How is it that France emerged from World War II with a similar status as the U.S.A., Britain, the Soviet Union, and China in terms of possession of a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council, uncontested possession of nuclear weapons, etc?

I understand that Charles de Gaulle "somehow" managed to downplay his beloved home country's status as an early victim to German aggression in World War II and line it up among the victors instead. Is this the case and if so how (e.g. at what conferences) did he pull it off?

This is not to diminish the role of the French resistance (and de Gaulle's own contribution in that regard), but its role in defeating Germany seems hardly at the same level as those from the other allies overall (perhaps excluding China).

Update: The following quote from Andrew Roberts' Masters and Commanders: How Four Titans Won the War in the West, 1941-1945 seems pertinent:

When soon after its inspection the Free French leader Charles de Gaulle demanded that France should have a seat on the Combined Chiefs of Staff, Ismay replied that if Canada, New Zealand, Holland, Belgium, Denmark and Norway also had the right to be represented, 'the only place we could have a meeting is the Albert Hall.'

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    This is a fantastic question, I'm gonna have a crack at answering it - but it requires a bit of research me thinks. :-)
    – Kobunite
    Commented Jun 25, 2013 at 22:18
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    Good questions +1, had to join the history beta just to upvote it. Commented Jun 26, 2013 at 0:52
  • @FixedPoint Thx & welcome to the site :)
    – Drux
    Commented Jun 26, 2013 at 8:04
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    Although they are totally different questions, my answer at history.stackexchange.com/questions/1356/… can be read as a direct answer to this question as well. I'm tempted to repost it here.
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Jun 26, 2013 at 13:15
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    I am not sure the validity of this as its something I was told but it was because the Allies wanted an additional vote representing the "Western" countries against the Soviet Union. They wanted a strong power on the continent as a check to the spread of Soviet ideologies. Other than Britain, no other country was in any position except France. Also by giving a share to France, it deprived the Soviet Union of at least a little bit. Again this was just told to me by a professor in College so take it with a grain of salt.
    – ed.hank
    Commented Feb 5, 2017 at 19:48

11 Answers 11


Before answering, just to take issue with the premise of the question. Yes, France received a permanent seat on the Security Council, not to mention her own occupation zones in Germany and Austria. But France was not accorded a status anything like the "Big Three" in most other respects. From May 1943 De Gaulle was operating independently from French territory in Algiers but he was consistently slighted and ignored by the British and Americans. He was especially wounded by the practice of the American authorities coming and going as they pleased in Algeria without even a nod to French sovereignty and, later, when he was left in the dark about D-Day. The French were either excluded or allowed only minor roles at the Casablanca, Yalta and Potsdam conferences.

However it shouldn't be surprising that in certain respects (Security Council, occupation zone in Germany etc) France's status as a nation of the first rank was soon restored.

For one thing, De Gaulle, impressively and consistently, had worked for almost nothing else but the preservation and rebuilding of the status of France since founding the Free French in 1940. He certainly valued that task higher than shortening the war or aiding his allies which was why he so maddened the Americans and British. But it did earn their grudging admiration (or at least Churchill's) and, crucially, it meant that no one in 1945 could doubt that France was an independent power and not merely liberated territory with a government installed and directed by the Americans.

Secondly De Gaulle had diligently courted Stalin between 1943 and 1945 and, while they had nothing like a friendship or alliance, it meant that Moscow wasn't unwilling to accommodate the French at the top table (especially if they could be used against the Americans, see above).

And also remember that the statesmen reshaping the world after 1945 weren't operating in a historical vacuum. Their perceptions of the relative significance of nations would have been altered, certainly, but not wholly revised. France after all had had one of the largest armies and air forces in the world in 1939, and the fourth largest navy.

Even after the war France remained second only to Britain in terms of imperial possessions. Her soft power (though in decline) remained substantial throughout the 20th century. The role and importance of the French language throughout Europe shouldn't be underestimated.

Finally it would be a mistake not to recognise that in 1945 the British and Americans needed a friendly continental land power that to take a lead in policing post-war Europe and the only conceivable candidate was France. Britain didn't see herself as a continental power and - prior to the Marshall Plan and Truman Doctrine - there was no guarantee the Americans were going to hang around.

