France in the Modern Era (1830–Present)

In many respects, a three-day Paris revolution in 1830, which installed Louis Philippe as king, marks the beginning of the modern era for France. In that year, the country began to rebuild an overseas empire, as the conquest of Algeria began. Important political changes occurred as well, including a reduction of lavish living by kings and the endorsement of more civil liberties.


During the eighteenth century, the steam engine-powered Industrial Revolution began in Britain. Adopted in France during the nineteenth century, the economic revolution introduced mass manufacturing and railroad building and saw the growth of financial institutions. France rapidly became the world's second-leading industrial power, after Great Britain. French-manufactured products such as silks, gloves, and porcelains became widely recognized abroad and prized for their high quality.

Cities expanded, and a swelling laboring class reacted with socialism to capitalists' exploitative treatment of employees. For various reasons, discontent grew not only among factory workers, but also among the peasants, the ruling class, and the well educated. An economic crisis in 1848 led to another brief revolt in Paris, forcing Louis Philippe to abdicate; a Second Republic, with universal male suffrage, was declared. The new president, Louis Bonaparte—a nephew of Napoleon I—proved not to be a democrat, however, and declared himself President for Life in 1851 and then Emperor Napoleon III the following year. Unfortunately, Napoleon III did not possess many of his famous uncle's talents.

One of the emperor's few real achievements was the physical transformation of Paris into a city whose grandeur reflected Napoleon III's self-image. Broad boulevards and new monuments (such as the Opera) were built, helping create the striking city that we know today. Much of the metropolis was modernized and sanitized. Elite and middle-class residences congregated near the city center. The outskirts were left largely to the workers, forming a “red (socialist) belt.” This pattern persists to the present, although today middle-class residence in the outer suburbs has become increasingly common.

The Second Empire saw the takeover of Nice and Savoy (1859), as well as of overseas possessions such as parts of Indochina and of West and equatorial Africa. France also was involved in the construction of the Suez Canal, completed in 1869. Dark days loomed, however. Germany, formerly a collection of small independent states but now uniting under the Prussians, was becoming an expansive power to be reckoned with and even feared. France's provinces of Alsace and Lorraine were vulnerable, because they were substantially German-speaking. In 1870, battle broke out.The French were roundly defeated.Napoleon III was captured and deposed, Paris was taken, and a harsh peace was imposed in 1871. Germany annexed Alsace and much of Lorraine. This Franco-Prussian War was the first act in the modern military struggle between these two powers, especially over the key iron and coal deposits of the border regions.World Wars I and II were to be the second and third acts.


After the fall of Napoleon III, a Third Republic was declared, which lasted until 1940. Although the political system merely tottered along much of the time, with very frequent changes of government (110 in 70 years), this was an era of great events and great changes.

After the Treaty of Berlin in 1880, in which the European powers agreed to carve up Africa among themselves, France's new empire expanded greatly. Eventually, it grew to include some 3 million square miles (7.7 million square kilometers), making France the world's second-greatest colonial power after the United Kingdom. Commerce went hand in hand with colonization, governance, and attempts to impose French language and culture on the native peoples of the conquered areas.

At home, modernization of farming progressed, leading to increased rural prosperity and better nutrition. Running water, gas, electricity, and telegraph offices became common in cities. Canals, railways, and roads expanded, and in 1900 Paris's Metro (subway) was opened. Factories multiplied in the coal districts of the north (steel, chemicals, and automobiles) and around Lyon (textiles). A symbol of this was erection of Paris's Eiffel Tower (1885–1889), made entirely of steel beams and rivets. Trade unions were legalized in 1884.

During the period 1890 to 1914, prosperity widened, as did consumerism. Newspapers became widespread, and both literature and art flourished. Social programs slowly progressed. “Naughty” public entertainment, such as the “can-can” dancers at the Moulin Rouge cabaret, also flourished. Some people expressed concern over what they saw as increasing decadence. With railroads to provide transport, wintertime resort towns on the French Riviera boomed.

