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9-08-2015, 22:37

THE FIFTH REPUBLIC AND THE RETURN OF DE GAULLE

The defence of its empire in Indo-China and North Africa proved a crushing burden for postwar France. The fall of Dien Bien Phu in May 1954 brought down another French government, but the new prime minister, Pierre Mendès- France, was a politician in a different mould. He was, like Leon Blum, a Jew, tough, intellectual and at last ready to face realities – at least some of the realities. He fulfilled his undertaking to bring France out of the disastrous dirty war in Indo- China in July 1954 by agreeing to the peace terms of the Geneva Conference, and he negotiated Tunisian autonomy, but, ostensibly over weakness in dealing with North Africa, he was brought down in February 1955. The determination of the Gaullist right to maintain France’s colonial rule led to more falls of government until, in 1956, independence was conceded to both Tunisia and Morocco. But Algeria was different. Politicians of all parties – communists, socialists and conservatives – regarded Algeria, governed through the French Ministry of the Interior, as part of France. One million French settlers, the pieds noirs, from the wealthy to the hard-working fisherman or carpenter, who had lived in Algeria for a generation or more, saw themselves as the French of Algeria, not as French men and women living in a colony of France. All the French political leaders echoed Mendès-France when he declared, ‘France without Algeria would be no France.’ Yet all the talk about Algeria being a part of France was paradoxical and hypocritical, as was the rhetoric in the constitution of the Fourth Republic, whose preamble promised equality without distinction of race or religion. Racism was as rampant in Algeria as it was in the worst of European colonies overseas. How could Algeria be France if the majority of its inhabitants, the 9 million Muslim Arabs, were not French people with equal rights? There was no place for the Algerian in the higher administration of the country; the economy was dominated by the wealthy European settlers; the plight of the land-hungry poor Muslim Algerian was aggravated by a high birth rate; meanwhile, the larger, more mechanised settler farms no longer required large numbers of peasant labourers. The Fourth Republic instituted some reforms but, on the key issue of political rights, only a measure of ostensible power-sharing was introduced. An Algerianelected assembly was created, chosen by two electoral colleges, one composed of the European French citizens, plus a few meritorious Muslims, some 500,000 electors, who chose sixty members of the Assembly; the rest of the Muslim population chose the other sixty members. Even this was not enough for the European settlers: electoral corruption made doubly sure that the European minority would continue its domination. The tragedy of Algeria was that violence and atrocities, involving great loss of innocent lives, marked the path to nationhood. That was not how the majority of moderate Muslims wished to achieve their rights. A lack of vision and of gen- erosity and the resolution of the pieds noirs, actuated by fear and material self-interest, to deny the Muslim Algerians genuinely equal rights and selfdetermination left the outcome of the struggle to be decided by the extremists. The settlers believed that their power, backed by the army of all France, could always overwhelm such guerrilla units as the FLN (Front de Libération Nationale) could muster. But their confidence misled them. In the end, the French were sickened by the bloody excesses and the slaughter of civilians, which spilled over into metropolitan France. The French military too reacted by torturing captured FLN to elicit intelligence information. It was a struggle without honour on both sides. The majority that ultimately counted was not that of the pieds noirs in Algeria, but the majority of voters in France. To them the price of retaining Algeria and defending the European settlers proved too high. De Gaulle ended the Algerian conflict on the only terms that could be secured: those demanded by the FLN leadership. The twisted road from the close of the Second World War to Algerian independence in 1962 was punctuated by waves of violence, abortive negotiations and constitutional crises. The liberation of Europe in May 1945 had raised the expectation of colonial peoples that a new era had dawned for them. In Sétif, a small Algerian market town, these expectations led to a bloody clash, the first of many. Extremist Muslims carrying nationalist flags turned on European settlers that May, murdering and raping more than a hundred. The French response was to ‘pacify’ the region in typical colonial fashion, killing thousands of Muslims. The indelible impression of racist conflict and bloodshed overshadowed all political speeches. De Gaulle had promised a new deal to the French colonial peoples: they would be led eventually to self-government, but the time and manner would be decided by the French. Thus the initial stance of the Europeans was that violence would not wrest that decision of decolonisation from them. French military power was so overwhelming that proposals put forward by the more moderate Algerian nationalist leaders, such as Ferhat Abbas, for a compromise solution were not entertained (Abbas had proposed an independent Algeria federated to France). The