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France's Role in WW1 and Post-War Social Effects

Info: 3284 words (13 pages) Essay
Published: 15th Jul 2021 in History

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France, although on the victorious side, can hardly be considered a winner of World War I. France suffered the most significant losses for a major power in World War I. An estimated 2 million French lives were lost, and the landscape of northern and eastern France still bear the scars of the battles fought there. France experienced the worst of World War I firsthand, with most of the western front being fought on French soil France dealt with massive land and life loss. How France was able to survive this wartime is commonly credited to the sense of French universalism and national identity developed in the country.[1] However, the assistance given to France from its colonies is the underlying reason France was able to prove successful in the war. The colonial support is rarely given the credit deserved in French history yet without their support France would not have been able to maintain their territory during the war. Pre and post WWI France were exposed to numerous social issues. The role of women had expanded significantly during the war. There was an increased colonial presence in France after the war that sparked debate over human rights and the validity of the republic. The preexisting social tensions from the Great War accompanied with the sense of French universalism, colonial influence, and the Union Sacrée gave birth to new social issues, fueled old ones, and redefined French culture.

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To fully understand how France’s victory in WWI led to new social movements and tensions, one must understand the prewar tensions in France. Pre-war France was experiencing the Belle Époque, a series of years highlighted by peace and prosperity[2]. In the Belle Époque France experienced economic growth. Advancements in science and technology were introduced and France wanted to showcase their national success leading them to host exhibitions in Paris in 1878, 1889, and 1900. The Eiffel Tower was constructed in 1889, giving France the tallest man-made building in the world and a true sense of national pride. New leisure activities formed and dancing, drinking, and sexual promiscuity became more socially accepted. However, the Belle Époque included social tensions among the labor and women’s rights movement.[3] In this era people began to ask for better working conditions including restricted work hours, a 40-hour work week, job safety improvement, and insurance for disability or unemployment. Early movements for women’s suffrage can be traced back to Belle Époque as well. Little social progression was made in the labor and women’s suffrage movements in this pre-war era. Political tensions began to rise culminating with the Dreyfus Affair where an innocent French-Jew was exiled to Devil’s Island before being allowed to return after his name was cleared. The Dreyfus Affair hardened the political landscape in France and led to the establishment of the Dreyfusards and the anti-Dreyfusards political parties[4]. Dreyfusards supported individual rights and were concerned with anti-republic conspiracy while the Anti-Dreyfusards were anti-democratic and idealized violence. The Dreyfus Affair brought the deep anti-Semitism aspects of French society to light and caused fear that the French government did not have their people as their top interest. Although viewed as a progressive era, there were numerous social issues prevalent in the Belle Époque waiting to spill into post-war France. The social tensions in France during the Belle Époque did not boil over into true social movements due to France’s ideology of the Union Sacrée.[5] When the war broke out France as a nation agreed to focus its resources and efforts fully to the war effort and set aside domestic differences. When France put these issues aside before the war the tensions stemming from them did not simply disappear. The issues persisted throughout the war and when the war ended the issues resurfaced on a larger level. The Union Sacrée served its purpose of seeing France through its time of war but when lifted the tensions surrounding French universalism, colonial influence, the labor movement and women’s suffrage were waiting to take center stage.

The sense of French universalism and national identity is credited with lifting France through the war and this same theme of universalism can be seen throughout French history uniting people in times of conflict. French universalism played a key role for the French during WW1 and the presence of French universalism created a national identity that can be credited to propelling the French through the war. The importance of France being one of the strongest nations in a global perspective and the French people’s ability and understanding of fighting for France at home gave them the necessary strength and perseverance to survive the harsh wartime conditions. The belief in French universalism was largely promoted by the government and necessary to keep France together during the Great War yet this is not the sole reason France was on the victorious side[6]. Having the war primarily fought on French soil gave soldiers an added sense of urgency and necessity to fight harder and stronger. This feeling of universalism and belief of fighting for the livelihood of France united the soldiers on the western front and could be felt in all of France. Nostalgic images of the Belle Époque filled the heads of the French, and they believed they could return to the pre-war peace and prosperity. The French government used universalism and national identity campaigns to appeal to its citizens and raise donations for the war[7]. France was forced to rely heavily on its population to fund the war and the use of the universalism propaganda campaigns largely contributed to the success of this. The use of French nationalistic propaganda became prevalent during the war and there was specifically strong anti-German sentiment felt among the French[8]. Anti-German feelings were a strong uniting aspect of French universalism during the war as the French viewed the Germans and their practices as barbaric, unnecessary, and needed to be stopped at all costs. The feeling of a united France powered those suffering the most through this difficult time. There was a true sense of fighting for your neighbor and not letting your fellow Frenchman down. French universalism and national identity proved to be a critical factor in France overcoming WWI, but it also exposed issues within French culture.

