CHARLES DE GAULLE’S recognition of Red China offered a new and striking demonstration of at least three familiar traits in the Gaullist regime. The first is the General’s supreme indifference to questions of political doctrine. The second is the extreme to which he is prepared to go in the attainment of his goals. The third, and not the least important, is the reaffirmation of the old principle of the divine right of kings to rule as they please, regardless of what people, parliament, or even allies might wish.
By last November — after a French trade mission and former Premier Edgar Faure, De Gaulle’s special emissary, had returned from China — the operation was too obvious to be camouflaged any longer. A few weeks later, after the Assembly had recessed, the Gaullist propaganda machine got into action, intimating that all De Gaulle envisaged was the establishment of diplomatic and cultural relations up to the charge d’affaires level, where British recognition has remained stymied for the last dozen years. Full recognition might come in a year or two, but progress was likely to be slow. In any case, there was no question of France’s renouncing the Two Chinas policy or of breaking with Taiwan.
To make this clear, De Gaulle dispatched General Zinovi Peshkov (Maxim Gorky’s adopted son), who had served him as Free French envoy to Chungking, to reassure his old friend Chiang Kai-shek. To get Peshkov to undertake this task must have required some persuasion, for he is a bitter anti-Communist who has little use for De Gaulle’s present policies.
De Gaulle breaks his pledges
Similar assurances were conveyed through the ordinary diplomatic channels to both Washington and London. Yet within a couple of weeks all of them had quietly evaporated, and the way was open for De Gaulle to unveil his latest Grand Design at a press conference he gave in the Elysee Palace on January 31, which attracted an unprecedented number of auditors. It began with a lengthy disquisition on the institutions of the Fifth Republic, in the course of which De Gaulle insisted on the absolute need for autocratic rule in France, even going so far as to scoff at the idea of France’s becoming a dyarchy, or bicephalous state, in which the Prime Minister might be something more than the first valet of the President.
This was followed by an elaborate apologia in favor of massive aid to underdeveloped countries. The General pointed with pride to the fact that 2 percent of France’s national income and 10 percent of its annual investment are devoted to foreign aid. These glowing statistics were tempered by a thinly veiled warning to African recipients that if they went on dissipating this aid in petty internecine quarrels, France would divert it elsewhere. Subsequent references to President Lopez Mateos of Mexico, to the governments of the Latin-American states which De Gaulle is to visit next autumn, and finally to “our friend Prince Sihanouk, the Chief of State of Cambodia, his Majesty the King of Laos and his Prime Minister, Prince Souvanna Phouma” — all due to be received in Paris in the near future — made it quite clear where French aid could go.
By the time this lengthy explanation was completed. the thousand or so listeners who had crowded into the ballroom of the Elysée Palace were nodding with drowsiness from the combined effect of the wine they had drunk at lunch and the heat given off by massed batteries of television cameras.
De Gaulle continued with a few historical allusions to a “great people . . . the most numerous of the earth,” to a “stale which is older than history.” He discussed the immense effort made lay the Communists to exploit China’s natural resources before he reached the heart of the matter, long one of his pet themes: the inevitable conflict between Russian and Chinese national interests.
“The least that can be said on this subject,” the General declared, “is that in Asia, where the frontier between two states, from the Hindu Kush to Vladivostok, is the longest in the world, the interest of Russia, which conserves and maintains, and that of China, which needs to grow and take, cannot be confused.” He then made a plea for an “eventual neutrality agreement concerning the states of Southeast Asia to which, for so many reasons, we French attach a special and cordial attention.”
Since this, like all of De Gaulle’s press conferences, was a carefully managed affair, no journalist was given the opportunity of raising the obvious question, How can De Gaulle justify a policy of neutralism — which in effect leaves countries disarmed — for neighbors of a state which, by the General’s own definition, is expansionist in character?
The answer to this unasked question is, in the present French context, probably not one which the General would care to make public. He has, however, made no secret of it to close friends and collaborators. De Gaulle has long been persuaded that the underlying trend of all modern civilization is from individualism to collectivism. The imperatives of technological progress and the new complexities of mass production, circulation, and distribution, linked as they are to a ceaseless demographic surge and ever increasing urbanization, render state planning and economic socialization inevitable. This is what the General calls the “course of history.”
It is pointless to resist this wave, De Gaulle argues; the only thing to do is to try to temper its ferocity and backlash. This is particularly true of weak states like Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos, which are already profoundly infected by the Communist virus. Better, then, to bend like the willow rather than to go crashing down like the oak — which is what happened to France at Dien Bien Phu, and what, the General is persuaded, will happen to the Americans if they continue to support an anti-Communist regime in Saigon.
The French reaction
In France itself De Gaulle’s high dive into the muddy waters of Asiatic diplomacy was greeted with mingled dismay and delight. Most delighted, of course, were the cartoonists, who suddenly found a vast new horizon opening before them thanks to the General’s new taste for chinoiseries. The singularly succulent name of Red China’s Prime Minister — chou in French means “cabbage” — proved infinitely helpful, enabling them to depict De Gaulle in a wide variety of gastronomic poses: lapping up cabbage soup (soupe aux choux) with a Johnsonfaced spoon or popping Chou En-lai under a crust (choucroute alsacienne).
The state-controlled radio-television network made documentaries showing immaculately tilled rice fields and well-tamed rivers backed up behind endless earth dams. But this sudden flurry of drawings and propaganda high jinks could provide no answer to the riddle of just how General de Gaulle was going to implement a neutralist policy for Southeast Asia which at least three of the governments concerned — Saigon, Bangkok, and Kuala Lumpur — adamantly oppose.
