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People and Society, Social Structure

The French Revolution swept away many of the ancient legal privileges enjoyed by the nobility and the clergy and established the principle of legal equality among all citizens. Yet the revolution did not erase sharp distinctions among social groups, nor did it fundamentally alter the distribution of wealth. France still retained a rigid social structure in the early 20th century, with little mobility among social groups. The social strata included peasants, craft and factory workers, shopkeepers, merchants, civil servants, intellectuals, landowners, and petty nobility.

The old social order changed considerably after World War II, as the postwar economic expansion brought growing affluence to an ever larger share of the French population. The vast expansion of the middle classes reduced inequality of wealth and blurred the lines between many social groups. Today power, success, and money are more important than birth in determining a person’s social status.

Another sweeping change in postwar France is the growing role of women in society. Beginning in the early 1970s, women began entering the workforce in increasing numbers, many taking jobs in the expanding service sector. Today women constitute 45.1 percent of all French workers. However, women tend to be concentrated in low-paying jobs, and they are more likely than men to be unemployed. In recent decades women have also played a growing role in politics. Women won the right to vote in 1944; today they account for 53 percent of the French electorate. Many women have pursued successful careers in politics, but their representation in the national parliament is still lower than in most other nations in the EU.

Many social divisions remain visible in France. A privileged elite composed mainly of leading politicians, senior civil servants, business leaders, and wealthy families still retains a strong grasp on the levers of power. The middle classes are highly stratified. Among white-collar workers, two different groups have emerged: the successful, upwardly mobile senior executives and professionals with expanding spending power and stable jobs, and a growing mass of people in clerical, retail, and food-service jobs for whom unemployment and lower living standards have become increasingly the norm. Blue-collar workers remain, to some extent, economically and socially segregated; only a small proportion of university students come from blue-collar households. The number of blue-collar workers has steadily declined in recent years as the economy has shifted from jobs in industry to those in the service sector.

 

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