AT no time, perhaps, since Charles de Gaulle returned to power four years ago has the political situation in France been more perplexing and confused. This is chiefly due to the ever-widening discrepancy between official myth and down-to-earth reality. On paper, at least, peace returned to Algeria with the signing of the cease-fire accords at Evian in mid-March; in fact, a smoldering war has continued to curse that unhappy land with murderous acts of terrorism in the cities and reprisals against French settlers in the hinterland.

Officially, France is a republic; in practice, it is a monarchy governed by an uncrowned king who means to rule as well as reign. In theory, France is a great power; in reality, the much touted “independent striking force” is still three or four years distant, and in the meantime France’s chief contribution to the Atlantic alliance has taken the negative form of denying its airfields to American bombers and its repatriated divisions to General Norstad’s command.

These paradoxes are by no means new. In a sense they were endemic in the very genesis of the Gaullist regime, simply because the General was determined from the outset to rule as singlehandedly as he could, to disengage France from its African connections no matter what, and to play the role of a new Bismarck on the diplomatic chessboard of Europe. It has taken De Gaulle four years to overcome his most embarrassing obstacles and problems, but he has now reached a pinnacle of power and prestige lofty enough to open up the prospect of a new paternalistic despotism which is a source of concern even to his supporters.

Obstacles in De Gaulle’s way

The first of the obstacles blocking the General’s path when he returned to power in June, 1958, was France’s perilous balance-of-payments position. To cope with this situation, the General called on two conservatives, first Antoine Pinay and then Wilfrid Baumgartner, to put France’s finances back on an even keel. This meant that he had to put his own socialistic inclinations into cold storage while he gave his finance ministers a more or less free hand to restore the country to solvency - a task in which they succeeded so well that France now has gold and dollar reserves in the neighborhood of S3 billion. The new Finance Minister, the 36-year-old Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, who succeeded Baumgartner last February, is more inclined to agree with De Gaulle’s ideas in regard to social welfare.

The second obstacle in the General’s path was the man he chose as Premier in December, 1958. The choice of Michel Debré, though it seemed a strange one to many observers at the time, could be justified on the grounds that an overwhelming majority of the National Assembly’s deputies had been elected in the carpetbagger elections of November, 1958, on a wave of patriotic emotionalism and to enthusiastic cries of “Algérie Française.” Since De Gaulle, despite his marked distaste for parliamentary debates, had to deal with the Assembly somehow, it was only logical to choose a Premier who had made a name for himself in the Senate as an impassioned champion of the French Empire and a merciless critic of the methods of the Fourth Republic.

At the same time, the choice tied the General’s hands, since Debré was a man with a will of his own and was openly hostile to the Algerian rebels and their cause. It soon became evident that on the subject of Algeria, Debré was speaking with one voice and De Gaulle with another an ambiguous situation which certainly contributed to the reluctance of the F.L.N. leaders in Tunis to negotiate.

The new Premier

The Premier whom De Gaulle selected after his referendum triumph of last April, Georges Jean Raymond Pompidou, is a soft-spoken schoolteacher from the Auvergne. His dozen years of service in the house of Rothschild taught him the value of being laconic, pliant, and, when necessary. flattering three qualities which the General, who never forgives criticism, esteems. Pompidou’s phlegmatic impassivity in the face of Arab outbursts and marathon speeches during the protracted negotiations with the Algerian rebels around the Lake of Geneva last year particularly appealed to De Gaulle, who is noted for his own sangfroid. Like the General, too, Pompidou favors an increase in social benefits for the old and needy and a crash program for the building of more schools and the enlistment of more teachers; and he is open-minded, almost to the point of indifference, about the Algerian problem.

His appointment, though long predicted by inside political observers, came nevertheless as something of a shock to many Frenchmen, particularly in the Parliament. Not since 1877, if one excepts De Gaulle’s two premierships in 1944 and 1958, has France had a Premier who was not a member of Parliament. It is an interesting commentary on the present docility of the French Assembly that a plurality of its members, 259 out of 545, were willing to vote in the new Premier, and this after listening to a thirty-five-minute lecture which was enough to demonstrate that here was no new Demosthenes.

Paternalism al the top

De Gaulle himself brushed off this lackluster performance and the lackluster vote which greeted it with his habitual aloofness. ”Ça sent le ragoût” (“This smells of kitchen politics”) was his scornful rejoinder when the news was brought to him. The intimation was that the members of the Assembly were going back to the old game of petty parliamentary intrigue which proved the ruin of the Fourth Republic. This being the case, it was more than ever vital that the President of the Republic should give the lead, dragging the nation out of the parliamentary swamp to new heights of glory.

Any lingering doubts on this score were dispelled a few days later when Jacques Chaban-Delmas, the President of the National Assembly, turned up at the Elysée Palace to introduce the newly elected members of the Assembly’s Political Bureau (the French equivalent of our congressional steering committees). In bygone years this traditional presentation was the occasion for a halfhour chat with the General. This year it was clipped to a brusque three minutes, at the end of which the startled deputies were invited to take their leave.

It is this increasing high-handedness, so overwhelmingly endorsed by the French people in the referendum vote of April 8, which now alarms a growing number of experienced political observers in Paris. For while this paternalistic formula may work wonders for the present, it bodes ill for the future. De Galle’s opponents point out that even in the darkest days of World War I, when part of the army was in mutiny, neither Clemenceau nor Poincaré ever asked for or obtained the special powers which De Gaulle once again requested in his April referendum. These powers are both sweeping and ill defined, and since the French Parliament now convenes for only five months in the year, it means that for the remaining seven the President of the Republic is virtually free of any legislative restraint.