  • +1 Excellent. Could you perhaps recommend any books that go into more detail on these aspects (e.g. about de Gaulle and Stalin).
    – Drux
    Commented Jun 26, 2013 at 3:31
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    @Drux Don Cook's gigantic biography of De Gaulle covers some of this ground and deals with his relationship with Stalin Commented Jun 26, 2013 at 8:42
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    It is worth noting also the determination with which De Gaulle raised a viable French Army following the liberation of Paris, culminating in the fielding of over 1.2 million soldiers by May 1945. Commented Jan 19, 2014 at 21:48

The main reason for the status of France after the WW2 was Churchill's position.

  1. Soft power and colonies are important, but nothing prevented the US & SU (both with strong anti-colonialist sentiment) from breaking up the French colonial empire.

  2. The war contribution of France was mostly in denying Germany the use of the French navy. The rest (resistance, Normandie-Neimen &c) is easily balanced by the Vichy France collaboration.

What did matter was that Churchill remembered that the US became highly isolationist after WW1 (even refusing the ratify the Versailles treaty), and his worst fear was that Britain will be left to face the USSR alone in Europe after the US left. So he wanted to preserve France as a Great Power to help Britain counter the SU. (Churchill says so explicitly in his WW2 book).

Another reason for Churchill's opposition to disbanding the French empire was that it would have destabilized the British one. (I don't think Churchill says so explicitly, but, given his unwillingness to "preside over the dissolution of the British Empire", I think this is a reasonable assumption).

Thus Churchill exchanged his support for Roosevelt's pet project - making China one of the Great Powers - for Roosevelt's support for keeping France one of them.

Stalin supported both pet projects in order to dilute the Anglo-Saxon power. He correctly bet that France will never forgive the humiliation of being liberated - and France worked hard to show its independence from the British and Americans, culminating in leaving the NATO military organization.

Chiang Kai-shek had a Russian daughter in law, also he was weakened by the Communist guerillas (and thus could be controlled), so Chinese inclusion in the Great Powers was in Stalin's interests too.

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    I'd really like a reference for that "Churchill says so ..." part too. At least a volume and chapter number? I've read Churchill's "The Second World War" memoirs through a couple of times, but I don't remember him saying any such thing (but then again, it's not like I have them memorized or anything...)
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Jun 26, 2013 at 21:04
  • @sds chiang kai-shek's wife was Russian? Commented Jun 27, 2013 at 3:50

Here is the map of colonial possessions by 1945:

enter image description here

The French possessions are in blue.

As you can see, France controlled a territory comparable to the US, USSR, British and Chinese. Adding them meant adding representatives of a large portion of the world's population to the security council.

  • Hmm ... the world (map) looked very different by the end (even by the beginning) of World War II.
    – Drux
    Commented Jun 26, 2013 at 3:40
  • @Drux I changed the map to that of 1945.
    – Anixx
    Commented Jun 26, 2013 at 4:03
  • +1 Thx much better now, although the point about world population coverage was first made in @Asche 's response.
    – Drux
    Commented Jun 26, 2013 at 4:20
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    @Anixx The map is broken.
    – corsiKa
    Commented Oct 7, 2013 at 21:13
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    While perhaps not United Kingdom, lets not forget that Canada, Australia and New Zeland "shared" the British monarch and that the ties (if not reins) between them and the UK was tighter than today... I would color these countries at least pink. Commented Mar 21, 2014 at 13:16

From Wikipedia, you can found this:

Il fut, dès l'origine, composé de cinq membres permanents, les États-Unis, l'Union soviétique, le Royaume-Uni, la France et la République de Chine, à la fois, parce que ce sont les principaux vainqueurs de la Seconde Guerre mondiale, et parce que représentant à ce moment-là la majorité de la population mondiale (en comptant les empires coloniaux), chacun à peu près à égalité.

Which can be translated into:

It was [the Council] composed, from the beginning, of five permanent members, the USA, the USSR, the UK, France and the Republic of China, both because those are the main winners of the Second World War, and because they represent the most part of the World's population (with the colonial empires), each with roughly the same amount.

According to this page, France and the UK were the only main remaining countries to be part of the League of Nations (organization that preceded the UN). Vichy's government was willing to get out of this league (the article said that this was maybe because of Germany's pressure). France was then suspended from the League, until the recognition of the French Committee of National Liberation in October 23th of 1944 (so after the beginning of the negotiations about the UN), France became a candidate to be part of that organization.

So, even though De Gaulle was not invited at Yalta, France's presence in the Security Council was supported by the UK (from the previous website: “il fut alors décidé, sur l'insistance des Britanniques, qu'un siège permanent serait réservé à la France”).

