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The Collapse of France


France, one of the two great Western European democratic nations (the other being Great Britain), was able to hold the trenches against Germany in World War I for four years, from 1914 to 1918. It was British and American forces which provided the manpower to finally defeat Germany in 1918, but France held the Germans back almost on their own for quite a long time. However, in 1940, France fell to Germany in little more than four weeks, becoming a puppet state of Germany for the rest of World War II. Why did France collapse so quickly in 1940, unable to reproduce the results of 1914-1918? To find the answer, we have to go all the way back to 1919, and the political and economic state France found itself in soon after the end of World War I.

During World War I, France had operated under a political unity called the union sacre, or “sacred union.” All political parties and factions had put aside their differences in order to face a common enemy. Therefore, all of France was able to work together to hold the Germans back. After the war, the union sacre was not kept up, and France fell into political disunity which was to become more and more extreme throughout the 1920s and ‘30s.

France was still in the period of the Third Republic, set up after the Franco-Prussian War; a government which was dominated by the middle class bourgeoisie. It was in their best interests to return to the status quo antebellum, the way things were in 1914, especially economically speaking. However, a Great War necessarily changes the economic situation of any country, and France was no different. She needed to rebuild the industry which had been destroyed in the fighting, which took money. The men returning from the front wanted compensation for their sacrifices, not a return to the dismal working conditions they had already had—they wanted social reform, which also costs money. The way to raise money in a state is to raise the taxes. But raising taxes hits the bourgeoisie and property-owners the hardest, and naturally the bourgeoisie government wanted to avoid raising the taxes at all costs.

The government decided to leave taxes low and depend on the reparations from Germany to pay for rebuilding and social reform, failing to realize that Germany was having their own financial troubles. The French government borrowed and printed money, willing to try anything to keep from raising taxes. However, printing money leads to inflation and either currency devaluation or high interest rates. The government decided for high interest rates, which in one way seems better, because it keeps the currency strong, but high interest rates prohibit borrowing money, limiting the amount of reconstruction that can take place. All of this led to economic stagnation.

In 1920, at the Congress of Tours, the French Socialist Party was split, as many of the disgruntled workers were tired of waiting for reform through Parliament, and formed the Partie Comuniste Français, or the French Communist Party. About three-quarters of the Socialists joined the new Communist party, hoping for a militant communist revolution. The quarter that was left became known as the Socialist Rump, led by Léon Blum. The presence of a large Communist party in France panicked the bourgeoisie, who formed the Bloc National government, a coalition of all the bourgeoisie parties, in response. It failed because it stood on the same old bourgeoisie platforms: waiting for reparations, low taxes, no social reform, and high interest rates. It collapsed and was discredited. The bourgeoisie split into two main parties—the far right, leaning toward fascism, and the Radicals (who were really moderate), also known as the Petit Bourgeoisie. The right-wing had failed to work out the economic situation, so hope was placed with the moderate left. The Radicals joined with the Socialist Rump to form the Cartel des Gauches in 1924. This new, more leftist government set off a series of neo-fascist groups reacting against what they saw as a move toward communism. Unlike the fascist blocs in Italy, Spain, and other countries, these groups were not really connected to each other, but they were all disillusioned with the party politics of the Radicals and Socialists, and they all hated communists.

The Cartel des Gauches was not able to get much done, which is not really surprising considering that it was a coalition between two political parties who had very little in common. The Petit Bourgeoisie in the Radical party did not want to raise taxes to pay for social reform, and the Socialists did, so pretty much nothing happened at all. This opened the way for Poincaré, who had been President during WWI, to bring in a more conservative government. During Poincaré’s ministry, the extreme fascist leagues all but disappeared; the perceived need for violence decreased under the more right-wing government [Parker 171]. By the 1930s, this government had also failed, due to poor leadership after Poincaré’s retirement. The French people were quickly becoming disillusioned with the republic, and with liberal democracy in general [Kitchen, 218]. Over ten years, it had failed to deal with the economic situation, failed to carry through social reforms, and failed to keep most governments for more than a few months. As democracy was discredited, both extremes gained more and more proponents, and France became steadily more divided between left and right. However, the majority of the French were not impressed by extreme communism, and the communist party (which refused to enter alliances with any other party, even the socialists) lost several seats in Parliament in the early 1930s [Kitchen, 219].

