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Creating the Welfare State in France, 1880-1940.

Creating the Welfare State in France, 1880-1940. By Timothy B. Smith (Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press, 2003. viii plus 241 pp.).

Timothy Smith's main thesis is simple and significant: "By 1940, France was well on its way towards building national health and welfare social services," and the major reforms that marked the years after the Second World War "were to build on the solid foundation of interwar success stories." (1) The nature of these success stories comes to light through Smith's thorough research in the municipal archives of Lyon, viewed in comparison with developments in other major provincial centers, adding up to a panorama of "mini-welfare states" at the municipal level between the wars.

How could such a major development be absent from the received interpretations of welfare state historiography? Smith's answer is that most welfare state history has been written from a Parisian perspective, missing initiatives taken at the municipal level. One element in his interpretation has received ample attention however, and that is the significance of pro-natalist and maternalist motivations in French social policy. Susan Pedersen and others have focused attention on the provisions for mothers that made it easier either for them to stay at home or to combine child care and paid labor, but the view that the welfare state had to await the galvanizing political effect of World War II to come to fruition has continued to hold sway. Such a view harmonizes with the prevailing characterization of the interwar period as "the hollow years" in French political life, and with the position so elegantly argued decades ago by Stanley Hoffmann that the Third Republic enshrined the immobility of a "stalemate society."

Smith is careful not to wax enthusiastic about the political leadership of the Third Republic at the national level. However, he argues that while ideological stalemate may have persisted, practical accomplishments and substantial commitments of national budgets were forthcoming in a process that welled up from urban councils to departmental authorities to the national level. Smith provides a clear description of this process, citing the substantial impact of the law of 1928 on medical insurance and the important decision to change the "domicile de secours" from the communal to the departmental level in 1935. Smith argues that the medical insurance law was a veritable tipping point in the consolidation of the French welfare state, expanding the very limited opening wedge of medical insurance provided under the law of 1893.

From his masterly analysis of archives, council debates, and other local documentation in Lyon, Smith demonstrates most effectively that there was a decisive turnaround in the posture of the elite responsible for charity, welfare, hospitals and public assistance in the course of World War I. An adamant commitment to localism before the war gave way to an ever-strengthening chorus of demands for national approaches to the growing challenges of medical care and social services of all kinds. Smith devotes an enlightening chapter to the experience of Lyon's hospitals during the First World War, making an effective case that it was the experience of national solidarity in that grueling and devastating calamity that produced new habits of acting and thinking.

Although Smith's treatment of national political debates is deliberately limited, the story he tells of Edouard Herriot's leadership in modernizing Lyon's hospital complex and expanding social services casts a new light on the social commitments of this standard-bearer of the Radical party. Smith credits Herriot with considerable resolve in pushing through the demolition of the old hospital of La Charite in Lyon, using unemployment relief funds to hire the workers who carried away the debris of an institution cherished by the city's elite. He was also instrumental in securing funds for a new state-of-the-art medical hospital that would receive middle-class patients as well as the poor. Smith notes that although the Popular Front government failed to secure the legislation it had promised on unemployment compensation, major funding was allocated for this purpose through existing relief funds.

Perhaps Herriot's prewar commitment to such policies might suggest the need for some further nuance in Smith's argument that the experience of World War I was the cause for a shift in attitudes among Lyon's municipal elite. In the last decade before the war, solidarisme was already undergoing important transformations with an increasingly militant worker's movement and a socialist influence on the parliamentary Left. These movements carried over into the interwar period. It is no criticism of Smith's closely reasoned work to say that it may be read profitably in conjunction with Paul V. Dutton's recent study of The Origins of the Welfare State, which digs deeply into the sources on the history of mutualisme and its relationship to employers organizations and unions, an account that helps to explain distinctive features of the welfare state that took shape, as Pierre Laroque himself acknowledged, well before the momentous initiatives of the Fourth Republic.

At a time when Europeans are agonizing over the future of the welfare state--and its costs--Smith's work points to the importance of framing a social consensus at more than one level of government. In view of new EU experiments with regional arrangements that cut across national boundaries, Smith's account of the important regional sphere of action that developed among those responsible for the management of hospitals is especially thought-provoking.

This is an admirable piece of scholarship and interpretation, one which will inspire further work among specialists in social welfare history. More generally, it ought to affect how scholars write about the history of France in comparison with its neighbors in the twentieth century.


1. p. 154

Thomas M. Adams

Washington, D.C.
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Author:Adams, Thomas M.
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 2005
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