Without due process

A similar absence of restraint can be found, perhaps even more flagrantly, in the juridical field. Though General de Gaulle Officially surrendered his exceptional powers (assumed immediately after last year’s April putsch) on September 29, a decree issued that very day extended his right to create special military and civilian tribunals to try officers and others suspected of plotting against the state. When former general Raoul Salan was brought to trial in May, his lawyers tried to contest the validity of this extension, since the exceptional powers themselves had officially lapsed.

The whole matter has been a source of legal controversy and confusion, as is perhaps inevitable in a period of such internal stress. What is certain is that the suspicion of “plotting against the state.”a vague charge under almost any circumstances, has given rise to some strange abuses. Anyone suspected of aiding the subversive O.A.S. (Organisation Armée Secrète) can thus be clapped into jail by virtue of a process known as “administrative internment.”

A good example of this process was recently afforded by the fate of the four men who were arrested last September after an abortive assassination attempt against General de Gaulle. Eight months after the event the artisans of this particular attempt were finally brought to trial. The government’s lack of haste in prosecuting these would-be assassins is understandable in view of the widespread suspicion that the police had a hand in engineering this sensational affair.

The same fate overtook General Paul Vanuxem, once one of the most dynamic and respected officers in the French Army, who was arrested, by a curious coincidence, on the same day that the attempt was made on De Gaulle’s life. Eight months later he was still languishing in the grim Prison de la Santé in Paris when Salan was brought there. When a confrontation was arranged between the two, Salan denied that Vanuxem had ever had anything to do with the O.A.S. Vanuxem remained in jail, with no established evidence against him.

Two hundred other similar suspects were rounded up last autumn and incarcerated in what one of them, a notorious ex-policeman and deputy named Jean Dides, has called “the concentration camp of SaintMaurice l’Ardoise,”situated in the department of the Gard, not far from Nîmes, in southern France. Following the March cease-fire agreement. French internment camps holding Muslim suspects were gradually emptied, but no move was made to release the prisoners of the Gard. This irregular situation so upset the visiting chaplain-general of prisons when he visited the camp in late March that he addressed a special plea to the Minister of the Interior, a plea which went unanswered.

The O.A.S. terror

The prevailing climate of confusion and uncertainty has, of course, been a direct result of the terrorist bombing campaign which the O.A.S. maintained throughout this spring on both sides of the Mediterranean. Its shortsighted leaders do not seem to realize that they are using a terrible weapon which may one day be turned against them and that they could end up being hoist with their own petard. For, as the series of explosions has steadily continued, it has set up a kind of conditioned reflex, deaf to any possible doubts or suspicions. If a bomb goes off, the O.A.S. must have planted it.

This, inevitably, has opened the way for all kinds of strange ventures and enterprises. In March, for example, there was a huge explosion one Saturday morning outside a Communist-controlled town hall in a southern suburb of Baris. The crime, which took three innocent lives and wounded forty-seven people, was immediately attributed to the O.A.S., but in the weeks that followed strange rumors began circulating that it might not have been the work of the O.A.S. at all, but the work of a couple of recently recruited secret agents employed in a kind of parallel police force which has been created to check the uncertain loyalties of the regular police.

Similar suspicions were aroused after the monstrous explosion of May 2 which killed more than 100 Muslim dock workers in Algiers. This outrage, too, was immediately attributed to O.A.S. fanatics. While this was only natural — the O.A.S. having attracted an extraordinary collection of thugs, crackpots, and adventurers — there was no immediate proof of the allegation. And it is barely possible that this and certain other outrages have been deliberately perpetrated by skilled terrorists, whether French or Muslim, who are out to prove that the only solution for Algeria is to hand it over quickly to the Muslims.

European union?

A similar confusion continues to swirl around General de Gaulle’s plan for promoting his long-cherished Europe des Patries. The idea, aimed at achieving a joint foreign policy for the six Common Market countries — a policy to be dictated, it goes without saying, by the General himself has made considerable headway in the last two years. It almost came a cropper, however, last January, when the French once again sought to introduce a clause which challenged the supranational character of the Common Market institutions.

To win support for his concept of a loose federation, De Gaulle made a pilgrimage to Baden-Baden in February to talk with Adenauer, and another in April to talk with Fanfani in Turin. If anything, these two trips only sufficed to increase the apprehensions felt by the Dutch and the Belgians before the prospect of a European union dominated by Paris and Bonn.

In April, when the matter was once again thrashed out at a foreign ministers meeting at the Quai d’Orsay, Belgium’s Paul-Henri Spaak, who has no particular love for De Gaulle, took a strong stand in favor of a supranational union and insisted that no Europe des Patries was conceivable without the participation of Britain.

It remains to be seen if De Gaulle has met his match in the form of the doughty Belgian Foreign Minister. De Gaulle, when his mind is set on something, is a hard man to stop. Despite opposition at home, which resulted in the resignation of five of his Cabinet ministers in midMay, De Gaulle is more than ever set on a federation of western European states, because he sees himself as the only leader of truly Bismarckian stature left on the scene. Konrad Adenauer, now in his middle eighties, is fading fast, while Macmillan, across the Channel, seems to exude a brand of nonchalant empiricism. heavily tinged with pacifism, which the General spurns as far too Anglo-Saxon for his own Cartesian taste.

As for President Kennedy, De Gaulle is more than ever persuaded that he is a diplomatic sophomore, too young and inexperienced to deal with the political and psychological problems of an old continent like Europe.

There is little to be gained by deliberately thwarting De Gaulle for the sole sake of cutting him down to size. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara and General Maxwell Taylor were certainly correct in suggesting that the right course under the circumstances is to humor De Gaulle along by giving the French what indirect aid they may need to get on with their independent striking force, since they have already succeeded in exploding several atomic bombs anyway. Any other approach can only further antagonize De Gaulle, and De Gaulle is a man who thrives on antagonism.