That all changed due to a tiny little seemingly unimportant event known as the Stavisky Affair. Stavisky was a crooked banker, rumoured to have friends in high places. His crimes were uncovered, he fled, and was found dead, apparently of suicide, in 1933 [Parker 175]. The far right saw this as an opportunity to denounce the Parliamentary system, which was obviously corrupt, allowing such a corrupt man to get away with his crimes for so long [Bell 180]. Fascist demonstrations, riots, and marches took place in Paris, and were stopped just short of taking control of the Parliament buildings.

This was seen by the left as an attempted military coup by the fascists. The communists and the socialists finally allied, realising the need to keep the left strong against the increasingly militaristic and dangerous fascists leagues, and the Radicals joined them to form the Popular Front. There was now a pretty clear divide between the fascists on the right, and everyone else on the left. Although the three parties had joined together to defend against a fascist coup, they did not agree in policy, and their published programme for the election of 1936 leaned much more toward the communist viewpoint than either the socialist or the radical [Kitchen, 226]. The fact that the Popular Front was elected into power in 1936 showed that the general populace feared fascism more than communism [Kitchen, 224]. However, despite leading the way in policy, the communists did not want responsibility for the leadership of France; not surprising, since France had gone through something like fifteen Prime Ministers since 1920. Instead, socialist Leon Blum became the leader of the Popular Front, and his cabinet was made up entirely of socialists and radicals [Kitchen, 226].

This is the situation as it stood in 1939. The Popular Front was in power, but it was weak due to internal disagreements over policy, and it was opposed by a more united group of fascists on the right who preferred Nazi militarism to Soviet communism. In fact, the right-wing slogan in the election of 1936 was “Better Hitler than Blum.” These extremists actually preferred being invaded by the Germans than being subject to a left-wing government with communist tendencies. They might have been in the minority, but they were a vocal minority, and offered no resistance to Germany in 1940.

The first test of French stability came in 1936, when the Germans moved troops back into the demilitarised Rhinelands. Because of the political divisions in France, nothing was done about this, even though the possibility of invasion from Germany had terrified the French since 1870. A large proportion of the powerful in French no longer cared if Germany invaded. Also about this time, Spain became embroiled in a civil war between its own Popular Front (coalition of Communists and Socialists), which was overthrown by a right-wing military coup. France stayed out of this, but looking on became afraid that France, too, might be torn apart by civil war, given the similarities of their political situation. The right-wing of France felt that they would rather be taken by Germany than face civil war in France. Rather than do anything about Spain or the Rhinelands or anything else, France just hunkered down behind the Maginot line, a string of defences built along the French/German border.

When the war actually started, the new German tactic of Blitzkrieg took both the French and British by surprise. Blitzkrieg, or “lightening war,” consisted in the use of a large number of tanks battering straight through the enemy lines and circling behind them to surround them. It is basically the same plan as Germany tried unsuccessfully to implement in WWI, but now instead of massed infantry they had massed tanks, air support to give cover fire, and armored cars bringing troops up to the front. No longer were they dependent on the slow speed of infantry. The Allied troops were completely unprepared for this, expecting to be facing the same sort of fighting as in WWI. Their tanks were spread out, not ready to face a concentrated offensive by a battering ram of German tanks.

The Maginot line (now defended French soldiers and a small number of British troops known as the British Expeditionary Force) extended from the English channel down to the Ardennes forest south of Germany. It did not extend into the Ardennes, however, because the French assumed that it was impossible to bring tanks through a forest. They were wrong. While a portion of the German army kept the troops on the Maginot line busy, a much larger army rolled through the Ardennes, circling around Paris and cutting off the French and British Armies, stranding them in Belgium. What was left of the Allied forces fled from Dunkirk, leaving all their equipment and supplies behind, and Germany took control of France, setting up a puppet government in Vichy which lasted through the rest of the war. This defeat left England as the only defender of Western democracy for nearly two years.


Kitchen, Martin. Europe Between the Wars: A Political History. London & New York: Longman, 1988.

Parker, R.A.C. Europe 1919-45. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1969.

Bell, P.M.H. France and Britain 1900-1940: Entente & Estrangement. London & New York: Longman, 1996.


This paper originated as a paper for Topics in History: European History 1914-1945, Harlaxton College, Spring, 2002.

©2002 by Jandy Stone