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The Politics of French Business: 1936-1945.

The Politics of French Business: 1936-1945, by Robert Vinen. New York, Cambridge University Press, 1991.xv, 245 pp. $54.50 U.S.

In the tumultuous decade that began with the election of the Popular Front and ended with the victory over Nazi Germany, France experienced what amounted to a virtual civil war. The French who supported the idea of a republic spent the decade fighting off threats, first from the left and then from the right. In the end, gloriously, the defenders of the Republic won the day. The France of 1945 was, however, very different from the France of 1936. In the monograph under review, Richard Vinen isolates and examines the role of French business during this, France's most crucial decade of the twentieth century.

The author sets out to demonstrate that the traditional view which asserts that French business supported the Vichy Regime and used it to gain revenge for the labour victories won under the Popular Front is based on a superficial understanding of the shifting social alliances that characterized the decade. Through a diligent reading of the available archival sources, Dr. Vinen concentrates his study on an examination of the motives of French business people and of their perceptions of the reality that was France between 1936 and 1945. Thus, he focuses his monograph on the issues that most concerned French business; the strikes of 1936, the policies of the Popular Front Government, the Nazi threat, the fall of France, the establishment of the Vichy Regime, the resistance and liberation.

In his discussion of the policies of the Popular Front government, the author establishes clearly that the state, not business, initiated the assault against those policies. The financial pressures of rearmament, the author points out, forced the state to dismantle the Matignon Accords and to suppress the working class dissent that followed. Naturally, business supported the actions of the state since it had never accepted the labour victory of 1936. However, as Dr. Vinen points out, having won its revenge in 1938, business did not need the Vichy Regime to crush the working class. According to the author, business had no role in the events that brought Petain to power. In fact, as he convincingly argues, the advantages won by business between 1940 and 1944 were won "not because of, but in spite of, the Vichy Regime" (p. 98).

The Vichy Regime, after all, agreed to send French workers to Germany against the wishes of both the employers and the employees. During the war, the one issue that united industrialists and labour was the transfer of workers to Germany. The industrialists needed the labour force at home and the labourers, understandably, did not want to work in Germany. As Dr. Vinen points out, the "union sacree" of capital and labour against the transfers infuriated the Vichy officials responsible for encouraging French workers to leave France. Later, during the liberation, a number of industrialists used their opposition to the policy of transfer as a defence against the charges of collaboration. It was extremely difficult, as the author explains, to prove charges of collaboration against most business people. Few business people had so openly supported the Vichy Regime or the Germans that they could be charged with collaboration. And, in fact, the great majority of business people had recognized by early 1943 that the Allies were going to win the war and had, therefore, begun attempts to mend fences with the forces of liberation. Although most of the attempts at reconciliation were unsuccessful, business still emerged from the liberation relatively unscathed because the Provisional Government required full production in order to continue the war.

With this monograph the author has made some important contributions to our understanding of the role of French business in the years between 1936 and 1945. The book is, however, still too obviously a dissertation. It is filled with repetition and unnecessary argumentation of the kind required in a thesis but better reduced or eliminated for publication. Both author and reader would have benefited from a more generously applied editorial pen. Certainly, someone at the press should have improved the turgid and pedestrian style. As it is, too often the reader must fight through a mountain of detail while desperately searching for the point of it all.

Dr. Vinen's attempt to credit the Vichy Regime with setting the stage for post-war economic developments in France is the weakest section of the book. He argues, for example, that Vichy's search for a new role for France in Europe could be viewed as the first step towards the establishment of the Common Market. It is true that Vichy left a legacy that still haunts the French, but it is difficult to believe that it included the impetus to reorganize the European economic system. It is equally difficult to accept the author's assertion that Vichy provided the stimulus for the Monnet Plan.

Even with these deficiencies, however, Dr. Vinen has written a monograph which makes an important contribution to our understanding of the attitude of business people in the years between 1936 and 1945. He has demonstrated, in considerable detail, the shifting alliances within French business and he has shattered forever the perception that French business was some sort of monolithic entity that gave unequivocal support to the Vichy Regime.
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Author:Bertrand, Charles L.
Publication:Canadian Journal of History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 1, 1992
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