movement for independence, therefore, became more radical, and new leaders, such as Ahmed Ben Bella and Belkacem Krim, were ready to use violence. With just a few hundred armed men, Belkacem Krim started an open revolt on 1 November 1954. Throughout the country a proclamation was distributed addressed ‘To the Algerian people’ and announcing the formation of the Front de Libération Nationale, whose objective was to gain Algerian independence. But the FLN also promised that French settlers and French interests would be dealt with fairly: the pieds noirs could even opt for Algerian nationality. For more than seven years the FLN fought, without deviating from their objectives. But the implacable hostility of the settlers made it impossible for any agreement to be reached which might have safeguarded their future. In 1954 the Fourth Republic rejected as unthinkable the very idea of Algerian independence. The prime minister at that time, Pierre Mendès- France, and his socialist minister of the interior, François Mitterrand, were ready to abandon colonialism in Indo-China, Morocco and Tunisia, but not in Algeria – for, as they repeatedly proclaimed, ‘Algeria is France.’ Their solution was military repression, which was to be combined with economic reform to reduce unemployment. But reform had no chance. The FLN answered repression with terrorism. Ten years after Sétif, in August 1955, indiscriminate terrorism was repeated at Philippeville. The murder of Europeans and their Muslim allies by an FLN-instigated mob led in turn to the killing of more than a thousand Muslims in reprisals. Such violence could only play into the hands of the FLN, who regarded as their enemy, not only France, but those moderate Muslims who were prepared to accept French rule. The FLN killings were directed as much against these ‘traitorous’ Muslims as against the French. Indeed the Muslim Algerians who had placed their trust in France were to become the most tragic victims of the war. The FLN resorted to bombing cafés and dance halls in Algeria, causing bloodshed wherever Europeans came together in large numbers. The French army responded with equal ferocity, torturing FLN suspects to gain information. French military power, however, could not crush the terrorists. All that could be achieved were temporary victories over the FLN, as in what became known as the battle of Algiers. Meanwhile, the pieds noirs became suspicious of the intentions of the government in Paris. Would they negotiate with the FLN above their heads? The FLN was gaining respectability internationally at the United Nations, receiving support from Tunisia, while Nasser’s Egypt – recently victorious over the French – broadcast pro-Algerian propaganda from Cairo. Practical help, however, was not so readily forthcoming. In the spring of 1958 the paths of the European settlers and the recalcitrant generals in Algiers, on the one hand, and the politicians of the Fourth Republic, on the other, fatefully crossed. From 15 April until 13 May 1958 Paris was politically paralysed: no government could be formed. The way was opened for the return of de Gaulle at the end of May. This spelt the collapse of the Fourth Republic and, after another four years of confusing politics, military repression and bloodshed, of French Algeria as well. De Gaulle, in 1947, had miscalculated and as a result of his resignation spent a long decade in the political wilderness, preparing for his return. He wished to end the Fourth Republic and what he regarded as its fatally flawed parliamentary constitution, which he believed had brought back the errors of the Third Republic. But he would not seize power unconstitutionally. The Fourth Republic must turn to him and ask him to save France from chaos. This did not mean that he was reluctant to exploit the feelings of those groups of Frenchmen in France and Algeria who were ready to conspire against the Fourth Republic. His refusal to condemn disloyalty to the Fourth Republic, or those ready to defy the government in Paris before he came to power, was sufficient to encourage the belief that his Algerian policy would be resolutely French. A master of lofty rhetoric, de Gaulle could be all things to all men. When, three weeks after the fall of the government on 5 April 1958, President René Coty had found no politician able to form a new government, he consulted de Gaulle. But on 13 May, it was Pierre Pfimlin, a man who was anathema to the army in Algeria, to whom he turned. In Algiers, 13 May 1958 was the decisive day. Brigadier-General Jacques Massu and Commander-in-Chief General Raoul Salan, with their associates, were practically in open revolt against Paris. Although Pfimlin received the backing of the National Assembly to form the next government, the conspiracy on both sides of the Mediterranean was in full swing. De Gaulle had to make his move. Although it was the insurrection of the army in Algiers and the threat of civil war that were forcing the hands of the president and legitimate government of the Fourth Republic, de Gaulle had to give the appearance of total independence and personal disinterest in anything except the cause of saving France. In a crucial public statement of 15 May de Gaulle avoided mentioning the insurrection in Algiers beyond referring to ‘disturbance in the fighting forces’; he condemned the ‘regime of the parties’, which he said could not solve France’s problems, and harking back to his mission in 1940 concluded, ‘Not so long ago the country, in its hour of peril, trusted me to lead it . . . to its salvation. Today with the trials that face it once again, it should know that I am ready to assume the powers of the Republic.’ By placing himself at the ‘disposal’ of the French people over the head of the president, the government and National Assembly, de Gaulle undermined whatever authority they might have been able to exert. The French people would not have taken kindly to a usurpation of power led by the army, which would have provoked protests, riots and widespread civil disturbances. There were still formidable obstacles in the way of a legal transition of power. After all a government under Pierre Pfimlin was functioning and there was no real danger of an insurrection in metropolitan France other than by armed units from Algeria. General Massu knew he would need to camouflage any use of force. He planned a coup in Paris codenamed Resurrection: mass demonstrations would be organised, backed up by paratroopers airlifted from Algiers and the southwest region of France who would occupy stra- tegic government buildings. The crisis reached fever pitch on 28 and 29 May. De Gaulle’s relationship with Resurrection is one of the most hotly argued controversies among historians. Had the general himself given the order to set the coup in motion or was it Gaullist supporters in Paris who gave the green light to the army generals in Algiers? What seems likely is that de Gaulle had expressed himself in an ambiguous way, yet had given clear indication that if he failed to gain power by legal process, which he preferred, he would have taken advantage of the Algiers plot. The airlift actually began when six Dakotas took off early in the afternoon of 28 May. That evening in Paris President Coty called in de Gaulle and invited him to form a ‘government of national safety’ since France was on the verge of civil war. Coty also had to accept de Gaulle’s demand that he would take over only if he could prepare plans for a new constitution; meanwhile he would govern without the National Assembly. De Gaulle then agreed that he would be granted special powers for only six months and would first need to appear before the National Assembly for confirmation as head of government and to receive authority to plan and submit a new constitution. When they received this news, the generals postponed Resurrection. The National Assembly on 1 June 1958 by a majority voted its approval of de Gaulle as head of government with special powers, but a sizeable minority voted against him, 224 members out of 553. The following day he received the necessary three-fifths majority for submitting a new constitution to the French people by referendum. So de Gaulle, at the age of sixty-seven, had become head of the government again, but Coty remained president, an arrangement that conferred legality and continuity on the interim period that marked the last months of the Fourth Republic. De Gaulle had achieved a constitutional transfer of power just this side of legality – but he could not have done it without the military threat from Algeria. His immediate problem was now not metropolitan France but Algeria, where settlers and generals, together with French Gaullist politicians back home, would look upon any retreat from ‘l’Algérie Française’ as rank treachery, which would absolve them from owing loyalty to any government guilty of it. But what did de Gaulle really think? It is a question not easy to answer. In letters and private conversations he seems to have tried out ideas, using those he addressed as a sounding board. But he was clearly pragmatic. The conflict would be brought to an end and de Gaulle did not believe that could be achieved by continuing to discriminate against the Muslim majority or by employing military force and the torture of opponents. He relied on his own immense prestige among the settlers and the millions of Algerian Muslims, to whom he proposed a new deal. To the fighting men of the FLN he offered an olive branch by praising their courage. He was under no illusions that one day Algeria would be independent, but that independence would be best achieved gradually and in harmony and in some form of association with France. For all his rhetoric and grandeur, de Gaulle was far from sure of his ability to impose a policy opposed to the wishes of the French settlers and the army generals, who were congratulating themselves on their destruction of the Fourth Republic. Nor did the killings in Algeria cease with de Gaulle’s return. Indeed, the savagery was worse than ever during the next four years, while the general seemed to procrastinate, switching from concessionary overtures to the FLN to renewed efforts to achieve ‘pacification’, and the toll of death, maiming and torture mounted. If de Gaulle really represented, as he claimed, the greatness of France, is he not to be condemned for vainly attempting to save France’s position in Algeria? The ambiguity of his policies was to be revealed on his first visit to Algeria, only three days after his investiture. To Algerian Muslims and the French settler crowds, he proclaimed on different occasions the delphic utterance, ‘I have understood you’; however, in all but one of his speeches he carefully avoided uttering the pieds noirs’ slogan, ‘l’Algérie Française’. De Gaulle’s impact on the population in France and in