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The Contemporary World

1945 to the present


After World War II, a new world order came into being in which two superpowers, the United States and the Soviet Union, played the leading roles. Their ideological differences led to the arms race of the Cold War and fears of a global nuclear conflict. The rest of the world was also drawn into the bipolar bloc system, and very few nations were able to remain truly non-aligned. The East-West conflict came to an end in 1990 with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the consequent downfall of the Eastern Bloc. Since that time, the world has been driven by the globalization of worldwide economic and political systems. The world has, however, remained divided: The rich nations of Europe, North America, and East Asia stand in contrast to the developing nations of the Third World.

The first moon landing made science-fiction dreams reality in the year 1969.
Space technology has made considerable progress as the search for new
possibilities of using space continues.




SINCE 1945


see also: United Nations member states -


France had suffered greatly through World War II. General de Gaulle's provisional government took action against the collaborators and tackled reconstruction. The Fourth Republic did not last long, however. A revolt in the colony of Algiers led to a crisis in the government and finally to the founding of the Fifth Republic. As president, de Gaulle followed a policy of independence from the power blocs of the Cold War. His successors returned to a stronger engagement within Europe.


Economic and Domestic Policies of the Fifth Republic since 1958

The constitution of the Fifth Republic concentrated power in the office of president.


After the end of the colonial wars, de Gaulle was able to improve the state finances, 2 Economic growth soon picked up as trade barriers across Europe fell.

2 Baker's shop in France, ca. 1960

However, as French society changed along with the economy, the paternalism and conservatism of de Gaulle and of public life in general seemed to many to be increasingly outdated. In 1968, this frustration among the younger generation erupted into protests after a dispute between students and university authorities. It broadened when unionized workers joined the radical students and intellectuals in challenging the government.

Demonstrations, factory sit-ins, and 4 street fighting took place, culminating in a general strike.

6 Student demonstrations, Paris, 1968

4 Students in street fights with the police, Paris,

Although de Gaulle survived the immediate state crisis, he was weakened and resigned in 1969.

His successor, 1 Georges Pompidou (1969-1974), introduced reforms, but the energy crisis of 1973 proved a set back.

The government of 5 Valery Giscard d'Estaing (1974-1981) was particularly successful in foreign affairs; together with German chancellor Helmut Schmidt, he instituted an annual summit meeting of the heads of state of the leading industrialized nations, then known as the Group of Six or G-6, which was meant to fight the economic crisis. In France, however, unemployment continued to rise.

A left-wing government came to power with the election of 3 Francois Mitterrand (1981-1995) as president and the victory of his Socialist party in the parliamentary elections of 1981.

Mitterrand sought more state planning and a redistribution of income, but the budget deficit and a double-digit rise in prices forced him to change course by 1983. His room to maneuver was further reduced by the establishment of the European Common Market in 1984.

1 Inauguration ceremony of the French President Georges Pompidou (front) in Paris, June 20,1969

5 French President Valery Giscard d'Estaing (left) meeting the German chancellor Helmut Schmidt in Bonn, capital of West Germany (FRG), 1975

3 Francois Mitterand, 1991


Mitterrand lost his absolute majority in parliament in 1986, and the Gaullist 7 Jacques Chirac became prime minister, marking the beginning of the phase of "cohabitation."

This occurred again after the 1997 elections, when President Chirac had to share his power with Lionel Jospin, the socialist prime minister. A major upset also occurred in the 2002 presidential elections when the far-right leader Jean Marie Le Pen came in second with almost 20 percent of the vote.

7 President Jaques Chirac, 2003




In France's semipresidential system of government, both the president and the prime minister have important powers. "Cohabitation" is the name given to the situation in which the two offices are held by different parties. The two leaders must continue to conduct affairs of state despite their political rivalry.

In 1984, Mitterrand made a tacit agreement with Chirac over the division of responsibilities: the president took the lead in foreign policy while the prime minister concentrated on domestic policy.




Georges Pompidou

Georges Pompidou

president of France
in full Georges-Jean-Raymond Pompidou

born July 5, 1911, Montboudif, France
died April 2, 1974, Paris

French statesman, bank director, and teacher who was premier of the Fifth French Republic from 1962 to 1968 and president from 1969 until his death.

