on the World Today

IT IS a characteristic paradox of French politics that the post-war government which got off to the most sensationally bad start has turned out to be the longest-lived in the history of the Fourth Republic. The explanation for what by French standards is a tour de force is not simple. It cannot be attributed solely to the political genius of Guy Mollet. This bespectacled former schoolteacher from Arras has never been a particularly flamboyant political personality. Yet it would be equally mistaken to say that the longevity of Mollet’s Socialist government has been due solely to objective political conditions beyond his control.

Part of the explanation is certainly the freak result of the elections of January, 1956, which made the Socialists the strongest non-Communist party in France and thus a pillar of any possible government coalition. Part of the explanation is the reluctance of Mullet’s rivals to burn their own fingers trying to pull France’s hottest chestnut — Algeria — out of the fire of North African nationalism.

There is, furthermore, the fact that Mullet’s has in effect been a wartime government and that it has profited from the patriotic fervor that all except catastrophic wars customarily elicit. Yet when all is said and done, due credit must be given to a certain canniness that has permitted Mollet to judge the temper of an unstable Assembly and to know just how far he could go in pushing Socialist legislation or North African reforms.

Stated in general terms, Mollet’s personal formula of government has been the reverse of his predecessor’s. Whereas Edgar Faure sought to placate the French conservative groups and the vested interests in metropolitan France in order to be free to pursue a liberal policy in North Africa, Guy Mollet has pursued a right-wing policy in North Africa and a pseudo-Socialist policy at home.

It is doubtful that this was a conscious design from the beginning. Rather it seems to have been the product of circumstances. Mollet’s first instinct on becoming Premier was to continue Faure’s liberal policy in North Africa, He made this clear in his speech of investiture and in his appointment of General Georges Catroux as Resident Minister for Algeria. Catroux was one of de Gaulle’s wartime associates and a noted advocate of French “liberal colonialism.” Only after this appointment had provoked an uproar and a threat of secession of Algeria from France did Catroux resign and Mollet pursue a different policy in Algeria.

Tough policy in Algeria

One hears it said everywhere in Paris today that “a government of the Left has done what no government of the Right could do — pursue a tough policy in Algeria.” If any single person deserves credit for this, it is less Guy Mollet than Robert Lacoste, his Resident Minister for Algeria. Lacoste is a former labor union official who came out of the “appeasing thirties” and the Munich era persuaded that one should never negotiate except from a situation of strength.

The reasoning underlying this policy in Algeria has been that once the French are strong and have shown that they cannot be booted out of Algeria, the Moslem rebels will be prepared to negotiate. To give muscle to this policy the French forces in Algeria were increased from 200,000 to 450,000, which is the number that have been engaged there since last autumn. But unfortunately for Lacoste and for those who believed in this policy, it has not worked out as they thought it would. The French have indeed set up an impressive military apparatus in Algeria, but the Arab rebels are as reluctant as ever to negotiate a cease-fire that does not first guarantee the principle of an independent Algeria.

What has happened in Algeria, in fact, has not been very far from what Pierre Mendés-France predicted when he quit the Mollet government a year ago. The Algerian revolt, instead of being mastered, has become envenomed. The more envenomed it has become, the more powers the Resident Minister has demanded in order to deal with it, and the more victory-claiming communiqués he has put out to appease a nervous and skeptical public opinion in France. It has become almost a routine matter now to expect a new weekly bulletin announcing that the Algerian revolt “is at its last gasp.” Yet each week a new lap in this bloody marathon is rounded, and the task of administering Algeria grows steadily more difficult.

The Suez fiasco only increased the suspicion that has been driving a deeper and deeper wedge between the European and Moslem communities in Algeria. In this situation of growing violence and uncertainty the voices of those moderate Frenchmen who had long advocated amicable relations with their Moslem neighbors have been drowned in an atmosphere rife with blind hatred. The last moderate French newspaper in Algeria, Espoir-Algérie, folded last February, leaving the field to the shrill clamor of the colon press.

