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France at the end of the 19th century


Jules Guesde
Jules Guesde

The appearance of the new right was accompanied by the emergence of a larger, more effectively organized left, in the form of labor unions and the Socialist Party, formally called the Section Française de l’International Ouvrière (SFIO). The largest labor association was the General Labor Confederation (CGT), founded in 1895, which claimed nearly a million members by World War I. Its leaders were suspicious of political parties and leaned toward a strategy of revolutionary anarchism that called for strikes, sabotage, and boycotts to improve the lot of workers.

This program competed fiercely with the strategy proposed by the Socialist Party, which called for putting political pressure on the state to raise wages and improve working conditions. The Socialist Party was formed when a workers’ association led by Jules Guesde joined a political faction led by socialist scholar, journalist, and politician Jean Jaurès. The Socialist Party, which adopted Marxist revolutionary language, was winning more than a million votes at the polls and had elected 100 deputies to the legislature (close to 20%) by 1914. Although workers saw their real wages double between 1894 and 1914, they gained little from state initiatives. The industrial working class remained a minority of the population, and democracy continued to forestall socialism, even in a regime whose heart was on the left.

France’s colonial empire


During the early years of the Third Republic, France’s colonial empire grew. Algeria had already become a French colony in 1830, and by the end of the century Algeria had a European population—only half of it French—of 665,000 people. Under Louis-Philippe, Tahiti and the Comoro Islands were added to the French Empire.

Under Napoleon III, the French acquired Cochin China (part of present-day Vietnam) and protectorates over Cambodia and Senegal.

In the 1880s, a fresh round of imperialist expansion occurred as France gained colonies in Tunisia, the Congo, Indochina, and Madagascar. Over the following two decades, France expanded its empire in China and throughout West Africa, nearly coming to blows with Britain in 1898 over conflicting claims in the Sudan. The crisis was settled amicably, and the resulting improved relations paved the way for French military alignment with Britain in Europe.

By contrast, colonial expansion only inflamed relations with Germany, which sought unsuccessfully to frustrate French expansion into Morocco, where France established a protectorate in 1912.

Economically, French colonialism was problematic. Exports to the colonies represented only about 13 percent of all French exports before World War I. At the same time, the costs of maintaining the empire increased fivefold from 1875 to 1914, suggesting that empire-building had stronger political than economic causes.

French colonies were governed centrally from Paris through agents who did not answer to any local parliament. In the majority of its territories, France denied full citizenship to most indigenous peoples. Full citizenship was given only to those who could pass a battery of stringent legal, linguistic, educational, and religious tests. Thus in French West Africa, only 0.5 percent of the population qualified as citizens. The growth of France’s world empire occurred during a period when international tensions were rising closer to home. The key developments occurred in Germany, which had been unified in 1871 and had industrialized rapidly. Having soundly defeated France in the Franco-Prussian War, Germany became Europe’s strongest continental power, while France was diplomatically isolated until the early 1890s.

Then Germany blundered by allowing its secret defense agreement with Russia to lapse. In 1894 Russia joined France in a defensive military pact, which was gradually strengthened. In 1902 France negotiated an agreement with Italy that ensured Italian neutrality in case of a French war with Germany. Most important, though far less formalized, was the growing solidarity between France and Britain. Having already begun to reduce colonial tensions in 1898, France and Britain slowly drifted together in reaction to Germany’s increasingly erratic and aggressive foreign policies after 1900. In 1904 the two nations reached the Entente Cordiale, an agreement that further clarified colonial spheres of influence and initiated coordinated military planning.

On July 28, 1914, Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia, thereby initiating a chain reaction of war declarations that opened World War I. Russia declared war on Austria-Hungary. Germany declared war on Russia and then two days later on France; the next day Germany invaded Belgium, a neutral nation. This invasion caused Britain to enter the war, transforming the Anglo-French entente into a more formal alliance. France became more closely allied with other nations than ever before, and the Third Republic faced its most severe crisis to date. "France" © Emmanuel BUCHOT, Encarta, Wikipedia.

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