on the World Today

LAST summer, just before the conclusion of the Geneva Conference, Georges Bidault remarked somewhat acidly of the new French Premier: “Either he will be a Disraeli or a Kerensky.” The eight months that have elapsed since then have been enough to render an unequivocal verdict. There is little doubt today that Pierre Mendes-Franee belongs in a class with the great Victorian statesman rather than with the Menshevik revolutionary, and that he is the most outstanding politician that the Fourth Republic has produced.

If there is one unmistakable sign of this personal pre-eminence it is certainly the unpopularity that Mendes-Franee had succeeded in arousing in French political circles. For in a country like France, where criticism is a national instinct, hostile opposition is itself a tribute to talent. Since the Liberation, nineteen successive Premiers have had an opportunity of earning this form of negative recognition, each to a different degree. Bidault was disliked, Ramadier laughed at, Robert Schuman pitied, Queuille ignored, Pinay suspected, and Laniel buried beneath a mountain of contempt. But not one of them — with the possible exception of General de Gaulle — has aroused such a tempest of fear and abhorrence in influential circles as Pierre Mendès-Franee.

Perhaps the most virulent opposition that he encountered emerged in the National Assembly itself. And this for a good reason. French deputies long ago developed such a hypersensitive instinct for absolute legislative sovereignty that the one unpardonable sin in a fellow politician is executive success. Mendes-Franee, in the eyes of many of his colleagues, had more than his rightful share; so that inevitably, as he advanced from one achievement to another, he unleashed against himself ail those petty parliamentary passions which have been arrayed against every strong French political figure in modern times — from Léon Gambetta to Charles de Gaulle.

The most venomous manifestation of this parliamentary opposition was the attempt made last autumn to saddle Mendès-Franee with the responsibility for the “loss” of Indochina. The opportunity arose as a result of the revelation that secret minutes of several meetings of the National Council of Defense had been leaked out to certain newspapermen and to the Central Committee of the Communist Party.

It is now clear that some of Mendes-Fra nee’s most powerful opponents were hoping to be able to turn these embarrassing revelations into one of those major political scandals that have proved so useful in the past in upsetting governments and in damaging careers. (It took Clemenceau twenty years to recover from the “Panama Scandal” of 1892.) They were thwarted only by the determination and shrewdness of the Minister of the Interior, the young and energetic Francois Mitterand, who succeeded in running down the source of the leaks before the Mendès-Franee government could plausibly be accused of having fostered them.

When they found that they were unable to destroy him in open combat, Mendes-Francc’s opponents resorted to a malicious whispering campaign accusing him of treason. This almost brought his government down when “L’Affaire Dides” came to a head in December. In the course of a tense debate that took place in the French Assembly a hitherto obscure deputy called Jean Legendre (who has been compared to Senator McCarthy), without offering any valid proof for his fantastic allegations, accused Mendes-Franee and Mitterand of having handed over national secrets to the Vietminh.

That day was one of the blackest in the history of the post-war Assembly. Before the debate was over, 43 million Frenchmen had been afforded the spectacle of seeing Georges Bidault, the former head of the Resistance movement in France, lend his sly support to a campaign of insinuation hatched against the French Premier by a former Fascist and wartime collaborator called Tixier-Vignancourt.

Hostility to Mendès-France

To such an extent has Mendes-Franee now become the most controversial and dominant figure in French politics that every party, with the exception of the Communist, is seriously torn by conflicting attitudes toward him. The Socialists, who have given him greater support than any other party, have not been able to overcome a basic suspicion toward a man who, though he wears his heart and his purse on the left, remains a stout bourgeois. The MRP, which opposed him out of bitterness at the defeat of the EDC, has not been able to prevent a small minority of a dozen members from voting for him. And even in his own party, the Radical Socialist, there is an important faction led by the party secretary, Martinaud-Deplat, which is hostile to him.

Election warm-up

The year 1955 promises to be as turbulent for French politics as 1954. For the election warm-up has already begun. Normally the skeptical people of France, who long ago formed a deprecatory and unchanging opinion of their politicians, would not take such political preliminaries too seriously. But the possibility, brought about by these intraparty divisions, of a complete destruction of the traditional alliances has set tongues wagging in every bistro in France.

Last December in a speech to his followers, General de Gaulle went out of his way to praise Mendes-France in a characteristically eloquent phrase for “his ardor, his vigor, and his valor.” It was the first time in ten years that the hypercritical and doctrinaire General has had a good word to say about a leading French politician. He backed this up by intimating that he might, if he deemed the situation serious enough, enter into the forthcoming election campaign.