By virtue of the Draconian powers that he has been invested with, Lacoste can now place any Frenchman suspected of harboring relations with members of the Arab National Liberation Front under indefinite house arrest, without trial. In the eyes of some French administrators every Arab is — at least potentially — a member of the National Liberation Front. Thus, instead of making the Arab rebels reasonable and ready to negotiate, the policy of force has made every Arab a potential enemy of France.

In a country fundamentally as liberty-loving as France such a policy is bound to stir up criticism and opposition. Lacoste’s policy has done so, even in the ranks of his own Socialist Party. But what is extraordinary is the relative weakness of this opposition. Those French liberals who, like the lawyer Maurice Garçon or the Catholic writer François Mauriac, have repeatedly denounced the worst abuses of French administration in Algeria now form a distinct minority.

A necessary evil

For the majority of the French the war in Algeria is, if not a popular one, at any rate one they accept as a categorical necessity. The proof of their resignation is the astonishing discipline and cohesion displayed by the 500,000 French officers and men fighting in Algeria. There have been a few scattered acts of insubordination and refusal to fight. But neither the Communists nor the pacifists have been able to organize a single largescale mutiny or even an effective strike against the continuation of hostilities in Algeria.

Indeed, it would probably not be an exaggeration to say that the prolongation of the Algerian war, the insults of the Voice of the Arabs radio, and the bellicose speeches of such North African demagogues as Allal el Fassi (the firebrand leader of the Moroccan Istiqlal party) have revived French anti-Semitism — an anti-Semitism that is this time non-Jewish or, to be more specific, anti-Arabic.

The intensity of this feeling explains the overwhelming support in the French Parliament for the Suez action as contrasted with the stormy reception it got in the British House of Commons. And not the least strange phenomenon of the present French political scene is the fact that it was a Jew — Pierre Mendès-France — who denounced that ill-fated expedition as “an act of folly.”

French-Israeli alliance

It is not surprising, of course, in view of the repeated provocations from Cairo, that there should have developed a genuine French-Israeli axis — an alliance which was dramatically sealed by the secret trip that David Ben-Gurion is reported to have made to Paris in late October to see Premier Guy Mollet. As is inevitable, the policy of friendship for Israel has had its partisans and its opponents in the highest spheres of the French government. Most of the support, for example, for the idea of a trans-Israel pipeline from Aqaba to the Mediterranean has come from the French Ministry of Defense, while its opponents have been concentrated in the French Finance Ministry, which looks upon the scheme as a financially dubious proposition.

In taking this negative stand the Finance Ministry has undoubtedly expressed the reservations felt by a number of French business enterprises which have had extensive experience in the Middle East and which are none too happy over the increasingly evident pro-Israel sympathies of the government and of the French people as a whole.

A trans-Israel pipeline is a wonderful idea on paper. But those Frenchmen who have had some acquaintance with the Arab world (and they include diplomats as well as businessmen) are privately convinced that the Arabs of the Middle East, whose fanaticism should never be underestimated, would rather blow up their own oil wells than tolerate the idea of Middle Eastern oil being channeled through a pipeline controlled by Israel. In practice, therefore, the only oil the French could get through such a pipeline would be from non-Arabic Iran, which has never been a major supplier of petroleum to France.

The oil France needs

What has made the French so nervous about Nasser and the Middle East is not the Algerian revolt or even the Voice of the Arabs radio. It is France’s almost total dependence on the oil of the Middle East. The countries of Western Europe get, on the average, some 72 per cent of their oil from the Middle East. But France gets 92 per cent of its oil from this part of the world — the highest percentage for any country in Europe.

In a pinch, with the Suez Canal out of action and the pipelines cut, Britain can increase its supplies from Venezuela, where Shell has important holdings. The Germans, with their massive dollar reserves, can increase their imports of American oil. But the French have no easy way out. If they cannot get oil from the Middle East, and above all from the Iraq Petroleum Company (in which France has a 23.7 per cent interest), they must get it from the Caribbean or the United States — and pay for it in all too scarce sterling or dollars.