In early March, a Russian parliamentary delegation turned up in Paris for a ten-day visit. Officially, this was purely a courtesy visit in return for a previous visit made to the Soviet Union by a French parliamentary group; but the fact that the Russian delegation was headed by Nicolai Podgorny, Khrushchev’s successor as Secretary-General of the Communist Party and the thirdranking figure in the Soviet Union, made the visit unusually significant.
Podgorny made it clear at once that the freeze which had descended on French-Russian relations last summer as a result of De Gaulle’s refusal to sign the test-ban treaty was now completely thawed. After an hour’s talk with the General, he publicly praised his “very courageous, bold, and resolute initiative” in recognizing Red China, adding that Moscow and Paris saw eye to eye in favoring a policy of neutralism in Laos and Cambodia.
All this, of course, was a statement of the obvious. Moscow could hardly demonstrate chagrin over a French initiative which has so far proved infinitely more vexatious for Washington than Moscow. In Cyprus, where Moscow had already assumed a pro-Greek stand, France and Russia were now also aligned on a common front. And since De Gaulle was showing himself more disposed than ever to upset the NATO applecart, there was obviously everything to be gained by continuing to woo the General.
Opposition to De Gaulle?
Next year there will be a French presidential election, and the French President at that time will be no freer than President Johnson now is to do what he pleases. If his health permits — the General has long suffered from uremia — there seems little doubt that he will want to run for office again. He probably would have no trouble defeating Gaston Deflerre, the Socialist mayor of Marseilles. who was prodded by the leftwing weekly L’Express into prematurely tossing his hat into the ring last autumn after De Gaulle threw the entire French opposition off balance by allowing it to be rumored that he was planning to spring an election on the country early in 1964.
A far more serious opponent is Antoine Pinay, who has twice been Premier of France and who, as De Gaulle’s finance minister, was chiefly responsible for stabilizing the franc in the winter of 1958-1959. Since his resignation in December of 1959 the franc has been undergoing gradual erosion. The cost of living in France has been rising at an average rate of close to 5 percent a year, so that today the benefits of the 28 percent devaluation of 1958 have been erased by a 30 percent increase in French prices. Last year. France’s trade deficit rose to $644 million, which, though it was only half as great as Italy’s, was nevertheless the signal for mounting concern not only in Paris but also in Brussels, where Common Market economic policy is drafted.
Another significant pointer of possible economic trouble has been the steady decline in quotations on the , Paris stock market. While France continues to enjoy a boom — the gross national product rose by another 6 percent last year — confidence in the immediate future of the French economy, directed by a semisocialist regime, has been evaporating in the French business community. Pinay, of course, is the favored son of this community, and he also enjoys the support of many french farmers and, in general, of the “little man,” who has always seen in him something of his own grass-roots simplicity. A worsening economic situation might, therefore, be all that is needed to form a solid anti-Gaullist coalition, which would significantly include Defferre’s fellow Socialist but arch-enemy, Guy Mollet, who has privately been saying that Defferre does not stand a chance.
Another interesting index of the the way the wind is blowing was afforded early last March by the publication of three articles in ParisMatch which openly attacked the Gaullist policy of lavish aid to foreign countries. Paris-Match, the Life of France, claims a readership of six million people. Sufficient to make its ace reporter and editorialist, Raymond Cartier, far and away the most widely read, if not the most influential, journalist in France.
His articles, chock-full of facts and figures, constituted a sledgehammer indictment of the entire French aid program, which, Cartier claimed, absorbed almost 3 percent of France’s national income, 6 percent of its budget revenue, and one third of its annual investment, and imposed on the individual French taxpayer a financial burden which, relative to income, was four times as high as that imposed on the American taxpayer. ($18.60 per capita in the United States compared with $20.40 per capita in France.)
The disproportion of these handouts to France’s national income and domestic needs explains why France has been falling so far behind on the home front —with a telephone system more antiquated than that in Mexico or Spain, a superhighway network hardly covering 200 miles, a canal system which has slowly been falling into ruin, a stagnant rate of building which has been unable to creep above 300,000 housing units a year (compared with 500,000 in West Germany), and most dramatic an ever mounting shortage of schools and teachers.
The General’s wrath
De Gaulle, on reading the first article, exploded into a towering rage, for Cartier had put a critical finger on one of the sensitive points of his regime: the immense amount of money which France has been shelling out, with precious little to show for it in return, to satisfy the whims of a coterie of African elites who are being bribed with sentimental, cultural, linguistic, and pecuniary arguments into a continued and submissive adulation of France and its inspired leader.
At the very moment Cartier made his embarrassing revelations, the news was seeping back to Paris that tens of thousands of French flags were arriving in Mexico and that 200,000 flags had been unloaded in Martinique to make sure that the General’s impending trip to the Caribbean would be another triumph of mass spontaneity.
A few days later, three Mexican flags that French troops supporting the ill-starred Emperor Maximilian captured in 1854 were solemnly handed over to the Mexican government by a delegation of three French officers. This generous gesture, it turned out, was not altogether disinterested. The Mexican government had originally requested the return of the flags prior to President López Mateos’ visit to France last year.
The request was politely declined at the time, with the explanation that these precious trophies of victory were part of France’s glorious military patrimony and that it would require an act of parliament to have them expatriated. When General de Gaulle finally decided that the proper hour had struck, the flags were whisked out of the country without the French parliament knowing anything about it.
Nor was the National Assembly asked for its opinion when Red China was recognized. For, not the least extraordinary thing about the events of the past few months is that this far-reaching diplomatic gambit, so fraught with momentous possibilities for the future, received no parliamentary approval whatsoever. The Assembly was not in session, and not a deputy raised his voice to contest this anomaly. Nothing could better attest the degradation of political life in a country which is still nominally a republic.