The Case for France
President and Editor of the Louisville Courier-Journal, one of the great independent papers of the country, BARRY BINGHAM has packed a good deal of activity into his forty-five years. He graduated magna cum laude from Harvard in 1928; served as reporter and then as associate publisher of the paper which he now directs; was on active duty in the Navy from 1941 to 1945: is the owner and operator of Radio Station WHAS; and helped to turn the tide in France as Chief of the ECA Mission in 1949-1950. In the paper which follows he tells of the convalescence of a nation whose strength was so vital to us in our days of crisis — and is still.
by BARRY BINGHAM
DURING my year in Paris as Chief of the ECA Mission to France, I used to enjoy visits from many touring Americans. A large proportion of them came to tell me what was wrong with our French allies. The favorite themes were these: France is a nation completely controlled by Communists; France is a nation of ingrates who have no use for the Marshall Plan; France is a country in which people do not pay their taxes; France is a nest of defeatist sentiment, which would offer no help in a struggle between America and Soviet Russia.
These charges fascinated me. Often I found that they were based on a broad cross-section of French opinion consisting of two waiters and three bartenders. What interested me especially, however, was the general similarity of those views to the ones I myself had held when I was a tourist enjoying myself in Paris. Working in France with French people, in and out of government, taught me some lessons.
Three years ago, when Congress voted the Marshall Plan into existence, conditions in France and elsewhere in Western Europe were so deplorable that many intelligent Frenchmen questioned the feasibility of the giant commitment. They regarded the American gesture as an admirable but. unfounded display of optimism. Now, after three years of quite remarkable French recovery, America’s view of Franee is darkened by a pessimism that was largely justified in 1948, but not in 1951.
Take the matter of Communist control. The Communist Party is still the largest single political unit in France. With its fellow travelers, it holds 30 per cent of the seats in the National Assembly. Often it manages to make that minority seem like a majority by its tight organization, its rigid party discipline, and the leather-lunged stridency of its members. The heavy Communist representation is based on the national elections of November, 1946. The vote that year reflected the prestige of the many French Communists who were effective leaders of the Resistance Movement. Still more it reflected the desperation of millions of Frenchmen in a morally and physically shattered country, who turned to the Communists as the only party offering fresh life and leadership.
Since then the Communist cause in France has suffered some hard knocks. The secretary of the party, Maurice Thorez, publicly admitted a decline of 30 per cent in card-carrying memberships. (Soon after that speech he was found unconscious and bleeding on the floor of his office, and was hauled off to Moscow for “treatment.”) The Communist newspapers of France, which keep up an incessant drumfire of lies and hatred against the United States, have lost about 85 per cent of their circulation in the past year.
The Communists tried to destroy the country’s economy by coal strikes in 1947 and again in 1948, and failed both times. Last spring the party staked its prestige on another type of obstruction. It pledged all its resources to prevent the unloading of Atlantic Pact arms shipments in France.
This seemed no empty threat, as the Communists were known to have followed their familiar pattern of organizing the dock workers of the country.
Things looked difficult. Then the dockers of Cherbourg took it into their heads to hold a vote on the issue of unloading arms. Communist headquarters in Paris registered shocked surprise. Organizers were sent scurrying down to stop so irregular a procedure. Some skulls were cracked in street riots. The vote was finally taken, however, and came out this way: 256 for unloading, 21 against. The dockers issued a communiqué saying: “We are free dockers and will remain free. To the so-called peace organizations we say, Leave us alone, once and for all.” Atlantic Pact arms have flowed into French ports ever since. The Communist Party, with its amazing capacity for shifting ground, announced that the unloading of arms was no longer an important issue, and that the partisans of peace could turn their attention to more vital matters.
In 1947, when the Communists were kicked out of the government, they came close to overturning the country. This year’s national elections are sure to show a decline in Communist power. The party’s strength in the National Assembly has been unjustly magnified by an invention of the devil, a system of proportional representation which was saddled on the French people with their post-war constitution. Reforms in the electoral law will cost the Communists 35 to 50 of their 180 seats in the Assembly this year, even if they should win as heavy a popular vote as they achieved in 1946.