This extremely vulnerable situation has had two far-reaching results in France. It has brought France perilously close to national bankruptcy. And it has engendered a new outburst of anti-Americanism.

The strains on the budget

The grave economic crisis which France is facing is due primarily to the Mollet government’s insistence on doing everything at once. It has intensified a war in Algeria that now costs the French Treasury a billion dollars a year. It has at the same time insisted on maintaining the already high level of French capital investment in industry and construction (18 per cent of the national income in 1956). It has, to appease the Socialist vote, introduced a number of welfare projects that have piled new expenses onto a groaning national budget.

Furthermore, it imported sizable quantities of foreign foodstuffs to make up for the disastrous frosts of February, 1956, and to keep the cost of living down. To try to make the average Frenchman forget the magnitude of the Suez debacle, it has allowed the importation of millions of tons of foreign gasoline and put only limited restrictions on the sale of gasoline to nonessential drivers.

The combined effect of these measures has been to place a dangerous strain on France’s capital resources and monetary reserves. Last year’s budget deficit reached a new high — $3 billion, or 26 per cent of the total budget. Even more serious was France’s balance of trade. From a trade surplus of some $175 million in 1955, France accumulated a trade deficit of almost a billion dollars in 1956. By the end of last year Franee’s dollar reserves were down to a mere $300 million.

Ramadier’s gamble

In the face of this critical situation one Frenchman at least has managed to preserve his imperturbability — the Finance Minister himself. A pipesmoking sexagenarian from the Auvergne, Paul Ramadier is a staunch Socialist Party member who has more than once shouldered thankless tasks with the stolid resignation of a Percheron. As Minister of Supply immediately after the Liberation, when everything in France was rationed and the French were short of food, heat, and clothing, his plodding efforts made him unpopular. Perhaps it is the memory of those stark days which persuaded the Finance Minister to do nothing that might force his countrymen to pull in their belts now.

Unlike Mendès-France or Edgar Faure, Ramadier is no financial wizard. But what he lacks in knowledge he has tried to make up with a real poker player’s front. He has juggled with the cost-of-living index in an effort to prove to his fellow citizens that the rise in the cost of living was a mirage. Essentially his gamble is to gain time and to pay for the present by drawing on the future. The future in this case is the prospect of a further expansion of French industrial production and agriculture, which in 1956 brought the national income to a new high of $52 billion, an increase of 9 per cent over 1955.

These encouraging statistics have persuaded Ramadier and the optimists who surround him that once the oil from the Middle East is flowing again and the new harvest is in, the very buoyancy of the French economy will contribute to stabilize prices by absorbing the demand.

Oil under the Sahara?

A single statistic will suffice to make clear what order of investments the French are envisaging for the future of their African possessions, and indirectly of France herself. In the last three years, four French petroleum companies with concessions in the Sahara have spent over $100 million just to fathom the reservoirs lying beneath its sands. The strikes they have already made have led some French technicians to believe that the Sahara might have as much oil underneath it as Canada, or even Saudi Arabia.

But to have a clearer idea they want to invest $350 million just for this year —a sum comparable to what the U.S. oil companies invested in Canada in 1953, when the first big oil strikes were made in the region of Calgary. This is a sum of money that at present far exceeds France’s already strained capital resources. What France cannot put up herself she must get either from her European partners or from the United States.

Of these two possibilities the French would infinitely prefer the first. The reason is that any large-scale American investment in oil prospecting in the Sahara would almost certainly involve Aramco, and the French already suspect this powerful oil consortium of maintaining sinister relations with the Algerian rebel leaders in exile.

This is, of course, only one example of the gulf that now separates Washington from Paris. After twelve years of post-war dependence the French have lost much of their faith in the United States. In the French view, t he endless backtrackings of Secretary Dulles, the opportunistic declarations and foreign odysseys of Vice President Nixon, and the nebulous moralism and sanctimonious righteousness of President Eisenhower himself have aroused a profound sense of disillusionment with the United States. The French no longer think of Uncle Sam as an unfailingly generous Santa Claus; rather they now regard the United States as a mighty vessel momentarily adrift and pilotless.