ON THE WORLD TODAY
THE drollest publication of present-day France, as well as one of the best-informed newspapers, is Le Canard Enchaîné, which describes itself as “a satirical journal appearing every Wednesday.” It printed a cartoon after the general election showing a mountainous General de Gaulle stooping over a diminutive usher before three small doors and asking, “Have you seen the Big Three?” From his pocket peep three tiny figures representing the Communist, Socialist, and MRP parties.
That cartoon characterizes France as it has emerged so far from war, defeat, occupation, invasion, and liberation. This country has moved into a period of transition from the provisional wartime administration to the establishment of the Fourth Republic, with three parties sharing almost equally the few laurels which politicians can claim. But General de Gaulle has them all in his pocket.
Charles de Gaulle, who was not running for office and who did not even vote himself, was the single great victor of the October 21 election. Since then the angular soldier who aroused so many animosities at home and abroad at the start of his career as statesman has developed into a practiced politician. The nation he is guiding into a new republican form is already showing signs of maturity.
Until the October 21 election, despite partial indications given by municipal and cantonal elections, no one could say with certainty in what direction France was going. Even though it was freed, this country still fluctuated in its choice of parties and government The general election confirmed the impression that France was swinging somewhat to the left, but not all the way left to Communism.
The election sent France into its seven-month stage of transition from the Third to the Fourth Republic. During this period the nation has a Constituent Assembly in which three leading parties — the Communists, the Socialists, and the Mouvement Républicain Populaire — together with their satellite groups share almost equally 80 per cent of the seats.
This is an awkward parliamentary situation, with the prospect of varying majorities formed by combinations of any two of the three parties. But at least it is an improvement over the old situation, when ten or twelve parties might figure in the formation of a majority. De Gaulle’s people consider it a closer approach to the United States form of democracy.
A practical illustration of the difficulties of this assembly was the problem of how to seat deputies. Eighty per cent of them wanted to sit on the left side of the Palais Bourbon benches. Moreover, both the MRP, whose only real difference with the Socialists is that it is a radical party seeking state subsidies for religious schools, and the Radical Socialists, who used to dominate the Chamber from the center, demanded a common boundary with the Socialists.
The final seating arrangement, which satisfied both the MRP and the Radical Socialists, placed the Communists on the extreme left and the Socialists next, with the Radical Socialists beside the Socialists at the bottom of the pit and the MRP beside them at the top. On the extreme right are spread small groups of Conservatives.
Beyond the question of political party combinations, it has become clear that the chief significance of the general election lay not in the choice of deputies but in the people’s answers to the two questions submitted in the referendum. By the decision of 96 per cent of the voters, the Assembly is charged with writing a new constitution to supplant that of 1875.
By a 66 per cent decision, the Assembly holds only limited legislative power and can overthrow the government only by a majority vote taken not less than two days after the introduction of a motion of sinecure. The time-lag is intended to let the hot tempers of the Assembly debate cool off and thereby to reduce the frequency of Cabinet changes.
The vote on the referendum constituted defeat for the Communist Party, which called for Oui on the question of the new constitution and Non on limiting the power of the Assembly. They wanted the Assembly to be supreme, with the right to overthrow the Cabinet by the defeat of any government bill.
The significance of the answers is that while the Communists are the largest single party in the Assembly, leading the Socialists and the MRP by a slight margin, they are operating in an Assembly based on principles to which they are opposed. Many Communist voters, while following party discipline in the selection of deputies, broke away to support de Gaulle in his policy for the transition period.
De Gaulle and his ministers resigned when the Constituent Assembly met on November 6, and on November 13 the General was elected president of the new provisional government. He will carry on until the new constitution is written. It is clear that the controlling factor in the transition is not the Assembly with limited legislative power, nor even the Cabinet with its share of executive power, but de Gaulle and his personal secretariat. This “ Little Cabinet,” composed of people close to de Gaulle and of representatives of each ministry, is the real governing organ of France.
President de Gaulle
Even his best friends will admit that de Gaulle has not always been a good politician. It is a matter of historical record that our State Department looked upon him with misgivings when he assumed the leadership of the Free French in 1940, that President Roosevelt sought other leadership for the French when the Allies landed in North Africa in 1942, that de Gaulle’s arrival in France as chief of the provisional government caused all sorts of difficulties in 1944, and that de Gaulle even succeeded in irritating Wendell Willkie by comparing himself to Joan of Arc.
But Charles de Gaulle, president of the transition government of France and only apparent candidate for the first presidency of the Fourth Republic, is a changed man. His bursts of temperament have diminished; his flights of fancy have slackened. And although he remains an unusual figure, sometimes difficult to understand and chilling in personality, he has gained in poise.
This new self-possession antedates the general election. On the night of October 21 he went calmly to bed leaving instructions to his staff: ” Don’t wake me up during the night. It won’t change the results anyway.” He heard the outcome at 9.50 the next morning from his aide-de-camp, personable young Lieutenant Claude Guy, long after the rest of the world knew that de Gaulle had won a tremendous victory.
Since then he has settled back into the now habitual routine of working from ten to one in the War Ministry; going home to lunch with his wife and two daughters in a small house in suburban Neuilly; returning to work from three to eight. As he goes over papers prepared for him by his Little Cabinet, the radio in his office plays jazz from the American Forces network. He smokes almost constantly — prefers an English brand — and has been seen chewing gum.