Algeria was enormous. The great majority of French citizens and of Muslim Algerians were prepared to place their trust in him and to be led to new relations and a better future. He was the best guarantee that France would not be plunged into civil war. The trouble was that the trusting French settlers and military expected a completely different outcome from that expected by the trusting Muslim Algerians. Even so, the referendum on the new constitution, held in France, in the French Commonwealth and in Algeria, was a personal triumph for de Gaulle. In metropolitan France over 80 per cent voted for him. In Algeria, where the Muslim Algerians could vote with the Europeans on equal terms for the first time, army intimidation cannot account for the large majority, of 76.4 per cent, achieved in the face of FLN threats. So why was there no prompt settlement in accordance with the wishes of the great majority of Muslim Algerians, who were clearly ready to accept some form of association with France? After all, de Gaulle himself was deliberately using the weapon of democracy, of the majority, as the best means of finding a settlement. It was not majorities that decided the issue in Algeria but the organised force of settlers, the French army and the minority of militant Algerians who made up the FLN. The FLN would not lay down their arms for anything less than complete independence. They survived as a guerrilla force in the country and in urban areas despite ‘successful’ French military actions, attacking the French settlers and their Muslim Algerian supporters. De Gaulle’s attempts to negotiate with them, even at moments of their greatest military weakness, came to nothing. Moreover, the extremists among the pieds noirs soon recognised that, whatever his personal preferences, de Gaulle would in the end settle with the Muslim Algerians and abandon the settlers if need be. These extremist settlers mounted some thirty assassination attempts against de Gaulle, and one revenge shooting in August 1962 riddled his car with fourteen bullets and nearly succeeded in killing him and his wife. In February 1961 they had formed the Organisation Armée Secrète in Algeria, soon known throughout the world as the OAS. They declared that they would act as ferociously as the FLN and take their terror tactics to Paris if de Gaulle and metropolitan France tried to abandon ‘l’Algérie Française’. On 30 March 1961 de Gaulle announced that peace talks with the FLN would begin shortly at Evian. This was the signal for an open rebellion carried out in April by OAS plotters with the assistance of four retired army generals in Algeria. But the French army in Algeria was split. Once more de Gaulle’s appeals averted the danger of civil war. During the long-drawn-out negotiations at Evian, the OAS did their worst, but they were unable to prevent agreement being conceded practically on FLN’s terms on 18 March 1962. On 1 July that year Algerian independence was granted after a referendum in France and Algeria. The previous month the OAS gave up the hopeless struggle in Algeria. The extremists had ensured that there could be no future for the French Algerian settlers, most of whom now migrated to metropolitan France. Was it an honourable peace? The French could not protect all the Algerians who had been loyal to them and were now condemned as traitors by the FLN. Muslim Algerians who had served in the French army had numbered 210,000. Only a minority took refuge in France, and it is not known how many of those who remained behind were executed or murdered. Estimates vary between 30,000 and 150,000. The leaders of the new Algeria later admitted that there had been ‘blunders’. Whole families, even children, were massacred. Many Third World countries have passed through the suffering of colonial repression and then through the wars of national liberation, which involved not only the fight against the ‘occupier’ but also the savagery of fratricidal civil war. Algeria was one of the worst examples of this process. De Gaulle’s military training helped him to face this inescapable consequence. Certainly the blame cannot be placed solely on him. Whatever failings are attributed to de Gaulle in handling the crises in Algeria from 1958 to 1962, only his enormous prestige in the army and among the people of France saved Algeria from seizure by a rebellious army backed by the settlers, and France from a confrontation that might have led to a neo-fascist regime in Paris. The ending of the war was greeted with enormous relief by the great majority of the French people, and by none more than the half-million conscripts sent to Algeria. The verdict on de Gaulle offered by the historian Alistair Horne seems eminently just: ‘the way he extricated France from Algeria may not have been done well – but certainly no one else could have done it better’. De Gaulle succeeded in 1958 in re-establishing the constitutional authority of France over the recalcitrant army and rightist extremists. Not least important among his weapons were his impressive personal television appearances in which he addressed the nation. Even opponents were bound to admire the authoritative style of the grand Charles, dressed in the uniform of a brigadier-general, during these early years of turbulence. He had been given just six months of rule without parliament to reshape the institutions of government. He lost no time. Invested with special powers