France and Britain in 1920s

France and Britain in 1920s

"The Crazy Years": France in the 1920s

 

In the wake of World War I, Britain and France were the European countries guiding a new world order committed to the ideas of democracy and increased rights for humanity. But the war had taken a severe toll on them, also. Like the rest of Europe, Britain and France struggled to rebuild after World War I. They faced significant political, social, and economic challenges. Simultaneously, the “Roaring 20s” culture of flappers, jazz, and avante garde art also reached Britain and France. The clashing of conservativism and new age liberalism produced fragile republics that seemed to be in the middle of national identity crises.

 

Learning Objectives

  • Evaluate how events of the 1920s affected British and French societies.

 

Key Terms / Key Concepts

Action Française: far-right, extremist, antisemitic organization in France that would serve as the model for similar-minded groups in the 1930s

Années folles: “crazy years” of the 1920s in France

Michael Collins: hero of the Easter Uprising and Irish War for Independence who was assassinated during the Irish Civil War for signing the Anglo-Irish Treaty

 

France: Economic Catastrophe

 

More than any other western European nation, France had been devastated by World War I. Nearly 1.4 million Frenchmen had perished in the war, with others wounded or missing. Millions of French women and children were now widows and orphans. Many others were forced to provide for the family because the husbands, fathers, and brothers had been disabled by the war. Disabled and badly marred veterans of the war seemed to haunt every corner of Paris, many unable to work. Families were displaced and broken. Much of the combat on the Western Front had occurred on French territory, and left the land, towns, and villages destroyed. Moreover, families had been forced to flee the fighting and remained displaced from their homes. And northeast France remained physically scarred by four years of warfare on its land. 

At the Treaty of Versailles in 1919, the French and British had both demanded reparations from Germany. Initially, the payment plan to France was fixed at 33 billion dollars. Soon, it became evident that the very frail Weimar Republic of Germany could not pay back the war reparations. The German economy plummeted into a long period of hyperinflation. Eventually, with the of the United States, a new plan was drafted to deliver German reparations; this partially satisfied France. But the advent of World War II would prevent Germany from fulfilling their reparations to France until 2010, leaving France without the funds necessary to quickly recover.

The French economy was scarcely better off than that of Germany’s following World War I. Internationally, the franc plummeted in value after World War I. Before the war, the franc had been worth .20 cents to the American dollar. By 1925, it had fallen to less than .02 cents to the American dollar. The country had removed its currency from the gold standard, and therefore had little backing for the franc. As a result, French society became deeply divided. One French prime minister after the other tried to resolve the growing set of crises in the country. One by one, they failed. Increasingly, France relied on foreign and private loans to rebuild their country, all the while still suffering from the social trauma of the war. In 1925, France, one of the leaders of the new world order, appeared to teeter on the edge of collapse.

The savior of France was Raymond Poincaré. Restored as prime minister by French conservatives, he likewise restored the gold standard in France. Additionally, Poincaré implemented tax reforms, reduced government spending, and paid off government debts. Under his supervision, the franc began to stabilize. Within a year, France was recovering from their major economic crisis. Due to the need to rebuild much of the country, work abounded, and employment rates soared. France had entered the golden age of modern European affairs. Two years later, it would come crashing down as the international Great Depression hit Europe.

 

The Années Folles

 

Translated, Années folles literally means “crazy years.” Indeed, even as France reeled with economic and political instability, the country also experienced a social and cultural revolution. Heavily influenced by American culture, France saw the emergence of the “flapper” girls. As in the United States, many French women bobbed their hair, smoked, drove cars, and wore provocative clothing. This was done to display the “new woman” of the 1920s.

Among the most famous of the French flapper girls was a woman who was not, initially, French at all. Josephine Baker was an African American woman born in St. Louis. Frustrated with American segregation, she renounced her American citizenship and moved to Paris in the 1920s. Once there, she achieved international acclaim and interest as an actress, dancer, and singer. She became a person of fascination for the French, not only because of her African heritage, but also because she frequently performed nearly naked; her costumes consisting only of short skirts and necklaces.

 

Photo
Josephine Baker. Baker was internationally famous for her performances in 1920s in Paris and was idolized as the “new woman.”

 

 

The 1920s were, in many ways, the heyday of Parisian artistic expression. Many American performers and writers who had become disenchanted with the United States moved to Paris to form expatriate communities. Among the most famous were Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald. But France had plenty of artists of their own, also. Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse were enormously influential in the postwar neoclassical art movement. This style of art was a sharp contrast to the abstract, chaotic art of the prewar era.

In the 1920s, people had leisure time built into their lives in a way unimaginable before World War I. As such, many French men and women flocked to the radio, theater, and to movie houses where silent films experienced wild popularity. Two of France’s biggest film and theater performers began their careers in the 1920s: Maurice Chevalier and Charles Boyer. Both men would perform in Parisian theaters, French silent films, and eventually find their way to Hollywood’s walk of fame. Similarly, the rise in leisure time also meant an increased interest in sporting events. Most popular in France were the famous bicycle race, the Tour de France.

 

Cultural Backlash: Extreme Conservativism in France

 

Not everyone in France enjoyed the cultural changes, or the new government. Several far-right political groups came to the forefront of public attention in the 1920s. The parent organization of these groups was Action Française. An extreme rightist organization of roughly 200,000 people, it promoted “traditional” French values and was strongly antisemitic. Action Française circulated their messages through their newspaper, demonstrations, marches, and public protests. Although they promoted a “Catholic France,” their inflammatory language and use of occasional violence won them no support from the Catholic Church. Instead, the church ultimately prohibited its members from joining the organization. By the late 1920s, Action Française was losing members and popularity. But it had served its purpose in the eyes of its founders. Because in its stead, new, even more extreme rightist groups, such as the Croix-de-Feu, would emerge in the 1930s to rally people to its causes. Despite the efforts of the French government of the 1920s, as well as the cultural developments, much of France remained politically and socially divided during this time.

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