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9-08-2015, 22:09

A VEIL OVER THE PAST

The Nazi victories in Europe cast a long shadow over all the countries the Germans occupied. For none is this more true than for France. Hitler had allowed a French government to continue to function, and this Vichy regime under Marshal Henri Philippe Pétain enjoyed the support of the great majority of French people in 1940: for them the war was over. Vichy represented adjustment to the new realities and reconstructions, for the ‘old France’ had demonstrated its rottenness in defeat. There appeared to be no real alternative to ‘honest collaboration’, carrying out the terms the Germans had imposed. But where did honour end? Vichy militia and police helped the Germans to arrest other French citizens to be handed over to Gestapo torturers. Then the Jews were rounded up to be sent to their deaths in the east, not only the foreign refugees admitted before the outbreak of war, but French men, women and children. The war produced great heroes in France: men and women risking their lives for the persecuted, and for the Allied cause. But there were tens of thousands of French men and women who served Vichy France, some in important roles, others in minor capacities, from Pierre Laval, the prime minister to the lowliest policeman or civil servant. They made their living serving the state, and the great majority were able to continue their careers after the war, with no apparent stain on their character. In France the situation changed only gradually in de Gaulle’s favour, gaining added impetus after the German invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941. The strong French Communist Party now reversed its policy of collaboration, and the resistance, until then scattered and weak, now with the adhesion of the communists developed into a strong movement. As the chances of German victory receded with defeats in Russia and North Africa and as the Nazis more and more ruthlessly exploited the human resources of French labour, forcing many Frenchmen to work in German factories, so support for Vichy dwindled. In 1943 the various resistance groups agreed to combine and, looking to de Gaulle in London for leadership, formed a National Council of Resistance with the help of a Gaullist emissary parachuted to France from England. Of course, this did not mean that all rival political ambitions had ended. While the communists fixed their eyes not only on liberation, but on a post-war communist transformation of France, de Gaulle skilfully laid his plans for frustrating them and for placing himself at the head of a national government. This meant controlling the resistance movement and subordinating it to his own administration. With liberation in 1944, the unity based on fighting the Germans came to an end, and France’s political future stood shrouded in uncertainty. Would the communists take power? Would de Gaulle be able to do so? Or would there be a civil war and an Anglo-American occupation? In the event, millions of ordinary people were now only too happy to identify with a French hero and to rally around a new saviour to replace the discredited 80-year-old Marshal Pétain. With the help of the BBC, de Gaulle had projected the myth of an unconquerable France, and he himself fitted the desired image. It was an extraordinary feat, as he imbued the people with an inflexible faith in France and in the recovery of its rightful place as a world power, thereby relegating 1940 to no more than one defeat in battle that could not alter France’s destiny. A gift for oratory enabled de Gaulle to do for France what Churchill had accomplished during the darkest hours of the war for Britain. Politicians in France of all shades of belief, accepted de Gaulle as indispensable in the months immediately following the expulsion of the Germans. On 26 August 1944, in scenes preserved by the newsreel cameras, de Gaulle strode through liberated Paris, with snipers still firing from the rooftops. Even so, largely because of American reluctance, the Allies waited until October before granting full recognition to de Gaulle’s provisional government. In the resistance movement, the communists were the largest and most disciplined element. The socialists, as in Italy later, were divided on the issue of whether or not to collaborate with the Marxist communists in a broad-left front. The president of the Resistance Council was Georges Bidault, an anti-Marxist who identified with progressive Catholic aims; he headed a new party, the Mouvement Républicain Populaire (MRP) which, after the communists and socialists, formed the third and smallest group in the resistance. But de Gaulle deliberately stood aloof from party politics in 1944 and 1945, refusing to lead any party of his own; he claimed to speak for France above parties. Yet, by stating as the aims of his policy the restoration of national greatness and the political, social and economic renovation of France, he appealed to popular feelings on the left: liberation from the Germans would go hand in hand with reform. Big business, which had collaborated with the Germans, and the conservative supporters of Vichy, as well as all those who had done well under German occupation, had to lie low politically. Until the eve of liberation, supporters of de Gaulle represented only a minority of the French; after liberation they were able to lay claim to the government without opposition. How did this come about? The communists