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Retribution and Renewal: Postwar Politics in France, 1944–58

Key questions

  • How was order restored after the tumultuous Liberation of France in 1944?
  • How did the new governments deal with collaborators? Why were the purges so controversial?
  • Why was it so difficult to agree on a new regime for France?
  • What were the problems with the Fourth Republic? Is it any better remembered than the Third?
  • Why did de Gaulle go into political exile in 1946? Who was Pierre Mendès-France, and what was he trying to achieve?


The lecture will explore the difficult confrontation between the hopes of 1944 and the more muddled realities of postwar France. It will focus on three particular challenges of the period 1944-58:

  1. How could French authorities balance justice and reconciliation in the aftermath of collaboration and near civil war?
  2. How did the new regime seek a middle way between change and stability, and was it successful?
  3. Why was leadership such a problem for the Fourth Republic, and who had the better solution: Pierre Mendès-France or de Gaulle?

Download the lecture handout; lecture PPT

Seminar preparation

The Fourth Republic, like the Third, was notoriously unstable and had frequent changes of government. This can be quite confusing at first glance: the changes will be described in the lecture, but you will probably need to consolidate your understanding and make your own brief timeline as well.

  • Robert Gildea's France since 1945 (2002) offers an invaluable overview: see pp. 35–45.

The seminar will be closely based on the sourcebook extracts, and you make sure that you study all of these before you come. In the seminar, we will discuss the problematic legacies of war and occupation by focusing on the images of 'femmes tondues'. We will then think about the problem of leadership in the Fourth Republic, and the solutions offered by Mendès-France and de Gaulle. Whichever leader you are focusing on in preparation for the seminar, you are also encouraged to do some wider, audio-visual research on his model of leadership: think about which values and historical moments this leader chooses to celebrate, the attitudes he shows towards political institutions such as parliament, and the relationship he seeks to cultivate through the media with the French people. Excellent resources for this are available at We will return to the question of political leadership in the seminars on left and right in weeks 9 and 10.


Further reading

Despite its political complexity, the postwar period is a fascinating time in modern French history, shedding important light on some of the difficulties in dealing with and remembering the war that continue to trouble France today. For a glimpse of these more emotional issues, have a look at this short article/conference report:

Luc Capdevila, 'Reconstruire la famille, la société et la loi', Vingtième siècle 53 (Jan-March 1997), pp. 149–51.
Further reading is also suggested in the bibliography if you would like to pursue some of these themes and debates further.