The Catholic Church vigorously resisted the growing modernism of thought, social relations, politics, and lifestyle. But an increasingly freethinking society made church, the monarchy, and harsh authoritarianism increasingly irrelevant. The institution of public (as opposed to religious) schooling, with instruction in French, further eroded conservative church influence and boosted bourgeois values and a sense of national linguistic, social, and political unity.

The brief period of stability and prosperity came to a brutal end in August 1914, when World War I broke out. France had been angered by its humiliating loss of the Franco-Prussian War and wanted Alsace-Lorraine back.Many people were worried by the rise of socialism, high living, and atheism. A war, some believed, could rekindle a sense of serious national purpose.

In World War I, France, Britain, and Russia (The Triple Alliance) fought the central powers of Germany and AustriaHungary. The combatants became bogged down in trench warfare. Tanks, poison gas, and limited aerial bombing were used for the first time. Casualties (including from disease) were horrendous; the world had never seen such carnage. The Triple Alliance won—France retrieved Alsace-Lorraine and gained Germany's African colonies of Togo and Cameroon, but the costs were incalculable. France suffered 1,385,000 combatant deaths, 2,850,000 soldiers disabled, and another 450,000 imprisoned or missing. Some 200,000 civilians died as well, not to mention millions of farm animals.Much of northern France was devastated. Almost a million buildings were demolished, half of the country's industry was destroyed, and transport lines were badly disrupted. Nearly an entire generation of young men was wiped out or left physically or emotionally handicapped. France had become a nation of widows and spinsters (women who never marry). Enormous quantities of resources had been squandered, and war debts were high; the franc declined and taxes rose. The French received huge war-damage payments from Germany, but the resulting German bitterness worked to France's detriment a few years later.

As the war ended, France was struck by another shock—the Spanish influenza epidemic of 1918–1919 killed some 166,000 people in the country. In order to encourage population recovery, starting in 1920 medals were given to women for having numerous children. During the war, many women had joined the work force, but the lack of younger men nevertheless led to a need to import foreign labor. These practices contributed to social divisiveness and the Communist party split from the Socialists. The 1920s saw the rise of radio and of labor-saving devices. Also, in 1929 the Maginot Line—a defense against potential German invasion—was authorized. The effects of the Great Depression were felt during the 1930s, and despite incentives the birthrate dropped. Leftist governments introduced various social reforms, but rearmament began as well. Unfortunately, the 1920s and 1930s proved to be only a brief “time-out” in the Franco-German conflict.


Following World War I, the Treaty of Versailles (1919) had disarmed Germany. Under Adolf Hitler's Fascist Nazi regime in the 1930s, however, Germany began to rearm and then to expand its territory at the expense of its neighbors. Fascist Italy, under Benito Mussolini, soon allied itself with Germany to form the Axis. Militarily unprepared to oppose the Axis, Britain and France signed the Munich Agreement recognizing the German seizures. But in 1939, matters escalated to a war footing. Until 1940, little happened on the battlefield; the German and French armies glared at one another from behind the fortified Siegfried and Maginot defensive lines. But then, German tank units, with air support, struck like lightning.

The Germans made a ten-day run around the end of the Maginot Line, through neutral Belgium. Now nearly encircled, French and British troops escaped only by sealift from the channel port of Dunkerque (Dunkirk), involving thousands of private boats. The Germans reannexed Alsace and Lorraine and occupied northern and Atlantic France. Ten million French refugees fled before them. The puppet Vichy government (named for the southern town of Vichy) was set up to administer the south. But soon, Germany also occupied Vichy France. Jews were persecuted, and many French were removed to Germany to become forced laborers.

These outrages fueled the Resistance (Maquis), which although involving no more than 1% of the population, nevertheless carried on significant spying and sabotage against the occupiers and helped downed Allied airmen to escape. Many maquisards were Communists.

