On May 8, 1789, at the onset of the French Revolution, the deputies of the Third Estate, one of the three “estates of the realm” under the ancien régime, were asked to vote on how to bring together the country’s three orders (the clergy, the nobility, and the commoners) by filing to either the left or the right of the president of the session. Having done so, they sat down as they had voted, and the left/right division of politics was born—a division that would play a decisive role in the subsequent course of events, notably during the debates about what to do with the deposed king. (The left wanted to send him to the guillotine, the right did not.)
Ever since, we have tended to tell the history of France through that opposition, and for good reason: Until recently, French politics has usually opposed a left-wing president (Mitterrand, Hollande) to a right-wing one (Chirac, Sarkozy). But it would be a mistake to think that this was the only opposition in existence at the time or, indeed, that it has been the only opposition since. Although Robespierre and the Jacobins were to the “left” of the Girondins, the dynamics of La Terreur, for instance, seemed more to oppose a centralized, revolutionary Parisian government to opposition in the provinces. Instead of left versus right, what existed in this case was a conflict between a top and a bottom—between elite designs and popular demands. The same might be said of the country after World War II, when what was at stake was less whether left or right visions of France would win out than the existence of tensions between two competing visions of modernization: one centered on a top-down, elite-run, state-driven program and the other a bottom-up demand for democratic participation and popular control. In short, much like the situation during the Terror, the struggle in France’s postwar reconstruction was less left versus right than elites versus the people.
This, at least, is the central claim that Herrick Chapman, a professor of history at New York University, makes in his new book, France’s Long Reconstruction: In Search of the Modern Republic, a history of France from the end of World War II to the Algerian War of Independence. Chapman focuses on the social, economic, and political dynamics of the reconstruction effort, and in closing his book in 1962 rather than in 1958, with the end of the Fourth Republic and the founding of the Fifth, he follows a trend in French historiography that aims to integrate colonial Algeria into the history of France. He does this not simply to underline how France’s domestic recovery was deeply entwined with two full-scale colonial wars, in Algeria and Indochina, but also because the referendum of Charles de Gaulle that brought the Algerian conflict to an end marked what has often been dubbed the “second founding” of the Fifth Republic. This was the moment when the “presidentialism” of the French political system came into being, and de Gaulle carved out for himself and future presidents certain domaines réservés—notably in foreign policy, military affairs, and national security—that established the president as the lead actor in French political life.
It is hard to overstate the challenges France faced after World War II. Fighting during the first war was concentrated in the northeast, but in the second, 74 of the 90 French départements were touched by combat. A total of 1 million families were homeless; 2 million people were former prisoners of war. Thanks in part to the successful work of the French Resistance, only 45 percent of the country’s rail lines were serviceable—and really only in unconnected sections, with just one in six locomotives working—making communication between Paris and the rest of the country virtually impossible. There were massive labor shortages and even less trust among French citizens in a country torn apart by what had essentially been a civil war between Vichy collaborators and the Resistance at the end of the occupation. France also needed to regain its international standing and independence vis-à-vis the Allied forces after the war.
Returning to France from London, where he had led a government in exile and established himself as the undisputed leader of the French Resistance after his “Appeal of 18 June” was broadcast by the BBC in 1940, de Gaulle quickly turned to solidifying his authority in his own country. He did so by victoriously parading around town centers after liberation to the acclaim of the local people. These “street processionals,” as Chapman calls them, helped de Gaulle unite the country around him and cement his legitimacy as the leader of the French people. At 6 foot 5, he had a stature that conferred a natural authority. This was reinforced during the victory parade in Paris on August 26, 1944, when enemy snipers took potshots at him but he refused to back down. But if de Gaulle’s method was to restore state authority from above, he moved to integrate the former Resistance from below as well, notably by recruiting its members into the new CRS (Compagnies Républicaines de Sécurité), best known today as the feared anti-riot police.
De Gaulle also worked to erode old left/right divisions. As head of the Provisional Government of the French Republic, he formed a government of “national unity” after the liberation of Paris that was composed of all the political actors in the Resistance: Communists, Socialists, left-wing Catholics, as well as the conservatives closer to de Gaulle. All parties agreed that the modernization of France should occur through a two-pronged process: The state should take the lead in postwar reconstruction, while democracy was revived at the grassroots. This began the process of reorienting politics away from older divisions and creating others. At the state level, for instance, the Communists were keen to present themselves as a “party of government,” following Stalin’s diktat from Moscow that the European Communist parties should participate in postwar rebuilding efforts. Yet the party’s rank and file, continuing a Resistance tradition of self-government, persisted in calls for new forms of democratic participation and helped organize the nationalization of the automaker Renault. Although he was less open to exploring ideas of economic democracy, de Gaulle declared his desire to “remain faithful to the democratic principles that our ancestors drew from the genius of our race and that are the very stakes of this life-and-death war” in his 1941 address at London’s Royal Albert Hall.