This elliptical remark has opened up the prospect of an alliance between himself and Mendès-France. With the support of men like André Malraux and Francois Mauriac, this would be a volcanic phenomenon on the French political scene. No doubt such an alliance is a solution in extremis. But Mendes-France is too clever a politician not to realize that the mere threat of it is a sword ot Damocles to suspend over the head of a refractory and unruly parliament .

The economic tide turns

While Mendès-France and his advisers were busy preparing the general lines of their assault on the problem of France’s antiquated industries, the country was having an economic boom.

The year 1954, in fact, was the best post-war year that France has known. The overall level of industrial production rose by 8 per cent, and the output of French farms increased by 5 per cent. The national income rose to a new high of 42 billion dollars. The automobile and truck factories of France turned out 590,000 motor vehicles, or more than 100,000 more than the year before. Twice as many houses were built as in 1953. France even came close to balancing her foreign trade. Her deficit in 1954 was half of what it was in 1953 and only amounted to 2 per cent. Last October, for the first time since the war, France actually exported more than she imported.

For this salutary turn in the economic tide two main causes are responsible. The first is the general upswing in the economy of Western Europe and North America that took place during 1954. The second, and purely French cause, has been the economic policy of Edgar Faure, France’s Finance Minister until his appointment as Foreign Minister in January.

When Faure became Finance Minister in the Lanicl government in June of 1953, he embarked upon a cautious program of slow but steady economic development. His objectives were to keep prices stable, to increase wages slowly so as to benefit the lowest income brackets, and to raise the purchasing power of the French public. Thus demand would rise and new production would be stimulated.

To spur on this policy, Faure introduced an important innovation in the existing taxation system. For years the French economy has been suffering from two prominent ills. The first has been the steady development of an unnecessarily large army of parasitic middlemen who have built up cushy positions for handling goods between manufacturers and retailers. The second has been a crippling level of taxes on corporation profits that has discouraged new investment.

To deal with the first, Faure altered the existing system of sales taxes so that they would bear, not on the final purchase price, but on the markup added at each stage of wholesale operation between factory and shop. To deal with the second, he took a calculated gamble and reduced the level of taxation on corporate profits destined for investment, even though this meant a loss of $286 million for the money-hungry French Treasury.

The gamble worked. The loss was more than compensated for by tax revenues from increased production. By the end of last year $257 million more in government revenue had flowed into the French Treasury and Faure’s “Eighteen-Month Flan” (aimed at raising French output by 10 per cent) had been fulfilled six months ahead of schedule.

Coaxing industry to modernize

Despite this encouraging advance, large segments of the French economy are lagging compared with other countries. In tougher economic times France would be compelled to restore the high tariff barriers that have been insulating French industries from foreign competition and encouraging their anachronistic stagnation.

In making plans to grapple with this formidable problem, MendesFrance and Edgar Faure, who are both Radical Socialists and pragmatists, had deliberately avoided resorting to that old-style state control which was thoroughly discredited in France in the immediate post-war years. Their aim was not to lay an iron bureaucratic mold on recalcitrant industries, but to stir up and enlist the coöperation of French businessmen in discovering ways of rationalizing production and distribution.

Whenever he had had time to get away from his busy desk in Paris, Mcndes-Franee had gone to some country town to urge local industrialists and manufacturers to get together to consider all possible ways of producing more cheaply and efficiently. In essence his message to them had been: “If you strive to modernize your methods, you will find my government more than willing to help you. But we shall not go on protecting you from foreign competition if you insist on not changing your ways.” It was a new application of the stick and the carrot; the stick being represented by the lowering of tariff barriers, the carrot by government-sponsored credits.

This campaign has been producing results — not merely because of Mendès-France’s individual efforts, but because of the sheer force of economic circumstances. The technical training program of the Marshall Plan is beginning to pay off. Hundreds of French businessmen have been taken on extensive industrial tours of the United States and have come back impressed with American production and distribution techniques. Already iheir innovations in certain fields are making life more difficult for their more conservative competitors.

Added to this has been the mounting pressure of tho spoken and the written word. In every economic meeting, France has been castigated by her neighbors for failing to liberalize her tariff policy, and has been threatened with expulsion from the European Payments Union.

Many newspaper articles have focused upon the real and alleged causes for France’s economic backwardness, and darkened them with prophecies of doom. All over the country, Frenchmen are beginning to realize that if France stands still while the rest of the Continent is on the move, she will end up, like Spain, an economic outlaw in Western Europe.

