French Foreign Policy, 1919 – 1940

France’s victory in 1918 is considered by many with hindsight to be a pyrhic one. France had lost ten percent of its population and almost a complete generation of young men had been lost. The rich northeast of the county had been damaged almost beyond repair and the French had to borrow 175 billion Francs in order to begin reparations. The war had turned them “into partisans of peace at virtually any cost”. It was this wish to avoid war that dominated French foreign policy from 1919 until 1940.

The Versailles treaty of 1919 did not being the French the permanent security from Germany they had hoped for. General Foch wanted to have the French army guard the land west of the Rhine from German remilitarisation. He felt the demilitarised zone was not enough to guard France. However, the U.S.A., Britain and the League of Nations disagreed with Foch and felt that Germany had lost enough of their land. Thus the situation was left unchanged.

Relations with European powers, with the exception of Germany, deteriorated in the twenties. Britain refused to guarantee French safety in an attack by Germany, and they also disagreed over policies in a Greek Turkish dispute. Lenin refused to repay Tsarist debts, which contributed to French financial difficulties. However, France did sign various agreements with new countries in Eastern Europe, including an alliance with Poland in 1921, and also the Little Entente with Romania and Yugoslavia. Czechoslovakia was possibly the most significant entente because of its Skoda armaments factory. However, the French did not buy arms and this later contributed to the Fall of France, as they had no modern weaponry to protect themselves with in World War II.

The French invaded the Ruhr in 1922 because Germany was failing to make monthly war reparation repayments. However, they quickly realised that they could not afford the occupation and withdrew, agreeing to the Dawes Plan. The main consequence of these was that it showed that France could not force German adherence to the Treaty. This contributed to the appeasement policy adopted in France.

Briand controlled foreign policy in France from 1925 until his death in 1932. He wanted to see the return of Franco-German co-operation and was friendly towards Germany. He welcomed them into the League of Nations in 1926 and was instrumental in the organisation of the Kellogg Pact, which was an agreement between the world powers outlawing war as an instrument of policy. However the Rise of Hitler and the depression of the 1930s was to destroy the good work which Briand had done beginning in 1933, a year after he died.

French politicians did not immediately consider Hitler a threat. In fact, many of the right-wing group endorsed his anti-Communist and anti-Semitic policies. The Four Power Pact was signed between German, Italy, Britain and France in 1933. It showed Hitler as a peace-loving leader and eased the worries of those in France who saw Hitler as a potential dictator and a threat to France. However, when Barthou became Foreign minister in 1934 he held onto his opinion that Hitler was a definite threat to French security. He believed that the French needed to sign an agreement with Russia so that Germany would once again be faced with a two front war if she provoked France. He travelled to Moscow and began negotiations. However, he was assassinated with the Yugoslavian King and the plans were dropped. The dropping of these negotiations proved to be a huge mistake as Stalin then turned to Hitler to make an agreement which would buy him time in the event of a war.

Laval succeeded Barthou as foreign minister and decided to try to come to some sort of agreement with Italy. This became known as the Stresa front. However, Mussolini’s invasion of Abyssinia meant this had to be dropped. The Hoare/Laval pact meant that Laval had to resign as he ludicrously proposed that two thirds of Abyssinia be given to Italy. Thus France was left without Italy as an ally. Hitler’s army increased to over 500,000, which was a violation of the Treat, but France did nothing making Hitler more and more confident with the passing weeks.

Rumours of the invasion of the Rhineland proposed by Hitler were ignored in Paris. When the invasion did occur they adopted an appeasement policy. Attitudes amongst the politicians included “the Germans after all, were only going into their own back garden”. The French estimated Hitler’s invading army at 265,000 when it was in fact about 20,000. There is little doubt that they could have prevented the remilitarisation and perhaps caused the overthrow of Hitler. Instead they played into his hands and allowed him to grow more and more confident. Their Eastern allies also realised they would not be protected by France if invaded by Germany. Stalin also became disillusioned with French foreign policy and signed the Nazi-Soviet pact, which gave him a reassurance of place for a while longer.

The Spanish Civil War was a source of great worry in France. A victory for Franco would see them surrounded by Fascist powers. However, there was an even greater feat that French involvement would cause Civil War in France or turn the conflict into a European war, for which France was not prepared. The Popular Front therefore decided to remain neutral, whilst Hitler, Stalin and Mussolini had a chance to show off and practice their military tactics.

When Hitler invaded Czechoslovakia, the French immediately pulled out of the alliance with the Czechs no wanting to be drawn into war. They also dropped the alliance with Poland, realising it was next on Hitler’s list. However “its pacifism weakened its cause” and it was only a matter of time before they would be invaded also. They realised that an alliance with Russian was required to tip the balance in favour of the democracies, but it was too late as the Nazi-Soviet pact had already been signed.

In a last ditch effort, the French then hoped that the Maginot line, a colossus of concrete and steel built along the border with Germany would protect them. However, Hitler simply marched through Belgium and the Ardennes forest and using his Blitzkrieg tactics had France on its knees in just a few weeks. France, because of its pacifist policy, had no weaponry to fight off the invasion. Their appeasement had undoubtedly been their downfall. Had they stood up to Hitler from the beginning, perhaps they could have changed the course of history.