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The Belle Époque ("Beautiful Age")

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Summary of "Belle Époque"

Literally "Beautiful Age". Name given in France to the period from roughly the end of the Franco-Prussian War (1871) to the start of World War 1 (1914), in which standards of living and security for the upper and middle classes increased, leading to it retrospectively being labelled as a golden age by them. Equates loosely to the “Gilded Age” of the USA, and can be used in reference to other western and central European countries for the same period and reasons (e.g. Germany).

Perceptions of Peace and Security

Defeat in the Franco-Prussian war of 1870 – 71 brought down the French Second Empire of Napoleon III, leading to the declaration of the Third Republic. Under this regime a succession of weak and short lived governments held power; the result was not chaos, but instead a period of widespread stability thanks to the regime’s nature: it “divides us the least”, a phrase attributed to contemporary President Thiers in recognition of the inability of any political group to take outright power. There was also peace in west and central Europe, as the new German Empire to the east of France manoeuvred to balance the great powers of Europe and prevent any more wars. There was still expansion, as France grew its empire in Africa greatly, but this was seen as a successful triumph. Such stability provided the basis for growth and innovation in arts, science and material culture.

The Glory of the Belle Époque

The industrial output of France tripled during the Belle époque, thanks to the continued effects and development of the industrial revolution. The iron, chemical and electricity industries grew, providing raw materials which were used, in part, by the brand new car and aviation industries. Communications across the nation were increased by the use of the telegraph and telephone, while railways expanded hugely. Agriculture was aided by new machines and artificial fertilisers. This development underpinned a revolution in material culture, as the age of the mass consumer dawned among the French public, thanks to the ability to mass produce goods and the rise in wages – 50% for some urban workers – which allowed people to pay for them.

The quality and quantity of food improved, with consumption of old favourite’s bread and wine up 50% by 1914, but beer grew 100% and spirits tripled, while sugar and coffee consumption quadrupled. Personal mobility was increased by the bicycle, numbers of which rose from 375,000 in 1898 to 3.5 million by 1914. Fashion became an issue for people beneath the upper class, and previous luxuries like running water, gas, electricity and proper sanitary plumbing all gravitated downwards to the middle class, sometimes even to the peasantry and lower class. Transport improvements meant that people could now travel further for holidays, and sport became an increasing pre-occupation, both for playing and watching. The life expectancy of children rose.

Mass entertainment was transformed by venues like the Moulin Rouge, home of the Can Can, by new styles of performance in the theatre, by shorter forms of music and by the realism of modern writers. Print, long a powerful force, grew in even greater importance as technology brought prices down still further and education initiatives opened up literacy to ever wider numbers.

The Reality of the Belle Époque

Despite the massive growth in private possessions and consumption, there were dark currents throughout the era, which remained a deeply divisive time. Almost everything was opposed by reactionary groups who began to portray the age as decadent, even degenerate, and racial tensions rose as a new form of modern anti-Semitism evolved and spread, blaming Jews for the perceived evils of the age. While some of the lower classes did benefit from a trickle down of previously high status items and lifestyle, many of the urban populace found themselves in cramped homes, relatively poorly paid, with terrible working conditions and poor health. The idea of the Belle époque grew partly because workers in this age were kept quieter than they were in later ones, when socialist groups coalesced into a major force and frightened the higher classes.

As the age passed politics became more fractious, with the extremes of the left and right gaining support. The peace was largely a myth as well. Anger at the loss of Alsace-Lorraine in the Franco-Prussian war combined with a growing and xenophobic fear of the new Germany developed into a belief, even a desire, for a new war to settle the score. This war arrived in 1914 and lasted until 1918, killing millions and bringing the age to a crashing halt.

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