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France in the 1920s


Great Depression to France
Great Depression to France

At home, the shape of politics changed relatively little in the aftermath of World War I, as France was governed by a variety of center-left and center-right coalitions. The most important change was the division of the SFIO into separate communist and socialist parties, which occurred in 1920. The Communist Party continued to profess Marxist revolutionary doctrines and warmly embraced the Soviet regime that had come to power in Russia in 1917. The Socialist Party, under Jaurès’s protégé Léon Blum, adopted a less confrontational position with regard to the Third Republic and refused to endorse the Soviet government in Moscow.

Although the Socialist Party initially had fewer members, they were far more successful than the Communist Party at the polls. In the 1932 election, they won 131 seats in the legislature—more than any other party—while the Communist Party won only 10 seats. However, neither party had much impact on French government social policy until the Great Depression, especially because the Socialists refused to participate officially in any coalition they could not dominate. The major domestic political concerns of the 1920s were fiscal. Although the economy expanded in the mid-1920s, state finances remained shaky. Accumulated war debt and deficit spending caused the franc to decline; it was only one-tenth of its prewar value by 1926.

In that year, a centrist government under Raymond Poincaré restored the franc by raising taxes and cutting spending. These measures increased confidence in the economy, and capital investment grew. By 1929 manufacturing and trade had climbed to roughly 50 percent above prewar levels. In the agricultural sector, efficiency improved, but the sector was still much less prosperous than were manufacturing and trade. The coming of the Great Depression changed fiscal concerns into economic ones. France escaped the depression until late 1931, many months after it had begun elsewhere.

Great Depression to France


But when the depression did reach France, it lasted longer. Whereas in 1937 British industrial production was 24 percent greater than in 1929 and German industrial production 16 percent greater, French industrial production in 1937 was 28 percent lower than it had been in 1929.

The response of the French government, like that of many other nations, only aggravated the problem. Having fought so hard to support the franc in the 1920s, the French government resisted devaluation, although the franc declined anyway. To protect home markets, the French government, like others, raised tariff barriers, thereby worsening the prospects for a general European recovery. What made France’s situation bearable was the fact that unemployment was less serious than elsewhere, partly because many foreign workers were sent home and many unemployed workers returned to family farms. Nonetheless, the standard of living declined. The center-right coalitions failed to stop the economic slide, and in 1932 they gave way to governments run by the Radicals and supported by the Socialist Party.

But these governments could not agree on a coherent economic program. Paralysis in the center-left encouraged the growth of a variety of new political organizations on the right. These ranged from blatant imitations of Benito Mussolini’s and Hitler’s fascist movements, such as Jacques Doriot’s French Popular Party (PPF), to more tradition-minded groups, such as the Cross of Fire. Both groups had memberships in the hundreds of thousands.

When the operations of a shady financier, Serge Stavisky, were made public and linked to the Radical Party in 1934, the right staged a massive demonstration in Paris, joined by members of the Communist Party. The demonstration threatened to overthrow the Third Republic, although its goal was apparently only to force a change of cabinet. During the demonstration, 17 people were killed and thousands were wounded. The cabinet was changed, but the new government offered no effective cure for the Depression. Equally ineffective was the next government led by Pierre Laval, who would later be a key member of the Vichy government. "France" © Emmanuel BUCHOT, Encarta, Wikipedia.

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