Review of French Foreign and Defense Policy 1918-1940: The Decline and Fall of a Great Power

Updated on July 3, 2018

French foreign policy and history in the Interwar is something which receives little attention, with the occasional exceptions of things such as the Occupation of the Ruhr, a dusting of its presence in appeasement alongside the United Kingdom, and then of course, the Fall of France, although even this is sometimes all but skipped over in popular accounts of history, save for critical comments of the poor performance of French military forces. Even in more scholarly histories, the approach is a teleological one: France's foreign and defense policies failed in 1940, they were bound to fail, and their failure proves their inherent failings. Thus French Foreign and Defense Policy 1918-1940: The Decline and Fall of a Great Power, a collection of essays from different authors and edited by Robert Boyce, makes for a refreshing change in a review of various elements of French foreign policy, principally within a European context with a very small allotment for the Atlantic connection to the United States. It presents a French leadership which was inherently constrained by various influences and realities and which faced severe and dangerous threats and problems, but which nevertheless continually attempted a diverse range of policies to attempt to solve them, including European economic integration, collective security, alliances with Britain and Italy, and financial diplomacy and propaganda persuasion. It failed in the end, but this failure reflects less discredit to France than has commonly been assumed.

France won the war in 1919, and the subsequent decades were part of an often rearguard action to conserve the peace and security that she had at last achieved.
France won the war in 1919, and the subsequent decades were part of an often rearguard action to conserve the peace and security that she had at last achieved.

Chapters

The introduction, by the editor Robert Boyce discusses the situation in which France found itself during the Interwar period, as well as what historiography has been like upon France in this period - generally a highly negatie one which has sought to find out why France collapsed, instead of attempting to place France into context or look at it in an angle other than just that of the collapse of 1940. France was heavily constrained, and yet it still pursued a wide and innovative host of strategies which attempted to deal with acute foreign policy issues. These failed, but they should be looked at in their own context, and we should move past a simple vision of French decadence and failure.

France was one of the big four nations of the United States, Italy, the United Kingdom, and herself, at the Paris Peace Conference in 1919, and managed to achieve a generally positive diplomatic outcome.
France was one of the big four nations of the United States, Italy, the United Kingdom, and herself, at the Paris Peace Conference in 1919, and managed to achieve a generally positive diplomatic outcome.

Chapter 1, "France at the Paris Peace Conference: addressing the dilemmas of security", by David Stevenson, takes note of what France's objectives were at the conference, which included a variety of territorial, military, and economic objectives. It then discusses how France attempted to put these into practice, and what the degree of success was. Broadly, France did succeed in getting most of what it wanted, but with some areas where it should have tried harder to strike a better deal to better ensure its security. 1918 does not mark the origin of French decline according to the author, but rather the best effort for France to provide for an order capable of ensuring its security: unfortunately, it was one which would be the target of hostile Anglo-American liberal opinion, since any treaty to preserve French security naturally had to place Germany in a subsidary position, given its greater strength which had to be contained.


Chapter 2, "France and the politics of steel, from the Treaty of Versaillles to the International Steel Entente, 1919-1926", by Jacques Bariéty, introduces the importance and conundrum of the steel issue after the Great War. Steel was a vital part of war making capability, and the possession of the integrated steel industry of the German empire, reliant upon German coal and coking material, and Lorraine iron ore, was vital for their capability to fight so long in the war. One of France's principal war aims was the possession of this region, and yet to do so would be to break up this integrated steel industry. The question was how to resolve this: after it was realized that it was impossible to annex or economically control Germany's coal, the solution at the Treaty of Versailles was reparations of German coal to France, and the annexation of German coal sources in the east to Poland which would reduce German economic strength. Unfortunately for this plan, it did not work, because German coal deliveries did not match Treaty obligations. German steel makers repeatedly entered into battles with the French to attempt to secure an independent or dominant position, which they did not succeed in, but managed to prevent the intended marginalization of Germany's industrial capacity from being practical. The ultimate resolution was an international steel cartel, granting a production, trade, and resource framework to France, Belgium, Luxebourg, and Germany, which solved the steel problem in a compromise fashion, and which lasted in some way up to the beginning of the war in 1939.

Germany's territories after 1919 still left it with significant coal and steel production, to great worry of France, and along with reparations which it was intricately bound up with it would be one of the key post-war battles.
Germany's territories after 1919 still left it with significant coal and steel production, to great worry of France, and along with reparations which it was intricately bound up with it would be one of the key post-war battles.

