How did France, with a crippled economy and weakened military, gain the status of a superpower?
When World War II ended in Europe in the spring of 1945, France was a shadow of its former self. The army was defeated by Nazi Germany, and the country had suffered under occupation for years. With their financial and economic situation being so terrible, France lacked all the material fundamentals to regain a dominant role on the world stage. Nevertheless, the country gained superpower status in the new world order that followed World War II.
Initially, France was not involved in the plans for the creation of the postwar order. But in the last year of the war, France acquired many privileges that secured its international status. In 1945, France was given a permanent seat on the UN Security Council, along with the United States, Britain, the Soviet Union (later Russia), and China. These “Big Five” to this day have a great influence on the organization thanks to their veto powers. But how did France, with a crippled economy and weakened military, gain the status of a superpower?
French Foreign Relations During The War
On the eve of World War I, The French Empire was undeniably a world power, being global in scope with colonial possessions on every continent. The First World War was devastating, but despite the damage suffered, France remained a relevant force in the world during the Interbellum (Meunier 2017). Its colonial empire was largely intact, and the French army was among the largest and strongest in the world. France also gained control of the economically important Rhineland, a heavily-industrialized, formerly-German region. This beneficial position, however, was not long-lasting—World War II was fatal to France’s economy and industry; the French Gross Domestic Product in 1945 was almost half of that in 1938, and the country was plagued by famines. However, the damage to France’s dignity was even greater, as on May 10, 1940, the Nazi invasion began. One month later, German soldiers marched on the Champs Élysées in the heart of Paris. France had been defeated, dealing a heavy blow to the nation’s international status.
When the French leadership began negotiating its surrender, General Charles de Gaulle was on a diplomatic mission in London. There he remained when the cabinet fell and Marshal Philippe Pétain, a puppet of Hitler, became the president of occupied “Vichy France.” De Gaulle quickly tried to form an alternative government-in-exile in London called Françaises Libres: the Free French. In the meantime, the Vichy regime wanted to sentence him to death for high treason.
Meanwhile, De Gaulle struggled to gain recognition for his government in exile. Even in the French colonies, where many governors ignored him (Manning 1977). On the world stage, there were now two governments trying to present themselves as the legitimate representation of France. According to De Gaulle, the Vichy regime was not legitimate because it had deprived the French people of their right to self-determination, “a right considered traditional and sacred in France” (Cassin 1941). The Vichy regime abandoned the idea of a French Republic, something De Gaulle refused to do. He did his best to uphold the illusion that France was not lost and still fighting the war (Trotiño 2008).
But De Gaulle’s personality got in the way of his ambitions. The Allies did not favor him as the temporary representative of France (Williams 2017). The United States, in particular, was reluctant because of President Roosevelt’s dislike for De Gaulle; he was suspicious of the motivations of the self-proclaimed French leader. De Gaulle was said to have “Napoleonic” traits and was accused of wanting to start his own dictatorship in France. The United States for a long time maintained diplomatic relations with the Vichy regime to keep the door open for this regime to be the rulers of postwar France. Since the French contribution to the war so far was minor, Roosevelt did not recognize France as a superpower (Trotiño 2008). In Roosevelt’s vision, only “Four Policemen” were needed to maintain world peace after the war, not five. Consequently, the Free French were not invited to the Dumbarton Oaks Conference in July and August 1944, where the groundwork was laid for the postwar world.
The relationship of the Free French with Britain was much better than with the United States, although the British had their doubts about De Gaulle’s legitimacy. Initially, they saw De Gaulle as representing a group of Frenchmen and not the Frenchmen. When De Gaulle reproached Churchill for doing Roosevelt’s bidding, Churchill delicately answered him that if he had to choose between Europe and “the rest of the world,” he would always choose “the rest of the world” (Gildea 2002). It was clear that the future world order was an Anglo-American project, not a European one. Yet, with the growing threat of the Cold War, helping France restore its global position became a policy objective for Britain. (Hilderbrand 1990). France was the only candidate on the European continent to be able to counter both Germany and the Soviet Union. But there was also a second reason why involving France in world governance was in Britain’s interest. Both countries had large colonial empires, and France could help the British constrain the decolonization desires of other superpowers.
