands about 4 percent of the national vote.) The provisions for proportional representation ensruned in France's new constitution led to a framentation of political power (1947). The result was short-lived governments based on unstable political coalitions of small contending parties. Goverments lassted for months and in somne cases only a few weeks. The Communists were at first the largest party, but not a majority and thus could not form a Government. The Communists in 1947 were expeled from the Government. Without the Communists, the Government coalitions became even more unstable because so many small parties were involved. The result was a series of unstable coalitions and short-lived governments. A large number of politicans held posts for short periods as governmnts wereforned and fell. A good example is Jean Lecanuet. This made major decisions on economic and poltical issues virtually impossible. The American Marshall Plan in 1947 helped France and other European countries revitalize their economies. This helped to prevent Communist success in Western Europe. Some of the major issues at the time were the relationship with Germany, France's role in the Cold War, the country's colonial empire, and the economy. General de Gaulle, Fance's first post-War leader retired, frustrated with the sitution and his inability to dominate the Government. The effort to restore colonial rule in Indo-China resulted in disaster at Dien-ben-Phu in 1953. France also attempted to maintain control over Algeria, but a bloody insurgency continued throughout the 1950s.

De Gaulle during and after the War

General Charles de Gaulle is the most important French political leader of the 20th century. His name today is averywhere in France and the former colonies (airport, streets, places, ect.). De Gaulle commanded an armored division in the first year of World War II. He refused to surrender after the German invasion in 1940. He escapd to France and organized the Free French resistance to the German's and the Vichy French Government colaborating with the Germans. He made inspired radio broadcasts to occupied France. De Gaulle quarled with both Churchill and Roosevelt who did not recognize his Free French movement as the Goverment of France. One point of contention was Vichy. De Gaulle wanted to attack Vicvhy wherever possible which until 1944 meant in the colonies. The British after destroying much of the French fleet at Oran, were more willing to deal with Vichy to prevent Vichy from entering the War on the Axis side. De Gaulle forced to depend on British and American aid and support felt slighted on many occassioins. After D-Day, however, his popularity helped him to quickly organize a government in the liberated areas.

The Communists

The Communists emerged from the War as the single most powerful political party in France. The Communists gained enormous prestige from their role in the resistance movement to the NAZI occupation. The French right wing was deeply involved in cooperating with the NAZIs through the Vichy regime. There was a danger after the War that France might even elect a Communist Government. De Gaulle's prestige was a major factor in preventing the election of a Communist Government. The Communist Partt would remain, however, an important political force abd coninues to play a rile ikn French politics today. We wonder about the thinking process of French Communists. Before the War, the oppresive nature of the Soviet regime was not fully understood. As the Cod War progressed, more and more information came out about Stalin's rule and the Gulag. And oppresive Soviet policies were wudely publicized, as a result of the Berlin Air Lift, the East German worker's riots, the Hunharian Revolution, and the Berlin Wall. We notice a postcard written home by a French Communist in Berlin named Claire. It is a fascinating little peace of Cold War history. We wonder if she really believed what she wrote or was trying to burish up her KGB file.

Colonial Wars

The Fourth Republic attempted to retain its colonial pssessions after World war II. It quickly pulled out of Syria, but fought two costly colonial wars in Indo-China (Vietnam) and Algeria. The fall of Diem-ben-phu ended the war in Indo-China (1953). The war in Algeria continued during the 1950s and was a major cause of the fallmof the Fourth Republic.

French Intelectuals

French intellectuals showed an embarassing and protracted sympathy for Stalin. [Judt] This is something that modern French intelectuasls would like to forget, but it is in fasct the case. I am not altogether why this was the case. Certainly the dominant ideolgical thread in French intelectual thought is leftist or socialist. Leftist thinlers tend to make excuses for leftist regimes just as rightist thinkers tend to excuse the excesses of rightest regimes. This tendency in also part explains the continued hositity of French intelectuals to the United States. Despite the barbarity of Soviet Communism and the descreiting of socialist economics, there is still a lingering left-wing orientation of many French intelectuals.

De Gaulle Out of Power (1946-58)

Charles deGualle, one man beginning as a lagely unknown genaral, vurtually monopolizing French politics for 6 years. After 2 years of Gernman ioccupation he becanme the soul of France. Largely by radio he capture he imagination and aliegence of the French people. Then after livertion, he aklmost dungle-hsndedly prevnted a Communist seizure of power. Then all of a sudden he was gone (1946). He literally dropped out of sight. He retired like Churchill to his home to write his war memoirs. De Gaulle sems to have forseen this. He told Pierre Bertaux before the end of the War that he planned to retire because "France may still one day need an image that is pure ... If Joan of Arc had married, she would no longer have been Joan of Arc". [Cate] His memoirs began, "All my life, I have had a certain idea of France (une certaine idée de la France)". [DeGualle, p. 1.] He compared France to an old painting of a Madonna, and ends by declaring that, given the divisive nature of French politics, France had no way of living up to this ideal without a policy of 'grandeur'. For more than a decade while DeGualle remained out of the lime light, but kept in contact wih his Free French political associates, including men involved in the effort to maintain control of Algeria. One observer described him as 'perhaps the best-informed man in France". ["Charles ..." Time.] De Gaulle out of power not only wrote his memoirs, he also worked on a new constitution with a much more powerful presidency. As the Algerian situation worsened, De Gaulle promised to solve it, but insisted on changes in the constitution.