The son of a schoolteacher, Pompidou graduated from the École Normale Supérieure and then taught school in Marseilles and Paris. During World War II he fought as a lieutenant and won the Croix de Guerre. In late 1944 he was introduced to Charles de Gaulle, who was then head of the provisional French government. At this time Pompidou was a complete stranger to politics, but he soon proved adept at interpreting and presenting de Gaulle’s policies. Pompidou served from 1944 to 1946 on de Gaulle’s personal staff and remained a member of his “shadow Cabinet” after de Gaulle’s sudden resignation from the premiership in January 1946. He then was assistant to the general commissioner for tourism (1946–49) and also held the post of maître des requêtes at the Conseil d’État, France’s highest administrative court (1946–57).

In 1955 he entered the Rothschild bank in Paris where, again without professional qualifications, he rose rapidly to become director general (1959). De Gaulle had never lost touch with Pompidou, and, on his return to power at the time of the Algerian crisis (June 1958), he took Pompidou as his chief personal assistant (June 1958–January 1959). Pompidou played an important part in drafting the constitution of the Fifth Republic and in preparing plans for France’s economic recovery. When de Gaulle became president (January 1959), Pompidou resumed his private occupations. In 1961 Pompidou was sent to conduct secret negotiations with the Algerian Front de Libération Nationale (FLN), a mission that finally led to a cease-fire between the French troops and Algerian guerrillas in Algeria.

The Algerian crisis resolved, de Gaulle decided to replace Michel Debré as premier and appointed Pompidou, then virtually unknown to the public, in his place (April 1962). Defeated in a vote of censure in the National Assembly (October 1962), Pompidou resumed office after de Gaulle’s victory that same month in the plebiscite on the election of the president by universal suffrage. The second Pompidou administration (December 1962–January 1966) was succeeded by the third (January 1966–March 1967) and the fourth (April 1967–July 1968). Pompidou had thus been premier for six years and three months, a phenomenon that de Gaulle noted had been unknown in French politics for four generations.

Pompidou’s standing was probably highest at the time of the French student–worker revolt of May 1968, at which time he participated in negotiations with workers and employers, persuaded de Gaulle to make the necessary reforms, and concluded the Grenelle Agreement (May 27) that finally ended the strikes. Pompidou’s campaign calls for the restoration of law and order enabled him to lead the Gaullists to an unprecedented majority in the National Assembly elections of June 30, 1968. Although he was unexpectedly dismissed from the premiership by de Gaulle in July 1968, Pompidou retained his prestige and influence in the Gaullist party. When de Gaulle abruptly resigned the presidency in April 1969, Pompidou campaigned for the office and was elected on June 15, 1969, receiving more than 58 percent of the second-round votes.

During his term as president, Pompidou was largely successful in continuing the policies initiated by de Gaulle. He maintained friendship and economic ties with Arab states, but he was less successful with West Germany and did not significantly improve relations with the United States. For almost five years he provided France with a stable government and strengthened its economy. He also supported Great Britain’s entry into the EEC. His death was unexpected despite the growing evidence of his rapidly failing health.

Encyclopaedia Britannica



Valery Giscard d'Estaing

Valery Giscard d'Estaing

president of France

born February 2, 1926, Koblenz, Germany

French political leader, who served as the third president of the Fifth Republic of France (1974–81).

Giscard was the eldest son of a prominent French financier and economist and member of a patrician family. He attended the École Polytechnique (interrupting his schooling in 1944–45 to serve in the French army) and the École Nationale d’Administration in Paris. In the early 1950s he worked in the Finance Ministry.

Giscard was elected to the French National Assembly in 1956 and was a delegate to the United Nations General Assembly (1956–58). He served as the secretary of state for finance (1959–62) and was appointed finance minister (1962–66) by President Charles de Gaulle. During his first term of office as finance minister, France attained a balanced budget for the first time in 30 years. His international economic policies—among them his attempt to limit American economic influence in France—and his other conservative financial measures helped cause a recession and brought him discredit in the business and labour sectors; he was dismissed.

In 1966 Giscard founded and served as first president of the Independent Republicans, a conservative party that worked in coalition with the Gaullists. From 1969 to 1974 he was again finance minister under President Georges Pompidou. Giscard was elected to the presidency in a runoff election against the leftist candidate François Mitterrand on May 19, 1974. One of the notable achievements of his presidency was France’s role in the strengthening of the European Economic Community. He was defeated in another runoff with Mitterrand on May 10, 1981.

