"These are hard days for authority. Current custom attacks it and legislation tends to waken it. In the home and in the factory, in the state and in the street it arouses impatience and criticism rather than confidence and obedience. Jostled from below whenever it shows its head, it has come to doubt itself, to feel its way, to assert itself at the wrong moment; when it is unsure, with reticence, excuses and extreme caution; when it is overconfident, harshly, roughly and with a niggling formalism.”
Charles de Gaulle wrote these observations on the French scene back in the 1920s, in the aftermath of the First World War. They first appeared in print in 1932 in The Edge of the Sword, a slim volume of his essays on the problems and application of power which remains basic reading for any appreciation of the General and how he operates. The events of last May and June accurately mirrored the picture of hard days for authority drawn by De Gaulle of France forty years before. In the wake of those events, the French president acted completely in accordance with the principles he laid down in The Edge of the Sword.
He saw as his first task the reconsolidation of his personal power and authority. It had been badly shaken by his own miscalculations of the mood of his country and the seriousness of the troubles which engulfed his government, by hesitation and uncertainty in the handling of the crisis, and above all, by the shattering economic effects of one of the most complete strike shutdowns which any democracy has suffered in normal peacetime. The device which De Gaulle chose to reassert his personal power, once the crisis had been overcome, was simple, typical, and ruthless. He fired the man who had been his greatest strength and the architect of his victory, Prime Minister Georges Pompidou.
Pompidou served as Prime Minister for six and a half years, longer than any other Premier in this century. Moreover, he was closer to being a "friend" of General de Gaulle's than anybody else in the country. He was an intimate personal and financial adviser of the General's for years before De Gaulle picked him from the Rothschild banking organization to run the government. At key moments during the worst of the May-June troubles, Pompidou was the lone symbol and instrument of government authority. De Gaulle remained silent, aloof, and apparently uncertain. (According to his own subsequent testimony, he debated whether to remain in office or not.) It was Pompidou who decided on reform concessions to the student demonstrators, Pompidou who kept the police from using gunfire, Pompidou who negotiated almost nonstop for twenty-eight hours to put together the vast wage package which became the basis for the strike settlements. Then, when De Gaulle came down out of the clouds and announced his decision to remain at the helm and dissolve the National Assembly, it was Pompidou again who organized the election campaign, roused the "bourgeois backlash" against the French Left, and led the Gaullist Union for Defense of the Republic to an incredible victory which gave De Gaulle control of Parliament by over 200 seats for the next five years.
But precisely because of all these services and successes, he was dismissed. In the philosophy of the author of The Edge of the Sword, power which is shared is power diminished. The abrupt removal of Pompidou was the most effective and dramatic way De Gaulle could possibly have chosen to demonstrate to his unruly nation and to the world who was still the boss here. As one of his former ministers once wrote: "On the chessboard on which he plays, there can be no friendship between the knight which is moved and the hand that moves it."
Thus the surface effect which De Gaulle desired has been achieved, for the time being anyway the image of France once again calm and obedient after its brash escape from authority; Gaullist power supreme, intact, unchallenged, and undisturbed. The only trouble is that De Gaulle often seems to be more concerned with the accouterments of power rather than with its substance. Since the May-June events, Gaullism has looked more than ever like a son et lumière production.
De Gaulle had mounted the heights before the troubles broke. In early May, Paris was about to play host to the Vietnam peace talks, a clear diplomatic victory for De Gaulle after four years of denouncing the American course in Southeast Asia. He was ready to take off on a state visit to Rumania part of his strategy for breaking the hold of two power blocs over Europe. When the storm broke, it was said in Paris of the President's mission to Rumania, "De Gaulle intervenes internal affairs of every country France."
De Gaulle's descent was rapid and dramatic, accompanied by violence and economic disaster. Not since the days of the Paris Commune in 1871 had the country witnessed such an uprising of students and and labor, dominating the streets and the factories. Some spontaneous emotional chemistry achieved overnight what no trade union movement could have done: a strike of more than 10 million workers, tying up almost factory of any size throughout the whole country.
It was, however, a revolution with a difference. In Paris, not a shot was fired during the entire turbulent four weeks, except tear-gas concussion grenades launched from rifles by the police. There were of course endless postcrisis tales of police brutality, and plenty of students were beaten up and ruthlessly handled on the streets and in the police stations. But the Republican Security Company men are not hired for brains or charm; the handling of the affair from beginning to end does not compare too unfavorably with similar operations in the United States in recent months.