The reason for the decline in French Communist fortunes is recovery. When General Marshall outlined his revolutionary experiment on commencement day at Harvard in 1947, he declared that “our policy is not directed against any country or doctrine, but against hunger, poverty, desperation, and chaos.” Those grim horsemen were riding roughshod over France at the time he spoke. Now they have been driven off by the hard-working determination of the French nation, and by a unique combination of generosity and enlightened selfinterest on the part of the American people.
We have spent a little over 2 billion dollars under the Marshall Plan in France, about 14 dollars for every man, woman, and child in the United States. The French have absorbed about one fifth of the total ECA funds. The returns from that investment can be indicated in a few figures, French industry is now producing 30 per cent more than in pre-war years. Coal and steel production are at the highest rates ever achieved, except in 1929. Agriculture is running 6 per cent above pre-war production levels. That means France is self-sustaining on food and can even export some meat, grain, and dairy products to food-short Britain and Western Germany. All rationing ended in January, 1950. It has often been observed that human beings cannot eat statistics. These figures, however, honestly mean food in every Frenchman’s mouth and francs in his pay envelope.
There are 42 million people in France, but the unemployment compensation rolls carry less than 50,000 names. No modern nation can hope to achieve anything closer to full employment. Marshall Plan credits have put Frenchmen back to work and kept them there. The biggest employer of labor in France, the cotton textile industry, has had to secure 80 per cent of its raw cotton through ECA credits. Without that resource, mass unemployment would have struck the industry, providing a perfect culture for the sprouting of the Communist germ. With ECA resources, French industry has not only obtained its essential raw materials, but has acquired modern machinery and equipment, stepped up its production, and put itself in a position to earn the foreign exchange that must take the place of Marshall Plan credits. During the first year of ECA, France had to use a heavy proportion of its credits to buy food for its hungry, debilitated people. By the second year, French people were taking care of their own food needs. The biggest chunk of Marshall Plan money has since been spent for machinery to bring French industry and agriculture up to date.
MANY Americans seem to enjoy dividing the French into two great classes: those who have never heard of the Marshall Plan, and those who are crabbedly ungrateful for it. The French are wary about giving answers to pollsters who come knocking at their doors with troublesome questions, but Dr. Gallup’s operators have found that 88 per cent of the French people know about the Marshall Plan. The French do not, however, accost American visitors in the streets and thank them for this invaluable aid.
There are several interesting reasons for this failure to pour out an effusion of gratitude. One is the temperament of the French people. The American stereotype of a Frenchman is a being who bubbles like a bottle of champagne when the cork flies out. The true Frenchman, by contrast, is apt to be mentally stolid and leery of enthusiasm. The French are almost the exact opposite of the British. The flying sibilants of the French tongue and the gestures that accompany it create a surface impression of great animation, but the inner man is usually cautious and tradition-bound. The Englishman, in his shell of slow and weighty dignity, often hides a spirit that borders on the pixyish.
More important to consider in weighing gratitude for the Marshall Plan, however, is the method chosen by Congress for expending the money. The central point is the theory of the Counterpart Fund. This is a brilliant device whose anonymous originator gets neither public praise nor the satisfaction of public understanding. It applies to all ECA countries, but I will speak only of France.
Every French citizen who has received anything under ECA has paid its full value in his own currency. No single human being in France has had something from us for nothing. To take an example, a French farmer after the war wanted a tractor to improve his farm output, a project in the public interest. He had the francs to pay for it. But the French tractor industry, small at best, had been converted by the Germans to tank production and consequently was bombed out of existence by our own and the British air force. The farmer could not get a French tractor. American producers would not accept his francs.
Then came the Marshall Plan and its line of dollar credits for France. The farmer could make a case to his government agent for his need of a tractor. The implement was bought in America, paid for with a portion of ECA credits, and shipped to France. In time the French farmer picked it up and drove away, but not until he had dug down in his jeans and paid the full market value in francs. The French farmer is known for his reluctance to shell out money. It is impossible to conceive of such a type paying for a tractor and not putting it to its fullest use.
