Les trente glorieuses:

France 1945-1975


    Introduction

    Europe saw many changes in the immediate post-war period. In part these changes were brought about by a prosperity that was largely the result of a stable world order - an international order led by the Americans - in which major investments took place to rebuild national economies damaged by war. In many European countries - and France is certainly no exception here - there was an unbroken period of economic prosperity and rising standards of living which lasted until the 1970s. In France the name given to this period of growth, prosperity and abrupt social change was les trente glorieuses - that is to say, the thirty glorious years between 1945 and 1975, or more accurately, between the liberation of France in 1944 to the economic downturn triggered by the oil crisis (crise pétrolière) of 1973.

    Here is Kristin Ross on this period in French history:

    The speed with which French society was transformed after the war from a rural, empire-oriented, Catholic country into a fully industrialized, decolonized and urban one meant that the things modernization needed - educated middle managers, for instance, or affordable automobiles and other `mature' consumer durables, or a set of social siences that followed scientific, functionalist models, or a work force of ex-colonial laborers - burst onto a society that still cherished prewar outlooks with all the force, excitement, disruption, and horror of the genuinely new. (Ross: 1996 p.4)


    Reconstruction

    At the end of the Second World War France was, as you might expect, it was happy to be liberated but the devastation caused by war and enemy occupation was everywhere. Industrial production was down to half of its pre- war level and agriculture was at a complete standstill due to an absence of men and machinery.

    The priority was recovery and the key words were remise en marche and redémarrage. The injunction everywhere was to produce (produire!), with a distinct stress on collective effort - phrases like bas les vestes et haut les coeurs!, retroussons nos manches! and et, hop, on s'en sortira! became part of the political discourse of the day.

    France was soon on its feet with industrial output up to pre-war levels by 1947. This was largely achieved by a number of initiatives. Firstly, there was the active role of the state in industry oversaw the nationalisation of public utilities (e.g. CDF - Charbonnages de France; EDF - Électricité de France; GDF - Gaz de France), airlines (Air France), banks (Banque de France) and many other private companies like the Renault car factory (Régie Nationale des Usines Renault).

    As a result of these nationalisations, France became the most state-controlled capitalist country in the world. Another factor behind economic recovery was the Marshall Aid Plan an American initiative which gave grants, loans and subsidies to struggling post-war nations. The issue of raising the birth rate was an additional factor in France's industrial recovery: more babies meant more demand for goods and services and more potential worker-consumers. There was a clear link, then, between production and reproduction, conception and consumption. Immigration too played a central role in the economic modernisation and growth that characterises les trente glorieuses.


    The New Affluence

    Les trente glorieuses witnessed rapid economic growth. For those who like their statistics neat, between 1945 and 1975 the economy grew on average by 5% per annum, which was a considerable economic achievement at the time. Both industry and agriculture were undergoing a process of increasing modernisation.

    As a result of full employment, rising wages, and increasing holiday provision, new patterns of consumption and leisure activities began to emerge. A newly affluent working-class began to enjoy a higher standard of living than ever before in the history of France. Les trente glorieuses were the years of the ` affluent worker' and one writer, André Gorz, even went so far as to claim that the working class was disappearing (`adieu à la classe ouvrière'). Although disparities in levels of income renamed significant, there was, on average, a 6% increase in people's real incomes. The higher incomes and increased spending power of post-war France, and in particular, of the 1950s and 1960s, was created by economic growth and rising productivity.


    The Consumer Society

    This newly prosperous working-class was anxious to enjoy the possessions and lifestyle hitherto afforded only by the middle-class and the wealthy - la société de consommation had arrived in France. Frenchmen and women enjoyed longer holidays: in little over a decade the average annual holiday had increased from three weeks in 1956 to four weeks in 1969. Some middle-class French looked on this phenomena with alarm as their formerly exclusive resorts became open to more and more people - les prolos à la plage) as they were sometimes contemptuously known. A number of consumer durables came to symbolise this new age of prosperity and consumer aspiration: the refrigerator, the washing machine, the television and the car. By the end of the 1950s, for instance, 7.5% of French families owned a refrigerator, 10% a washing machine, 26% a television and 21% a car (Price: 1993 p.292). The car became a particularly visible emblem of France's new prosperity. In 1939, for example, there were an estimated 500,000 cars in the Paris region. In 1960, there were a million and in 1965 there were 2 million (Ross: 1996 p.53). The city had to adapt to the pressure of increasing car use and in 1956 the Périphérique, the motorway circling Paris was begun. The Right Bank Expressway along the Seine was finished in 1967. This increase was due not just to higher standards of living but to motor vehicule manufacturers targetting a new mass market. The Renault 4CV, launched in 1947, and widely seen as the first truly affordable mass market French saloon car is a good example of this.


