The French Elections--and Jean Deaux


Moi, si j’étais Sarraut,’ declares Monsieur Jean Deaux. Or perhaps, ‘Moi, si j’etais Laval . .’ It does n’t matter, really, because it is the way the Frenchman instinctively talks about any Premier of France. How many times have you heard Americans say, ‘If I were Roosevelt, I’d do so-and-so’? Not often, I ’ll wager. But this is one of the great distinctions between the way in which the American looks at politics and the way in which the Frenchman does. Jean Deaux sees the problems of his government in personal terms. More than that, if he could not see them in personal terms they would not interest him. Jean Deaux is in no sense weighed down by a modest estimate of his own capacities. He almost invariably thinks himself fully as well qualified to run the affairs of France as Clemenceau, Poincaré, or Briand ever was. So to-day, in all corners of France, he is busy telling his own little world just how France’s grave problems might all be solved — if only forty million other Jacobin descendants would waive their God-given prerogatives and follow his advice!

France is still predominantly an agricultural country and the majority of Frenchmen still live close to the land; not a large majority, yet a sufficient one to give veracity to the oft-repeated phrase, ‘The provinces are France.’

Monsieur Jean, the typical Frenchman, is no pioneer. For hundreds of years his forefathers have known no expanding frontiers. He has inherited no dream of innumerable opportunities and limitless wealth. He was born to small horizons; taught to cherish little things; imbued with the doctrine that a little must go a long way and that one must save for a rainy day. So his dream has been far more modest than our own — the dream of winning at long last independence and, above all, security. Jean Deaux has endured an interminable battle to get what he has, and experience has taught him that he must be constantly on the alert if he is to keep it.


Among those things which Jean Deaux has right now is a great deal of trouble. We can scarcely appreciate his predicament unless we turn back to the United States of the weeks preceding the November elections of 1932. France to-day is almost as much bedeviled by the depression as we were then. If she has experienced no nationwide bank collapse, the strain of her deepening economic crisis has nevertheless been more prolonged, and there is general recognition that the bottom has not yet been reached.

As a saving nation, France has been able to tighten her belt and live on her reserves. But tariff walls and quotas choke off her foreign trade, the gold franc keeps her cost of living abnormally high, hundreds of millions of dollars of tourist business have been lost in the past few years, unemployment and bankruptcies increase. Last summer the Laval ministry decreed more than eleven billion francs in governmental economies. Heroic and brutal deflation was imposed to save the franc from a second devaluation. But while the national currency was preserved, temporarily at least, a creeping paralysis gripped the business affairs of the land, and tax receipts fell more than two billion francs below the year’s estimates.

In a word, the depression is darker than ever for France — more retarded than in other lands, and for that reason more difficult psychologically, perhaps, to endure.

Remembering the American mental condition of three and a half years ago, you will not find it difficult to sympathize with the situation of Jean Deaux to-day. If his bank has n’t gone broke, he has seen his hard-earned savings of a lifetime dwindle steadily. If he has not had paper profits to lose, he has lost that small capital which was accumulated more slowly and painfully. If he has not had his mortgages foreclosed, he has had his franc devalued once already, and to the point where only twenty cents of every dollar remained. In addition to all this, his business is just about as hopelessly bad as American business was in the waning months of the Hoover régime. And, to top off, the Frenchman lives within a threehour airplane flight of a Nazi Germany which is defying the world, rearming at a terrific pace, and which has just torn to shreds the Treaty of Locarno—that treaty which for ten years has given France her greatest protection and her greatest hope for security.

From every quarter the Frenchman’s world is under attack. Within and without he is plagued by uncertainty and doubt and fear. Is this a fitting reward for prudence and thrift and small dreams? It threatens to be an ironical and devastating reward, indeed, for to none of the grave French problems does an adequate and hopeful answer as much as loom fitfully on the horizon. Not even a programme, let alone a definite solution. Yet, for all that, the French are confirmed republicans who refuse, to-day more than ever, to renounce their liberties for a dictatorial experiment. With all the doggedness of a peasant small-propertied people they pin their faith to democracy, and to a democracy whose very exuberances constitute its most serious limitations.

Jean Deaux is worried about his business, which is going from bad to worse. He despairs of ever getting a decent price for his farm products. He wonders if his markets will never cease drying up. He is plagued by excessively high retail prices and a high cost of living, in which governmental action has scarcely made a dent. With his income shrinking steadily, he ponders how on earth he can meet an individual tax burden which is roughly three or four times the amount which we pay in America. And Jean Deaux is desperately afraid of approaching war with Nazi Germany, as only a man can be who has seen his land ravaged by death and destruction a few short years ago.