The need for salesmanship

A number of French businessmen, furthermore, are discovering that there is nothing intrinsically wrong with their methods of production, but that the trouble often lies in antiquated forms of salesmanship. A typical example was recently furnished in the cutlery industry of the Haute Marne, where most of the knives, scissors, medical instruments, and gardening tools of France are made. When the local manufacturers got together to find out why they could not stand up to German competition abroad, they discovered that their workmanship was every bit as good as that of great knife-makers of Sollingen and Tuttlingen.

Where the Germans were vastly superior was in their method of distributing the finished produels. By publishing joint catalogues for different firms in many languages, by wrapping razor black’s in red paper emblazoned with the hammer and sickle for Italian workers, and by using camels to carry great advertising posters through the streets of Middle Eastern towns, the Germans had pushed the French out of one market after another.

The crucial issue in 1955, however, will not be Mendès-Franee’s program of economic reform. France is not at present in a state of economic crisis, and is not likely to be at a time when economists are predicting an annual increase of production of 6 to 8 per cent, an agricultural increase of 4 per cent, and a rise in the wage rate of 6 per cent. This time the angriest wind of all is blowing across the blue Mediterranean from the hot sands of Africa.

The French in North Africa

“The future of France,” Pierre Mendès-Franee declared some time ago, “lies in North Africa.” It was a significant remark coming from a man not given to uttering empty phrases. For the French have now reached a point in their relations with the Tunisians, the Algerians, and the Moroccans which is comparable in gravity to that reached by the British in their relations with the Irish at the beginning of this century. Only for the French the problem is twice as complex. The religious conflict is basically more violent. And what is at stake is not the interests of a few thousand colonial adventurers, as in Indochina, but the future of 1.5 million French settlers.

Today a dangerously powerful current of attraction — coming from the direction of Mecca and Cairo — is threatening to pull the Arab inhabitants of Tunisia, Algeria, and Morocco out of the French orbit. Were it to succeed completely, it would be a serious setback for the Moslems of North Africa no less than for the French, for they owe most of their well-being and a good portion of their culture to the French. But Arabs like Habib Bourguiba, the leader of the Neo-Destour in Tunisia (whose wife is French), know that there will be no way of controlling the explosive force of North African nationalism if young Moslems find that most doors of the professions and the administration are closed to them.

Of all of Mendès-France’s spectacular initiatives, his conciliating moves in North Africa, may well be judged the most brilliant. They succeeded momentarily in stilling a mounting tempest of violence, in the face of tremendous opposition from different quarters. And what he did, perhaps no other French politician today could have done.

But improvisations are not a policy. No one knows it better than MendosFrance, who is a planner even more than a gambler. He knows that in the long run nothing can offset the strong pull of the Arab world unless France continues to be a fertile source of political and economic, as well as cultural, inspiration for the inhabitants of North Africa. “Great enterprises alone,” General de Gaulle recently declared in the first volume of his Memoirs, “arc capable of compensating the ferments of dispersion that the French people carry within them.” And what he has said of France is even truer of her empire.

For Mendès-France this conception of things is as axiomatic as it is for the General, who remains (along with Poincaré and Blum) one of his three political heroes. The difference is that for Mendes-France the great enterprises worthy of France should be primarily economic.

Franco-German arms factories?

It is this that explains McndesFrance’s passionate interest in the establishment of a Franco-German arms industry in North Africa. Such a move would help to cement FrancoGerman relations and at the same time keep the production of military weapons out of the exclusive control of the power-hungry barons of the Ruhr. It would provide an initial use for the deposits of iron, coal, and manganese that lie buried beneath the sands of the Sahara in the region of Colomb-Bechar. It would give thousands of unemployed Tunisians, Algerians, and Moroccans the bread and the work that, they now so sorely lack. Most of all, it would show the doubling inhabitants of North Africa that France is slid capable of conceiving policy on a scale worthy of a Marshal Lyautey.

Whether such an enterprise can be pushed through may well be the question of the year. Unfortunately, in a nation divided, as Pierre Daninos has remarked, into 43 million Frenchmen, the vision of one man is easily buffeted on the waves of an individualistic and overeritical opinion. The French Assembly decided early in February that it could muddle along without Pierre Mendès-France But if it tries to get along without his imaginative North African policy, it may well find the going even rougher and bloodier than in Indochina.