Labor unrest mounts in the postwar years. Depletion of capital inhibits adequate job creation for returning servicemen. The government passes laws permitting collective bargaining and instituting the eight-hour day and six-day week. Nevertheless, the General Confederation of Labor (CGT) calls for hundreds of strikes to protest low wages and high prices.
With the birth rate declining, population growth is sustained primarily by immigration from Spain and Portugal. Most immigrants to France are young men, which compensates for military losses of the war. France replaces the United States as the greatest destination for European immigrants.
Labor stages a number of major strikes, occupying factories across the country. Blum's government implements several reforms, including the 40-hour work week and paid holidays, as the result of the Matignon agreement between employers and labor. In 1938, however, Daladier's government reinstates the 48-hour work week and sides with employers in a move the Popular Front calls a "bosses' revenge."
The Nazi invasion forces millions to flee their homes and travel long distances across France. They live in miserable conditions, and many suffer from malnutrition as the Vichy government sets weekly rations. Tens of thousands are executed, deported to concentration camps, or put into forced labor in Germany. By the end of the war, Paris is physically undamaged, but many other cities are in ruins.
Peace restores confidence in the future despite initial economic hardship, as the postwar "baby boom" bears witness. The government sets up a social security system that forms the basis for France's extensive welfare system. But poor harvests force the government to lower rations again. The return of more than one million prisoners of war aggravates an existing homelessness crisis.
The government agrees to union demands for a minimum wage. Quality of life improves with economic growth. Housing construction takes off. The traditional rural base declines as growth focuses on industry. A rise in car ownership brings with it suburban development. The late '50s see a renewed influx of immigrants, especially from Italy, Spain, Portugal, and North Africa.
France's rapid economic growth brings with it rising inequalities. More than 45 percent of the country's wealth lies in the hands of 5 percent of the population. The gradually younger population uses the media to help broadcast and garner support for their social aspirations and demands for equality across the nation.
A student revolt against poor university conditions becomes a forum for society to air its grievances. Workers join the movement, which spreads throughout France as an open and violent rebellion against the established order. Divisions within the protest movement and fear among trade union leaders of events escalating beyond their control enable authorities to curb the movement within a month.
Prime Minister Chaban-Delmas's "new society" brings significant social progress. It includes legislation on vocational training and welfare coverage for the poor and elderly. France consolidates its profile as a welfare state. Regulated increases in the minimum wage prevent greater wage disparities. Women's rights are expanded, and the 1975 Abortion Law legalizes abortion in certain circumstances.
President Giscard d'Estaing seeks to improve conditions for women through laws that make it easier to obtain divorce and abortion. He lowers the minimum voting age from 21 to 18, relaxes censorship, and reforms the education system. The economic crisis combined with baby boomers entering the labor market generates a swift rise in unemployment, helping the Socialists return to power.
The new government starts a radical program of social reform. The work week is cut by an hour and paid vacations are extended from four to five weeks. But a program of public spending, nationalization, and increased taxes on high incomes soon gives way to more austere policies. Unemployment rises, intensifying racial tensions in urban areas.
Prime Minister Rocard implements a progressive program aimed at protecting immigrants and the unemployed, but some of his measures are cut short when he is replaced by Edith Cresson. By 1993, unemployment reaches 10 percent. Tight immigration policies influenced by the extreme-right National Front fuel religious and cultural tensions.
President Chirac fails to deliver on his promise to reduce unemployment and end social divisions. Public-sector strikes remain frequent, and in 1995 postal and utilities employees join public transport workers in a nationwide strike which brings the country to a virtual standstill. University students strike to demand more teachers and resources. Unemployment reaches 12.8 percent.
Legislation in 1998 expands the legal status of same- or opposite-sex unmarried couples. A 2000 law reduces the work week from 39 hours to 35 hours without a reduction in pay to promote job creation. Economic growth and a drop in unemployment help mute the initial opposition from employers. Immigration and an aging population maintain pressure on the social welfare system.
back to top