What does he want? Merely those things which Americans, Englishmen, Germans, and Italians in the mass all want. Peace and plenty, recovery and an opportunity to live his own life, are ways of saying it. But for Jean Deaux you must also add that he wants, with all the earnestness of an industrious, skeptical, and fearsome soul, a greater sense of security than he now possesses. Economic security and national security as well — and for him the two are well-nigh inseparable. Today both seem tantalizingly beyond his reach. This is why our contemporary Frenchman is in a confused and bitter and defeatist frame of mind. There seems to be no security for him, either economic or national, no promise of a way out.

As a consequence, the psychological background for the impending national elections in France presents as many variables and intangibles as was true with us during the Roosevelt-Hoover campaign, with a few typically European factors tossed in for good measure. If the Frenchman possesses an extraordinarily high rating for unpredictability even in normal times, how can one attempt to say just what he will do or how he will vote to-day ?


Jean Deaux lives close to national political affairs, and the overwhelming majority of the men he sends to the French Chamber of Deputies are little property owners and small capitalists like himself. They are notably equipped with all his faults, as well as his virtues. Sometimes, as in the Stavisky scandal, a few of them betray their trusts most flagrantly. But the multi-party system in the Chamber provides a means for swift and pitiless chastisement, whenever public disapproval flames high, and Jean Deaux comforts himself with the thought that no set of perverted interests can install itself in power and dig itself in complacently for a period of several years. Cabinets can be thrown out overnight, and this gives him the feeling — more costly than it may be illusory — that he possesses a potent check upon the men who govern; that the people can always make their wishes or their indignation known.

It was only two years ago that the good Papa Doumergue, loved and respected by all during his seven years’ term of office as President of France, came out of retirement to restore order and confidence after the bloody riots in the Place de la Concorde. Jean Deaux, forty million strong, had risen up in wrath as a result of the Stavisky swindles and corruption in high places. There was no resigned waiting for a senatorial investigation, as with the Teapot Dome scandal in America. The French fought first and investigated afterward. Meanwhile Papa Doumergue calmed the waters and labored to make government more effective. With what result? Nine months later he proposed a mild amendment to the Constitution, which would empower a premier to dissolve the Chamber and call new elections under certain circumstances without an approving vote of the Senate. In more than sixty years of the Third Republic the French Senate had utilized its powers of dissolution but once, and that once half a century ago. Despite that fact, however, senators and deputies alike rebelled at Doumergue’s reform proposals on the ground that too much power would be given to the premiership. To them the project smacked of dictatorial powers. They were all Jean Deaux at heart. They would delegate only the minimum of authority to any government or to any governors at any time. And they voted Papa Doumergue out of office, completely disregarding the imminence of another period of governmental chaos and the menace of another flight from the franc.

‘You will see,’ a French friend said to me shortly before this happened. ‘You will see that they will never accept Doumergue’s reforms. They will throw him out. They feel that Doumergue has begun to think that the country cannot get along without him; that he is so indispensable that he can tell the people what they must do. The French people will never stand for that. You will see. And personally I think that they are right.’

It was Jean Deaux, reasserting his inalienable right to rule his own destiny and to keep the power of his government well within the scope of his own will and his own whims. This has been the unchangeable history of politics in France, and this explains why its course usually seems so confused and uncertain to outsiders.

In the same manner the French temperament and ego demand room for flexibility and improvisation. There must be ample opportunity for Jean Deaux to express his own ideas and develop his own particular plan, political or otherwise. There you have one significant explanation of the existence of so many parties in France. In the Chamber of Deputies from twelve to fifteen different parties or groups are represented, many of them with names which are utterly meaningless to foreigners, if not to the French voters themselves. The French party system spreads out like a fan with ribs of varying dimensions. In the present Chamber, which was elected four years ago, the fan is divided up in this fashion: —

The Left half consists of Communists, several stripes of Socialists, and the Radical Socialists, the latter party being the largest in the parliament. The Left ribs of the fan include about 330 of the 615 deputies in the Chamber. The so-called Centre is made up of several small groups and the Left Republican party, with a nominal total strength of roughly one hundred deputies. The Right wing, with the nationalistic Republican and Democratic Union, accounts for the other ribs in the fan, and here, too, there are a number of ‘groups.’ No matter where the groups may be situated by general policy, their membership fluctuates considerably according to what question is at issue.

Picturing the system as a fan, one can more easily understand how the ribs, the parties and ‘groups,’ move back and forth. They overlap and intermingle, or they remain suddenly rigid, governed entirely by the matter which is being debated. So it is that stopgap parties come and go in the French Chamber, cropping up between the major parties and forming around some personality like Tardieu, Flandin, or Marcel Déat, leader of the NeoSocialists of recent vintage. Governments come and governments go. Combinations are formed and broken again. One part of the fan closes together and draws apart once more. But the fan is always there as something that can be changed and adjusted, according to the precepts and prejudices of the moment. It is completely suited to Jean Deaux, because it does not compel him to conform too severely.

