General Articles

France Fears the Future

Lost in bitter wrangling, the French court political chaos while De Gaulle the canny mystic extends an iron hand to take control

L. S. B. SHAPIRO October 15 1948
General Articles

France Fears the Future

Lost in bitter wrangling, the French court political chaos while De Gaulle the canny mystic extends an iron hand to take control

L. S. B. SHAPIRO October 15 1948

France Fears the Future

Lost in bitter wrangling, the French court political chaos while De Gaulle the canny mystic extends an iron hand to take control

L. S. B. SHAPIRO

Maclean's European Correspondent

PARIS—It was the last week in August. Another French government had fallen—the 11th since the liberation four years ago—but the boulevards of Paris were gay with strolling crowds and summer sun. It is difficult for a people to be properly restive about a political crisis in the softness of summer; this is one of Nature’s little tricks. In the dead of winter a political crisis is a fearsome event; in the summer the warmth of the sun and the lushness of the fields act as a narcotic on the minds of the people.

On this waning August day some 50 persons stood outside the gates of the Presidential palace on Rue Faubourg de St. Honore and watched a succession of politicians arrive and depart. They saw Maurice Thorez, the Communist leader, drive moodily through the gates while a guard in dress uniform watched him with sagging jaw. Later they saw Robert Schuman; then Paul Reynaud; then Andre Marie; then Paul Ramadier, his mouth so compressed that his goatee speared the breeze. All came and all went. Nothing was decided. In a stormy world, France drifted aimlessly.

Little more than a stone’s throw from Vincent Auriol’s official palace, a waning sun caused the Arch of Triumph to cast a long, ungainly shadow across the Avenue des Champs Elysees. Within this shadow there was great activity, for this was a week of celebration. Four years ago Paris had been

liberated and now that memorable date was being marked by a series of ceremonies centred on the Arch of Triumph. But the celebration here was a reflection of what was happening a short distance away at the Presidential palace. Not even the memory of this triumphant week could bring the people to forget their differences.

The liberation ceremony was to begin at six o'clock. Policemen lined the Champs Elysees from Avenue George V to the Arch of Triumph, as if to make passage for a parade. But there was no parade. Below Avenue George V the coteries of official celebrants gathered along the curbstones, keeping a substantial distance one from the other, and bridging the gaps with malevolent glances. Each coterie had its wreath of flowers and its tricolor—and its hate for the other coteries.

There were the Communists, with their red shirts and scarves, and dowdy women in house frocks. A short distance away the DeGaullists lined up, holding aloft a banner displaying the cross of Lorraine. Along another stretch of pavement the deportees were lined up, some of them wearing the striped coveralls of the concentration camps. Altogether there were 14 different groups, representing various conflicting ideologies, political parties, religious organizations, resistance cells. They moved restlessly about, awaiting the signal.

At last it was six o’clock. The ceremony was to begin before the monument which represents the glory and the sacrifice of France. The little groups moved up the wide avenue, manoeuvring carefully to ensure that each did not associate itself with

any other. They straggled all over the roadway, now and again hurling epithets at each other. As they converged on the Arch, the police moved in wisely to prevent an outbreak of street fighting. One by one they deposited their wreaths and paid their brief verbal tributes, then melted away in the crowd.

Not even the memory of triumph over the invader, not even a remembrance of the heroic dead, could unite the people of France. In the palace on Rue Faubourg de St. Honore, President Vincent Auriol knew it bitterly.

Puzzled Nation .c

FORTNIGHT later Robert Schuman succeeded in forming the 12th government since the liberation. It lived for something less than 72 hours, and once more France was plunged into a political impasse. At this writing the man of the hour (a phrase which applies literally in French politics) is Henri iQueuille, a plodding 64-year-old physician who has been on the fringe of French coalition cabinets for three years. It is his weakness ns a personality that has made him the choice of t he Assembly; the bigwigs know he can do little except hold together the strings of government while they plot and manoeuvre one against the other.

The Queuille government is merely a breathing spell in the panting political life of France. It is held together by compromise rather than by action, by the threads of suspicion rather than by the bonds of unity. What

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France Fears the Future

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happens next? When de»es political exhaustion set in? Whither France?

'To the economist who st udies facts and figure's, even to the casual observer who travels its magnificent and generous countryside, France is a puzzle. Unlike Britain, which ekes out its home-grown agricultural products from patches of land thrusting between factory towns, and Italy which grubs its fruit and wheat from rocky soil terraced into the foothills of the Apennines, France is a great agricultural nation. But unlike Britain and Italy. France has not once fully honored her ration cards since the liberation. And yet this nation’s agriculture has recovered to a figure of 90' , of her 1938 yield. 'Together with I imports, there should 1H> enough food for all. hut it doesn’t appear on t lashelves of grocery shops— at least, not in return for coupons and the fixid price.

By the end of 1947 the nation's industrial production had reached 94‘ j of the last normal year, 1938. By the j end of this year production will he well j over that of 1938. Bu the nation’s j economy is lx*ing choked hv lack of ! easily available finisher! product«; out of ! tliis arises an unmanageable inflation.