The currency collected from those who receive Marshall Plan goods goes into the Counterpart Fund. Here is a great pile of francs available for recovery projects, corresponding to the pile of dollars earmarked for France. Five per cent of this counterpart money is set aside for American administrative expenses and for the purchase of strategic materials from French overseas possessions, a welcome addition to our stockpile.
The rest of the counterpart money is spent, by joint agreement of the French government and ECA, for a program of public works that has jumped France forward three generations in three years. Counterpart francs have completely restored the French railway system, blasted from end to end by American and British bombers. So accurate was our work of destruction in the months before the Normandy landings that French harbor installations were 70 per cent demolished. Counterpart money has put them back in shape to carry 10 per cent more traffic than pre-war. Even more exciting is the development of electrical energy in a country that has had to shut down many factories in the dry summer months for want of power. The Counterpart Fund made possible the building of a dramatic series of dams on the rivers of France, comparable to the TVA system. Thermal plants have also been located at the mouths of coal mines. Already this program has added 60 per cent to the supply of power in France. By mid-1952 the increase will pass 100 per cent. This is no temporary palliative for French economic ills. It is a permanent contribution to the well-being of every French citizen.
The man in the street cannot yet comprehend the improvements in his own life that flow from the program of Marshall Plan investments. The farmer pays his hard-earned money for an ECA tractor, the textile mill owner pays for his raw cotton, the steel manufacturer for the heavy equipment that will furnish France with a new strip mill. The individual does not always see the end result of these purchases in national prosperity. He does not necessarily see why he should be grateful Uncle Sam for something he paid for with his own money. But the purpose of the Marshall Plan was not to buy gratitude. It was to achieve recovery.
There is gratitude felt in France, nonetheless I saw it in the 4000 letters from French citizens an average week brings in to the ECA Mission. Most of them say something to this effect: “I do not know any Americans, so I am taking this way of expressing my appreciation of the help your country has given us through the Marshall Plan. It has saved France.” In various parts of the country there are dams, hospitals, schools, housing projects, and other monuments to the Counterpart Fund bearing stone tablets for the long future. Here is a typical French inscription: “The Bimont Dam, whose waters will bring fertility and richness to fifty communities of the Rhone and Var Valleys, has been built with the help of the Ministry of Agriculture and thanks to the generous aid of ERP funds furnished by the United States of America.”
Americans are generally convinced that the French somehow run a country without paying taxes. Certainly the French traditionally hate taxes, use every effort to avoid them, and discuss their methods of evasion with a frankness that shocks American ears. The French tax system is inequitable by American standards, falling much too heavily on the middle and lower classes, and especially on the salaried workers, whose income is a matter of public record. Yet by this unadmirable system the French managed to collect 30 per cent of national income in taxes in 1950. The comperable figure for the United States, in federal, state, and local taxes, was just under 26 per cent.
THE commonest and the most harmful of American beliefs about France is that it is a nation of hopeless defeatists. To be sure, frequent utterances in the French press and parliament feed that perverse flame. The actions of the French, however, speak more impressively than their often cynical and pessimistic words. They have had right along a system of universal military training which takes in every young man at the age of twenty. The period of service was extended last September from a year to eighteen months, with only the Communists voting in opposition. France had 722,000 men under arms in March of this year, though these included only 5 combat divisions on the Continent in any shape to fight. The French are investing 28.3 per cent of their 1951 budget in military defense. They have pledged 10 combat divisions by the end of this year, 15 in 1952, 20 in 1953.
We hear a great deal in this country about French “neutralism.” It is a sentiment found in all parts of Western Europe. The Economist of London diagnoses much of it as “the merest Usaphobia, an attitude compounded of jealousy, resentment, cussedness, and genuine disagreement with the workings of American democracy.” Unfortunately, this attitude in France exists mainly among the most articulate class, the advanced intellectuals, who fear and resent the encroachments of “barbarous” American culture. It was this small but noisy class, in odd association with the winegrowers and the Communists, who raised an outcry against the “Coca-colonization of France.” It is an unhappy factor in French life that a segment of its most cultured citizenry is afflicted with intellectual dry rot.
