Published Date

June 1, 1944

Resource Type

GI Roundtable Series, Primary Source

From GI Roundtable 40: Will the French Republic Live Again? (1944)

For almost a century France has had a population problem of increasing acuteness. Since 1880 the French population has remained almost stationary near the figure of forty million. And the birth rate has declined steadily until in recent years it no longer has been sufficient to assure replacement of the population.

At the same time, France’s neighbors were showing very marked increases in population. The French figure rose about one-third in the century from 1830 to 1930 while those for Italy and Germany doubled. Had there been a 1940 census, France would have made an even poorer showing since by that year territorial additions had given Germany a population twice as big as that of France.

Moreover, very significant changes were taking place within the forty million total of French population. Once the most populous country of Europe, France in 1930 was far less densely populated than its neighbors. As a result, immigration from Germany, Italy, and Spain during the interwar years provided France with a population that by 1930 was already about 7 per cent of foreign origin.

Furthermore, the French population was the oldest in Europe and growing older. That is, the proportion of the population composed of people over 60 was large and growing larger; the proportion composed of people under 20 was small and growing smaller. That kind of situation obviously did not make for a high birth rate. Neither did another characteristic of the French population: the marked excess of women over men. In 1930, not counting the foreign element, there were 111 females in France to every 100 males. This was an unbalance between the sexes greater than in any other country of Europe and one still further exaggerated since 1940 by the absence of nearly two million Frenchmen held in German prison and work camps.


Industry, Limited

Population statistics reveal another important fact about France. In comparison with the other industrial nations of the world, France has not developed as many large factory cities with huge worker populations. This is partly because French industry is not geared to mass production so much as it is to small, specialty, and luxury manufacturing. For generations, Paris gowns and hats set the style; French perfumes, gloves, silks, and chinaware were eagerly bought in the markets of the world. The typical French factory employs less than twenty-five workers, and out of the grand total of about a million and a quarter industrial establishments the surprising proportion of one-sixth are one-man shops in which the owner is also the entire labor force.

France has built up several large centers of heavy industry, but it can never approach the industrialization attained by Germany, Great Britain, the United States, and Russia. Unless new advances in science change the picture, France’s lack of raw materials and the means of acquiring them in quantity will continue to act as limitations on French industrialization.

First and foremost among these limitations is France’s lack of fuel. Insufficient resources of coal, particularly coking coal, have held France back in the industrial race. At no time in the past hundred years has France produced enough coal to supply her own needs. This is significant in view of the fact that, unless and until science is able to discover a substitute, large stocks of coal are vital to industrial production.

Steel and Aluminum

Two very important raw materials France does have in abundance. They are iron ore and aluminum ore (bauxite). But the processing of the ores into refined metals requires coal or electricity—and much of the latter has been produced from coal. Because its supplies of coal are limited, France has never been able to make full use of its iron-ore and bauxite deposits.

In the record year 1929, for instance, France produced 49,929,450 long tons of iron ore, about one-fourth of the world production in that year. But even with that amount of ore and even with the coal of the Saar Basin, then available to France, only some 9,550,000 long tons of finished steel could be made.

The reason for this lies in the economic fact that it is more profitable to move iron ore for smelting to areas where coal and limestone are found in quantity than the other way around. Thus, most of the iron ore from northern Minnesota flows to the Gary-Youngstown-Pittsburgh region, where ample supplies of the other two ingredients necessary to steelmaking are found. For the same reason much of the ore from French Lorraine normally flows to Germany’s Ruhr Valley.

Modern mechanized warfare requires enormous quantities of steel in all kinds of arms, munitions, and equipment. A nation’s capacity for producing steel, therefore, is a relatively accurate measure of its ability to fight a twentieth-century war. In 1939 Germany stood second among the nations of the world in production of steel; France was fifth.

For years preceding the outbreak of the war, France had led the world in production of aluminum ore. Yet its position with respect to Germany was even worse for refined aluminum than for steel. In 1938 France mined about thirty-five times as much bauxite as Germany, which has almost no reserves of that ore. In the very same year Germany, leading the world by a wide margin, manufactured 158,500 long tons of aluminum in refined form, compared with only 44,600 long tons refined in France. Again the explanation is to be found in France’s lack of adequate power resources, either coal or hydroelectric, to process the ore.

With the exception of rich potash beds in Alsace, enough to last for centuries at the present rate of use, France either lacks entirely the other so-called “strategic materials” or its supplies are not enough for home consumption. In consequence it depends to an unusual extent for these materials on sources beyond its own frontiers.

In 1925–29—years of great prosperity—France produced exportable surpluses of iron ore, bauxite, chemicals, and potash. But iron and steel production only equaled home use and some machinery was imported. With its industrial plant running at full capacity France produced only a fraction of the output of the industrial giants, and from that time onward its production declined while that of both Germany and Russia was rapidly increasing.

Farms and Farmers

France produces a high proportion of its food requirements, differing in this respect from the other European industrial nations, which normally import much of the food they need. Nevertheless, there are problems connected with French agriculture. The system of landownership in France, a holdover from the feudal days of a thousand years ago, encourages minute subdivision of the farm land rather than its combination into large fields and farms. Of the total 3,966,000 farm units in France, approximately three-quarters are less than 25 acres in size. Nearly one-fourth are less than 2.5 acres. At the other end of the scale only 114,000 farms are larger than 125 acres.

Furthermore, fields belonging to a single owner are as likely to be scattered separately about the locality as to be all next to each other in one place. The result is that tractors and other farm machinery cannot profitably be used, even if the small farmers could afford their purchase. French farmers, therefore, practice a more intensive kind of farming, with greater use of human labor than do American farmers. For instance, in 1929 there were only 20,000 tractors in all of rural France.

The French peasant is a good farmer and he loves the soil. He has tended in the last century more and more toward truck farming, dairying, fruit raising, and the like as the most profitable ways to use his land. Just as French industry is noted for its luxury products, French agriculture is famous for its berries, its wines, its vegetables, and its cheeses. And at the same time, enough wheat, potatoes, sugar beets, and other cereals and root crops are produced to supply the national need of these staples.

Paying Protection Money

However, the production of farm commodities in sufficient quantities to supply the domestic market was not wholly the result of natural fertility. It was partly a result of the national policy of protecting home agriculture as well as home industry from foreign competition behind a high tariff wall. This has assured the French market to the French farmer and the French manufacturer without having to meet direct competition from lower-cost production elsewhere—of American or Canadian or Argentinean wheat, or Cuban cane sugar, for instance.

The tariff has given French economy some of the more undesirable aspects of a hothouse. Enterprises flourish that would die if exposed to the pressure of prices in the world market, and Frenchmen, as consumers, have to pay that much more for the things they buy. The French accept the protectionist argument that the nation’s economic life would be destroyed by foreign competition. By and large they seem content to pay the price of artificially stimulating some enterprises and encouraging inefficiency in others behind the protective tariff.

The Little Things in Life

A factor of French economic life more difficult to weigh but of great importance is the psychological make-up of the Frenchman. He is very individualistic and for the most part very conservative. Change on a broad scale comes very slowly in France because it is difficult to convince the French businessman and farmer that he should try new methods.

The average Frenchman does not have ambitions to expand and enlarge his economic activities without limit. If he has a secure living he is satisfied. His dream is not to become a millionaire, but to retire on a “little” fortune so that he can have a “little” home and a “little” garden and read France’s largest newspaper, Le petit Parisian, whose name means “The Little Parisian.” This way of thinking undoubtedly pays high dividends in personal satisfaction, but it does not build a dynamic economy.

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