on the World Today
THE most constant preoccupation of virtually every Frenchman is the coming winter. How severe will it be? How will he personally, and his country as he now knows it, survive this critical season? These questions are raised not in a neurotic or morbid manner. They are plain, practical, and very real problems.
The first concern is food. The bread ration is down to 200 grams a day, lower than it ever was under German occupation, when the minimum amount was 325 grams daily. The present ration, cut by the baker from a large loaf, amounts to about half a pound. And with only that, many people are afraid they will be hungry.
Fuel is of less concern, because there is no doubt about it. There will be no more. The winter ration of 250 kilograms of coal for a family of three, and 300 kilos for larger families, has already been distributed. It is the same as last year’s, and a little more than the lowest level reached during the occupation, when the ration went down to 150 kilos. But it is far from enough, and many people know they will be cold.
Too little bread
During the autumn, no one was desperately hungry. Visiting Congressmen, touring Europe rapidly, could report accurately that they saw no one starving. That was because there were enough vegetables, still in season, to compensate for the lack of bread. But with the coming of winter, people of limited means would no longer be able to buy more expensive substitutes for bread, and the hunger would begin.
The reason for the bread shortage could be found in the cold but singularly expressive statistics of the catastrophic 1947 wheat crop. Normally, in prewar years, France collected up to 100 million quintals of wheat. That figure went down to 74 million in 1939, 66 million last year, and 35 million this year, after an unusually cold winter and dry summer.
Apart from the adversity of nature, there was another, more tangible reason for the failure of the wheat crop: the failure of the post-war controlled economy to provide sufficient incentive for the farmers. In 1946, the wheat price was fixed at 1003 francs a quintal, or three and one-half times the 1938 price. But the value of other grains and fodder had been permitted to rise to eight and nine times the pre-war price. The result was that the peasants of France, losing interest in wheat and attracted to other grains and to cattle, reduced their wheat sowing from 5.3 million to 3.3 million hectares.
This brought a good deal of grumbling about stingy peasants starving the country, and stimulated the eternal rivalry between the farm regions and the cities. But it took specific measures to convince the farmer that he should sow more wheat, in conformity with the economic law of profit, which after all was the one the city people obeyed in doing business with him.
The price of wheat at delivery from the farm was raised by government decree to 1850 francs a quintal, and an additional bonus of 1000 francs was offered for each hectare sown, bringing the value of wheat for the farmer to about 1950 francs a quintal. A sowing campaign for 1948 was initiated, to restore the wheat area to 5 million hectares. The new price was enough to interest the farmers, and their professional organization, the General Confederation of Agriculture, accepted the sowing plan.
Wages, prices, and strikes
The same maladjustment could be found in other fields of the national economy. The cost of living rose to more than eleven times the pre-war level. Taking the 1938 monthly average as the base figure of 100, retail prices stood at 1157. More than one fourth of that rise was registered during 1947.
Wages, frozen by government order, could not keep pace with prices, although some increases were granted to workers in nationalized industries and enterprises after negotiations with or strikes against the government. The penury produced by the spread between prices and wages was apparent in the clothing and on the faces of the population. Wages had risen to less than six times the pre-war rates — from an average of 5.91 francs per hour for a laborer in 1938, to 30.17 francs in 1947.
Strikes fell into a new and regular pattern. Almost all the recurring walkouts were called in statecontrolled factories or systems, by independent unions with genuine labor demands. But in all the important cases, the Communist-dominated General Confederation of Labor, hesitant to provoke disorder at times, but always more fearful of being outflanked by more aggressive forces, finally gave its support to the movement.
There were suspicions, based mostly on the past record of the Communist Party, that it was secretly orchestrating the strikes. The indications were that the Communists were wavering in their usually fixed minds, and somewhat dismayed by labor action that might seem to them premature. But no one doubted that they would seek to profit by disorders of the future.
Ramadier, compromise premier
For all its economic misery, France experienced an unusual period of governmental stability. The cabinet of Socialist Premier Paul Ramadier, formed in January, 1946, as the first regular government of the Fourth French Republic, exceeded all expectations, including its own, in living on month after month.
It presented the paradox of a coalition administration, headed by the third largest party in the National Assembly, the Socialists, because the number 1 and 2 parties, the Communists and the Popular Republican Movement, could agree on no alternative. Ramadier was a little-known lawyer from the south, whose most important previous role in the public eye had been as the first post-war Minister for Food under General de Gaulle — a position that was hardly conducive to popularity.