There are sheafs of statistics, if one

proposes to quote them, but these are almost useless as a key to the gravest crisis France has faced since May of

1940, because they tend to furthrcomplicate the puzzle of France rath.r than explain it.

The problem is clear enough. Since

the liberation the governments of France have consisted of loose coalitions, none of them strong enough to impose upon the nation the stern sacrifices made necessary by postwar economies. The short-lived André Marie government in early August was a prime example. Paul Reynaud, Marie’s finance minister, took it as his first duty to draw up an economic program calculated to save the francas well as France. Reynaud’s proposals appeared to most foreign observers to be extremely businesslike. He would (1) reform the tax system so that the state might have a chance of collecting taxes from individuals and concerns who have successfully evaded imposts since 1939; (2) cut the nation’s immense civil service to reasonable proportions, and (3) house clean the nationalized industries which have been losing money hand over fist. This seemed fair enough, but the moment Reynaud made the formal proposals to the deputies; the Marie government fell.

It seems of little moment to the people of France that such measures as Reynaud proposed are the minimum necessary to steady the franc, to restore confidence in the economy of the nation. The people seem to have lost all hope that an orderly recovery will develop; they are apparently waiting for some cataclysmic event to blow the situation sky-high. Meanwhile they don’t care. Only a government which applies economic narcotics to the sagging national body is privileged to survive for a few weeks. 'The moment it proposes an adequate program of reform it falls: and is succeeded by a slight reshuffle of the same left-centre personalities who shrug their shoulders helplessly and apply still another narcotic.

'The parliamentary situation which is forcing France into this fatal spiral is briefly this: there are five principal political parties—on the far left, the Communists, and on the far right the De Gaullists; and in between are three so-called moderate parties, the left-ofcentre Socialist party, the dead-centre Popular Republican Movement, and the somewhat right-of-centre Radical Socialist party. Since the dismissal of the Communists from participation in the government, a coalition of the three centre parties has ruled F rance. They are forced together by fear of the far left and right, and they are made ineffective by suspicion of one another.

Butter Profiteer

But these enmities and suspicions are merely a reflection of the people. When Reynaud proposed his stern economic reform, a worker in the nationalized Renault automobile works said to me: “To the devil with Rey-

naud ! Why should he penalize the whole nation for the sins of the rich and the black marketeers? Let him confiscate the hoarders and then he will balance the budget. We cannot live on what we earn, so how can he tax us further?"

That week end I was motoring through Normandy. On a large farm seaward of Lisieux I lunched in the manor house of an acquaintance. Butter is the principal product of his farm, and he boasted to me that he makes a clear profit of about a million and a half francs a month (about $4.500) by supplying his butter to

the black market. He boasted further that he pays no taxes on these profits.

To my observation that he was being unpatriotic, he replied angrily: “Why should I pay money to the government? So they can pay worthless civil servants? So they can pay the deficits of the nationalized industries run by their friends? So they can sell me state bonds which will be worth half in a month’s time? Certainly not! In this nation of dirty politics, one must look after oneself.”

Here is the commonest bleat of the Frenchman. “We are being strangled by la politique.” Rich and poor alike wail they are being strangled by la politique. The rich say they cannot trust their wealth to a government which depends on the printing press for money; and the poor complain that inflation robs their wages of the power to buy the bare necessities of life. All throw their hands in the air and blame la politique.

There are human failings which cannot be blamed on la politique.; they leap to the eye wherever one travels in France. The war has left the French crippled of spirit. They lack a sense of national responsibility. In a country which does not honor the ration cards of its workers, one can buy, if one has the money, the most luxurious meals in the world. There is not a bar in all of France, I dare say, which cannot supply you with an illegally acquired packet of American cigarettes. When l asked a friend of mine about the income taxes he paÿs, he opened his desk and pointed to a pile of unopened envelopes. “There are my tax bills. I simply pay no attention to them. Who cares?” The amount of private French wealth secretly held in the United States is estimated at a minimum of $2 billions. The figure for gold bullion hoarded in France itself runs as high as $6 billions.

A united France, a France which possessed the determination to become once more the dominating power in western Europe, could manipulate its hidden and natural assets into a fast and confident, recovery. Rut. it is racked by fear for the* future, by selfishness and discouragement.

The loftier philosophers sav France is too civilized a nation to knuckle down to the necessities of postwar economics. Others say that three disastrous wars in 75 years have ruined France morally and physically, that it is merely a human shell occupying a great area of Europe. The toughminded say that France, now a dying nation, can be roused from her coma and rehabilitated by a strong hand.

According to popular fears no less than popular hopes, the strong hand belongs to Charles de Gaulle.

“Big Charlie” sits in his estate on the Oise, firmly believing he is the spirit of France and its savior, awaiting anxiously—a little too anxiously for a self-appointed mystic—the call of the people. That he is a patriot none but the Communists will deny; that he proposes to be a dictator few will deny; that he is the smartest politician in all of France, no one will deny.

