Q. What was the defence policy of successive French governments between 1936 and 1939?
A. French defence policy right through the inter-war decades (1919–39) was consistently defensive and non-aggressive – consistent with France’s status as a territorially satisfied ‘status quo’ power. The Maginot Line, constructed between 1929 and 1937, guarded the Franco-German frontier (though not the Franco-Belgian one). The fortifications symbolized this defensive cast to French strategy. Reluctant rearmament, modest in scale in 1934–35, became far more intensive from 1936 onwards. A rearmament investment programme that September committed 14 billion francs to new weapons systems, while the French aviation industry was nationalized and relocated to Toulouse and other production centres far from Paris to reduce vulnerability to German air attacks. The French readiness to invest in military preparations showed the Third Republic’s determination to defend against the mounting menace of Hitler and his aggressive sabre-rattling (evidenced by Germany’s reintroduction of conscription in March 1935 and its re-militarization of the Rhineland 12 months later).
France’s leaders were aware, however, that she could not defeat Germany alone. Therefore, French foreign and defence policy in 1936–39 was heavily determined by a quest for a firm British commitment to underwrite French security. This, however, was not obtained until February 1939. Another problem was the French need to find a counterweight to Germany in Eastern Europe. This had traditionally been Russia (through the Franco-Russian alliance of 1894). That union had foundered, however, on the ideological hostility of French political conservatives to Russia’s Bolshevik regime after 1917. This diplomatic problem was compounded by geo-politics: Russia had no common frontier with Germany after the territorial adjustments of 1919 had re-created Poland. Thus, even the French Left’s desire for an updated Franco-Russian (Franco-Soviet) defensive alliance was not self-evidently the answer to France’s strategic exposure, if faced by further German aggression as seen in 1914.
From late 1935, too, France faced a challenge to its North and East African colonies from Mussolini’s Italy, especially in the naval arena. France in the late 1930s was beset by a crisis of national self-confidence, fragile political and social unity, and was lacking the demographic and industrial clout that was available to Germany; it was a time of mounting and justified fearfulness that offered no easy solutions to her security predicaments.
Q. How prepared for war was France in 1939?
A. In terms of grand strategy, France was surprisingly well prepared for a certain kind of war in 1939 – a long war, opening with a defensive phase that might last two years. This phase was to be succeeded by more aggressive operations based on the full economic mobilization of finances, industry and the resources of the French and British empires (together, some 600 million people). The war was conceived in stages, eventually utilizing economic pressure, a blockade enforced by Allied naval supremacy and the greater resources of the French and British empires, to bring victory over Nazi Germany in the long run (and rather more quickly over Mussolini’s fascist Italy, which French intelligence analysts rightly judged to be militarily and economically ill-prepared for war). In many ways the eve-of-war forecasts by French planners were not far out: the Second World War did last for six years (they had predicted four or five). Also, and again as predicted in 1939, the Allies were not able to follow the general strategic offensive until after 1942.
Politically, however, France was far less ready to confront the trials that armed conflict would inevitably entail. The legacy of