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  • Creating the Welfare State in France, 1880-1940
  • Caroline Ford (bio)
Timothy B. Smith. Creating the Welfare State in France, 1880-1940McGill-Queen's University Press2003. viii, 241. $75.00

Since the publication in 1963 of Stanley Hoffmann's important essay 'Paradoxes of the French Political Community,' historians have generally accepted the view that for much of the Third Republic France suffered from economic, political, and social paralysis and from an inability to formulate stable domestic programs. This carefully researched historical monograph takes issue with this perspective by focusing on the construction of the French welfare state in this period. Timothy Smith suggests that a welfare state did not emerge fully formed in the aftermath of the Second World War, as many postwar French politicians would have us believe. Rather, it was built on the prior creation of 'mini-welfare states' in the 1920s and 1930s in various cities throughout France. Smith examines the politics of health care and employment policy, in particular, in the cities of Lyon and Paris to support this argument, using a wealth of archival sources.

The impediments to welfare reform before the First World War were many. They included the resistance of entrenched local elites, the conflict between religious and secular authorities, and regional traditions. In 1914 France lagged far behind Britain in providing various forms of welfare, [End Page 344] which largely remained in private hands, but the war gave a new impetus to social reform. By 1920 most politicians had come to believe that France had to 'catch up' and assist its population or the nation risked falling into serious decline. In 1920, Dr Edouard Grinda encouraged the Chamber of Deputies to pass a health insurance system that would rival Britain's National Health Insurance Act of 1911 and went on to become the chief architect of France's 1928 medical insurance law. The most compelling argument for welfare creation was one that arose out of demographic concerns. France, whose birthrate was modest in comparison to other European countries for much of the nineteenth century, lost between 1.3 and 1.4 million soldiers during the First World War. Many more were maimed and wounded. In a country that could ill afford to lose so many men, pronatalist arguments, which already abounded in the aftermath of the Franco-Prussian war of 1871, became even more pressing. The depopulation crisis and concerns about social hygiene allowed the French to overcome many of the arguments against national reform, so that pronatalism became the driving force behind French social policy. Pensions were only a second priority. Smith explores health reform and measures to deal with unemployment in detail, showing that France began to formulate national standards, which were in many cases demanded at the local level. He concludes by suggesting that the beginnings of the welfare state were more the result of economic necessity than of political idealism and that by 1945 France was poised to consider the Conseil national de la résistance's call for a national system of social security.

Smith's comprehensive study of local welfare initiatives is both welcome and timely. While a bibliography would have been helpful to readers, the book is well organized and clearly written. It should be stressed, however, in light of the work of Kristin Stromberg Childers, Marie-Monique Huss, Susan Pedersen, Françoise Thébaud, and Richard Tomlinson, that Smith is not alone in finding the roots of the French welfare state in the interwar period. Smith has an important story to tell regarding the municipalization of social reform in France, even though the political context in which social reform took place is only hinted at. Indeed, given France's economic weakness and political disarray in the interwar years, the reader is still left asking how local politicians in Paris and Lyon actually managed 'to deliver the goods during times unfavourable to expensive new social ventures.' [End Page 345]

Caroline Ford

Caroline Ford, Department of History, University of California, Los Angeles



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pp. 344-345
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