For a man who was an obscure tank tactician in the French army before the war, De Gaulle must be adjudged a political genius. He likes to believe— and often succeeds in giving the impression— that he was visited in 1940 and 1946 (the two significant dates in his life) by a spirit, such as the one which inflamed and embellished the soul of Joan of Arc. Such a spirit may have inspired him in 1940 when he offered himself to Churchill as the rallying figure of French resistance, but in 1946, when he abruptly resigned the leadership of France, he was merely being a cunning, power-hungry politician. He knew, after 18 months of

liberation, that the French had changed not at all politically since before the war. The weakening effect of a multiplicity of parties turned out to be more deadly than ever because the country was impoverished and devastated. De Gaulle predicted privately with uncanny accuracy the course of .Sovietwestern relations; therefore he knew that the Communist party in France would have to struggle not only against the majority of the people but also against the influence of the United States and Britain. The centre would fail; the left would be resisted; thus only the right would remain as the wave of France’s future.

“Big Charlie” withdrew his great personal influence when his country most needed it, and retired, presumably forever, but secretly to prepare for the moment when he could return to power on his own terms—as the master of France.

De Gaulle Organizers

Thus far the pattern of international events and of French political behavior has proved how accurate was Do Gaulle’s instinct for predicting the future. The Communist party, so vigorous in 1945 and 1946, is losing membership and effectiveness, due more to outside influences than to the pressure of the French people. The centre parties are failing with cruel regularity, a process which is being hastened by De Gaulle’s influence and his votes in the chamber of deputies.

But the process of French political failure, hurtling toward doom as it has been for a year, was not fast enough for De Gaulle. A few months ago he threw down the façade of the pure mystic and announced the formation of his own political party, called the Rally of the French People, the RPF. He gathered unto himself a curious melange of political brains—royalists, fascists, former Communists, and some centrepoliticians who were overcome by the notion that “Big Charlie” was a reincarnation of the spirit of France, whatever that may be.

For an organization which purports to be too high-minded to dabble in the mud of everyday politics, the RPF is a pretty astute outfit. Every step of the way to De Gaulle’s accession to power has been carefully planned. Last autumn De Gaulle’s machine went into action for the first time in the election of town councils, and came away with a tremendous victory. Forty per cent of French municipalities came under the control of De Gaulle supporters, including Paris where brother Pierre de Gaulle is mayor. This gives De Gaulle the strength which comes with local patronage and local police. At. this writing, the De Gaulle machine is working a grade higher, on the cantonal elections. He is building his movement on a solid foundation before he steps formally into the national arena.

Like most self-appointed mystics, Do Gaulle is a planner. He leaves nothing to chance. Should the centrist coalition persist until the next general election, he is building his political machine with diligence. Should France be plunged into sudden chaos, he is ready to step in as the high priest of discipline.

The critical question is this: What

sort of regime would De Gaulle bring to France? He himself, if one can properly interpret the pontifical nuances of his pronunciamentos, asks only a change in the constitution which would give stronger authority to the head of the state. The proposal sounds harm| less enough;—in the hands of a devout i believer in the parliamentary system. France could usefully confer on such a

man the power vested in, let us say. the President of the United States. But mystics and patriots who claim to be possessed of the soul of the nation are not to be trusted when it comes to asking for a little more power.

The liberals of France fear De Gaulle’s ambition. They foresee the strong hand becoming the iron hand. They predict a secret police, and a state reign of terror. Not only the liberals of France but also the statesmen of Britain and the United States would deplore De Gaulle’s accession to power. He is an intractable man, vain and stubborn, whose fervor for France rises above his sense of responsibility to the world about him.

The statesmen of the west know, too, that De Gaulle’s accession to power would bring bloodshed to France, perhaps a brief but violent uprising by the Communists and not a few Socialists. And bloodshed followed inevitably by dictatorship, while removing the short-term Communist threat, would bring a litt le smile and a wise nod to the otherwise impassive face of the Kremlin. A dictatorship in I*'ranee! Even in cold print it reads like :i fantastic nightmare. It would snuff «jut a vital inspiration for democracies everywhere in tin* world.

Whither France? The masses of the people still cling to a hope, albeit a tattered hope, that the threat of war will be lifted from Europe, that the consequent relaxation of big army budgets and the success of ERP will gradually bring into control the runaway economy of France.

But it is a faraway hope. There are few realists who do not believe that De Gaulle must come to power, perhaps within weeks, certainly within a year. It comes down, then, to a hope that his second call to supreme duty will curb his vanity and stay his ambition. Indeed, the very weakness of France may yet provide its salvation, for France under any regime has need of the great good will of the democracies and their practical support. The nation has no other friends except those who will look away from si dictatorship; there are too many in the world already.

De Gaulle alone cannot save France. He needs the world of the democracies; he needs Italy’s" labor and electric power, Britain’s coal, America’s credits; he needs the fervent blessing of the free world no less than its goods. Perhaps this will cause him to use his power wit!) dignity and respect for the traditions of his people. it