A FEW weeks after General de Gaulle’s epochmaking Algerian declaration of last September 16, the Paris humorous weekly Le Canard Enchainé published a cartoon showing the President of the French Republic peering expectantly out of one of the curtained windows of the Elysée Palace. “Is that Ferhat Abbas arriving?” he asks the usher at the door. “No,” answers the usher. “It’s Grace Kelly.” “This sardonic commentary on Charles de Gaulle’s studied addiction to Bourbonic pomp was also a telling reminder of how wide, under the Fifth Republic, the gap has often been between official hopes and stark realities, between propaganda myth and actual fact. Today France has a President who both rules and reigns. But this unprecedented state of affairs has bred unprecedented confusion.
Raymond Aron, who has been called the Walter Lippmann of France, recently defined the new regime as a parliamentary empire that would not outlast its founder. Some have called it a monarchical republic, others a republican monarchy, while a few have compared it to the First Consulate. De Gaulle has been likened to Napoleon III by some and to Louis XV III by others.
Eighty-five years ago, the patricians who established the Third Republic, in the open hope that it might soon be transmuted into a monarchy, earned for it the title La République des Dues. The Fifth Republic, which promises to be an even trickier masterpiece of political camouflage, has already been given a similar nickname, La République des Dupes. Opinions differ, however, as to just who are the dupes.
According to one school of thought, and this includes a motley group of French conservatives and Algerian extremists led by Georges Bidault and the ex-paratroop deputy Jean-Marie Le Pen, De Gaulle is the most Machiavellian French politician since Talleyrand. The dupes are the “men of the thirteenth of May,” who brought him to power in the belief that he would preserve a French Algeria no matter what the cost. Bit by bit, they have discovered that their idol has betrayed them, and by last September their disillusioned rage was such that some of them went around covering the walls of Paris with the chalkedup insult “De Gaulle = Mendès”; that is, De Gaulle is a second and even more sinister “prophet of abandonment.”
According to the other school of thought, which embraces Frenchmen of the left such as the editors of the weekly L’Express and some of the writers on the influential daily Le Monde, the real dupe has been De Gaulle himself. Like a twentiethcentury Gulliver, he has been walking about with his head in the clouds, talking airily about the grandeur of France, the radiant harmony of the Franco-African community, the inevitability of the French atomic bomb, the dazzling future of a peaceful Algeria, the moving nobility of France’s humanitarian message to the world. Meanwhile, down below, an army of Lilliputian army officers and backstage plotters have been busy hamstringing and paralyzing his freedom of action.
Ballots, not bullets
There is a solid grain of truth in each of these conflicting interpretations. The main reason is that, until his historic declaration of last September 16, no one had a clear idea of just what General de Gaulle’s Algerian policy was.
This uncertainty seems to have been shared by the General himself, for he spent his first months in office as Prime Minister making frequent trips to Algeria. Only after he had pulled off a spectacularly successful plebiscite, in September of 1958, did he feel strong enough to take the Algerian bull by the horns. The result was his press conference of October 23, in which he invited representatives of the Algerian rebellion to come to Paris to discuss a possible cease-fire.
Unfortunately, the General, who was speaking virtually extemporaneously, let slip the fateful phrase “the white flag of the parliamentarians,” treacherous words which were immediately interpreted by the French radio and television — then, as now, controlled by Jacques Soustelle’s henchmen — as signifying the white flag of surrender. The leaders of the National Liberation Front in Tunis chose to make the same interpretation and rejected the offer. This was not the first, nor was it to be the last, time that the Lilliputians helped to thwart a liberal initiative of De Gaulle’s.
After the F.L.N.’s rejection of the olive branch, the General could have tried another course of action — inviting the Sultan of Morocco and President Bourguiba of Tunisia to come to Paris for a high-level conference aimed at working out a new political future for North Africa, in close association with France. He did not do so, for two reasons. Such a course of action would have meant openly repudiating the old Gaullist axiom that the Algerian conflict was, and had always been, a purely French affair. The second reason was more personal but no less powerful — De Gaulle has never forgiven Bourguiba for having taken refuge in Italy during the war and for having made certain equivocal, pro-Axis statements during his stay there.
Instead, the General decided to fall back on the already enunciated principle that the future of Algeria should be worked out with its legally elected representatives. Ballots, not bullets, should henceforth be the deciding factor. This theme, which De Gaulle emphasized in all his subsequent statements on Algeria, was welcomed by the French army, which saw in it an invitation to pursue its work of “pacification.”
To prepare for these elections the army would be allowed to redouble its efforts to create a new Muslim elite, capable one day of running a new Algeria which would eventually freeze out the F.L.N. rebels, both in Algeria and abroad.
It is now fairly clear that this simple view of things was never fully shared by the General, even though, in his public declarations, he was liberal in handing out accolades and in egging on the army. Some months ago, on a return trip from Algeria, De Gaulle invited a French journalist to sit next to him on the airplane. In the course of the conversation, the journalist spoke of Algerian independence. “But, of course,” the General said, “independence is inevitable; the whole problem is how to get there.”
De Gaulle’s gamble
Last September 16 in his televised broadcast, and again on November 10 at his Elysée Palace press conference, De Gaulle made a supreme effort to climb out of the Algerian impasse. It is generally agreed that no French politician could have gone further along the road to self-determination. These two important statements of policy indicated beyond a shadow of a doubt that the General now felt strong enough to defy the extremists in Algiers and to commit France’s future in North Africa to the gamble of “free elections.”
