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Reviewed by:
  • Creating the Welfare State in France, 1880–1940
  • Thomas M. Adams
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. [End Page 786]

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 Charité 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...


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