Fifth Republic: President DeGualle (1958-69)

General Charles de Gaulle was called back by the French people (1958). He served as president until 1969. The Constitution was changed, strenhthening the presidency. He solved the Algerian population by withdrawing from Algeria and recognizing the country's independence. Almost all of the French colonists returned to France as well as Algerians who cooperated with France. The Fifth Republic proved much more stable than the Fourth Republic. Not only was there a strong president, but the political parties coalesed into larger units. De Gaulle governed through the Gaulist Party, a center right coalition. President de Gaulle wanted a more independent foreign policy for France. He was concerned about 'dirigism' (an economic doctrine in which the state exerts a strong directive influence) and isolation. Key elements of his foreign policy were nuclear weapons and a new role in NATO (OTAN). DeGualle believed that France would be better off with a more independent foreign policy. He was afraid that the Americans and Soviets were moving toward a nuclear confrontation. Apparently DeGualle decided that France could avoid the danger and secure a better arrangements from the Soviets on their own rarher than as part of a coalition tht may have to fight a nuclear war. Strangely for the tenanous World War II opponent of Vichy, it was hauntingly similar to what Pétain invisioned for a defeated France, striking the best deal possible with the NAZIs.

Paris Student Riots (1968)

The Paris student riots of 1968 played a major in ending the presidency of General de Gaulle. The May 1968 Paris student riots had a fundamental impact on French and Wider European society. A part of the impact was on fashion. Just as the War in Viet Nam was having a major imact on American society. The Paris Student Riots are now seen as a major watershead event in France. As Charles Dickens put it about an earlier French Revolution, "They were the best of times, they were the worst of times. Surely the virtual open warfare in the strrets of Paris during those May days shattered the old order in France more surely than any popular uprising since the Great revolution of 1789. Students and police clashed around burning cars and barricades. Half the French work force struck in solidarity-freezing the gears of a society which at the time was enjoying record prosperity. As a result, the mighty Charles de Gaulle fell from what had seemed a presidency for life. Other popular movements were underway that Spring. The U.S. anti-War movement, the Prague Spring, and violence on campuses from Japan to Italy to Mexico. A new world order seemed at hand. The events are relatively unrecognized in America as we were in the grips of our own national upheaval.

Independent Foreign Policy

Successive French governments have continued de Gaulle's independent forign policy.

Soviet relationship

President Pompidon visited the Soviet Union in 1970. Breshnev visited France in 1971. [? 1973 importante economic science and technic reinforcement.] Brejnev and President Pompidou meet again in 1974. President Giscard d'Estaing vists the Soviet Union in 1975 and important bcontracts are signed. The Soviets by 1982 are the leading supplier of gas to France.

America and Europe

The collapse of the Soviet threat has resulted in major shifts in the European-American relationship. France has played a leading role in promoting a new European relationship with America. There are of course significant differences within Europe on america. Many of the European nations that were once Communist satellites tend to view America in more positive terms. One of the major issues between America and Europe is the use of militay force.

America and France in the 21st Century

We have attempted to assess French foreign polivies during the 21st centuries. We understand that France is persuing a policy of "multipolsrity". This certainly a reasonable and defensable world view. We understand there is a substantial difference of opinion between America and Europe on a range of issues. We have discussed these on the HBC page on America and Europe. There appears to be more, however, involved in statements about America made by President Chirac. We understand that political motivations may be involved. Chirac may be triangulating. As a center-right politican, by attacking America, he defuses attacks by the French left. One cpomment by President Chirac in particular struck me. He embarassed Primeminister Blair by suggesting publically that the split with America would not easily be repaired because "our American friends" do not "pay back favors". This appears to be the modern version of "perfidious albion".) Now the issues between American and Europe are real issues and I would be the last to suggest that eitherside of the Atlantic has a monopoly on truth or virtue. I do wonder how a French President can view the 20th century and say that America does not pay back favors.


Asselain, Jean-Charles. Histoire économique de la France du XVIIIe siècle à nos jours.

Cate, Curtis. "Charles de Gaulle: The last romantic," The Atlantic (November 1960).

DeGualle, Charles. Mémoires de guerre.

Judt, Tony. Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945 (Penguin Press, 2005), 878p.

Mouré, Kenneth. "Food rationing and the black market in France (1940–1944)," French History (2010) Vol. 24, No. 2.

"Charles de Gaulle," Time (January 5, 1959).


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Created: February 27, 2003
Last updated: 3:26 PM 10/14/2018