European Affairs

Accepted legend has the nation reborn in its dramatic postwar reshaping under the impetus of Charles de Gaulle and his followers. Building on their stature as the leaders of the Resistance that had redeemed the honor of France, they set the state on a new course. Their modernizing, centralizing government enabled the nation to re-emerge, phoenix-like, from the ashes of humiliating defeat and debilitating occupation and isolation under Vichy.

In this heroic version of recent French history, the humiliating defeat of 1940 is blamed on the feckless, corrupt politics of the Third Republic era that stretched from France’s defeat in the Franco-Prussian War in 1870 to collapse in World War II. It was a period marked by a parliamentary system in which political parties proliferated; leaders and parties were small enough to be easily bribed; unstable governments changed so frequently that leaders focused on the spoils of office and neglected the long-term need to restructure the nation’s economy and institutions. As a result, France lost ground against other nations, remaining disproportionately agricultural and rural and lagging behind its neighbors’ push ahead with industrialization in the 1930s.

Inheriting this bleak history at the Liberation in 1944, General de Gaulle and his cadre of loyal and brilliant aides – men who would go on to become prime ministers such as Michel Debré and Jean Chaban-Delmas (a nom de guerre that he retained in his long political career) – instituted almost revolutionary changes when they took charge of postwar France. Their innovations and dedication reaped quick and multiplying dividends, and modern France – with centralized, state-controlled planning but without the dictatorial methods applied in similar but less democratic countries -- accomplished a period of modernization and growth that is still called “the 30 glorious” years (roughly, from the Liberation in 1944 to the first global oil crisis in 1973). Of course, other European countries grew fast with postwar reconstruction, too: West Germany, for example, experienced its own economic “miracle.” But no other nation made up as much ground vis-à-vis its allies or rivals as did France – Gaullist France.

Now comes a major attempt to offer a revisionist challenge to this Gaullist version of France’s great economic leap. In his highly nuanced account, “France’s New Deal,” Harvard historian Philip Nord argues that many of the key changes that transformed France are actually rooted in developments that started in the Third Republic and then survived in the Vichy era.

The gist of his argument is that reforming political parties such as the Socialists and Communists, together with some Catholic groups and other actors in civil society, all had forward-looking visions for a modern France that were incubating during the pre-war years and that elements of these innovations coalesced in the Gaullist postwar venture. If these precursor factors have gone unnoticed until now, it is because the Third Republic could not sustain or implement innovative ideas in sectors such as education or transportation, energy or central planning, as they lacked the political infrastructure to do so. But they planted seeds of change – a dimension of events that has been largely ignored because history is written by the victors, in this case the Gaullists.

But in reality, Nord says, some important elements of Nazi-style rule such as dirigisme and an emphasis on central planning actually fueled the postwar French economic systems favoring a state-controlled model. This thinking bloomed in the postwar era when France proudly handed over authority to the nation’s newly minted “technocrats.” In contrast to the often-mediocre bureaucrats who became collaborators under Vichy, this new caste (sic) of “servants of the nation” emerged as a Gaullist-inspired elite, perceived as a reaction to Vichy but in practice reflecting ideals of integrity, efficiency and good management conceived among isolated groups and individuals in the Third Republic. In their ways, they had conceived of a “new deal” for France at the time that Franklin Roosevelt was piloting his radical reforms through the U.S. The difference was that France was weak and corrupt, so these ideas fell on barren ground there – until the postwar era under De Gaulle, Nord argues.

This radical rereading of recent French history is carefully teased out of long-neglected details of the Third Republic years and Vichy in Nord’s insightful (and quite detailed) book. Any historian who goes over a neglected period of the past with a fine-toothed comb, as Nord does, is almost bound to come up with new insights, and Nord produces a rich harvest, especially for specialists. But the significance of Nord’s thesis seems to amount mainly to an addition, not an overthrow, to the established view of 20th century France.

Nord definitely finds some useful new threads, though. He points out, for example, that the corruption of the Third Republic undermined the public’s confidence in capitalism, paving the way for a stronger socialist strand in the state-led capitalism pursued by the Gaullists. Nord argues that France’s rejection of laissez-faire policies in favor of tighter government regulation began in the late Third Republic — through educational reform, technocratic initiatives brought on by the depression — and then gained momentum and sweep under De Gaulle. As his historical assessment reveals, “in this domain, as elsewhere, the process of transformation began before the war, and the impresarios of change were not men of the Left but an amalgam of professionalizing establishmentarians like Roger Seydoux and technocracy-minded newcomers.”