In February 1945, the “Big Three” met in Crimea for the Yalta Conference. France was not invited, much to the annoyance of the Free French, who had already renamed themselves the “Provisional Government of the French Republic.” France was given an occupation zone in West Germany, but this was seen more as a favor than as a right. The agreement, in De Gaulle’s eyes, violated France’s international status (Heimann 2015). French administrators were outraged that the future of Europe was being determined by three “non-European powers.” They dug their heels in and refused to join the San Francisco Conference, where the United Nations Charter was drafted, as long as they were denied a say in the original agreements. This tactic paid off because the Allies changed their position, and France was accepted as a full partner in the new world government. Along with the “Big Three” and China, it was given a permanent seat on the Security Council. From then on, France’s international status was on the rise again. The French had successfully secured their place in future world affairs.
The Foundations Of International Status
It was not just British self-interests and French stubbornness that allowed France to resume the role of a superpower. Other countries were equally or even better suited to become the fifth world power. Brazil, for example, was highlighted as a candidate by the United States. In terms of natural resources and population, Brazil was comparable to France. With Brazil, the South American continent would also be represented on the Security Council. However, there was no desire for a sixth permanent seat. In the end, France was chosen because it enjoyed greater prestige. But what was that reputation based on? The defeat of 1940 made it painfully clear that the balance of power had shifted away from Europe and France. But material assets are not the only source of international status. A potential superpower can also gain recognition based on three other factors: symbolic value, moral claims, and contextual factors (Heimann 2015).
Historical heritage is the most important foundation for symbolic power. Privileges are rarely taken away from countries that are traditional superpowers, and France has a rich past. Giving a newcomer, such as Brazil, important privileges would make other countries jealous. The choice of France was accepted by the international community due to its historical legacy. In addition, France derived much symbolic value from its colonial empire. De Gaulle saw the French empire as a crucial element in France’s resurgence as a world power (Williams 2017). He managed to recapture French territories in North Africa between 1942 and 1943 with what was left of the French armed forces, supported by the British and the Americans. De Gaulle immediately installed part of his government in Algeria so that they would no longer be a “government in exile,” but one that represented French interests from French soil. After the war, consideration was given to the idea of transforming the empire into a “French Union,” along the lines of the British Commonwealth. The French attachment to its colonial possessions was welcomed by the British and irked the Americans while giving France some sense of self-worth and relevance.
Moral motives may also bring a nation prestige and privileges. Often these kinds of privileges are rewards for services rendered. For example, countries that contributed or sacrificed greatly to war may have a favorable position in the postwar world order. De Gaulle was aware of this and consistently sought to increase the French contribution to the Allied victory. The remaining French army was small compared to the massive armies of the “Big Three,” while also being poorly equipped. De Gaulle frequently had to ask the Americans for weapons. African soldiers from the French colonies contributed significantly to the war effort. They participated in the invasion of Sicily and Italy, and twenty thousand African infantrymen fought for the liberation of southern France in 1944. However, most of the praise went to the French Resistance and their fight against the German occupiers (Jackson 2004). By, in his own words, using his limited means to “stir up a lot of dust” (Heimann 2015), De Gaulle ensured that France could claim the spoils of war.
Finally, there are contextual conditions that make a state a viable candidate for the role of a superpower. Geography can play a big role, especially in combination with political affinity. While a seat for Brazil would better the global representation in the Security Council, France possessed a more strategic location in the context of the Cold War. Initially, both the United States and the Soviet Union opposed a French seat, but after conversations between Moscow and Paris, the Soviet Union flipped. Stalin likely hoped to bring in France as a political ally (Heimann 2015). This forced the United States to appease France as well. When Roosevelt proposed to Stalin in February 1945 that France be given a zone of occupation in West Germany, the latter asked: “For what reason?” Roosevelt replied: “Out of kindness” (Heimann 2015), a surprising stance for a man who first clearly disapproved of De Gaulle and French imperialism. By playing “hard to get,” France was able to take advantage of tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union to win privileges for itself.
International status is an abstract commodity. A state with poor military or economic weight can still rise to a powerful position if it has symbolic value or if contextual conditions are favorable. France’s status after World War II was one of its own makings. It could not be demanded but had to be obtained through tactical maneuvering. This way, De Gaulle was able to restore France’s grandeur.
Bart van der Wal is an exchange student from The Netherlands. He is majoring in history at Utrecht University with a specialization in globalization and world order. Bart followed a minor in American Studies at the University of Amsterdam and is now on a year-long exchange at Binghamton University, where he takes classes in history and political science. He is especially interested in transatlantic relations and international conflicts. In the near future, Bart will be pursuing a master’s degree in International Relations.
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