In the end, while Pompidou directed the tactical battles of the street and the conference table, General de Gaulle waited and watched for the moment to stage his counter-attack. For the third time in his life—1940, 1958, 1968- De Gaulle showed his ability to turn n disaster into personal triumph.
The government which Maurice Couve de Murville then formed after Pompidou's dismissal turned out to be almost indistinguishable from the Cabinet which he inherited. The new Prime Minister is a man of great intelligence and ability, with a vast and intimate knowledge of the workings of diplomacy, finance, and government. But he is first of all De Gaulle's faithful servant and would never regard himself as anything As a Protestant in a Catholic country, he scarcely registers at all political1y.
Thus, the regime which drifted to the crisis is even more faceless Gaullist than before. The problems which the crisis exposed and which the government now faces are problems which it should have been facing fivce years ago – the education explosion, need for decentralization of France’s Napoleonic administrative structure, concerted regional development, better population distribution, industrial expansion and productivity, the eternal farm problem, better distribution of the national budget, more refrigerators, and fewer nuclear bombs. The problems have been here all along, but Gaullism by its nature seems to reinforce conservatism and traditioanlism. Until the events of May and June, economic problems were kept submerged and not allowed to disturb France's artificial calm – not even the problem of half a million unemployed.
Essentially France is an underdeveloped country. Alongside Great 'Britain and West Germany, which play a much bigger role in world trade, it is easy to forget that France is almost twice the size of either in area with about 5 million fewer people. France has about 92 inhabitants per square kilometer against 240 in West Germany and 225 in Britain. Nearly half the French people live in villages and towns of fewer than 2000 inhabitants. On the other hand, even though 17 percent of France's population is engaged in farming, where incomes are low (against 10 percent farmers in West Germany and less than 4 percent in Britain), the French still have achieved a higher per capita income than either of their big European neighbors. The most recent OECD figures show a $2060 annual average for each Frenchman, $2010 for West Germany, and $1910 for the British.
In other words, the French do well economically as far as they have gone, but the country could expand and do enormously better. It is, after all, a land of incomparable natural richness and balance, the closest to self-sufficiency of all nations of comparable size anywhere in the world. It could support millions more in population, feed more, and produce more. In agriculture, fewer farmers with better equipment could easily increase the farm output, with higher per capita income as well. If the farm population could be reduced by 5 to 7 percent, and this manpower transferred to factories, it would mean more mouths to feed in the towns and cities plus more industrial production. But to move a nation takes more than son et lumière.
Paradoxically, one of the major impediments to France's achieving its full economic and social capacities is Paris itself the overwhelming political, economic, administrative, financial, educational, and psychological centralization of everything French in the capital. Paris grows and grows – now past the 9 million mark, with 20 percent of the French population concentrated in the Greater Paris area. The next largest French city is Marseilles, and it has not yet even passed the million mark. After that comes Lyon, with fewer than 700,000 people, and then Bordeaux and Lille, with barely half a million each. There is no French area of population and economic and productive concentration such as Manchester-Liverpool or Birmingham-Coventry in Britain; the Ruhr, Hamburg, Munich, or Frankfurt districts in West Germany; Turin or Milan in Italy.
As a result, an area like Brittany, once healthy and prosperous in simpler economic times and still at least as independent and nationalistically prideful as, say, Quebec, watches its farms turn to grass, its fishing fleet rusting away, and its small local industries closing down for lack of business or capital. The roads are poor, and it takes six or seven hours for trucks to drive to the capital, which means that Brittany farmers cannot even compete with Dutch ones in Paris shops, now that the Common Market is beginning to have its full effect. It is an example of a region which once contributed to France's greatness and now contributes to its problems.
But under the centralized administrative structure established by Napoleon over a century and a half ago, in which each departement is run by a prefect appointed from Paris, local initiative becomes a long and stifling uphill struggle with the bureaucracy of the capital. In any hotel de ville in the country, you can collect stories about how plans for a road, for a schoolroom, or even a monument to the local war dead must wait for decision in Paris. Mayor Gaston Defferre of Marseilles says: "Before I can appoint a new secretary to the Marseilles hospital board I have to have the signatures of three ministers in Paris."