Seydoux, a graduate of the elite Paris private college, Sciences Po, became a key player in pre-war and Vichy politics, but he turned to the Resistance in 1943 – a point when the switch was a heroic risk, not an insurance policy against looming defeat for the Nazis and their Pétainist supporters in France. With his new credentials, Seydoux emerged as an influential figure in the Gaullist era, modifying Sciences Po’s curriculum to promote a more dirigiste bent of government intervention in all aspects of French economics, an approach that went hand-in-hand with the country’s new system of five-year national development plans. In the last months of the war, he forged a close political connection with Michel Debré, then a Socialist, who would emerge as De Gaulle’s key lieutenant and the father of the Ecole Nationale d’Administration, the elite academy set up to train the technocrats who would administer the plan and govern the nation from the commanding heights of a centralized state. These people’s careers inevitably took sometimes contradictory turns: Jean Monnet, for example, spent some formative years as a pro-Vichy diplomat before swinging behind De Gaulle and working in the postwar plan department – experiences that helped shape his ultimate vision – only partially shared by De Gaulle – of a united Europe with France as its guiding spirit.

Nord’s thesis evokes more than just individual personalities. For example, he depicts two crucial underpinnings —economic and cultural— that evolved from the 1930s, and were then put into practice as the Fifth Republic took over from the late 1930s era in France. An emblematic innovation in education, for example, came from a seminal debate in the Third Republic over privately-run institutions. At the time, such establishments held a virtual monopoly on top government positions, but opposition to this situation eventually culminated in the so-called “Zay bill” that proposed the new state-run Ecole Nationale d’administration. A dead letter when it was passed in 1939, this catalyst for reform was at hand when Debré laid out a new educational system after the war, prioritizing state-run education and gradually eliminating any private universities or other institutions of higher education.

Even Vichy gave hundreds of state-minded technocrats an opportunity to practice this form of control, becoming a breeding ground for young men who switched their allegiance in time or managed to rehabilitate their reputations and then rose to prominence in De Gaulle’ wake. Two such men were Pierre Laroque, designer of France’s Social Security system, and François Perroux, economist and founder of an independent economic think-tank (ISEA). Laroque began his career as a staunch unionist, working as chef de cabinet for the labor minister in the pre-war period, the Vichy era and even the start of the full German occupation. These combined experiences equipped him to create France’s postwar network of health care and other forms of social security. Similarly, Perroux drew on his prewar experience with state-led growth to promote social-minded economic policies after the war. His influential think-tank (ISEA) sustained its humanist approach to economic theory, focusing on full employment strategies, a driving intellectual force in the early Gaullist approach to fiscal doctrine and corporate accounting in an economy dominated by nationalized enterprises.

Such precursors also affected the course of the arts in postwar France. The Resistance, of course, produced its own stars such as Andre Malraux, the Nobel laureate who was the literary alter ego of De Gaulle (himself an exalted writer) and the most important minister of culture in France since the Renaissance. In promoting the new glory of France, the Gaullists had a program that evolved smoothly from Vichy’s focus (necessarily domestic) in the theater, film, and radio. By the Liberation, radio became an entirely nationalized industry and in the realm of theater and film production, Nord describes how Vichy policies meshed into the fabric of French postwar society: “Numbered movie tickets, cartes professionnelles in the film industry, state-issued licenses for theater directors: all such practices, every one a Vichy innovation, were kept on after Vichy’s demise.”

In his cultural projects, De Gaulle often used rehabilitated onetime Pétainists such as Jeanne Laurent and Pierre Schaeffer. Laurent, in the new ministry of culture, was quick to spot avant-garde aspects of theater and the strength of nationalized theaters thanks to her post as a cultural official in Vichy. Pierre Schaeffer, equally notable in postwar radio and theater, founded the arts’ movement, Jeune France, in 1936 and it continued to coalesce up-and-coming talents in the arts even in the occupation, partly thanks to its Catholic dimensions.

Although Nord’s book is certainly an important contribution to the understanding of France’s dramatic, postwar transformation, he cannot take away the crucial role of De Gaulle and his allies in implementing successful policies vital to France’s modernization process. In that sense, his book misses the mark on redefining France’s heroes of transformation. But his main theme resonates: modern France with its strengthened, socialized institutions was not created from scratch in 1945, and the resulting value of this book lies in its success in documenting this metamorphosis in fine-grained detail. No close student of recent French history will want to miss it.

Jennifer Wnuk is an editorial assistant at the European Institute.