Chapter 3, "Raymond Poincaré and the Ruhr Crisis" by John F.V. Keiger opens with a description of the political scene of Raymond Poincaré, the French Prime Minister in 1922, who oversaw a broad Republican centrist government in France, committed towards a policy of firmness towards Germany but embattled by conflicting internal politics and objectives. Poincaré was faced with conflicting demands of both needing to strengthen ties with Britain, and ensure that the Treaty of Versailles was fully enforced in regards to the Germans, despite British opposition to the former. Attempts at mending relations with the Germans failed, the Germans launched an intense international public opinion campaign against him, and ultimately Poincaré undertook the occupation of the Ruhr, calling the bluff that he would not do so, to attempt to restart the reparations process. This was not his desire, which was for a conciliatory approach, but was forced upon him: he opposed more ambitious policies such as encouraging separatism in Germany. Ultimately, the Germans broke down, and for this and even more so domestic objectives to attempt to maintain a moderate Republican majority, led to the Dawes plan, although this meant in the end the beginning of the demise of the Versailles system.


While Keiger's article seems useful for bringing a French domestic political look to the Ruhr Crisis which is often neglected, at the same time his writing seems quite obsessed with the idea of singular figures with unreasonable hostility to France, such as Lord Curzon, Maynard Keynes, or the German Chancellor Cumo. While not denying individual influence and opinions and their effects, the lack of rationale behind their opposition in many cases leaves the piece on infirm ground. Furthermore, later chapters in the book conflict over the degree of Poincaré's intent


Chapter 4, "Economics and Franco-Belgian Relations in the Inter-War Period" by Eric Bussière, deals with the French search for a special accord with Belgium to restructure European relations in a new manner, while Belgium searched for economic stability after the war. French objectives with Belgium aimed to form a customs union, which was generally backed by most French industrialists with some exceptions, while Walloon business leaders supported a customs union with France at the same time as business men in the north favored British participation to provide for a counterweight to excessive French influence which could break their trade with Germany. The Belgian government backed this for both political and economic reasons opposing a customs union with France. Post-war negotiations failed as well, complicated by the inclusion of Luxembourg, which had voted for economic union with France to replace its previous union with Germany, and it wasn't until 1923 that a de-facto preferential agreement had been created between the two countries.... which was then promptly rejected by the Belgian Chamber of Representatives. In effect, Belgium chose an option of continued economic independence, despite cooperation with and concessions from France. Subsequently both countries turned to securing trade agreements with Germany, and the Belgian and French economies drifted apart in policies. So too, Belgium ran into difficulties with Loucheur's late 1920s proposal for a European trading bloc, preferring a more internationalized free trade system. More concrete efforts happened in response to the Great Depression but the problems of international relations, gold bloc negotiations, and calls for protectionism meant they amounted to only a marginal improvement.

France desperately needed reparations after WW1 to repair the damage which Germany had inflicted on her soil, but it would be a difficult process to receive them.
France desperately needed reparations after WW1 to repair the damage which Germany had inflicted on her soil, but it would be a difficult process to receive them.

Chapter 5, "Reparations and War Debts: The Restoration of French Financial Power 1919-1929," is by Denise Artaud, and covers the difficult problem of the vast war debts which France had built up and how to pay for them, which was intended to be through reparations from Germany, after the preferred French solution of a cancellation of war debts was shot down. However, there were important international diplomatic problems, in that there was no formal link between war debts and reparations, and French and British positions differend on the settlements, the British trying for an approach that would privilege their war debts, while the French wanted an approach that would help with economic reconstruction. The circular flow of American loans to Germany, German reparations to France and Britain, and French and British war repayments to the United States temporarily solved the inherent antagonism of the system, and briefly at the end of the 1920s the French diplomatic position seemed strong, with a seemingly tacit recognition of the link of war loan repayments to reparations: this was undone briefly thereafter with the Great Depression, and the entire economic systems of Versailles collapsed.