At the Conference of San Francisco (04/25 - 06/25 of 1945), France was already recognized as “future permanent member of the Security Council”, during that conference, France obtain the right to be part of the negotiation (thanks to that status of future member) and gave its best to add French as one of the working languages of the UN (this initiative was supported by Canada and most of the countries of Latin-America).

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    +1 The part about France representing a substantial part of the world population is interesting and a novel argument to me in this context. Otherwise, IMHO you are restating the premise of my question without answering the why?
    – Drux
    Commented Jun 25, 2013 at 21:50
  • The article from link to charles-de-gaulle.org mainly gives two reasons: - De Gaulle's government was for the League of Nations and Free France was part of it - The UK greatly supported France to the UN (maybe because it was inside the League of Nations)
    – Asche
    Commented Jun 25, 2013 at 21:59

France was a world power in 1945, as pointed out by Anixx's colonial map, and still is (after a fashion), today. Along with the three defeated powers (Germany, Italy, and Japan), it is a member of the G-7, which also includes the United States, Britain and Canada (and does not include Russia or China). This is true even though the war basically reduced France (and Britain) from "Great Power" to mid-level status.

France (and Britain) were also in World War II (along with Poland) from the very beginning, at least of European hostilities, (September, 1939). After a fashion, so was Russia (albeit on the "wrong" side in 1939). And China's involvement in fighting pre-dates the European war. In terms of "time served," the U.S. had the weakest claim to the winner's circle, except for the fact that she was so instrumental in the victory.

Another factor that may have affected France's status was her role in World War I. The Treaty of Versailles had been signed in France, and had been largely constructed for her benefit.


My personal opinion is that the main contribution of France was that they were not reluctant to declare war on Germany after they attacked Poland. In fact, France could easily just ignore the Germany's attack. I think France was rewarded so not to discourage such behavior.

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    Insufficient in and of itself, I think, but possibly part of the rationale. Interesting take.. Commented Nov 14, 2015 at 13:26

Churchills triumph, a novel by Michael Dobbs gives the best explanation for this. With Poland and Eastern Germany lost to Russia, France had to be built up as a bulwark against communism

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    Hmm .. could be that is a fictional explanation only. For one thing, the U.S. kept lots of troops in Western Germany during the cold war.
    – Drux
    Commented Mar 19, 2014 at 18:59
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    How the buildup correlates with a place in Security Council? Germany got build up even without it.
    – Anixx
    Commented Dec 2, 2014 at 22:07

It was France and Britain who originally declared war on Germany for the invasion of Poland.

For two years the United States sat on its hands and wanted nothing to do with the war in Europe. One might equally ask what gave USA the right to sit at the table, since USA only got involved after the attack on Pearl Harbour?


My opinion (again: opinion) is that it was unimaginable not to honor France as a victor of the WW1. After winning the Great War France was a top Power in the world, even if we call it now something as a paper tiger. Although Germany conquered France relatively faster than Poland (note Soviet assistance against Poland, which could not be compared to Italian help in French campaign of 1940), it could have been unfair as the fame of the previous war.

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    Hmmm ... "fairness" does not often drive such political decisions, or does it?
    – Drux
    Commented Jun 25, 2013 at 21:52
  • @Drux Fairness, certainly not. The appearance of fairness, on the other hand, is at the core of almost every political decisions (in democratic countries).
    – yannis
    Commented Jun 26, 2013 at 6:53
  • @YannisRizos Hmm, playing devil's advocate here for a moment ... it seems to me there will always be up to as many (appearances of) "fairness-es" as there are different constituencies with different views on subject matters, esp. in democratic countries; e.g. what seems fair to the "man on the street" may not appear fair to the "(wo)man on Wallstreet", what may appear fair to an EU-Greek may not seem fair to an EU-German, etc.; so I don't believe in "fairness" in the singular (with my pragmatic hat on :) unless it refers to the democratic process as a whole
    – Drux
    Commented Jun 26, 2013 at 7:20
  • @Drux If you haven't had a Politics account already, I would have invited you to join the site based on that comment ;)
    – yannis
    Commented Jun 26, 2013 at 7:21
  • @YannisRizos Yes, thx ... :)
    – Drux
    Commented Jun 26, 2013 at 7:22

DISCLAIMER: When I put "" on words, it is to highlight that I will develop them in the rest of the answer, and that they should not be considered face-value.