in June 1958, de Gaulle created a consultative committee (which he chaired) to draft the new constitution. It was approved by an overwhelming majority in a referendum on 28 September. The constitution of the Fifth Republic, which came into force in January 1959, enormously increased the powers of the presidency. Under Article 16 it permitted the president in case of grave national crisis to take ‘whatever measures are required by the circumstances’. Until the 1958 constitution was amended in 1962 by a further referendum, the president was not directly elected by the people but chosen by an electoral college consisting of all members of the Assembly and other ‘notables’: de Gaulle was proceeding cautiously. On paper the prime minister shared executive power with the president, but the president chose the prime minister, and other ministers on the recommendation of the prime minister. On paper, parliament retained considerable powers. Governments were responsible to it and were required to resign if the National Assembly censored them or rejected their programme. The prime minister (Article 20) was charged with determining and conducting the policy of the nation and was given responsibility for national defence as well as the power to appoint top officials; moreover, his countersignature was required for treaties. Responsible for negotiating treaties and empowered to initiate new laws, the president is commander-in-chief and presides over the Council of Ministers. For the constitution to work, the government would have to act as the junior partner of the president, thus eliminating the overlapping powers and potential sources of conflict. De Gaulle interpreted his powers widely and was able in practice to make decisions in all areas which he regarded as important, at home as well as abroad. In fact, he treated the prime minister and the ministers of the government like civil servants. The government was little more than the means by which the executive presidential will was carried out. Prime Ministers Michel Debré (1959–62), Georges Pompidou (1962–8) and Maurice Couve de Murville (1968–9) were the president’s men, and many ministers were technocrats rather than party leaders. Their divorce from the political parties of the National Assembly was emphasised by the provision that members of the government could not hold seats in the Assembly. This was to distance them from the political manoeuvring among ministers that had caused so much instability to the Third and Fourth Republics. With the support of the Gaullists and their allies in the National Assembly, which following the elections of November 1958 and November 1962 formed the largest group, de Gaulle was able to override such powers as the constitution of 1958 had on paper awarded to the prime minister, government and parliament. He established overwhelmingly presidential rule for the period of office to which he was democratically elected, but was mindful of the individual liberties and civil rights of the French. This starkly differentiates de Gaulle from the dictatorships in Spain, Portugal and much of Latin America. The president’s position was further strengthened in 1962, as we have seen, when an amendment to the 1958 constitution replaced indirect election with direct election by the people for a term of seven years. De Gaulle led France effectively, and by making use of the special provisions for referendums could bypass parliament and seek approval for his policies by popular mandates. He was clearly the choice of a large majority until at least 1968–9, even though there were many who disapproved of his highhandedness and regarded his treatment of governments and parliament and his political monopolisation of radio and television as a threat to democracy. But there seemed no other choice, no man of equal stature, who could provide the political stability France so badly needed. De Gaulle had become both intolerable and indispensable. The economic transformation of France, both industrial and agricultural, had been rapid since 1949 and accelerated further during de Gaulle’s eleven years from 1958 to 1969. This progress was achieved by a mixed economy, with state intervention, planning incentives and government encouragement. Key sectors of French industry were modernised. De Gaulle adhered to the Treaty of Rome and the economic competition it opened up among the Six signatories. There was no turning back to France’s traditional protectionist policies, and the free circulation of goods in the EEC was achieved on 1 July 1968 after the agreed ten transitional years allowed to France: its trade now had to reorientate towards the new European markets, which were expanding fast. France excelled in many branches of the new high-technology industries – chemicals, aeronautics, oil, precision engineering and automobiles – while cheap power, based first on oil and then, increasingly, on nuclear energy, helped to make it more competitive. Between 1949 and 1969 French economic growth increased by an annual average of 4.6 per cent in the 1950s and 5.8 per cent in the 1960s, so that, having lagged behind its West European neighbours, France overtook Britain in the 1960s. Its industrial production index moved as follows: 1937 100 1949 112 1959 193 1969 341 French agriculture was also rapidly modernised. The number of farms decreased by a third between 1955 and 1970, with the numbers of farmers and farm wage-earners