Published Date

June 1, 1944

Resource Type

GI Roundtable Series, Primary Source

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

Through the last century the habits of French political thought and action have been shaped by two great revolutions: first, the Revolution of 1789 that overthrew the monarchy in favor of popular rule in France; second, the Industrial Revolution that changed France from a purely farm and handicraft system at the beginning of the last century into one of limited industrial factory production at the end.

The Revolution of 1789 was inspired by the political ideals of “Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity.” In turn, it inspired the spread of those ideas through much of the rest of the Western world. The basic ideals of the French and the American revolutions are closely related: that all men are created equal and that government should rest on the consent of the governed. The principles and the practice of freedom are as deeply ingrained in the people of France as in the people of the United States, and it is highly probable that they will reassert themselves when France is liberated. It is also probable that the natural consequences of the Industrial Revolution will lead to demands for greater social and economic equality, and for greater security from the hazards of unemployment, sickness, accident, and old age.


Liberty, Equality, Fraternity

From 1789 onward, Frenchmen have tried to fulfill in practice the ideals of the Revolution. In 1830, 1848, and 1870 the forces demanding more power for the mass of the people broke out in violence. At other times the struggle was less open, but it never stopped because the French people would accept no solution as permanent that denied or limited the right of self-government.

But the people and the groups accustomed to the exercise of authority in France did not want to give it up. The Revolution of 1789 had stripped the nobility of wealth and privilege, and forced the king to recognize the right of the nation to rule itself. Subsequent victories, gained under the banner of “Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity,” restricted or eliminated the privileges of other groups. The course of events was quite in accord with the American concept of government of, by, and for the people.

Reactionaries on the Right

Nevertheless, there are still powerful groups in France which have never freely or fully accepted the idea that the people should rule. According to one French writer, a large part of the upper class—the people with wealth, leisure, and education—is bitterly opposed to the practice of political equality and universal manhood suffrage. (French women have never been given the right to vote.) This group might prefer an aristocratic government for a future France. Another small but noisy minority wants a return of the monarchy. And, of course, the Vichyites have been working for the “new order.”

The common, garden variety of Frenchman, however, can be counted on to remember that his ancestors fought and died for freedom and for the right to govern themselves. He will probably never surrender those gains as long as there is the faintest chance of a successful fight to hold on to them. He and his fellow believers in the Revolution—undoubtedly a clear majority of the politically conscious people of the nation—looked upon the Third Republic as their government. Yet many thoughtful ones among them advised important revisions in the constitutional laws to make the regime fit the conditions of the modern world.

The Second Revolution

Part of this pressure for change grew out of the second revolution that deeply affected the life of France. This was the economic and industrial revolution. Growth during the nineteenth century of the railroads, steamship lines, heavy industries, and banks greatly multiplied the numbers and the importance of two classes of society: (1) the professional men and owners of business enterprises, and (2) the propertyless wage earners. During the first half of the century the two groups stood together against the Bourbon kings and the nobles. But in the middle of the century they parted company, becoming directly opposed to each other in their desires and interests.

The businessmen, landlords, and the upper middle class in general felt that “liberty” should properly be extended to economic enterprise, and that the state should not interfere with business. To them “equality” meant simply the absence of legal privileges based upon blood or tradition, while “liberty” meant that every man had freedom to pursue his own interests and acquire thereby wealth and the privileges that come with wealth. The middle class wanted the protection of state laws and courts against such things as foreign competition, but its members did not want the state to restrict their freedom of economic action.

The working class and some of the lower middle class, on the other hand, rejected the idea that the government should not take any part, except that of an umpire, in the economic life of the nation. They wanted state guarantees of “security” against sickness, old age, and accident; they wanted minimum wage and hour regulations; and many of them wanted to see the state become the sole administrator of the means of production and distribution of goods. It should be noticed, however, that the most powerful political party to arise out of the laboring class demands was not the Communist but a social democratic party.

It was not until 1936 that a politician who really represented the social democratic tradition became premier of France. Leon Blum, the first and only Socialist prime minister, attempted his reforms under extremely difficult conditions. On the one side the shadow of approaching war obscured part of his work. On the other, he was embarrassed by the political tactics of the Communists, who were in a position to overthrow the government. Nonetheless, the Blum reforms were popular enough with working-class France to give assurance that his party will be a factor in any future regime.

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