were on the spot, well armed and well organised. They had worked with the non-communist resistance under de Gaulle’s aegis, but would they now capitalise on their strong position in the country to seize power? Again, as in Italy, the communists made no such bid to challenge de Gaulle directly. Their leader, Maurice Thorez, returned from Moscow in November 1944 and gave his public approval to communist cooperation with the other parties and their participation in a provisional government headed by de Gaulle. The French communists, like the Italian, had probably received their instructions from Moscow. The Germans were not yet defeated and it was in Russia’s interest to maintain Allied unity. An open attempt by communists to take power in a Western country might alienate Britain and the US. Stalin even thought that such an event could open the way to a change of alliances, the Western Allies siding with Germany against Russia – his ultimate fear. De Gaulle succeeded therefore more easily than anyone expected. The provisional government was able to establish its authority over the whole country, with the communists securing only the less important ministerial posts. The independent local committees and militia were dissolved without resistance. For two years, from 1944 to 1946, the communists participated in governments with the socialists and the MRP. Despite their strength, the communists could not dominate French politics in succeeding years and were excluded from government. De Gaulle’s first period of office was short and ended in 1946, but he had already made a permanent impact on French politics. During the first year de Gaulle had acted cautiously at home. The obligatory trials of prominent Vichy collaborators had taken place. The Vichy prime minister Pierre Laval was sentenced to death and executed, though Pétain’s death sentence was commuted to life imprisonment. Newsreels showed pictures of girls with heads shaven as punishment for consorting with Germans. Wild summary ‘justice’ was meted out by the forces of liberation; this gave opportunities, too, for the simple settling of old scores. The best estimate is that nearly 10,000 French were killed. Regularly constituted law courts passed 7,037 sentences of death, but most received the presidential pardon and only 767 executions were actually carried out. Of the just over 167,000 tried, almost half were acquitted and 27,000 received jail sentences. So the prisons were filled with collaborators. Even so, not all the French citizens who saw in Vichy a legitimate government which they actively supported could be tried. After 1950, less than 5,000 remained in prison. The trials ceased. They had been intended to cleanse France from the Vichy taint. In fact, the only practical policy was to draw a veil over the Vichy years, to conciliate and to unite the nation. It was left to a few ardent individuals to continue to the present day to uncover those responsible for Vichy crimes, much to the embarrassment of some of the older generation of Frenchmen. Somehow sleeping dogs will not lie; the whole war generation will have to pass away first. The provisional government after liberation was faced with daunting problems of restoring the dislocated and shattered French economy. There were grave shortages of food and fuel. The infrastructure of transport, bridges and railways had to be rebuilt. State intervention and the takeover of ailing industries were seen as necessary to enable the nation to recover rather than as policies in conformity with socialist ideology. The provisional government in 1945 responded to the demands of the resistance and nationalised the big banks, insurance, gas, electricity and coal as well as companies which, like Renault, had collaborated with the Germans. This created the large state sector of industry that has been characteristic of post-war France. Joint committees were set up in firms employing more than fifty workers to give employees a role and a stake in the success of the company. But hopes for ‘industrial democracy’ were unfulfilled, because employers continued to take the critical financial decisions. Employees did, however, gain from the increase of family benefits and the introduction of compulsory insurance. But this did little to relieve the grim economic situation. Workers’ standards of living were under constant pressure from inflation. During the Vichy years (1940–4) retail prices had risen more than three times but hourly wages had only doubled. At the end of the war, with too much paper money chasing too few goods, prices shot up. There was much industrial unrest, made politically more dangerous because the largest union, the Confédération Générale du Travail (CGT), was controlled by the Communist Party. De Gaulle rejected the restrictive monetary policy necessary to reduce the flood of paper money held by the population and so defeat inflation and restore the value of the currency. Instead, to maintain his popularity, he decreed salary increases and simply postponed tackling France’s economic problems. Nevertheless, de Gaulle’s greatest achievement must be recognised. He stopped France from sliding into a civil war between the active supporters of Vichy, including the police and militia on the one side, and the resistance on the other. Amid the chaos he used his enormous prestige as the embodiment of France to impose a centralised, unified state on the warring factions. De Gaulle knew that, once the emergency was past and the