declining still more steeply, while output increased. Agriculture, which has declined in importance within the French economy, by the close of the 1960s employed only 16 per cent of the working population, as against more than a quarter just after the war. The most obvious negative feature of France’s economic growth was inflation, which had been rapid during the Fourth Republic. On coming to power, de Gaulle and Antoine Pinay, the finance minister, made a determined effort to create a stable currency. First, the franc was devalued, then a new franc was introduced. Confidence in the currency soon returned, and inflation was reduced. Strikes in 1963 were followed by another austerity package by the new finance minister, Valéry Giscard d’Estaing. Economic expansion was aided by the sudden increase in the labour force when nearly a million pieds noirs from Algeria emigrated to metropolitan France; further cheap labour was attracted, especially from Italy, North Africa and Spain. In the 1960s the West European consumer market for cars, refrigerators and television sets seemed to be insatiable, and French industry grasped the opportunities provided by this enlarged market. Full employment was maintained until 1968–9, and even then, with less than 1 million unemployed (though the figure alarmed contemporaries), unemployment amounted to no more than 4 per cent of the working population. As old traditional structures were adapted to modern conditions, there were many French who deplored and resisted these painful changes. The French peasantry repeatedly and sometimes violently gave vent to their grievances. Artisans and small shopkeepers protested, while frequent strikes expressed the frustration of industrial workers. The increased national wealth, moreover, was unevenly distributed. The industrial wage-earners did better than the non-industrial; skill was rewarded; and management considerably improved its standards of living. But a society as stratified as France’s was exposed to growing tensions that were suddenly to boil over in May 1968. De Gaulle did not share the enthusiasm for a united Europe displayed by Monnet and his followers and had been critical of the establishment of the European Economic Community with its supranational Commission. Would the EEC be launched at all on 1 January 1959, requiring as it did France to begin dismantling its protectionist industrial tariffs? France was in deep financial crisis, but de Gaulle did not attempt to abort the birth of the Common Market. For him it was not the economic aspects of the Treaty of Rome that mattered most, but the political. He now discovered important positive aspects and calculated that through leadership of the European Economic Community France could regain influence in the world and wrest Europe away from economic and military dependence on the Anglo- Saxon nations. The recovery of France’s international position was foremost in de Gaulle’s mind. An alliance with the US would remain essential to counter the Soviet threat, but that need not mean subservience or a European junior partnership. In a Western Europe still looking to the US for its defence and advanced technology, de Gaulle’s was a bold vision of the future. When de Gaulle returned to power in 1958 one major obstacle to his ambitions was the socalled ‘special relationship’ between the US and Great Britain. Britain was not willing to make a choice ‘for Europe’ if this entailed weakening its links with the US and the Commonwealth; and so, although British policy favoured the creation of an industrial free trade area in Western Europe, the common external tariff, which would operate against all non-European members as required by the Treaty of Rome, was unacceptable. But without Britain in the Common Market, and with West Germany within it and anxious not to appear assertive, France would be the unchallenged leader of Western Europe. As far as the wider world was concerned, de Gaulle in September 1958 proposed to President Eisenhower and Prime Minister Harold Macmillan that it should be directed by the US, Great Britain and France. This policy would have gravely offended America’s other NATO allies, Italy and the Federal Republic of Germany, and rejection was a foregone conclusion. De Gaulle simultaneously sought a special relationship with the West German chancellor, Adenauer, who was invited to de Gaulle’s home at Colombey-les-DeuxÉglises. The terms he offered to Adenauer were that Germany should abandon any idea of a nuclear partnership with France, that an agricultural common market should be added to the industrial Common Market of the EEC, and that France and the Federal Republic should press ahead with the Common Market of the Six in preference to Britain’s larger Free Trade Association. Adenauer assented. De Gaulle, who had come to power with a free hand, had by the close of 1958 already achieved much for France and had enhanced its international position. The historic enmity between France and Germany had been buried and replaced by a new and special intimacy, which was sealed by the Treaty of Friendship in January 1963. The French role would be crucial to the EEC’s further development. Britain had been excluded and could continue to be excluded as long as de Gaulle chose to make use of France’s veto. But he wished to shape the Common Market into a close alliance of sovereign states and opposed the transfer of powers to Brussels, the