Chapman follows these competing impulses in the postwar years through the prism of four policy domains: labor and immigration, tax reform and the regulation of small enterprise, family and the welfare state, and the nationalization of industry. On the family, for instance, Chapman shows that a pro-natalist policy, although it echoed Vichy’s slogan of “Travail, famille, patrie,” was widely consensual, with de Gaulle calling for 12 million “beaux bébés”; soon France’s baby boom started in earnest. Family allowances even managed for a while to reconcile the Parisian high civil service with local associations, as the caisses that administered the funds were decentralized and run by citizen boards. Although to this day France is the country that invests the most of its national income in family support, that consensus soon cracked under the bottom-up pressures of second-wave feminism, leading to clashes with administrators over marriage law reform and contraceptive rights, among the many fissures between the country’s ruling elite and those resisting them from below. Those clashes made their way back into national politics, with Communists posing the question of women and work in opposition to the more traditionalist, child-centered Catholic approach. When François Mitterrand, the future Socialist president, challenged de Gaulle for the presidency in 1965, the debate no longer concerned family policy but women’s rights—and here, too, the arguments were about the level of popular participation in state decisions.
These top versus bottom tensions could be seen in postwar economic policy, too. France was the only country in Western Europe that took on all three of the innovations available at the time: nationalizations, work committees, and planning. Top-down dirigisme, best incarnated by the Monnet Plan of 1946–52—which sought to modernize electricity, gas, coal, rail lines, cement, and tractors—was highly successful, with France going through an unprecedented 30-year economic boom, known as Les Trente Glorieuses. Again, while everyone from conservatives to Communists and the trade unions was on board, the strains between economic recovery and democratic renewal played out in the conflict between centralized parliamentary oversight of economic policy on the one hand and workplace democracy on the other. The distinguished civil servant Jean Monnet, with Robert Schuman, the French minister of foreign affairs, was at the heart of the subsequent project to establish the European Coal and Steel Community, for which his plan—with all the advantages of postwar industrial recovery—served as a model but which precipitated the growing “democratic deficit” that is still playing out in France and across the European Union.
Chapman also documents how the growth of the French security services emerged as the state expanded its social security programs and as immigration from the colonies increased. Desperate to attract foreign workers to help in the reconstruction effort, the French state turned its eyes to its colonies, especially Algeria, to recruit them. It invested massively in training, providing these workers with accommodations and education. Compared with their fellow French, they remained very much second-class citizens, but such an investment came at another price, too—namely that access to social welfare was a way for the security services to keep tabs on the pro-independence unrest that was already fomenting in Paris and Algiers. The link between the top-down surveillance of French Algerians and the social security programs only deepened with the bottom-up protests in Paris for Algerian independence that began in the 1950s and ’60s, leading to the militarization of the police force under the dreaded Maurice Papon (later inculpated in the deportation of 1,690 French Jews to the Drancy internment camp during World War II), blurring the long-standing lines of demarcation between the French Army and the police and leading to further centralization in the final years of the Fourth Republic.
Although much work has been done on the history of France since the war, Chapman’s focus on policy offers new insights on familiar terrain. In focusing on the tensions between top-down technocratic reform and bottom-up democratic reform, he has radically changed the paradigm through which we see this history. After Chapman’s France’s Long Reconstruction, we will never look at French history in the same way again.
One of the interesting episodes in which the dueling dynamics of modernization can be seen is the tax revolts of the 1950s, which gave rise to what came to be known as the Poujadist movement, named after its leader, Pierre Poujade. Although he presented himself as a “modest local boy,” he had links to the French far right, having been active in Jacques Doriot’s fascist Parti Populaire Français in his teenage years and collaborating with the youth wing of the Vichy regime. Many former collaborators and Pétainists, who served in the Vichy regime, found his movement to be a congenial home.
During the occupation nearly 100,000 small neighborhood shops opened, providing groceries, clothing, and other small household items, some of which were procured on the black market. In the context of rationing, shopkeepers gained a standing in small communities, but at the end of the war de Gaulle’s government wanted to take back control of commerce. This was done both to regulate it and to modernize it—introducing supermarkets on the outskirts of towns, developing new industrial centers of production, and bringing into being a sales tax, taxe sur la valeur ajoutée (value-added tax, or VAT).
Keen to regain control of its finances, the central government sent tax officials throughout the country to ensure that shopkeepers were complying with the new laws. This upset the fragile ecosystem that had been built up locally to survive the end of the war and immediately touched off a wave of protests. Drawing on previously untapped archival material, Chapman reveals that this began as early as 1947, when 7,000 people protested in La Roche-sur-Yon in the department of Vendée. But by the summer of 1953, a movement appeared to be on the rise: When Poujade and a group of 300 men prevented some contrôleurs from carrying out a verification in a town in the department of Lot in the south of France, protests spread across the country, leading to a number of similar, more or less violent actions.
The wave of protests led to the formation of a Poujadist party, the Union de Défense des Commerçants et Artisans, in 1953, which had some electoral success during the final years of the Fourth Republic—especially in 1956, when the party surprised even itself by winning 2.5 million votes, thereby sending a number of deputies to the National Assembly. In Paris, however, Poujade and his fellow deputies soon proved politically incompetent and fell into infighting, and Poujadism absorbed into what Chapman calls “the rising tide of Gaullism” and the founding of the Fifth Republic in 1958.