The importance of France at the end of WW2 is not that surprising, if you consider that it was not that prominent compared to the rest of the world. And an important word is "compared": France had a prominent place compared to other countries but she was "more important" than them even after World War Two.

France importance on the global scene:

Before World War 2, France was powerful for two main reasons:

  • Having won First World War and keeping an apparently military strength
  • Economic importance, including the use of colonies

If you except for the big winners of World War 2 (UK and the Commonwealth nations, USA, USSR, China) and the losers (Germany, Italy, Japan, part of East Europe), which other countries are "available" for a first-rank in the global game?

  • Latin America: No countries of importance diplomatically, with many internal politic and economic problems
  • Africa: mostly colonized, so is counted in the winners of WW2
  • North America and Oceania: except for USA, it is included in Commonwealth
  • Asia: Some big powers (India) colonized or under influence (Persia), and China as a big winner
  • Europe: East-Europe is occupied by USSR and too much included, and its economic and diplomatic importance is small because of the small size of countries. Poland stands out but has been occupied and put under a governement non recognized by the Western Allies. Scandinavia is still small, except for Sweden who remained neutral. Same for Spain, a much less powerful country than France

France during World War 2:

France contributed with multiple forces to WW2, with one noticeable point:

  • Multiple forces involved in the conquest of Vichy territories (Madagascar, Syria, Lebanon, Dakar)
  • Forces that help the Allies in Africa, and significantly in Italy
  • A complete army that landed in Southern France and liberate a portion of the territory, before moving inside Germany : this 1st French army was important because soldiers had liberated a lot of cities by herself
  • The 2nd armoured division who liberated Paris and thus helped De Gaulle to install himself as a leader of liberated France

The main reason, above all the ones shared and quite accurate, is that seats at the UN were given only to the victors of WII.

It has been mainly ignored by the Anglo-Saxon population, as the main media and Hollywood (which has always a huge impact on how we see history) focus was on Normandy exploits, but they were 3 landings in Europe during WW II :

  • Sicily 07/1943 - Husky operation
  • Normandy 06/1944 - Neptune / Overlord operation
  • Provence 08/1944 - Anvil / Dragoon Operation

During the Provence landing (South of France), there were 30 French navy vessels participating in the Landing (with Cuirassé and destroyers).

The French army based in North Africa managed to gather and land 200.000 French soldiers in Provence (of which 35% were from French colonies, and the rest French natives).

They fought up to Germany, taking south of Germany (Stuttgart), disobeying the US plan which imposed them to stay in Strasbourg, and they fought up to Berlin.

Beyond all the good reasons shared above (size of the French empire - WWI status etc.) this war participation of the French Army in Provence and in Germany allowed De Gaulle to claim the status of final 1945 victor with the allies, despite the disaster of 1940.

And he fully benefited from the support of Churchill.

At the funeral of Churchill, De Gaulle wrote on the guest book something close to the following sentence: I would not have been De Gaulle without him.

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    – Community Bot
    Commented Jun 5 at 10:04
  • There may have been 30 French ships taking part at Provence, but there were 80 Canadian ships in Normandy. And several divisions of Canadian soldiers, who fought all through the war and were largely responsible for liberating Netherlands. Yet Canada didn't get the same status as France. So while contributing to the Allied victory may have helped give France status it wasn't enough on its own to make it happen. Commented Jun 5 at 16:09
  • The participation of Canada was immense during WWII, but it could not be granted any seat at the UN for one main reason : The head of state in Canada is/was the King of England, same as Australia. I reckon that the lack of full sovereignty of Canada did not allow such claim, such as the one made by De Gaulle.
    – Agades44
    Commented Jun 6 at 10:41
  • I also agree with you. But my point was not to state that it was a reason on its own for France to succeed in such claim; But it seems like it was above all the main reason, and that it was decisive. Whitout such significant participation in Provence landing with 200k French soldiers, I do not see how De Gaulle could have pretended to be among the victors.
    – Agades44
    Commented Jun 6 at 10:56
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    I appreciate your answer. But pretty sure the lack of a major participation in the landing in Provence would have made it impossible for France to be granted equal status as a victor with a permanent seat. That is why I see it as a key reason. But I cannot less agree that other reasons played also a part, such as the size of French empire, a military power for centuries, more than 1 M soldiers lost in WWI, Churchill support, or Staline support to lower the position of anglo-saxons in the security council. None of them was enough on its own, but the first one was a strict condition to allow it.
    – Agades44
    Commented Jun 11 at 0:16

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