Meanwhile, a former junior war minister who had escaped to England with other French troops began to exert his influence. Charles de Gaulle formed the French Committee of National Liberation and convinced the military in a number of colonies to join this Free French movement. Following the Allies' “D-Day” invasion of Normandy on June 6, 1944, Paris was retaken. It was General de Gaulle who led French troops into the city in triumph.

Allied forces took Germany, and in May 1945 the war ended. The Allies (United Nations) occupied Germany (with the French authorities in the Saar Valley and the Rhineland), and Alsace and Lorraine were returned to France. In the fighting, the Free French had lost 167,000 soldiers. Half a million buildings had been destroyed, including most northern factories. Much of northern France's agricultural breadbasket was a moonscape of bomb and shell craters.And there were bitter reprisals against those who had collaborated with the Germans—around 10,000 traitors were executed and 35,000 were imprisoned.


After the war, the task of reconstruction received crucial help from the United States in the form of aid from the Marshall Plan. Some social progress occurred in France.Women finally received the right to vote (1944), and a social security program was instituted (1945). The conservative de Gaulle, who had ruled from 1944, stepped aside in 1946, and the new Fourth Republic nationalized some key industries. No political party held a majority. Governments came and went (25 in 13 years), with various coalitions among Communists, Socialists, centrists, and rightists. De Gaulle remained on the sidelines; although many feared that he would seize power again in order to stabilize politics, this did not occur.


World War II had changed much of the world. Colonies began to clamor for their independence and the war-weary great empires were breaking up. Rebellions broke out in Madagascar and French Indochina. In the latter, Communist Vietnamese rebels (Viet Minh) thrashed the French at Dien Bien Phu in 1954. Between 1946 and 1977, France granted independence to most of its former possessions, including those in Indochina, although it did retain several former colonies. Some newly independent former possessions became members of the French Community. Member countries (in an arrangement similar to the British Commonwealth of Nations) maintained some weak links to France and received preferred economic status. France continues to have military pacts with some and to give aid to all.

Postwar decolonization proceeded well enough in most areas, with Indochina being a major exception. France, however, was loath to grant independence to its North African possessions, especially to Algeria (an overseas department), since a million ethnic French resided and owned property there.Many, in fact, had been born there. These pied noirs ('black feet,' that is, Europeans with their feet in Africa) considered Algeria to be their home and were fearful of the consequences should an Arab government take over. Nor was France anxious to absorb this large population. In 1954, Arabs of the Front de Liberation Nationale (FLN) began attacks on the French.

The war in Algeria became increasingly one of terrorism, torture, and other appalling atrocities on both sides. When France showed signs of negotiating with the FLN, military leaders attempted a coup against the Paris government. Charles de Gaulle was called out of retirement and given emergency authority to deal with the crisis. A new constitution was drafted in 1958, instituting the Fifth Republic, in which the president had much greater powers. There was no practical way to retain Algeria, so de Gaulle wisely granted the country independence in 1962.Many French conservatives, however, believed this to have been a traitorous act. Some dissidents engineered assassination attempts against the president, and the OAS (Organisation Armee Secrete) attempted another coup, bringing France close to civil strife. By the end of the Algerian War, some 20,000 French and several hundred thousand Arab Algerians had died. About 800,000 “black feet” did relocate in France, particularly in the South.


In 1949, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) was formed to create a deterrent to the growing threat of the Communist bloc—the Soviet Union, People's Republic of China, and the Eastern European Soviet satellites. The “Cold War” and nuclear threats continued to throw a shadow over people's sense of security. France developed its own nuclear-bomb capability (1968) and withdrew its forces from NATO's military command. This withdrawal was part of a French policy that indulged in some political nose-thumbing at the country's allies—particularly the United Kingdom and the United States.

