The Embarrassment of Choice
Competition with Germany had long been one of the primary motives of French social reform. That fact became especially obvious in the final years before 1914. Although those who lived at the time were without our informed hindsight, there is nothing distorting or anachronistic about describing their mentality as "prewar." Arguably ever since the first Moroccan crisis of 1905, and certainly after the second in 1911, the threat of a conflict with Germany came home again to France.1 If it would be hyperbolic to speak of panic, one can at least detect a foreboding that affected the conduct of public life. Just as the earliest social legislation of the Third Republic--such as the Loi Roussel in 1874--should be evaluated as the aftermath of a war with Germany, so the last enactments before the battle of the Marne may be viewed in anticipation of another.
The durable epithet that republican France had become a "stalemate society" has a manifest element of truth about it.2 Yet that clich deserves to be questioned both for its vagueness and its inflexibility. We should not, in the first place, accept a general hypothesis without identifying its major components. What were the specific issues that remained unresolved? What form did the deadlock take? And for what reasons? These are essential questions that merit more precise answers. Second, we might well boggle at the notion that France was utterly static. Although enfeebled, the French economy continued to grow erratically after 1870 and showed definite signs of revival at the turn of the century. True, in certain matters of social reform the French lagged behind some of their neighbors, particularly Germany; yet the communal, departmental, and national expenditures