war was over, the provisional government would need to be transformed into a democratically elected one, and the provisional state into a stable republic. Following a national referendum held in October 1945, the French people voted overwhelmingly for a new constitution to be framed and for a constituent assembly to be elected and given the task of drafting the constitution. In the unique post-war circumstances the left gained more seats in the Assembly than its usual electoral strength warranted, given that half the electorate tended to be conservative: the communists benefited most with 160 seats, and the socialists won 142. The new progressive Catholic Party, the MRP, also did surprisingly well, gaining 152 seats. The socialists and communists thus achieved an absolute majority in the Assembly of 586 deputies. A deep rift soon opened up between de Gaulle and the majority in the Assembly on the question of the future constitution. De Gaulle was clear about the essentials: France must not relapse into the political instability of the Third Republic. He therefore insisted on a strong executive headed by the president, and on an assembly that would have a share in government but should not be able to exercise sovereign power. Meanwhile, in the Constituent Assembly the communists attempted to gain the agreement of the socialists to a common programme that would exclude the MRP, but the socialists, who held the key and had no wish to be swallowed up by the communists, insisted on a three-party (communist, socialist, MRP) alignment. The communists chose to bide their time, all parties agreeing to offer de Gaulle the presidency. In the complicated political manoeuvrings that followed, de Gaulle refused to give the communists any of the key ministries they claimed – war, interior or foreign affairs – and threatened to resign. The socialists and MRP supported him, and the communists, faced with a choice of exclusion or participation, gave in. So the first round, with the critical help of the socialists and MRP, went to de Gaulle. The political crisis of November 1945 provoked by the communist demands was thus resolved and a government, headed by de Gaulle and comprising ministers drawn from all the major parties, was formed. But the fundamental issue remained to be settled: despite deep divisions between the socialists and communists in the Assembly, it became clear that these two parties would reject de Gaulle’s concept of a strong, independent presidency and executive in favour of leaving controlling powers with a parliamentary assembly. In many ways the Assembly was already asserting the right to make judgements on the policies that de Gaulle wished to adopt. On the constitutional question de Gaulle could count only on the support of the MRP, and he reacted with bitterness to the prospect of defeat in the Assembly. He believed that he could rely on the support of the mass of the French people. The politicians in the Assembly, he was convinced, were combining against him to safeguard their own selfish interests rather than those of France. Feeling nothing but contempt for the parliamentarians, he decided to force their hand. He confided to one of his ministers at this time: I don’t feel that I am made for this kind of fight. I don’t want to be attacked, criticised, challenged every day by men who have no other distinction than the fact that they got themselves elected in some little place in France. . . . I can’t resign myself to enduring criticisms of parties and irresponsible men, to seeing my decisions challenged, my ministers criticised, myself attacked, my prestige diminished. Since I cannot govern as I wish, that is to say fully, rather than see my power dismembered, I’m going! That conversation took place shortly before de Gaulle dropped his bombshell on 20 January 1946 and resigned. His frustration and anger were genuine. All his policies abroad, in Germany, Indo-China and the Middle East, had experienced setbacks as well. But there was calculation too. He did not believe the nation would be able to manage without him. It was a tactical retreat and he expected to be recalled on conditions he himself would set. Several years later he acknowledged his miscalculation: ‘I have made at least one political mistake in my life: my departure in January 1946. I thought the French would recall me quickly. Because they didn’t do so, France wasted several years.’ After de Gaulle’s resignation, the French people – influenced by his opposition – rejected the draft constitution in a referendum held in May 1946. Then a second constituent assembly was elected to draft an amended constitution. This gave women the vote, adopted proportional representation and created a second chamber but left the real political power in the lower chamber, the National Assembly, which also elected the president. The constitution resembled in most important respects that of the Third Republic and was to create the same governmental instability. But despite de Gaulle’s strong opposition the new constitution was narrowly approved in a referendum in October 1946, nearly 8 million dissenting and just over 9 million in favour, with almost a third of the electorate not bothering to vote at all. It was an inauspicious start for the Fourth Republic. The year 1947 was a particularly bad one for France. Food became still scarcer in the cities, and coal production fell. Prices doubled. Workers whose real wages were rapidly diminishing came out on strike, needing little