Chapter 6, "Business as Usual: The Limits of French Economic Diplomacy 1926-1933" by Robert Boyce concerns an apparent puzzle in that France, long known as a country where the French state had been willing to utilize its economic influence for foreign diplomatic objectives, seemingly was little capable of shifting international affairs with it during the height of its interwar economic strength in 1926-1933. Boyce states that much of this reputation is overstated and that the French government was not as powerful as assumed in controlling the private economy, and it also faced certain constraints. However, it did achieve certain victories, such as reasserting its influence in Eastern Europe from the United Kingdom, after leveraging its superior financial situation upon the stabilization of the French Franc in 1926 to threaten the UK with driving it off the gold standard. Other projects did not go so well, such as the attempt to reconstruct European trade into a direction more favorable towards France, as France had simultaneously to deal with the threat of German domination of continental trade and British opposition to a European trading bloc, as well as internal protectionist sentiments, which combined to sabotage any effort to liberalize European trade despite lofty propositions from Arstide Briand, French Prime Minister. Ultimately, Europe would pay the price in the Great Depression. The other part of French economic diplomacy was the financial one, which existed sometimes but was often exaggerated. France never undermined the currency of either Germany or the United Kingdom as there had been some suspicion of. However, it did attempt politically to encourage continued loans and financial agreements with its Eastern European allies, but market realities dictated that these amounted to little. The same could be said about last minute attempts to stabilize the world economic situation, where despite occasional heroic efforts, nothing significant was gained in spite of significant available French resources. A liberal economy, the conflicting issues of containing Germany and simultaneously needing to keep solidarity with the Anglo-Saxon nations (despite receiving precious little in return), and the pace of events prevented any long-term success.

Massigli next to Winston Churchill
Massigli next to Winston Churchill

Chapter 7, "René Massigli and Germany, 1919-1938" written by Raphäelle Ulrich concerns the aforementioned French diplomat and his relationship to Germany. Massigli was never the sole individual tasked with German relations in the French Foreign Ministry, nor even its principal one, and dealt with Germany as part of a general European context, but Germany was nevertheless the overriding objective for his policies and one which he dealt with constantly. Massigli was both firm with Germany, but willing to be conciliatory, and saw Germany as having important democratic seeds growing from below that were overshadowed by its elite, of which he was still wary. Thus his policies aimed to meet German grievances and complaints with compromise while preserving the fundamental tenets of the Versailles order. When Germany abandoned this and began its move to the far right of Hitler, he became an advocate against appeasement, determined that European policy must be dealt with in a general framework to prevent Germany from being able to exploit individual issues.

The Stresa Front between France, Britain, and Italy to contain Germany, and the high point of Franco-Italian relations: shortly thereafter undone by the war in Ethiopia
The Stresa Front between France, Britain, and Italy to contain Germany, and the high point of Franco-Italian relations: shortly thereafter undone by the war in Ethiopia

Chapter 8, "Franco-Italian relations in Flux 1918-1940", by Pierre Guillen, displays the constantly shifting Franco-Italian relations of the interwar. Italy had been on the Allied side in WW1, but following the end of the war it ran into tensions with France, playing a significant role in blocking French attempts to move Italy economically and culturally into the French orbit and hence to replace previous German influence. Over colonies and Yugoslavia, France and Italy had significant disputes. But at the same time relations were reasonably friendly during the early 1920s, even after Mussolini gained power in Italy. This deteriorated from 1924 onwards, saw occasional efforts at an entente in the late 1920s, deteriorated again, then recovered in fear of Hitler leading to the abortive Stresa pact, and then collapsed over Ethiopia. Despite attempts to bring Italy back into the fold, Italy's regime had become increasingly indifferent to French diplomacy as fascism increased its power in Italy: the only remaining question was the course of military events which would determine whether Italy would enter the war against France. Ultimately, France's military collapsed at Sedan, and France's worst fears of Italian participation in a war alongside Germany against them came true.

A map of the defensive positions of the French defensive system, strongest along the German and Italian borders.
A map of the defensive positions of the French defensive system, strongest along the German and Italian borders.

Chapter 9, "In Defense of the Maginot Line: Security policy, domestic politics and the economic depression in France" by Martin S.Alexander makes the case that the Maginot Line has been unfairly critiqued and is in need of a reconsideration and a different understanding, rather than that of just a ill-planned failure which doomed France to defeat in 1940. France ended the Great War with the belief that any future war would be a lengthy one, and for limited internal strength and geography, a line of defensive fortifications would be vital to enable it to fight effectively in a future war. After extensive debate, it began construction on a line of fortifications on the border with Germany in the early 1930s. While expensive, the cost for the Maginot line was less so than later weapons spending, and its expenditure in the early 1930s came at a time when any weapons then constructed might have been obsolete later on. Most importantly, the Maginot line was the only project before 1935 which had widespread public support behind it, and which played well in international perspective in the period: it was not a choice between the Maginot line and tanks, but instead between the Maginot line and nothing. The Maginot line served to magnify French defensive strength and to effectively channelize German forces, and its was the failings of French armies in Belgium, not the Maginot line, which cost France the campaign in 1940.