Giscard returned to politics in 1982, serving as conseiller général of Puy-de-Dôme département until 1988. He was elected to the National Assembly, serving from 1984 to 1989, and was influential in uniting France’s rightist parties. From 1989 to 1993 he served as a member of the European Parliament. In 2001 Giscard was appointed by the European Union to chair a convention charged with drafting a constitution for the organization. He was elected to the French Academy in 2003. Among his several published works are Démocratie française (1976; French Democracy) and two volumes of memoirs.

Encyclopaedia Britannica



Francois Mitterrand

Francois Mitterrand

president of France
in full François-maurice-marie Mitterrand

born Oct. 26, 1916, Jarnac, France
died Jan. 8, 1996, Paris

politician who served two terms (1981–95) as president of France, leading his country to closer political and economic integration with western Europe. The first socialist to hold the office, Mitterrand abandoned leftist economic policies early in his presidency and generally ruled as a pragmatic centrist.

The son of a stationmaster, Mitterrand studied law and political science in Paris. On the outbreak of World War II, he enlisted in the infantry and in June 1940 was wounded and captured by the Germans. After escaping from a prison camp in late 1941, he worked with the collaborationist Vichy government—a fact that did not become publicly known until 1994—before joining the Resistance in 1943.

In 1947 he became a cabinet minister of the Fourth Republic in the coalition government of Paul Ramadier, having been elected to the National Assembly the previous year. Over the next 12 years, Mitterrand held cabinet posts in 11 short-lived Fourth Republic governments.

Originally somewhat centrist in his views, he became more leftist in politics, and from 1958 he crystallized opposition to the regime of Charles de Gaulle. In 1965 he stood against de Gaulle as the sole candidate of the socialist and communist left for the French presidency, collecting 32 percent of the vote and forcing de Gaulle into a runoff election.

After his election as first secretary of the Socialist Party in 1971, Mitterrand began a major party reorganization, which greatly increased its electoral appeal. Although Mitterrand was defeated in his second presidential bid, in 1974, his strategy of making the Socialist Party the majority party of the left while still allied with the Communist Party led to the upset Socialist victory of May 10, 1981, when he defeated the incumbent president, Valéry Giscard d’Estaing. Mitterrand called legislative elections soon after his victory, and a new left-wing majority in the National Assembly enabled his prime minister, Pierre Mauroy, to effect the reforms Mitterrand had promised. These measures included nationalizing financial institutions and key industrial enterprises, raising the minimum wage, increasing social benefits, and abolishing the death penalty. In foreign policy Mitterrand advocated a relatively hard stance toward the Soviet Union and cultivated good relations with the United States.

Mitterrand’s socialist economic policies caused increased inflation and other problems, so in 1983 the government began to cut spending. By the end of Mitterrand’s first term in office, the Socialist Party had abandoned socialist policies in all but name and essentially had adopted free-market liberalism. In 1986 the parties of the right won a majority of seats in the National Assembly, and so Mitterrand had to ask one of the leaders of the right-wing majority, Jacques Chirac, to be his prime minister. Under this unprecedented power-sharing arrangement, known as “cohabitation,” Mitterrand retained responsibility for foreign policy. He soundly defeated Chirac in the presidential elections of 1988 and thus secured to another seven-year term.

The newly reelected Mitterrand again called elections, and the Socialists regained a working majority in the National Assembly. His second term was marked by vigorous efforts to promote European unity and to avoid German economic domination of France by binding both countries into strong European institutions. Mitterrand was thus a leading proponent of the Treaty on European Union (1991), which provided for a centralized European banking system, a common currency, and a unified foreign policy.

Mitterrand was less successful in domestic matters, particularly in coping with France’s persistently high unemployment rate, which had risen to 12 percent by 1993. In 1991 he appointed the socialist Edith Cresson to be prime minister; she became the first woman in French history to hold that office. The Socialist Party suffered a crushing defeat in the legislative elections of 1993, and Mitterrand spent the last two years of his second term working with a centre-right government under Prime Minister Edouard Balladur.

Encyclopaedia Britannica



Jacques Chirac

Jacques Chirac

president of France
in full Jacques René Chirac

born November 29, 1932, Paris, France

French politician, who served as the country’s president (1995–2007) and prime minister (1974–76, 1986–88).

Education and early career
Chirac, the son of a bank employee, graduated from the Institut d’Études Politiques de Paris in 1954, served as an officer in the French army in Algeria (1956–57), and earned a graduate degree from the École Nationale d’Administration in 1959. He then became a civil servant and rose rapidly through the ranks, serving as a department head and a secretary of state before becoming minister for parliamentary relations in 1971–72 under President Georges Pompidou. He was first elected to the National Assembly as a Gaullist in 1967.