In this realm as elsewhere there is a tragic lack of leadership in France. Of the generation who should be the leaders of thought, government, and business in France today, nearly 2 million lie buried where they fell on the battlefields of World War I. They have left a crying void. World War II killed over half a million more Frenchmen, many of them in Nazi concentration camps. Such losses have fed the French passion for security. “Fear divides the world,” declares the wise old Radical Socialist leader, Edouard Herriot. “Despite her cruelly exposed geographical position, France tries not to give way to it and not to add to it.”
This fear is very real in France, though it does not express itself in the outbursts of hysteria that sometimes afflict us in America. It is a sort of patient, undemonstrative fear, like a low fever that never leaves the veins. The plain truth is that the French have no stomach for a fight against the Soviets if it is utterly hopeless from the start. If it should come at once, the cause would be without hope in continental Western Europe. If, however, it can be staved off for one, two, or three years, there is a rapidly mounting chance that the assault could be not only repulsed but forestalled altogether.
France will play its full part in fighting the Soviets, granted three conditions: 1. Time to receive adequate arms. 2. Genuine development of a Western defense force, fully integrated, under the command of General Eisenhower. 3. Assurance of American support, on the ground as well as in the air, when the attack occurs, not ofter the nation has been overrun. With these assurances, France would fight hard on our side. Lacking them, we cannot expect much help.
A Southerner, whose forebears defended a lost cause, told me at a meeting in Birmingham that this attitude on the part of the French is “disgusting.” We should try to look at the danger through French eyes, however. Some Frenchmen now living have seen their country overrun three times by aggressors in the span of their own lives. France’s greatest fear is that war will bring a quick Soviet surge to the Atlantic, an occupation far more systematic in its horror and ruthlessness than the Nazi model, and eventual American “liberation” of French cities by a shower of atom bombs. Nothing gives the French security against this not unreasonable dread except the presence on the Continent of American ground forces, who would obviously not be abandoned by the United States in the early stages of a war. I do not hold up the French attitude in this matter as something to be admired. I only submit that it is realistic.
HOW is it possible for France’s case to be so poorly understood in America? Last year we sent nearly 300,000 American tourists to France, without making a dent in the problem. I lay a heavy part of the blame on the American educational system, which teaches students to conjugate French irregular verbs and to read the simpler classics, but does not equip them to carry on a two-minute exchange of ideas with a Frenchman.
It is partly this language difficulty that makes Americans clog up in Paris and on the Riviera, the tourist traps of France, while ignoring the charm, the interest, and the wonderful air of peaceful solidarity that pervade the French provinces. Certainly a thousand Americans breathe the murk of the Folies-Bergère for every one who encounters the atmosphere of Lafayette’s birthplace amid the bare and astringent beauty of the Auvergne hills, where the flags are whipped by the very wind of freedom.
Our failure to understand France must partly be shared by our press, though we have some of our ablest foreign correspondents writing from Paris. The attraction of that incomparable city is such that nobody wants to leave it. Stories of Communist street riots are easy copy there, as are the often wild disputes in the Chamber of Deputies. Solid achievements develop across the length and breadth of provincial France without attracting much notice. Such stories are harder to get and harder to write. They would give, however, a true and balanced picture of the country.
It would help immeasurably if the French press reported such healthy activities. The French, however, have a horror of propaganda that has spilled over into a fear of plain, straight information. They are afraid to believe anything that sounds reasonably encouraging. There is something very winning about a country that refuses to allow a single souvenir shop or hot-dog stand to desecrate the awesome loneliness of Omaha Beach. There is something lacking, however, in a country that does not tell its own people about the biggest dam in Europe west of the Dnieper River, which is nearing completion at Donzère Mondragon on the Rhone.
The beginning of wisdom for an American in France, it seems to me, is the realization that the French have a right to their own way of doing things, no matter how wildly impractical it may appear to our eyes. Their methods have a way of working quite well for them. A large factor in the success of the Marshall Plan in France, I am convinced, lies in the use of a purely French pattern for the important investment program. This plan was developed in 1946 by the brilliant French economist, Jean Monnet, and a staff of experts. It was a blueprint for survival. The Monnet Plan could never have come anywhere near its ambitious goals on the thin resources of post-war France, but ECA pumped dollar credits into the blood stream of the Monnet system. ECA technicians, working closely with French authorities and checking every tiny item to see that it contributed to the economic health of the nation, found the Monnet Plan a short cut to French recovery.