Overblown centralization affects education no less than government administration and regional development. France has twenty-three state universities, all rigidly controlled and directed as to budgets, teaching staff, curricula, buildings, and administration by the Ministry of Education in Paris. At the top is the Sorbonne—the Promised Land for any aspiring professor in the provinces. There are no private universities in France (again a decree by Napoleon) -no Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Oxford, or Cambridge. No industrialist in France would dream of endowing a school. The French educational system has been admirable in producing an elite from its grandes écoles, the graduate schools where it trains its civil servants and scientists after rigorous screening from below. But this very success has also contributed to the rigidity and stuffiness of the system which produced the student explosion of May and June.
Decentralization and greater autonomy for the provincial universities seem at least to be a chief priority for the new education minister, Edgar Faure, who, as the only politician of the Fourth Republic who is serving General de Gaulle, is the most ambitious and active member of the Cabinet. He has been giving interviews and making public statements overtime in the hopes of defusing the students before the universities reopen in mid-November, with a large assist from the police and the public works department, which has emplaced a thick layer of asphalt over the cobblestone streets of the Left Bank as a deterrent against another round of barricade battles in the winter. But the education minister cannot build school buildings in three months, or provide libraries, lecture halls, and dormitories.
For President de Gaulle, postcrisis reform centers almost entirely on the word 'participation." In education, it has already been decreed that schools are now to organize councils of teachers, students, parents, and community leaders to discuss school problems and decide local policies within the framework laid down by the Ministry of Education. All this produced a cynical student conjugation exercise: “I participate, you participate, he participates, we participate, they rule."
In industry, De Gaulle has decreed that participation will mean that all should be adequately informed of the enterprise's operation and be able, through representatives freely nominated by them all, to participate in the company and its councils so as to defend their interests, viewpoints and proposals." But the French President is almost alone enthusiasm for the scheme. Trade union leaders sneer at it as a diversion and delusion so far as labor’s true interests are concerned, and management does not want to led with yet another layer of obstruction in decision-making.
Nevertheless, with an overwhelming majority in the National Assembly, and with the French Left at its lowest ebb in half a century, De Gaulle will certainly have his way, and there will be a participation law. There will also be new decrees which, in Couve de Murville's words, will recognize “the need for Paris to delegate wider powers to the local authorities beginning with the prefects, and the need for a certain degree of decentralization in favor of local governments."
All of this will of course keep the legislature occupied and the French bureaucracy busy turning out more paper – but it will it really change much in France, is it the kind of reform which France needs? Pierre Uri, the distinguished French economist, is one who has strong doubts.
“What is at stake is a major policy reversal,” he has written. “Prestige projects have retarded national growth. The tax system is worn out and its rates cannot be increased without making the inequities even worse. Overhaul of the budget, radical reform of taxation and absolute priority for industrial growth would have to be carried out together. The main obstacle is raised by the nature of Gaullism. It has tried to have France do alone what can only be done by Europe as a whole. Now in the economic as well as the diplomatic field the time has come to tailor action to the true stature of the country."
But having finally exploded a French H-bomb in the far Pacific in August, in the middle of the Czechoslovakian crisis, President de Gaulle is not about to order any such major reversal of his policies of the last ten years. Those in France and elsewhere in Europe who have felt that the Czech crisis ought to signal a new impulse toward greater integration of Western Europe in particular, British entry into the Common Market—will find De Gaulle equally determined that his policy of 'breaking up the power blocs" is correct whatever the Russians are doing to Eastern Europe, and that this is no time for new ventures in Western European integration.
Meanwhile, although police control of the Latin Quarter and wouldbe student demonstrators will undoubtedly be firm and ruthlessly effective this winter, the police can do nothing about rising unemployment, rising cost of living, increased budget deficit, continuing balance-of-payments deficit, and falling national currency reserves.
In this situation, the Gaullist reform measures in particular, participation—are going to seem increasingly irrelevant to France's real problems. Whether this bursts into renewed violence and demonstrations once again is anybody's guess, but most informed observers here think that the trouble will start next time with labor, not the students. Pompidou, who remains the most important political figure in the country next to De Gaulle, may well be glad that he is sidelined and sitting out the next round.
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