Thus far only the Communists and the orthodox Socialists of Léon Blum have succeeded in making Jean Deaux stick to a party programme and support it through thick and thin. As for the Radical Socialists of Herriot and Édouard Daladier, with half a dozen of their members holding portfolios in cabinet after cabinet during the past four years, it has been no uncommon thing for half their party strength to go suddenly into the opposition or to abstain from voting!


But we must not suppose that the issues in the coming French elections will be as hit-or-miss as the perplexing group system of parties might seem to indicate. The general lines between the Right and the Left in France are drawn clearly enough — perhaps more clearly this year than in most previous elections. For one thing the Left parties, actuated by the fear of Fascism or the advent of an authoritarian government, are much more united than they were in 1932. Radical Socialists, Socialists, and Communists formed a united front to combat the Croix de Feu and the other patriotic leagues months ago. Since then the nationalistic leagues, like the Croix de Feu, the Royalist Action Française, and the Solidarité Française, have been muzzled, but the disturbing examples of Hitler’s and Mussolini’s dictatorships are too near at hand for French Socialists and liberal republicans to take anything for granted. From the point of view of the Right another example, almost as distasteful, exists in the lack of governmental stability in France: the record of eleven different ministries in the four-year term of the legislature which has just ended — an average of less than five months in office for each government that has been formed since May 1932. Frenchmen, then, will vote Left to bar the way to pseudo-Fascism or vote Right in the hope that more authoritative centralized government may be made possible.

Briefly stated, three fears and two resentments will determine the decision of the voters when France goes to the polls. In the first category may be listed fear of Fascism, fear of devaluation of the franc, and fear of Germany and of war. In the second category are two important factors — resentment engendered by the depression, and resentment against the Bank of France and the moneyed powers in the land. Like our own Republicans and Democrats in 1932, the Right and Left parties alike will promise to preserve the franc, to establish economic reforms, and to restore prosperity. The French nationalist will pledge himself to achieve these things by sound business methods in a conservative way, while the Radical Socialists and the Socialists will insist that the moneychangers shall be driven out of the temple and recovery attained by less orthodox means. All will want peace and promise peace, with the usual variations as to how best to get it and keep it.

Fundamentally, however, the economic crisis may be counted upon to exercise the predominant influence upon the outcome of the French elections. Traditionally, domestic issues prevail when the quadrennial choice of deputies occurs. This year Adolf Hitler selected the perfect moment to strengthen the hands of the French nationalists when he scrapped Locarno and dispatched troops into the demilitarized Rhineland on March 6, and it may be that the reaction to Hitler’s move will be apparent when the votes are counted in France. Just how much effect this development will have remains problematical, however, for Frenchmen are assured to-day that no Left government (backed by Socialistic parties which have been liquidated in the Third Reich) could afford to be anything less than vigilant in the face of Nazi Germany.

And there is always Jean Deaux, the victim of a ruthless depression and severe deflation, and he cries for relief. In response, all the Left parties are picturing to him the all-powerful Bank of France as the real demon and culprit responsible for most of his vicissitudes. It is typical that a new Left coalition, called the Rassemblement Populaire, offers as its electoral demands a national unemployment fund, creation of a public works programme, the control of agricultural prices, and the nationalization of the Bank of France. It sounds almost like a paraphrased New Deal, but there it is.

Few things can be so well capitalized on at the polls as general discontent, disillusionment, and despair. All three of these elements are rampant in France to-day, especially among the great mass of workers and farmers and the bourgeoisie in general. According to all normal standards it is the Left parties which would be expected to gain most from a situation such as this, and in fact the Socialists and Communists are confidently predicting that they will greatly increase their strength in the next Chamber, perhaps at the Radical Socialists’ expense. In reality it would seem that the two extremes in France should be strengthened, with a proportionate weakening of the Centre parties in between. Nor is it at all improbable that the French elections may put the Left parties into power with a clear-cut majority in the Chamber. In that case the parties of Herriot and of Blum would be compelled to assume full responsibility for government at a time when the nation’s treasury is virtually empty, when continued deflation is becoming almost impossible to maintain, when the franc and devaluation must come to a decisive showdown, and when peace across the Rhine is becoming a more fragile thing month by month.

On all these scores French democracy is entering a period of supreme and crucial test. In many ways it is an extravagant kind of democracy with numerous limitations, yet it fits the needs of the French people. Jean Deaux is a crusty, hard-headed kind of democrat, but he lives in the kind of democracy in which he believes. In the coming months he will have a stupendously hard time making his democracy solve the formidable problems with which France is confronted. The French elections are a good deal more than just another election. In considerable measure they may decide what chance French democracy has to survive the grave challenges which loom before it during the next four years.