Methods work in France that would seem in other countries to lead only to the realms of chaos and old night. Nineteen political parties exist together in the National Assembly, fighting, snapping, tripping each other up; yet among them a government forms, dissolves, and forms again. During the frequent periods of political realignment, a trained corps of civil servants carries on the functions of government with Jovian calm.
We would be foolish to try to force American methods upon the French against their will, and quite possibly against the grain of their highly individual economy. Where we can offer them help is in such matters as American techniques of production which can be adapted to French use. Dozens of teams from French industry and agriculture have come to America under ECA auspices to study at first hand the techniques that give us the highest level of productivity in the world. The French worker produces only about one fourth as much as his American equivalent. Part of this gap is being closed by modern machinery and increased electric power in France. Much more must be achieved if France is to hold its own in the fierce competition of the modern world.
The average French worker today has a standard of living just about as high as in 1938, counting real wages plus social payments. These latter payments, almost never included in statistics Americans see on French workers’ incomes, amount to as much as 45 per cent of payrolls. Family allowances give extra monthly support for every additional child, a condition that caused a Normandy farmer to observe that his wife was now more profitable to him than his cow. Time after time since the end of the war, the French government has increased these payments in lieu of granting wage increases under its power to control wages, which remained in full force from 1939 until 1950. This method of increasing income of workers favors the married man with a family at the expense of the childless worker. (The plight of the childless worker is truly deplorable.) This system of payments partly accounts for the fact that the French birth rate, stationary for generations, has shot up to the highest level in recorded history. And the high birth rate surely indicates a return of hope for some future for France.
Yet the standard of living of French workers is not high enough to sustain a stable democracy. French businessmen must come to realize that their own security depends on increasing the workers’ share in prosperity. These same businessmen, tied to traditional markets for their export products, need a new appreciation of the importance of the American market. For most of them this market begins and ends in New York. It consists of a limited list of luxury items. It realizes only 5 million dollars or so a month of dollar exchange for the French economy. France has many beautiful, unusual, and useful products that have never broken into the American market. They need to be pushed. The ingenuity and style that fascinate Americans who go shopping on the Faubourg St. Honoré are almost never used to sell French products on this side of the ocean.
Yet dollars are absolutely essential to France. If war can be avoided, the American program of purely economic aid is likely to end with a gap of some 150 million dollars a year between France’s dollar earnings and her dollar needs. (The gap was a billion and a quarter in 1948, a fair indication of progress.) It would be sensible for Americans to buy more French products, many of which are of a very high quality not duplicated by American producers. We know without doubt that the French will use their dollar earnings to buy more of a thousand export items from our factories and farms.
The most serious pitfall in our relations with the French is the soreness of French pride. The debacle of 1940 dealt a staggering blow to France.
It was not just the military defeat that shook the nation so deeply. France had taken such a shock after Sedan and had come back with a magnificent display of unity and courage. This time it was the frightful feebleness of the national effort that cut French pride to the quick. This psychological wound has made the French abnormally sensitive to criticism, though the bold Schuman proposal is one of several signs of improving health. Lack of dollar financing was a French ailment for which we found a cure in the Marshall Plan. Lack of confidence in themselves is a still more dangerous illness.
It is to our interest, to speak baldly, for us in America to help France recover from that crippling affliction. I am not speaking of the French sentimentally as America’s oldest allies. I am speaking of them as people we need to help us today and tomorrow. We need each other, we and the French. We have helped them obtain the tools of physical recovery, and they have used them effectively. The job now is to help them regain their national pride. If we assume that their morale is broken and their will to fight is gone, we may bring that assumption to a tragic reality. The tragedy would be ours as well as theirs. If, on the other hand, we show faith in the French, we will find them partners richly worth having, in peace or in war.