Few persons are able to see de Gaulle. Fundamentally he does not like people, either individually or collectively. He gives the impression of feeling as far above the masses intellectually as he stands physically, and he treats individuals with sharp sarcasm. Most Frenchmen, from ministers down, are awed by him — so much so that French reporters rarely ask questions at his infrequent press conferences, and it is foreign correspondents who extract news from him.
The men around de Gaulle
The person who sees de Gaulle most often is Gaston Palewsky, director of the Cabinet, who has won something of a reputation as the éminence grise of the Gaullist regime. Actually this overrates him, for his power is purely negative. Palewsky can prevent papers from being passed on to de Gaulle, but he has little influence over positive decisions, and he is as much awed as anyone else by his chief.
The Paris press, hesitating in its present timid state to criticize de Gaulle, sometimes vents its spleen on Palewsky. Le Canard Enchaîné makes him the weekly butt of jokes about his reeking of lavender toilet water and dancing in high society. But Palewsky is useful to his superior for precisely the quality which de Gaulle most lacks — sociability. And de Gaulle will never forget that it was Palewsky who, as Chef de Cabinet under Premier Paul Reynaud in 1940, had him called in from the field to become Undersecretary of War, the post from which de Gaulle climbed to full power.
The minister whom de Gaulle sees most often is René Pleven, a businessman from Brittany, who is frequently mentioned as the potential successor to the chief of government. Pleven once aspired to be a finance inspector, a post which corresponds in government finance to that of career diplomat, but he flunked his examinations. Instead he went into business, acting as the European representative for American telephone equipment and gasoline pump companies.
Pleven was an early member of the Free French movement, joining de Gaulle in London in 1940. He became Minister of Finance in Paris and added to the Finance Ministry the Ministry of National Economy.
Pleven sees de Gaulle whenever he wants to. Other ministers usually see de Gaulle only during the regular Tuesday and Friday sessions of the Cabinet. At other times they send their communications to him through Palewsky and two or three other members of the Little Cabinet who are admitted to the General’s presence. That is how France is being carried through the transition to the Fourth Republic.
The purge peters out
The strength of this regime was demonstrated plainly after the general election, when de Gaulle committed an act that amounted to final frustration of the purge. He intervened in the case of General Henri Dentz, condemned to death April 20, and commuted his sentence to life imprisonment. This act, which might have raised a storm of protest, particularly from the left, was passed over in almost complete silence.
Dentz was the military governor who surrendered Paris to the Germans in 1940. and the High Commissioner for Syria who fought against the Free French in 1941. The explanation among de Gaulle’s people for the leniency shown to Dentz was that the armistice ending the Syrian campaign in the summer of 1941 provided that the lives of surrendering Vichy French officers would be spared. The press took it as consideration of one general for another.
The reduction of the Dentz sentence was announced October 26, five days after the election. Actually Dentz was spared October 19, four days after Pierre Laval was shot — October 15. Those two dates mark the climax of the purge and the beginning of appeasement. Most Frenchmen seem to agree that Laval, however cleverly he fought, however shamefully he was tried, and however disgracefully he was shot, had to die a traitor’s death for serving as premier under the Germans. But few show much resentment over the practical cessation of bloodletting.
In fact only about 100,000 persons have been charged as collaborators since the liberation of France. In proportion to the total population, this is only about one fourth of the number charged in Norway, where there was probably less real collaboration with the Germans than in France. Of those charged in France, about 1600 have been sentenced to death, 1200 to hard labor for life, and 10,000 to prison. Some remain to be tried and some have yet to be found.
The most prominent of those still sought is Marcel Déat, editor of l’Oeuvre, who wrote the famous editorial just before the war: “ Let’s not die for Danzig.” But for all practical purposes the purge is ending.
There is much more interest among the French in building new lives than in taking lives for old grudges. And there is steadily growing satisfaction over the way France is recovering. The motto of the government parties has been: “Things are already going better.” The average Frenchman accepted this statement with his eternal skepticism. But proof of it has been given to him in his staple of diet — bread.
During the election campaign Christian Pinaud, Minister of Food, announced that rationing of bread would end on November 1. Immediately after the election a serious question arose whether all restrictions on bread could be removed. But promptly on November 1, rationing of bread was lifted and the French began to think things really were going better.
The Fourth Republic
Beyond the details of his everyday life, the Frenchman feels that in this interim period he has a chance to set the world an example of successful transition from war to peace through mild political revolution. What he will do about the new constitution may show the way to improvement of political institutions not only to Western Europe, which often looks to France for leadership, but also to the Western world.
The best estimate now is that about 40 per cent of the Constituent Assembly wants to write a constitution something like that of the United States to have a merging of the powers of the chief of state and the chief of government in a strong executive. General de Gaulle favors this procedure.
There is strong sympathy in the Constituent Assembly also for the British parliamentary system of calling the head of the government before the legislature periodically for questioning. A rational combination of the American and British systems of democracy may be what France is seeking.
There is the possibility of a radical change in the structure of political parties. Plagued for generations by its multi-party system, France may decide to lump its parties into three major groups, in line with the outcome of the general election. This would have a beneficial effect, not only in stabilizing French policies, but also in making them more understandable abroad.
All this may take longer than the seven months prescribed by the original election law. High officials are already considering the possibility of extending the transition period another four or five months by agreement of the Constituent Assembly and the de Gaulle government. But by the end of 1946 the Fourth Republic should be born.