The French President was taking a number of calculated risks. He was assuming that the army in Algeria would support him in checkmating the efforts of civilian “ultras” aimed at sabotaging the machinery of free elections. He was presupposing that in some way or other the number of assassinations in Algeria could be held down to some two hundred a year — a low figure for a land which has long been plagued by banditry. He also chose to assume that French private business, which had just begun to take some interest in Algerian investments, would be willing to go on sinking money into a country whose political future was now more uncertain than ever.
Finally, he was presupposing that something resembling free elections could be held in Algeria not more than four years after the end of hostilities. This was, and remains, his biggest gamble. For the sober truth is that no elections in Algeria can be free, in the sense in which they are in most Western democracies, for many years to come. With a Muslim population which is still largely illiterate and impoverished, any elections are certain to be held under the constraint of fear — fear of the French army or fear of the F.L.N.
Does this mean that De Gaulle’s Algerian policy is doomed to eventual failure? It is too early to make any prognostications on this subject. The one certainty in a nebulous situation is that negotiating a cease-fire with the F.L.N. will be only the first in a series of hurdles which must be surmounted.
In formulating the Fifth Republic and in grappling with the Algerian problem, Charles de Gaulle has been as much hindered as helped by the man he chose to second him. The holders of the Machiavellian view have interpreted the General’s choice of Michel Debré to be his Premier as a subtle move to pacify the ultranationalists in the French Parliament, while keeping his hands free to negotiate behind the scenes with emissaries of the Algerian rebellion.
Such a policy inevitably entailed certain risks, and Debré had not been in office for more than a few weeks before it was obvious that his own views on the Algerian question were somewhat at variance with De Gaulle’s.
The choice of Debré was not entirely a happy one, for several reasons. Michel Debré has never succeeded, as the French say, in “imposing himself” as a parliamentary leader. He is a plodding orator, given to reading long-winded speeches in a flat monotone which encourages yawns as much as plaudits. In debate, he has often displayed an inordinate sensitivity to criticism, which has prompted him to leap to his feet and to retort in unguarded language taken by many to represent an official expression of governmental policy.
The one thing that has kept Debré in office has been his unquestioned loyalty to General de Gaulle, a loyalty so subservient that his enemies call him le Fidel Castré — the Castrated Faithful — of France.
The marked difference in tone between the General’s lofty and somewhat nebulous utterances and his Premier’s intransigent proclamations on the inalienable rights of French sovereignty in Algeria can also be explained by the fact that Debré is the grandson of a Jewish rabbi. This has made him slightly suspect to officers in the French army, where anti-Semitism is still rife. To overcome this handicap, Debré has long felt the need to prove himself a superpatriot. He has had to appear more militarist than the military, more nationalistic than the nationalists, more Gaullist than De Gaulle. This also helps to explain why, almost every time De Gaulle has made a conciliatory gesture, Debré has given it a tough interpretation.
Intolerance on the rise
Members of Debré’s entourage have gone considerably further and have on occasion actually tried to sabotage the General’s liberal initiatives. Last spring, one of them stirred up a storm by spreading the report that Bourguiba had turned over two pro-French Muslims in Tunis to the F.L.N., which had promptly executed them. He followed this up by circulating another story to the effect that De Gaulle, acting on his own initiative, had amnestied thirty Algerians who had formally been condemned to death. Though these reports were malicious fabrications, the Premier made no move to get rid of their author.
Some observers fear that a dangerous wave of intolerance is slowly engulfing France. It cannot be denied that, under De Gaulle’s leadership, such symptoms, which first began to appear under the premiership of Guy Mollet, have grown worse. The old tolerance which used to be shown Socialist and Communist speakers in the National Assembly vanished last summer when eminent Socialists were subjected to violent heckling from vociferous opponents. The Premier’s office, like the Ministry of the Interior, still resorts from time to time to seizures of critical newspapers or magazines on the flimsiest of legal pretexts.
Such arbitrary actions, violating the spirit, if not the letter, of the new legal code which Michel Debré spent several backbreaking months preparing in 1958, have only undermined still further the shaky edifice of French law. Last November the Minister of Justice, Edmond Michclet, found himself powerless to procure the immediate arrest of the two sell-confessed “killers” who had engineered the simulated assassination of Francois Mitterand. once MendesFrance’s Minister of the Interior.
The investigating judge’s excuse was that the French judicial branch, in accordance with the doctrine of the separation of powers, was now totally independent of the executive. A more pertinent reason was that the Prime Minister’s office had given secret encouragement to the organizers of the feigned assassination in a maneuver aimed at justifying police raids on the apartments of certain suspected right-wing extremists.
Most serious of all, perhaps, is the fact that the tortures to which Algerian prisoners or suspects were subjected under the Fourth Republic still go on quietly under the Fifth, as André Malraux was forced to admit during his trip to South America last August. The large-scale shake-up and transfer of officers and civilians in the Algiers High Command have not been able to put an end to a well-established practice.
Instructions issued by the Minister of Justice, Edmond Michelet, and by De Gaulle to get to the bottom of such ugly cases as L’affaire Audin (involving the disappearance of an Algerian professor who is alleged to have been tortured to death by paratroopers) have been ignored. The General’s personal emissary, Paul Delouvrier, has even gone so far as to try to infiltrate the Algerian police with secret agents of his own, but his efforts have not been successful. Paris control over Algiers thus remains as theoretical as ever.
No one knows better than De Gaulle the effective limits of his own power. But his trump card remains his present indispensability. For, plot as they may against him, the Lilliputians on both sides of the Mediterranean have so far failed to produce anyone who could replace this awe-inspiring Gulliver.