Tensions within Europe mount in the years leading to World War I. Against a backdrop of growing nationalism, France and other European powers engage in commercial, political, and colonial rivalries.
France joins England and Russia in the war against Germany and the Austro-Hungarian empire. The allies emerge victorious, but France suffers a heavy physical and financial blow. The war brings together political parties in defense of France. President Raymond Poincaré appoints the Radical Republican Georges Clemenceau, the "father of victory," as prime minister.
After obtaining heavy German reparations, France builds a more peaceful relationship with its neighbor. The government plays a major role in the struggle to rebuild the war-ravaged economy, nationalizing many state industries. Labor unrest and massive strikes are common. Conservative coalitions dominate political life until an alliance of Socialists and Radicals takes power in 1925 for three years.
Conservative coalitions return to power against a backdrop of rising fascism in Italy and Nazism in Germany. Socialists, Radicals, and Communists ally as the Popular Front in response to the rise of nationalist and extreme right-wing movements. With a stable franc and a large agricultural sector, France weathers the Depression better than its neighbors, from whom it receives a wave of immigrants.
The pendulum swings to the left, and France is briefly headed by a Popular Front government under Léon Blum. He must, however, contend with internal divisions and financial failure. Blum's main legacy is a series of labor reforms. In 1939, France, unable to avoid hostilities with Germany, enters World War II.
German invasion partitions France into an occupied zone and a zone governed by Marshal Pétain's Vichy regime. The latter collaborates with Nazi Germany in plundering France's resources and deporting Jews. Trade and the economy come to a standstill. The Allies finally land in Normandy in June 1944 and liberate France with help from General Charles de Gaulle's Resistance movement.
De Gaulle heads a provisional government at the beginning of the Fourth Republic, then resigns because of internal divisions. He forms a new party, the Rally of the French People (RPF). France must once again rebuild its economy. The state nationalizes the banking, electricity, gas, and coal sectors as well as companies that consorted with Vichy. France's colonies clamor for independence.
U.S. aid and a national plan bolster economic growth. France, though, remains politically unstable, with a rapid succession of ineffective governments. After French defeat in Indochina and bitter armed conflict in Algeria, a revolt in Paris overthrows the Fourth Republic. De Gaulle returns to become president with wide executive powers under a new constitution in 1958.
France dominates the newly formed European Economic Community. Growing inequalities and rising discontent accompany its strong economic performance. France seeks to protect its interests by becoming an independent military and nuclear power. De Gaulle promotes Franco-German cooperation and large-scale, high-tech economic projects. France's colonies in North and West Africa gain independence.
De Gaulle narrowly defeats his left-wing opponent in presidential elections. He continues an independent approach to foreign policy. Rising inequalities and the government's paternalistic attitude spark a violent, nationwide student and labor uprising in May 1968. De Gaulle resigns, and Prime Minister Georges Pompidou takes over the presidency while the Socialist Party builds strength.
Valéry Giscard d'Estaing, leader of the center-right Independent Republicans, is elected president. "Thirty Glorious Years" of postwar economic growth come to an end with successive oil shocks, a growing trade deficit, and unemployment. Unpopular austerity measures fail to redress the economy.
A strong left elects Socialist Party leader François Mitterrand president. His predominantly Socialist government implements a sweeping program of reform, decentralizing government, nationalizing large industries, banks and insurance companies, and raising wages and social security benefits. But the resulting increase in public spending further hurts the economy.
Economic policy takes a U-turn as Mitterrand abandons protectionist measures for state-led growth. Communists in the government resign. The right wins 1986 parliamentary elections, and Mitterrand names opposition leader Jacques Chirac as prime minister, ushering in a phase of "cohabitation" governments. Chirac completes the economic policy shift with a denationalization and deregulation program.
High unemployment, the rise of the extreme-right National Front, and tight immigration policies fuel racial tensions. France enters the Gulf War and suffers from the worldwide recession. Mitterrand's popularity plummets, and in 1993 he appoints Édouard Balladur of the opposition Rally of the French People (RPF) as prime minister.
The new European Single Market and a privatization program help the economy register moderate growth. Prime Minister Balladur resigns when he is implicated in one of a series of political scandals. Paris is rocked by a rash of terrorist bombings believed to be the work of Algerian Islamic fundamentalists. Chirac, running as the "man of the people," is elected president.
The government loses support when President Chirac launches nuclear tests in the Pacific and Socialist Prime Minister Lionel Jospin fails to live up to campaign promises made to labor. Political scandals further undermine the government, setting the stage for a turbulent run up to the 2002 presidential elections. Economic growth remains moderate, but stronger than that of most European nations.
After extreme rightist Jean-Marie Le Pen earns a runoff spot in the 2002 election, President Chirac wins reelection when all mainstream parties unite around him. The left is routed in parliamentary elections. The conservative government stays the course, as France is the best performing of the larger European economies. The government proposes greater decentralization of power to the regions.
President Chirac strongly opposes the war in Iraq and demands a central role for the United Nations in Iraq after the military conflict. Relations with the U.S. and UK are tense. A sluggish economy, ballooning budget deficit, and rising unemployment weigh heavily on the domestic agenda. A controversial initiative to reform the country's pension system causes mass strikes.
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