new headquarters of the European Commission. De Gaulle’s priority was to reassert France’s position in the world. It had been excluded from the wartime settlements and from the nuclear club. Without its own nuclear weapons France would not be given a place at the table of the great powers. In September 1959 de Gaulle announced that France would build up its nuclear strike force. But was there any point? France could never hope to match the Soviet or American arsenals. De Gaulle of course realised this but what he feared and suspected was that the US might not defend Western Europe with its nuclear weapons if it meant destruction of the US. France needed its own strike force to be independent of others. The new American doctrine of ‘flexible response’ only increased de Gaulle’s fears that a nuclear war between the Soviet Union and the US might be confined between the Elbe and the Atlantic. The Americans, moreover, were changing their strategic plans fundamentally without first consulting their European allies. In February 1960 French scientists exploded France’s first atom bomb. Then France went thermonuclear with repeated tests in the Pacific. Signals were also sent to the US that France regarded NATO as an unequal alliance and required change as the price of continued membership. In April 1959 de Gaulle forbade the presence of American nuclear weapons on bases in France; but increasing French pressure for changes to NATO that would give France a larger voice failed to impress the Americans or the British. And, however much the Germans wished to maintain good relations with France, no German chancellor would run the risk of alienating the US, on whose support the defence of the Federal Republic against the Soviet Union principally depended. In July 1966, after years of growing non-cooperation, de Gaulle therefore took the dramatic step of withdrawing France from NATO’s integrated military command structure altogether. But he was careful to maintain its political alliance with NATO. Indeed, de Gaulle was conspicuous in supporting the US and the NATO allies in every confrontation with the Russians, over successive Berlin crises, the building of the Wall in 1961 and the Cuban missile crisis in 1962. By 1966, de Gaulle appeared to be overplaying his hand and his policies carried less conviction. His stately visits to the Third World, Latin America and Canada earned him personal applause but no tangible benefits for France, which was seen as dangerously anti-American. Adenauer’s successors, Erhard and Kiesinger, were less inclined to accept French tutelage as Germany recovered not only its economic strength but its confidence too. De Gaulle irritated his EEC partners in 1965 by boycotting the Common Market when its members tried to move towards majority voting at the Council of Ministers. After several months, the French in 1966 won the so-called Luxembourg Compromise which, in effect, allowed each member to oppose a majority vote when it considered its vital interests were at stake. De Gaulle had halted the move toward supranationalism. This stance accorded with the views of the British government (which had applied to join the club) and ironically made possible the later accession of Britain, which de Gaulle had vetoed in January 1963 and November 1967. France’s five partners, too, were now anxious to bring in Britain to check France and did not take kindly to his Olympian despatch of Britain’s applications. Elected for a second term as president in December 1965 on, admittedly, a reduced majority, de Gaulle at the age of seventy-five was still seen as indispensable to the maintenance of stability. But Mitterrand, the candidate of the united left, had also impressed and with 32 per cent of the vote was only 11 per cent behind the general. Internationally, de Gaulle had succeeded in winning back an independent role for France. The question which now arose was what he would do with it, how he would exploit France’s position to break the superpower deadlock. A visit to the Soviet Union in the summer of 1966 led to agreement on Franco-Soviet consultations, but de Gaulle could make no headway in achieving his real aim of freeing Europe from Soviet and American military dominance. The time was not yet ripe for de Gaulle’s vision. In world affairs de Gaulle took up positions diametrically opposed to American policy. He advised the Americans to leave Vietnam and during the 1967 Six-Day War reversed France’s traditional policy of support for Israel against the Arabs. Visiting Canada that summer, his behaviour seemed downright quixotic when he encouraged separatism in French Canada by declaring in Montreal, ‘Vive le Québec Libre’. This was blatant interference in Canadian affairs, though French influence had been lost for good in that country two centuries earlier. Visiting Poland, de Gaulle openly encouraged Polish nationalism. Not only did de Gaulle surprise the world with his policies and pronouncements, but the personal exercise of power began to cause misgivings in France too. By the close of the 1960s, a great swing of the pendulum was in the making. French society was no longer uniformly ready to trust and follow its remote and grand leader. The divisions made themselves felt in the explosion of May 1968, which almost removed de Gaulle; he mastered the crisis but his prestige was irreparably damaged. The May outburst had several causes, some of them loosely