For three decades following World War II, France experienced greater political stability, a rising birthrate and lowered deathrate, and the world's highest economic-growth rate. Economic growth involved state economic planning, protectionism, and close cooperation between government, financial institutions, and businesses (including nationalization of some companies).

An agrarian society was transformed into an industrial one. Tractors greatly increased per-capita production on farms. The resulting decrease in rural labor requirements contributed to massive migration to cities. Plumbing, appliances, and telephones became widely available. A system of superhighways was initiated. Supermarkets began to replace small grocery businesses. Two million laborers were attracted from Portugal and Spain, and another half-million came from North Africa. Leisure activities were encouraged, second-home ownership rose, and five-week vacations were mandated. The dingy gray buildings of smokegrimed Paris were given a bath, from which they emerged refreshingly “new.” Yet, low-rent housing for workers, working conditions, and the quality of education were poor. In May 1968, for these reasons and others (including as a protest against the U.S.-led Vietnam War), Paris exploded. Students and workers began rioting in uprisings that shook the nation. The tense situation was made worse by police overreaction. After the riots, the city covered many of its stone-paved streets with asphalt so future rioters could not pull out paving stones to use as missiles. Some reforms followed, although there was a conservative backlash as well. De Gaulle retired (for a second time) the following year.

In 1951, France and West Germany signed the Coal and Steel Treaty, designed to share the border-country resources that had more than once provoked war. Then, in 1957, the Treaty of Rome created the free-trade Common Market among six Western European countries. Over the following years, membership has expanded, economic rules have become more comprehensive, and the political role has become increasingly prominent. The name changed to the “European Economic Community,” then to the “European Community,” and is now the “European Union.”

In 2002, most members adopted a new and shared currency, the euro (C= ). Primary goals of this partial confederation include eliminating risk of further European wars and creating a body strong enough to compete with economic and political giants such as the United States. and Japan. France has been the dominant member, although recent expansion of membership (to 25 at this writing) has somewhat diluted its influence.

From the mid-1960s, France's fortunes were generally less positive than during the previous three decades. A declining birthrate had advantages, but it also lowered consumer demand and thus prosperity. Industrial production declined, unemployment rose, and the OPEC-generated petroleum crisis of 1973-1974 hit France hard. The country had little domestic oil, and imported three-quarters of its petroleum. As a result of this crisis, France elected to develop nuclear power, despite its risks.

For some time, the Fifth Republic's governments had been conservative. In 1981, however, the country took a sharp turn to the left. A new Socialist president, Francois Mitterand (1981–1995), nationalized most major industries, insurance companies, and banks. Fully a quarter of the economy was in government hands. Increased economic regulation, plus greatly expanded and expensive social-services programs, led to monetary inflation, low industrial growth, and soaring unemployment. Soon, even many French Socialists sought to replace leftist ideological decision-making with a more pragmatic approach (including encouragement of private investment in shares of nationalized companies to staunch the outflow of funds).

The 1980s and 1990s saw dramatic rises in automobile and television ownership, but crime also jumped as unemployment soared to 12%. Rising crime, in turn, stimulated a right-wing, anti-immigrant political backlash, especially under the leadership of Jean-Marie Le Pen. Nearly a third of France's people are either immigrants (8%) or descendants of immigrants.

Under Mitterand, Europeanization accelerated and anti-Anglo-Saxon sentiment diminished—although a 1977 law against franglais (English words entering the French vocabulary) remains on the books. The Maastricht Treaty of 1992 paved the way for European political and monetary integration. In 1994, the undersea Channel Tunnel (“Chunnel”) was built near Calais, to connect the rail systems of Britain and France. In 1995, a fairly conservative government under President Jacques Chirac, former mayor of Paris, took the presidency back from the Socialists. One trend under Chirac has been further deregulation and continued privatization (begun in 1986) of most companies nationalized under the Socialists. Some changes have been required by the European Union. Yet, a close relationship between state and private industry continues.