Although universalism and national identity are believed to be the main force driving France through WWI France’s success would have been impossible if not for colonial assistance. The support of the French colonies in France was essential to the success of the nation after WWI. France called on its colonies to assist the war effort and the colonies contributed 500,000 troops to the French army and an additional 200,000 came to France to work in home industries[9]. After the war ended, the colonists who remained in France faced difficult immersion into French society and culture. This was in large part due to the belief of French universalism because French citizens still failed to recognize the colonists that fought for their country as truly French. There was a strong belief in scientific racism and the civilizing mission before and leading up to WWI and many French citizens believed it was the duty of the colonists to fight and support the home country in the form of a “blood tax”[10]. Historically, the French undervalue the role of the colonies in its WWI success. The ideals of scientific racism and the civilizing mission allowed for the French to continue the belief of inequality among those living in the area. Even though most of these people had lived under French rule for their entire lives and fought for French liberty they were not considered French. These feelings were strengthened through propaganda campaigns and the sense of universalism developed during WWI and although the campaign was designed for anti-German and pro-war purposes French people took it a step further using the propaganda as a weapon against anyone not French. There was a true belief that being French meant you were a better human entitled to more rights no matter the situation.

This opened post war arguments over imperialism and the rationale behind it. The French failed to govern its colonial territories in a similar fashion than that of its own republic. Instead, the French colonies continued to be treated as assets to the republic rather than French states. After the war this begins to expose the boundaries and rationale of the French Republic. Post-war France felt a need to prove they were still a dominant world power and believed their colonies as a prime example of this. Historically, France enjoys hosting a large event to display their world dominance and in 1931, Paris hosted the Colonial Exhibition to showcase all their colonies to France and the rest of the world[11]. The purpose of this was to display the dominance and extent of the French Empire to the world. The exhibition included an exhibit for each colony and hosted human zoos to display real life in the colonies. However, it largely backfired, and the exhibition sparked debate on the validity of France’s imperialistic efforts. The Colonial Exhibition of 1931 highlighted the hypocrisies of the French Empire[12]. The popular belief that France’s colonies existed to benefit the Empire and in return France would civilize the people and help develop the infrastructure to create a mutually beneficial relationship. Yet the exhibition proved that France had no real intention to benefit these societies and that there was minimal effort being placed in helping the colonies become more French. The colonies placed a heavy financial burden on France and more people were starting to believe that they were no longer worth the investment[13]. France did not see itself in the global position necessary to give up their colonial rule and believed granting independence would result in losing all leverage as a global power. Instead, France held onto its colonies until bloody wars of independence broke out, most notably in Algeria. How the French handled the colonial influence from WWI made many question French culture in terms of what it meant to be “French” and placed colonial politics in the spotlight.

The labor movement in France was gaining momentum since before the start of WWI. Before the Union Sacrée was enacted worker’s rights and labor regulations were a debated topic in France. Small strikes for better working conditions and rights for the working class took place before the war but no major progressive strides were made. The issue was the working class was earning less than living wages while be forced to work and live in sub-standard conditions. The French saw Britain accommodate their workers with new rights and protections and French people believed they deserved the same[14]. To make their voices heard hundreds of French workers joined the National Trade Union Federation (CGT) and in 1906 the CGT went on strike to demand an eight-hour work day. Up until the war labor tensions rose and smaller strikes were launched by teachers, miners, wine growers, and construction workers with little success. The outbreak of WWI and the implementation of the Union Sacrée halted the progress of the labor movement in France. Many who had joined labor groups like the CGT were forced to leave to join the war effort and the membership of these groups plummeted when war broke out. During the war neither wages nor conditions improved and there was still widespread belief that improvements were necessary. The war placed more stress on the struggling French economy especially with Germany controlling the resource rich land in Northern and Eastern France. Small businesses were forced to close their doors throughout France and unemployment levels in Paris reached 30%. The outbreak of war only worsened working conditions. To accommodate the smaller working population work hours increased which had a direct negative effect on worker’s health. Living conditions also suffered as many of those living along the western front relocated to urban centers to find new jobs. High population density in city centers made it difficult to accommodate all those fleeing the war and drastically lowered living standards. The Union Sacrée proved effective in limiting the labor movement with only small strikes occurring during the war but, when the war ended labor issues were once again a critical debate in France. Throughout the war working and living conditions declined and the work day lengthened. Strikes quickly began after the war with workers again protesting for better conditions and wages. The movement found minor success in May 1919 when a law was passed restricting the work day to eight hours. Still in its early years the French labor movement would not have been possible without the Great War as it gave rise to a new working class and the Union Sacrée allowed for tensions to boil over after the war.