encouragement from the communist-controlled CGT. The Communist Party found itself in the spring of 1947 faced with a choice between remaining in the three-party government (with the MRP and the socialists) which opposed the strikes, or supporting the workers in their strike demands. Moreover, France’s harsh policy of re-establishing its authority over the colonies, and the developing Cold War, made it increasingly difficult for the communists to collaborate with their coalition partners. The socialist prime minister solved the problem for them by dismissing the communist ministers. Despite their hold over the trade unions and their support among the electors, the communists could henceforth play only an oppositional role in French politics and society. They were not to regain a share of power in government for thirty-four years. The stability of the Republic was also threatened from the right. Admirers of de Gaulle were secretly plotting to found a party as a vehicle for the general’s early return. De Gaulle himself was thinking along the same lines and began recruiting supporters in the autumn of 1946 to set up a national movement drawing support from all the French to ‘save France’. In April 1947, boosted by the wave of strikes, he went public in a speech in Strasbourg. He denounced the communists and proclaimed his new movement, a kind of antiparty party, calling for the ‘Rally of the French People’ under the banner of his leadership, the Rassemblement du Peuple Français (RPF). The question remained: if it was not a party, how would de Gaulle regain power under the constitution? The answer was far from clear, except that de Gaulle had no dictatorial intentions and would accept the presidency only if offered it constitutionally. But the movement still looked dangerously authoritarian, certainly unparliamentary, given de Gaulle’s contempt for ‘rigid parties’ and his call for an ‘orderly, concentrated state’. He promised that the movement would act within the framework of the law, but ‘over and above differences of opinion’, so that ‘the great effort of common salvation and the profound reform of the state may be successfully undertaken’. It looked for a time as if de Gaulle would succeed, as millions of the French were ready to support him during that difficult year. In the local elections in October 40 per cent of the electorate gave their vote to candidates of the RPF. But just four years later, in the elections for the new National Assembly in 1951, de Gaulle’s support had nearly halved. The ‘Gaullists’ had become just another, albeit strong, parliamentary group. The game was up for the time being and two years later de Gaulle withdrew to the village of Colombey-les-DeuxÉglises. The economy of the Fourth Republic was recovering. A landmark in that recovery was the adoption in January 1947 by the National Assembly of what became known as the Monnet Plan. De Gaulle had appointed Jean Monnet after the Liberation to head a committee to prepare a plan for the reconstruction and modernisation of the French economy. Monnet’s roots were deeply embedded in traditional France: he was born in 1888 in Cognac into a family of brandy distillers. But he learnt to combine his understanding of conservative France with the international experience he gained as a salesman for the cognac concern. In particular he was able to observe at first hand the drive, flexibility and efficiency of twentieth-century America. His international perceptions and idealistic belief in the betterment of society through cooperation were heightened by service for the League of Nations and the French government before the outbreak of war in 1939. Monnet joined the Free French and came to Britain after the debacle of 1940; it was he who suggested to Churchill the idea of an Anglo- French union. In 1943 he became a member of the French Committee of National Liberation, for which he organised a group of experts. The work of his committee bore fruit in the plan he proposed in 1947. Monnet was to exert a lasting influence, not only on French economic planning, but on the coordination of the West European economies and the establishment of the Common Market. Drawing on his practical experience he passionately believed that collective action, nationally and internationally, was necessary to solve the problems confronting France and Europe. The plans produced by his Commission, the Commissariat Général du Plan, were not directives, but targets and guides showing how the different elements of the economy could best be coordinated in order to achieve the proposed increases in production. Monnet had no intention of controlling industry as was done in communist countries. Much depended on his personal influence. The nationalised industries provided a good starting point because they were more amenable to government planning, and Monnet’s Plan dealt primarily with improving supplies of fuel and energy, as well as with oil refineries, transport, steel, cement and tractors to increase agricultural productivity. The aim of the Plan was to raise industrial and agricultural output by 25 per cent over 1929 within three years. This would make possible a substantial rise in the standard of living. It was presented as an emergency plan of action. Instead it was to become a much more permanent institution with a series of five-year plans. The remarkable success of continuous economic planning based on long-term objectives contrasted with what appeared to be the hopelessly