    Urbanisation

    Les trente glorieuses also witnessed the rapid process of urbanisation and for this reason it is sometimes characterized as les années de béton. Between 1946 and 1985 the population grew from 40.3 million to 55 million, 69% of whom were now living in towns or cities compared with 51% before the war. (Price: 1993 p.273). In 1945 housing conditions in the cities were little different from those of the nineteenth century. The housing stock was old - most of it nineteenth-century - and lacking modern amenities like bathrooms, kitchens and running water. In 1954 more than a third of all households lacked running water and only 17.5% had a either a bath or a shower (Price: 1993 p.292). Overcrowding was a major problem however. As late as 1962 in fact, a census classified one flat in four as overcrowded and recorded that 60% of all housing stock predated 1914. Housing stock was not only in poor condition but it was also in high demand. Increasing numbers of Frenchmen and women were moving from the country to the city and, just as important, increasing numbers of Frenchmen and women were deciding to have children. The rising birth rate exacerbated the already serious problem of overcrowding.

    The ideal for most young couples in France was a modern home with all the now necessary amenities of modern living. A model of cleanliness and logical design like the show kitchen featured in Femina pratique (May 1955) below:

    As France grew wealthier, some sociologists were quick to note that French society was beginning to withdraw into the private space of the home. The home became a space where new desires of comfortable, modern living were created. Happiness was to be found within the four walls of le foyer. This, of course, is one of the main themes of Rochefort's Les petits enfants du siècle. Here is Kristin Ross on this trend:

    On the national level France retreats within the hexagon, withdraws from empire, retrenches within its borders at the same time as those boundaries are becoming newly permeable to a whirlwind of economic forces - forces far more destructive of some received notion of `national culture' than any immigrant community could muster. The movement inward - a whole complex process ... that Castoriadis, Moran, and Lefebvre all called `privatization' - is a movement echoed on the level of everyday life by the withdrawal of the new middle classes to their newly comfortable domestic interiors, to the electric kitchens, to the enclosure of private automobiles, to the interior of a new vision of conjugality and an ideology of happiness built around the new unit of middle- class comsumption, the couple, and to depoliticization as a response to the increase in bureaucratic control of daily life. (Ross: 1996 p.11)

    Massive investment in France's housing infrastructure took place in the 1950s and 1960s to address the nation's needs. From 1954 onwards, new building projects began to be realised - les grandes ensembles - often supplanting as well as complementing existing housing stock. At its peak, some 400,000 properties - modern, sanitised, standardised and suburban - were created each year. One striking example of the council estates created after 1954 was Sarcelles situated near Le Bourget airport. Interestingly enough, it had a population of over 40,000 yet had neither secondary school nor cultural centre. It created a new kind of psychological depression or new- town blues that rapidly acquired its own name: Sarcellitis.


    The Rural Exodus

    The principal migratory movement from the middle of the nineteenth century until the late 1960s was from rural to urban. In those one hundred or so years, France experienced a rural exodus as more and more people moved from jobs in agriculture in the countryside to jobs in industry and the service sector in the cities and the suburbs of France.

    Changes in transport infrastructure from the nineteenth century onwards, like the construction of the railways, and cultural factors like the increased provision of primary education and the introduction of military service opened new horizons for many young men and women who would have otherwise spent their lives in the field or the farmhouse.

    During the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s - the so-called années de béton - there was much movement from city to suburb. This process of urban deconcentration was necessary due to the shortage, and general poor quality of housing stock in urban centres and was made possible by the large-scale construction of housing estates on the edges of most French cities.


    The Baby Boom

    The most common population pattern in nineteenth-century Europe was rapid growth with fertility rates exceeding mortality rates in countries like Britain and Germany. This was not the case in France, however, which experienced a period of population stagnation caused by low levels of fertility (due to a desire to limit inheritance to fewer children, the practice of coitus interruptus, comparatively late marriage of women and higher levels of celibacy) and higher than average levels of infant mortality (due to poor sanitation, nutrition and healthcare).