connected. It was followed by an apparently overwhelming Gaullist electoral victory, some belated reforms and a rapid return to calm and stability. Was it just a brief period of turbulence of no great significance? With hindsight, the events of 1968 look different, the dramatising of a change in Western society that had been slow in the making. It was a revolt in the first place against authority: in the professions, and especially among would-be professionals in the universities, it marked a rejection of preordained patterns, of subservience and patronage, and of the concomitant corruption. It was a revolt of youth, against an older generation that it held responsible for the mismanagement of the past. With the security provided by the welfare state, relatively full employment and student grants, students no longer had to concentrate on providing their daily needs but could aspire to something better. The success of the assault on the bastions of privilege and archaic structures in education and the professions was uneven, but a recognition of the need for change, a loosening of rigid hierarchies and the granting of a larger role and greater freedom to the younger members of society have been among the positive results of 1968. It reflected a movement evident throughout Western society during the 1960s and 1970s. The May crisis in France revealed the frustrations of an active minority section of the population, no longer confident that change could be effected through the existing channels of bureaucracy and government. Thousands took to the streets, giving the upheaval its particular character: half revolution, half carnival, shaking off the straitlaced conformist stupor identified with Gaullist France. The crisis was easily mastered because, outside certain parts of Paris, France remained profoundly conservative in attitude, a conservatism affecting all parties from left to right, as politicians of all shades preferred to lead the masses rather than to have them take control into their own hands. The efforts of the small group of extremist students, such as the Marxist Danny Cohn-Bendit, who were working for revolutionary change, were doomed to failure, though for a short while they drew the limelight on themselves. The red flags and non-stop speeches by students in Nanterre and the Sorbonne were not the real stuff of which revolutions are made, but the increase in student numbers to more than half a million nationally since 1958 had made them a significant force. The repressive police actions in response might have become a more serious cause of revolution, because they were met by counterviolence in the streets of Paris, reinforced by barricades and burning cars. One reason why revolution did not break out was that workers did not make common cause with the intellectuals and students, and this was so even though the workers had their own grievances. The growth of their real wages had been hit by an austerity economic programme, and unemployment, though small, was rising. Trade unions, receiving no cooperation from management, called a strike, and workers throughout France spontaneously occupied factories. But the unions, the communist one included, were seeking better conditions, not revolution. De Gaulle, incredulous at the sudden storm, left crisis management to Prime Minister Pompidou. At the height of the crisis, on 29 May, he secretly withdrew and, near breaking point, flew to a French military base in Baden-Baden, West Germany, intending to depart permanently from office and from France, but General Massu persuaded him not to give up and the following day he returned to Paris. Pompidou, left to himself, had in the meantime bought off the unions with large concessions. By the time de Gaulle reappeared to broadcast a plea for massive support and for a counter-demonstration to the previous left-wing march on the Champs Élysées, the response was immediate and impressive. In June disturbances were practically over. Students went on their vacations and the workers returned to work. The National Assembly, with its slender Gaullist majority in 1967, was dissolved in June 1968 and France gave its verdict at the polls: the opposition was severely weakened and the Gaullists secured an overwhelming majority. But this was not quite the positive vote for de Gaulle that it appeared to be. It was a fearful reaction against the left, and a display of support for Pompidou, whose moderation had brought success. De Gaulle knew this and promptly dropped Pompidou, appointing Couve de Murville as his successor. Fresh economic problems were countered with another austerity programme in the autumn in preference to devaluation. By the spring of 1969 de Gaulle had decided to put his leadership to the test by another referendum on the issues of regional devolution and the reform of the upper house of parliament. His call for support for French people to choose between him and ‘upheaval’ rang hollow. On 27 April, 52 per cent voted against and de Gaulle promptly resigned. French society was now sufficiently stable and mature to benefit from a less authoritarian style and from new leaders who did not claim to embody the mystic spirit of France. Yet it is difficult to escape the conclusion that de Gaulle had been necessary and that Gaullism, with all its drawbacks, had provided a bridge between the old regime and the new.

 

 

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