Rise to national prominence
After serving as minister for agriculture (1972–74) and of the interior (1974), Chirac was appointed prime minister by newly elected President Valéry Giscard d’Estaing in 1974. Citing personal and professional differences with Giscard, Chirac resigned from that office in 1976 and set about reconstituting the Gaullist Union of Democrats for the Republic into a neo-Gaullist group, the Rally for the Republic (RPR). With the party firmly under his control, he was elected mayor of Paris in 1977 and continued to build his political base among the several conservative parties of France.

Chirac’s first campaign for the presidency in 1981 split the conservative vote with Giscard and thereby allowed the Socialist Party candidate, François Mitterrand, to win. In parliamentary elections held in 1986, the coalition of right-wing parties won a slim majority of seats in the National Assembly, and Chirac was appointed prime minister by Mitterrand. This power-sharing arrangement between the two posts was the first of its kind in the history of the Fifth Republic, in which previously the president and the prime minister had always belonged to the same party or the same electoral coalition.

In this arrangement, known as cohabitation, Chirac, as prime minister, was responsible for domestic affairs, while Mitterrand retained responsibility for foreign policy. Chirac’s most important achievement during his second term was his administration’s privatization of many major corporations that had been nationalized under Mitterrand. He also reduced payroll and other taxes in an effort to stimulate job creation in the private sector. As the candidate of the centre-right RPR, Chirac ran for the presidency against Mitterrand and was defeated in runoff elections in May 1988, whereupon he resigned the post of prime minister. Remaining mayor of Paris, he made his third run for the presidency in May 1995 and this time defeated the Socialist candidate, Lionel Jospin.

First term
As president, Chirac tried to cut spending and thereby reduce the government’s budget deficits so that France could qualify to participate in a single common European currency, the euro, which replaced the franc as France’s sole currency in 2002. His proposed austerity measures, which included freezing the wages of public-sector employees and reducing some social welfare programs, provoked a massive general strike in late 1995. Nonetheless, Chirac continued to pursue policies of fiscal austerity despite unemployment that had reached record levels by early 1997. Hoping to win a mandate for his program, Chirac called for parliamentary elections in May 1997, but voters overwhelmingly cast their ballots for the left. His conservative coalition lost its majority in the parliament, and the Socialists were able to form a new coalition government with their leader, Jospin, as prime minister. Chirac also drew protests after authorizing nuclear tests in the South Pacific in 1995 and 1996.

In 2002 Chirac’s party, the RPR, merged with part of the Union for the French Democracy and the Liberal Democratic party to create the Union for the Presidential Majority (later renamed the Union for a Popular Movement; UMP). In the spring of the same year—despite criticism for various ethical lapses and accusations of illegal fund-raising levied against the RPR—Chirac won the first round of France’s presidential balloting over right-wing nationalist Jean-Marie Le Pen and Jospin, whose third-place showing eliminated him from the second round. With near-universal support from the political establishment in the second round, including from the French Communist Party and Jospin’s Socialist Party, Chirac was easily reelected president, winning 82 percent of the vote to Le Pen’s 18 percent—the largest margin of victory in any French presidential election.

Second term
Chirac’s second term, which officially began in May 2002, would be shorter than his first; in 2000 French voters had passed a referendum to change the presidential term of office from seven to five years. The term opened positively for Chirac: the UMP’s victory in the June 2002 legislative elections ended the president’s cohabitation with the Socialist prime minister. Chirac appointed fellow centre-right politician Jean-Pierre Raffarin to the post.

The early part of the term was dominated by U.S.- and British-led efforts to secure United Nations support for a military invasion of Iraq, whose government, led by Ṣaddām Ḥussein, they accused of possessing or attempting to develop weapons of mass destruction in violation of UN Security Council resolutions. In November 2002 France backed a U.S.-sponsored resolution mandating the return to Iraq of weapons inspectors, who had been withdrawn in 1998. In early 2003, as the United States accused Iraq of failing to adequately cooperate with the inspectors, Chirac declared that France would veto any new Security Council resolution authorizing the use of force. With German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder and Russian President Vladimir Putin, Chirac proposed a plan to toughen and extend the inspections regime, but the United States rejected it as unlikely to succeed. Despite this and later efforts by Chirac to prevent a war with Iraq, a U.S.-led coalition attacked the country in March 2003. Chirac’s leadership among Europeans opposed to the war created considerable enmity toward him in the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush.