Wouldn't mind doing something nice for France myself if it netted me a Légion d'Honneur....
Wouldn't mind doing something nice for France myself if it netted me a Légion d'Honneur....

Chapter 10, "A Douce and Dexterous Persuasion: French propaganda and Franco-American relations in the 1930s" by Robert J.Young recounts French efforts to improve their poor image in the United States, which for a variety of reasons had been persistently poor in the post-war era, a brief exception around 1928 asides. This unfurled itself in a propaganda campaign aimed at both the traditional upper elites, and broader US opinion, and designed to counter an equivalent German campaign. This was done through awards of the Legion d'honneur for services to France, information distribution (including the creation of an information center), support for French educational and cultural institutions, French educational personnel and academics teaching or speaking in the United States, exchange student facilitation, and educating French young ambassadors. There were also efforts to steer American films towards a more positive image of France, to bring French films to the United States, to improve radio broadcasting facilities, and goodwill tours in the United States by French personnages. Alongside Hitler's tarnishing of Germany's image in the United States, it helped to bring about an improvement of the French image to a restored place by the end of the 1930s, so that there was a widespread feeling of sympathy for France's plight.

Participants at the Munich Conference of France, Britain, Germany, and Italy: Czechoslovakia was effectively thrown to the wolves.
Participants at the Munich Conference of France, Britain, Germany, and Italy: Czechoslovakia was effectively thrown to the wolves.

Chapter 11, "Daladier, Bonnet, and the Decision-Making Process during the Munich Crisis, 1938", by Yvon Lacase, shifts to an altogether less satisfactory outcome of French foreign policy, the lead up, conduct of, and the French factions involved in formulating policy for, the Munich crisis. French was bound to Czechoslovakia by a treaty of alliance, but it had little means to assist its ally. It could count little on its vital partner of the United Kingdom however, which repeatedly appealed to France for "reason", both for itself and for its Czech ally. Furthermore, it had significant internal elements, such as Foreign Minister Bonnet, who were in effect in favor of throwing Czechoslovakia to the wolves. In the end, despite occasional bursts of energy, France did essentially that, with only a mildly less pro-German settlement than the German proposal had originally been. Daladier was indecisive and had little experience with foreign policy, while Bonnet was anti-war (he had honorably served in the trenches in the First World War) and willing to edit affairs to suit his own objectives, such as British dispatches which might otherwise have been indicators of a firmer policy, and ran a very personal diplomacy: he was also ambitious and scheming. In addition the chapter covers various secondary interest groups involved backing up the figure of Bonnet and his appeasement policies. This continues with the various experts, diplomats, and ambassadors from the Quai d'Orsay- the French foreign office - and ministers in government and their effectiveness and stance in the crisis. The general public was opposed to war. When the crisis itself came, Bonnet and Daladier were the two figures with decision making capability, but Bonnet had widespread backing from a variety of groups... and Daladier found himself alone, and outmaneuvered, and his policy of firmness defeated.


French intelligence was simultaneously convinced of the temporary superiority of Italy and Germany, and of the long term strengths of the United Kingdom and France in a war against the Axis powers.
French intelligence was simultaneously convinced of the temporary superiority of Italy and Germany, and of the long term strengths of the United Kingdom and France in a war against the Axis powers.

Chapter 12, "Intelligence and the End of Appeasment", by Peter Jackson, traces the path taken by France to war, focusing on how French intelligence concluded that Germany was intensifying war preparations and preparing once more for continental domination (starting with a drive to dominate Eastern Europe and the Balkans and then turning West), leading France to abandon a policy of appeasement. This chapter covers the mechanisms used by the intelligence organizations, then proceeds to how they increasingly determined that the Axis powers were preparing for a war in the soon to intermediate future. Intelligence greatly overestimated the military strength of both Germany and Italy, which was deleterious in preparations to attempt to confront them. Simultaneously however, they considered the two powers to be extremely vulnerable economically to war. Appeasement increasingly died as France poured resources into its military, and conducted an effective information campaign in the United Kingdom which led to a firm British commitment to France, bringing a policy of fimness decisively forwards. War was inevitable, as Nazi Germany could not quench its appetites, and France would not back down again.

The Phony War, part of a long term French strategy, albeit one that came under attack.
The Phony War, part of a long term French strategy, albeit one that came under attack.