    In 1881, for example, the birth rate in France was 25 per 1,000 as opposed to 35 per 1,000 in Britain. Throughout the nineteenth century the population of France grew from 28 million to 40 million (an increase of 43%) as opposed to the growth of the German population from 22 to 63 million (an increase of 186%) and Britain from 16 to 40 million (an increase of 150%).

    This low level of fertility continued into the twentieth century and, indeed, was exacerbated by such events as the First World War (1914- 1918) which claimed 1.3 million lives, the influenza epidemic of 1919 and the Second World War (1939-1945). Indeed, it is following France's military defeats of 1870 and the First World War, that France's falling birth rate became a subject of much concern at the highest level of French political life.

    During the years of the Third Republic (1870-1914), successive French governments adopted a pronatalist line, i.e. a policy that explicitly sought to encourage a rise in the birth rate. In the 1920s, for example, both abortion and the sale of contraceptives were prohibited and in 1939 the Code de la famille was introduced with a range of financial incentives for married couples with children. During les années noires of Nazi occupation between 1940 and 1944, the Vichy government - whose slogan was Famille, Travail, Patrie - adopted a similar pronatalist line and established a Ministry of Population (1940) and introduced the death penalty for back-street abortionists (les faiseuses d'anges).

    It was not really until the middle of the 1940s that such measures began to work and the years between 1943 and 1965 see the so-called `baby boom'. The policies of earlier governments were taking effect and this, plus the post- war coalition government's stress on boosting the birth rate - in a speech made in 1945 De Gaulle wanted to see `en dix ans, douze millions de beaux bébés pour la France' (`twelve million bouncing babies for France in the space of ten years) - saw the beginning of `le baby boom'.

    Between those years the number of births (14 million) in France greatly exceeded the number of deaths (9 million). The rates of infant mortality fell and more and more young couples, encouraged by state incentives (family allowances, tax relief, housing allowances, cheaper transport and cinema tickets etc.) had larger and larger families. A negative side of this increase in the birth rate was the conservative attitude to gender roles that accompanied it. Women returned to the home - le retour au foyer - and a climate of what one might call regressive sexual politics prevailed.

    By the mid-1960s however, the `baby boom' had slowed down. The changing attitudes of women to work, the availability of contraception (legalised in 1967 under la Loi Neuwirth) and abortion (legalised in 1975 under la Loi Veil) led to a change in cultural attitudes and a slowing down of the birth rate in France.


    Conclusion

    French society then, was undergoing a period of rapid change but in many important ways it also remained profoundly untouched. It remained a society in which class, race and gender inequality was perpetuated despite the apparent transformations within the fabric of French society.


    Further Reading

    You might like to supplement your reading of these notes by clicking on:

  • Reconstruire (in French)
  • La France depuis la IVe République
  • La nouvelle République et le bloc Atlantique
  • One very interesting commentator on a variety of social and cultural developments during the first half of les trente glorieuses is Roland Barthes. You can find lectures on his best-known work, Mythologies (1975) at:

  • Roland Barthes, Mythologies: Lecture 1

  • Roland Barthes, Mythologies: Lecture 2

  • Roland Barthes, Mythologies: Lecture 3

  • In terms of old-fashioned books, there are many in the Main Library (Chester Road) directly relevant to les trente glorieuses:

  • J. Ardagh, The New France: A Society in Transition 1945-1973 (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1973. 2nd. edition)
  • M. Cook (ed.), French Culture since 1945 (London: Longman, 1993)
  • C. Duchen , Women's Rights and Women's Lives in France 1944- 1968 (London: Routledge, 1994)
  • C. Dyer, Population and Society in Twentieth Century France (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1978)
  • J.E. Flower, France Today (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1993) 7th edition.
  • J. Forbes & M. Kelly (eds), French Cultural Studies: An Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995)
  • J.F. Hollifield & G. Ross (eds), Searching for the New France (London: Routledge, 1991)
  • C. Laubier, The Condition of Women in France: 1945 to the Present. A Documentary Anthology (London: Routledge, 1990)
  • J. MacMillan, Twentieth-Century France: Politics and Society 1898- 1991 (London: Edward Arnold, 1992)
  • R. Price, A Concise History of France (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993)
  • K. Ross, Fast Cars, Clean Bodies: Decolonization and the Reordering of French Culture (London & Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1996)
  • H.P.M. Winchester, Contemporary France (London: Longman, 1993)
  • V. Wright, The Government and Politics of France (London: Unwin Hyman, 1989) 3rd edition.

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    Text: Tony McNeill
    The University of Sunderland
    Last Update 16-Apr-98