But Poujadism’s anti-Paris and anti-centralization politics left its mark on the political landscape. A young Jean-Marie Le Pen cut his teeth in the movement and went on to found the Front National, which garnered the support of disgruntled pieds-noirs (European white settlers) who were forced out of Algeria after independence in 1962. (Poujade’s wife, Yvette Seva, was a pied-noir.) Most of their ire was directed toward de Gaulle, who was appointed in 1958 to resolve the deepening crisis. His first action was to announce to the gathered crowd in Algiers, “Je vous ai compris,” which seemed to signal his support for French Algeria. The pieds-noirs thus felt betrayed when he granted Algeria independence four years later. De Gaulle used the crisis to usher in the Fifth Republic, which reinforced the presidential power he had dreamed of since the end of World War II.
Although Chapman closes his study in 1962, he is clear that the foundations of the Fifth Republic shape the dynamics of French politics today. Indeed, his whole point is that a regime born in crisis will engender only further crisis from within. That de Gaulle embedded in the foundations of the new regime the top-down centralizing tendency, to the detriment of the bottom-up democratizing demands, means that the modernizing tensions that characterized France’s reconstruction after World War II would inevitably spill into the streets.
The recent gilet jaune (yellow vest) protests can be seen in this light. Like Poujadism before it, the unrest is a struggle between elite modernizers and popular demands. Like the Poujadists, the gilets jaunes are mostly white, lower-middle-class French people, primarily based in smaller towns, who felt that they were losing out as a result of globalization; neither movement was a revolt of the more diverse banlieues, the immigrant ghettos on the outskirts of cities, or principally about unemployment. This was the provinces coming to Paris.
The anti-Paris sentiment is key, as is the anger toward France’s centralized government. Anti-Semitism also reared its ugly head in both movements: The Poujadists targeted the center-left politician Pierre Mendès France, and the verbal abuse directed by yellow vest protesters against the public intellectual Alain Finkielkraut is a more recent example. Both movements had an international dimension, too. The pressure for tax reform in postwar France came from America’s Marshall Plan; today it comes from the EU. Finally, Poujade’s anti-parliamentarism (he called the National Assembly the “biggest brothel in Paris”) was expressed through the gilets jaunes’ demand for direct rule through citizens’ referenda.
In both cases, the French state’s response was the same: a combination of heavy-handed repression and concession. During the Poujadist rebellion, shopkeepers were given special VAT exemptions, and in December of 2018, Macron made a number of concessions, including abrogating the fuel tax. (Tellingly, both protests concerned the VAT.) Like the Poujadists, the yellow vest movement turned to electoral politics, putting up candidates on two lists for the European elections; also like the Poujadists, these electoral efforts were complete flops. Together, the two yellow vest lists garnered less than 1 percent of the total vote. In the end, it seems that up to 44 percent of the gilets jaunes voted for Marine Le Pen, Jean-Marie Le Pen’s daughter, leading his party, since rebaptized the National Rally.
From Chapman’s perspective, this alignment of political forces makes perfect sense. Macron has captured the state and the political center, and the forces arrayed against him have been pushed down and out onto the streets. Yet much as Poujadism led to concessions, the yellow vests’ protests have forced the government to engage in one of the biggest democratic experiments France has known since the war, namely the Grand Débat, and of course the point of meeting every Saturday on roundabouts was precisely to experiment with new forms of participation. While Macron reduced the movement’s momentum by granting it many concessions, he has also shown openness to some of its farther-reaching demands, and notably the creation of a national citizens’ assembly to discuss the transition to a green economy. If the tension between top-down reforms and bottom-up demands remains the template of French politics, it appears that tension can sometimes be productive, too.
Like many presidents before him (Giscard, Chirac, Hollande), Macron is a perfect example of the type of leader the French reconstruction sought to produce: a graduate of the grandes écoles Sciences Po and the ENA (École Nationale d’Administration), which were established after the war to train France’s bureaucratic elite. He is a so-called politician-expert not unlike Michel Debré, de Gaulle’s right-hand man and first prime minister under the Fifth Republic. Moreover, as a former Rothschild banker and minister of finance, Macron embodies precisely the type of figure that Poujade detested (and one of the rallying cries of the gilets jaunes was “Macron, démission!“—Macron, resign!)
With the death of Jacques Chirac, the last true Gaullist, a chapter of French history seems to have drawn to a close. But what Chapman’s book most powerfully shows is how the tensions between top-down reforms and bottom-up demands are still the story of French politics. Along with setting up a committee to evaluate his much-hated suppression of the ISF, France’s wealth tax—often described as his “original sin”—Macron has pledged to abolish the ENA. Whatever emerges to take its place, however, is likely to be another ENA in all but name. Plus ça change… Though the war is over, France’s long reconstruction has only just begun.