inefficient political scenario so characteristic of France. This political instability led many to underrate France’s fundamental strength. In world affairs, France had not won an equal place with Britain in 1945. France’s German policy of attempting to detach the Rhineland and the Ruhr achieved no success. The US and Britain were coordinating and centralising Western Germany, isolating France in its German occupation zone. De Gaulle’s cherished hope of establishing France as a third force and as a bridge between the Anglo-Saxons and the Russians, which had led him to Moscow and to the conclusion of a new treaty between France and the Soviet Union in 1944, was an idle dream. Stalin had no intention of using de Gaulle as an intermediary, and the realities of the Cold War destroyed any notions of French bridge-building. In reasserting French colonial rights by the use of force in Madagascar, the Middle East, Algeria and Indo- China, France enmeshed itself in Third World struggles for independence which, for more than two decades, caused many deaths, bled France of resources and weakened it at home and abroad, only to end in failure. Finally, 1947 was a year of economic crisis and industrial unrest. Yet in retrospect, it was those very failures and difficulties that turned French thoughts in new directions. French economic recovery was not possible without German economic recovery and Franco- German cooperation. De Gaulle was the first French statesman to offer the German people reconciliation but it was on condition that they became junior partners and accepted a weakened German state deprived not only of the Saar but also of the Rhineland and Ruhr, which would be internationalised and formed into a separate ‘European’ state. But such aims were as much opposed by the US and Britain as they were by Germany. As conflicts with the Soviet Union deepened, so earlier anxieties receded. Germany was likely to remain divided between the West and the Soviet Union; control over armaments and the Ruhr would continue in any case. But West German support would have to be won: this meant concessions and no further amputations of German territory. For the governments of the French Fourth Republic it was, therefore, not so much a perceived direct Russian threat, the fear that Soviet tanks would cross the Elbe and head for France, that provided the impetus for a change of policy; rather, it was the realisation that French aims in continental Europe – dominance over Germany, bridge-building to the east and maintenance of French independence in the face of the Atlantic Anglo-Saxon powers – were doomed to failure as an indirect consequence of the Cold War. France itself was now threatened with isolation as Britain and the US chose to start building up West Germany. France might, nevertheless, have taken its time to change course had it not been for its dire economic condition, which obliged the government to rely on American aid. Internally and externally in 1947 pressures were thus mounting for a reorientation of French policies. There was soon tangible evidence that a new course was being followed. An Anglo-French treaty of alliance was concluded in March 1947 (the Treaty of Dunkirk) to reassure France as Germany revived, and as a first step towards closer economic and political collaboration in Western Europe. In June 1947, General George Marshall, the American secretary of state, delivered his famous address at Harvard promising American aid on condition that the European nations coordinated their planning. His proposal was welcomed in France, and Anglo-French agreement on how to proceed followed speedily. On the initiative of the French and British foreign ministers, Bidault and Bevin, the European nations were invited to a conference in Paris with the purpose of formulating their responses to Marshall’s offer. West Germany was included in Marshall’s Plan for European economic cooperation (theoretically the German Eastern zone, all the nations under Soviet control and the Soviet Union were likewise included, but they were expected to reject the conditions of aid). Acceptance of Marshall Aid was as essential for France as it was for the other Western nations if recovery was to be accelerated. The Plan also held out the hope that Western Europe might one day be better able to maintain its independence from US influence. De Gaulle realised this as quickly as anyone and the Gaullists called for a European Union based on a federation of states. Although their motivation and aims of policy were by no means identical, the US, Britain and France found their policies converging in 1947. Britain still saw itself as separate from continental Europe but also favoured a strengthening of the Western continental states through collaboration. Thus, despite earlier differences, perhaps the most significant outcome of the early post-war years was not only the recovery of France, but the drawing together of Western Europe under Anglo-French leadership with firm US support. The shape of the future Western Europe and the broad Atlantic economic partnership had begun to emerge in 1947. The shocks of the crisis years 1947 and 1948, the coup in Czechoslovakia and the Berlin blockade, created a sense of common danger which reinforced these ties, but Britain, having first provided a strong impetus, was to draw back from closer economic cooperation with the beginnings of West European integration in the 1950s.

 

 

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