Chapter 13, "France and the Phoney War 1939-1940", penned by, Talbot Imlay opens with discussing the general nature of French strategy, predicated upon a lengthy war which would enable the full mobilization of French and British military and economic strength to win an attritional conflict against Germany, and if need be, Italy, defending this as a cogent and reasonable strategy given the French situation. Unfortunately, there were also major French internal feelings that this strategy was not functional, pinned upon a belief that Britain's contribution to the war was insufficient, that Germany's strength was increasing, not decreasing compared to France, the belief in German economic vulnerability had been overstated, and that Germany and the Soviet Union were growing closer together and that they constituted a united bloc against the Soviet Union - all were terrifying prospects. Within France, the focus from the French right increasingly shifted from an all consuming battle against Nazism to a focus on the Soviet Union as an equal enemy of Francen and when Daladier's government collapsed over a failure to do so through aiding Finland during the Winter War, the new French Prime Minister Paul Reynaud's only possibility to tie together the right and the left was to push for increased operations in secondary theatre, to both aim to end the war quickly and to show French determination against Germany. Perhaps most importantly, at home the French war economy seemed to be failing to produce the desired results, as workers had grown alienated by policies which excluded them and marginalized them, with fears over domestic strength and solidarity in the long run. Thus, Reynauld's rise to the position of premier was the rejection of a doctrine of a long war - in the end however, events in May 1940 would conspire to prevent him from making any real changes.

An index follows, but there is no conclusion.

Perspective

There are many strengths to this book, as it contains a diverse and illuminating variety of chapters. They are all extremely well researched, although I have my suspicions of the portrayal adopted in Chapter 3 - mostly due to the seemingly excessive reliance on personal figures and the lack of portrayal from the other side. But even here the chapter is useful at seeing a political perspective on the Ruhr crisis, rather than simply having it from a foreign policy view. Some of the chapters do at times discord with each other, but for the most part they meld very well. Their selected topics are well chosen, helping to give a good overview of French European diplomatic efforts on their most pressing issues, and in particular are excellent I feel for economics - from reparations, to economic aspects of the Versailles treaty, to Franco-Belgian relations, to general European economic relations, to economic aspects of the Franco-German military conflict, the book unstintingly provides a great host of details.

The book does an excellent job of portraying the thoroughly sordid affair of the attempt to patch together the Interwar order, and in particular it casts, deservedly, a very grim light upon the United Kingdom's role in the European order in the interwar, as well as to a lesser extent that of the United States. The order which they helped to create at Versailles was one which they had freely reaped the benefits from of the destruction of Germany's naval threats and colonies, and the British had taken their share of reparations, but the illiberal nature of the Versailles order was one which both agitated against, for their own benefit, but without ever providing an alternative to it which could placate French interests, needs, and security. For a common stereotype of French ungratitude and arrogance, the picture is reversed with dreadful frequency for the United Kingdom. It shows how the fundamental division in French interests, the need to contain Germany and simultaneously to placate the Anglo-Saxon powers, worked against each other and placed France constantly into a dangerously subsidiary position. As a useful guide to the diplomacy and the problems faced by the French, and indeed for quite a few European nations who simultaneously had to balance their attitudes towards each other and their relations to the Anglo-Saxons, the book is quite a useful source.

At the same time, it must be admitted that the volume is a Euro-centric one - not in the modern cultural sense, simply that it places French diplomacy almost entirely into a European framework, and there almost entirely on Germany. If one is looking for a book which will shed some light on other aspects of French relations, there is nothing in the continents of Latin America, Africa, the Middle East, or Asia, North America receives only a flitting reference, and the work is dominated by the perspective of the relationship to Germany. There is very little about the relationship to the Eastern European countries even, nor Iberia, nor Scandinavia - the book's entire effort is placed upon Germany. This isn't a bad thing as it is the most important subject and the one which has been most remembered in history, but for anybody interested in getting the book this aspect must be known.

Overall, the book is in my opinion an excellent one for French foreign relations in the Interwar, approaching it from a refreshing perspective and in new ways, onto original subjects, and in a fashion which takes into account a wide variety of facets, including cultural diplomacy, economics, and security. One gets a good feel for what the objectives were of French diplomacy in the period, the constraints that France operated under, and its successes and failures. For this, it makes an invaluable tome for those interested in foreign relations, European politics, European diplomacy, French interwar history, European integration, European economics history, French economics history, French political history, and a variety of other subjects: its applicability to the study of the European Interwar is a vast and compelling reason to read it.

5 stars for French Foreign and Defense Policy 1918-1940

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