Later in his second term, Chirac’s popularity declined. His party, the UMP, fared poorly in both regional and European Parliament elections in 2004. Also that year, Chirac signed into law a controversial measure that prohibited head scarves worn by Muslim girls, as well as other religious symbols, in state schools. In 2005, after French voters rejected Chirac’s call for the ratification of a new constitution for the European Union, Chirac replaced Prime Minister Raffarin with Dominique de Villepin. In October of that year, anger over discrimination and high unemployment fueled rioting in several Parisian suburbs heavily populated by immigrants. The disturbances soon spread to the rest of the country, prompting Chirac to declare a state of emergency. Chirac saw his prestige fall further in 2006, when massive demonstrations forced the government to abandon legislation that would have made it easier for companies to fire young employees. In late 2006 Chirac’s longtime political rival Nicolas Sarkozy, interior minister and head of the UMP, announced his plans to run for president the following year. Sarkozy won the election, and in May 2007 he succeeded Chirac.

Corruption charges
During Chirac’s presidency, a number of his political associates were tried on charges of corruption. Notably, in 2004 his former prime minister Alain Juppé was convicted of misappropriating public funds. Chirac, too, was allegedly involved in corrupt political dealings, but he remained immune from prosecution until his term as president ended. In 2009 a magistrate ordered the former president to face trial on charges dating back to his time as mayor of Paris; Chirac and several associates stood accused of awarding contracts for nonexistent city government jobs to their political allies.

Encyclopaedia Britannica



France in Europe

De Gaulle's policy of a "Europe of Nation States" stressed the autonomy of France. The "grande nation" has nonetheless been central to the European integration project since the 1950s.


France and Germany have long been considered the 8 engines of the European Union.

8 70th German-French conference; in the center Jaques Chirac,
directly to his left the German Chancellor Helmut Kohl;
Weimar, Germany, 1997

Both nations have played key roles in shaping the evolution of postwar Europe. France's role has undergone significant changes over the last 50 years. After the bitter experience of defeat on the part of the German Reich during World War II, its first concern was to establish safeguards against its neighbor, in cooperation with Great Britain and the Benelux countries. The first European treaties—agreements on atomic energy and the joint management of coal and steel—were signed with the intention of making a future war between the two nations impossible.

As France's colonial empire dissolved, the country's leaders increasingly looked to 9 Europe.

However, France was still concerned with further securing and building up its own independent position of power within and outside the community.

The 10 Franco-German treaty of 1963 tied the onetime adversaries tightly together.

London's application to join the European Community was twice vetoed by de Gaulle because he feared that Great Britain's entry would endanger France's leading role in Europe. France's withdrawal from the military part of NATO also served primarily to demonstrate France's independence.

After de Gaulle's resignation, France's European policies changed. Under Pompidou, France finally agreed to Britain's EC membership; under Giscard d'Estaing and Mitterrand, France reengaged with the process of integration. As president of the European Commission, Frenchman Jacques Delors was also a key architect in the launch of the European single market in the 1980s.

The historic 2004 enlargement, which saw eight former communist countries join the EU, was the culmination of a 11 long political process supported by France.

However in recent years there have been signs that the French people have become increasingly anxious about the direction of the European project. The French electorate's rejection of the new EU constitution in a referendum on May 29, 2005 seemed to confirm the trend.

9 The new Airbus A380 jumbo jet, a collaborative industrial venture of France, Germany, the UK, and Spain, 2004

10 The Franco-German treaty, signed by Charles de Gaulle and Chancellor Konrad Adenauer, in Paris, 1963

11 Heads of states and governments after finalizing plans for
the admission of new members to the European Union,
Amsterdam summit, 1997



Francois Mitterrand

Franqois Mitterrand joined the French resistance in World War II and in 1944 became a minister in de Gaulle's provisional government. He was a member of parliament and a minister in the Fourth Republic. In the Fifth Republic, he united the splintered left in the Parti Socialiste, of which he served as chairman until 1980.

In 1981 Mitterrand became France's first Socialist president and served until 1995. After initial setbacks in economic policy he withdrew to a more statesmanlike role. Mitterrand smoothed the way to German reunification and gave impetus to the European integration project.

President Mitterand throws flowers into the River Seine,
where right-wing extremists murdered a Moroccan,
Paris, 1995


see also: United Nations member states -



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