The cabinet survived its most severe crisis in May, when Ramadier successfully expelled the Communist ministers for voting against the government’s no-pay-raise policy in the strike of Renault automobile factory workers. Ramadier himself, despite his absent-mindedness (he once called more than a hundred correspondents to a news conference and then forgot to come; and on another occasion, after accepting an invitation to lunch with the Anglo-American Press Association, he apologized, half an hour before mealtime, that he had forgotten again — he was lunching that day with the King of Sweden), won general respect for his firm management of public affairs.
In the awkward situation of a Socialist forced to oppose labor demands, he reconciled the conflict between politician and statesman with some firstclass oratory in the Assembly and with skillful negotiations in his office. But the days of the Ramadier government were being counted.
De Gaulle versus Communism?
Both the government and the Constitution, which had been in effect for only a year, were under heavy attack from the two extremes. General de Gaulle, with his new Reunion of the French People, which assumed more and more the aspects of a political party, was campaigning openly for power and for revision of the Constitution, to provide for stronger executive authority. The Communists clamored for a return to the cabinet, and if their attack on republican institutions was less outspoken, their ideal of a Soviet state was well known.
Between the two, most political observers believed that de Gaulle was the more likely to reach power first, if the moderate solution had to be abandoned and a choice had to be made between right and left. In fact, the French read with astonishment reports from the United States that France needs aid this winter to avoid Communism.
A casual inquiry among articulate persons of many classes — a publisher, a businessman, a stenographer, and a taxi driver, for example — showed that no one believed there was any immediate peril of Communism in France. But if the United States government needed a red scare to obtain public and Congressional approval for aid to France, then let them have it.
The real danger lay in any departure from the known paths of French democracy toward a new system that would inevitably pit the left against the right in more open competition, with results that could not be clearly foreseen.
The collaborationists are snubbed
But politics and economics could never maintain a monopoly over the French mind, and this was a lively season in the arts and letters, with some of the episodes compounded of stale recollections of the German occupation and collaboration. The passing of three years since the liberation had not dimmed the resentment of a large part of the population toward those who were anything but patriots, and the record of men of arts and letters in defense of their country was not always remarkable.
The Académic Goncourt, founded by the nineteenth-century novelists, the Goncourt brothers, and a traditional stronghold of French literature, resumed its monthly luncheons in October at the glittering Restaurant Drouant, in the Rue Gaillon, just off the Avenue de l’Opéra. In their private dining room, six of the ten members, Madame Colette, André Billy, Leo Larguier, Roland Dorgeles, Alexandre Arnoux, and their legal adviser, Maître Maurice Garçon, discussed symbolism in literature. But the attendance was not complete. Francis Carco excused himself diplomatically. Lucien Descaves was away on vacation. The two most spectacular absentees, Sacha Guitry and René Benjamin, were having lunch together at Guitry’s house on the Champs de Mars. They talked about Mozart and Molière.
But the rest of Paris was talking about the case of Sacha Guitry. Officially cleared by an examining magistrate of charges of collaboration, and still a member of the Académic Goncourt, he was considered undesirable by some of the members, but not by the majority necessary to expel him. Neither side wishing to press the matter immediately, they lunched separately and left the case in suspense.
Souvenirs and memoris
Soon after the first Goncourt lunch, Guitry was the victim of a robbery at his château at Fontenayle-Fleury. The intruders showed a curious sense of selection. They overlooked Guitry’s rich collection of silverware. But they took the épée carried by Sarah Bernhardt in L’Aiglon, the decorations conferred on Guitry’s actor-father, Lucien, by Czarist Russia, and some of the products of Sacha’s prodigious pen. Among their loot was the manuscript of Four Years of Occupations, Guitry’s forthcoming wartime memoirs. Guitry had another copy.
Another controversial case was that of Serge Lifar, the White Russian who was banned from the stage for a year by an administrative commission, for having danced for the Germans. Having served his term of inactivity, the Opéra brought him back, but his debut was prevented by a protest strike of stagehands. The corps dr ballet insisted he must return as in maître de ballet, there being no one capable of replacing him, and without him, ,50 million francs’ worth of settings and costumes were spoiling in the Opéra attic. But a second strike turned the audience out when Lifar attempted to take the stage again.
The Louvre reopens
The fine arts had a smoother but also stimulating season. The Great Gallery of the Louvre, closed for eight years (it was undergoing repairs when the war began in 1939), reopened with the great classics of the Italian Renaissance back in their places. With the works of da Vinci, Raphael, and Titian appeared the masters of Spanish art, Velásquez, Murillo, and Goya.
The Salon d’Automne presented a new collection of modern French sculpture and painting, together with a representative selection of works from its previous shows. And if the future seemed bleak, at least one could look back on the past with pleasure.