The start of the Great war may have hindered new labor initiatives, but it also brought a new class into the workforce. Due to labor shortages, France was forced to bring in foreign workers and women into the workforce. The role women played in society also changed greatly due to WWI. When the men went off to war the women were largely left to pick up the slack and protect home industries. At the beginning of the war the working women were primarily in the nursing industry but as the war persisted women were slowly integrated in the industrial sector of the economy. A few of these women were granted salaries based off employment but most of French women worked charitably to help support the war. There was never a formal mobilization of women into the workforce and this process occurred in France at a slower rate than other participants in the war. The French hesitation to allow women in the workforce highlights the social tensions of the time. Women were exposed to the same poor working conditions as the men but, although integrated in the workforce women still had no civil rights. Despite the Union Sacrée a small number of working women successfully formed protests in 1915[15]. These women continued to push for better working conditions but also protested the war altogether. Now have experiencing new freedoms French women did not want to return to past social standards. Women’s suffrage was the right most craved and fought for by women at this time, but women’s suffrage would not be granted in France until 1944. WWI should be viewed as a turning point for women’s rights in France as it gave them the opportunity to more actively participate and contribute to the economy and society.

France came out of WWI as the wounded victor. The Great War did not only damage French land and take an unimaginable amount of lives but serve as a buffer period for rising social tensions. The French were able to survive the hardship of war through a uniting sense of universalism and a national identity. Before the war tensions around race, religion, labor, and nationalism were gaining momentum. However, when the war broke out at France enacted its Union Sacrée domestic issues were put aside to focus on the war effort. This policy was able to lift France out of treacherous war times with very limited domestic problems but did nothing to solve or prevent further social tensions. The nationalism that grew from the war brought to light racist tendencies planted in French culture that would go on to highlight the hypocrisies of the French Empire. The labor and women’s rights movements were simply slowed by the war and when it came to an end the movements resumed. WWI and France’s Union Sacrée policy allowed for new and old social tensions to build in France. French culture in this era also shifts as the new colonial presence and gender roles begin to challenge what it truly means to be French. WWI, despite the Union Sacrée, contributed to new social issues forming, fueled past tensions, and challenged French culture.


[1] Millington, Chris. From Victory to Vichy: Veterans in Inter-War France. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 2016.

[2] Holmes, Diana, and Carrie Tarr. A Belle Epoque?: Women and Feminism in French Society and Culture, 1890-1914. Oxford: Berghahn, 2006.

[3] Larkin, Maurice. Religion, Politics and Preferment in France since 1890 “La Belle Époque and Its Legacy”. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008.

[4] CAHM, ERIC. Dreyfus Affair in French Society and Politics. Place of publication not identified: ROUTLEDGE, 2016.

[5] Dutton, David. “The Union Sacrée and the French Cabinet Crisis of October 1915.” European Studies Review8, no. 4 (1978): 411–24. doi:10.1177/026569147800800402.

[6] Schor, Naomi. “The Crisis of French Universalism.” Yale French Studies, no. 100 (2001): 43–64. doi:10.2307/3090581.

[7] Celestin, Roger, and Eliane DalMolin. France from 1851 to the Present: Universalism in Crisis. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008.

[8] “New York State Library.” French World War I Posters: Manuscripts and Special Collections: New York State Library. Accessed May 7, 2019. http://www.nysl.nysed.gov/msscfa/sc23360-france.htm.

[9] Lewis, M. D. “Race and War in France: Colonial Subjects in the French Army, 1914-1918. By Richard S. Fogarty.” French History24, no. 1 (2010): 123–25. doi:10.1093/fh/crp087.

[10] Echenberg, Myron J. “Paying the Blood Tax: Military Conscription in French West Africa, 1914-1929.” Canadian Journal of African Studies / Revue Canadienne Des Études Africaines9, no. 2 (1975): 171. doi:10.2307/484079.

[11] Adedze, Agbenyega. “Re-Presenting Africa: Commemorative Postage Stamps of the Colonial Exhibition of Paris (1931).” African Arts37, no. 2 (2004): 58–95. doi:10.1162/afar.2004.37.2.58.

[12] Jones, Donna V. “The Prison House of Modernism: Colonial Spaces and the Construction of the Primitive at the 1931 Paris Colonial Exposition.” Modernism/Modernity14, no. 1 (2007): 55–69. doi:10.1353/mod.2007.0014.

[13] Marseille, Jacques. “The Phases of French Colonial Imperialism: Towards a New Periodization.” The Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History13, no. 3 (1985): 127–41. doi:10.1080/03086538508582696.

[14] Freeman, Gary. “Immigrant Labor and Working-Class Politics: The French and British Experience.” Comparative Politics11, no. 1 (1978): 24. doi:10.2307/421788.

[15] Bock, Gisela, and Patricia Thane. Maternity and Gender Policies Women and the Rise of the European Welfare States, 18802-1950s. 1st ed. London: Routledge, 1994.


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