A few days after President Charles de Gaulle’s referendum defeat and resignation last April, the Paris satirical weekly Le Canard Enchaine appeared with a cartoon showing the General at his country home at Colombey-les-Deux-Eglises dressed in the blue denim work clothes and floppy hat of a French peasant farmer. He had a pitchfork in one hand and a hand-crank telephone in the other, and was shouting over the line to his erstwhile Prime Minister, Maurice Couve de Murville: “Couve —where is the chaos? Pass me to the minister of interior.”
It is ironic that perhaps the most solid of De Gaulle’s achievements for France was to endow it with a constitutional system which enabled the transition from Gaullism to a new regime to take place in an atmosphere of complete calm—his own dire predictions to the contrary. In his last broadcast to this nation, two nights before the referendum vote, De Gaulle warned for the last time that his defeat would mean “the inevitable return to the play of ambitions, illusions, deals, and treachery in the national commotion which such a rupture would provoke.” But there was no such rupture or commotion at all. The machinery for transition which De Gaulle left behind slipped smoothly into gear, and six weeks later Georges Pompidou took over the Elysee Palace for a seven-year presidential term. Direct election of a French President by vote of all the people, which had been so bitterly opposed by the old politicians of the dead Fourth Republic when De Gaulle changed the constitution by referendum in 1962, proved to be a great step forward for French political stability, which is unlikely to be seriously challenged and almost certainly will preserve the Fifth Republic longer than any of its predecessors.
When De Gaulle departed, there was a great deal more behind the determined national calm in France than the mere existence of constitutional machinery to elect a new President. Order could have been challenged, but it was not—basically because the French simply had no interest or energy for any repetition of the upheavals of May-June, 1968. From left to right there was an instinctive realization that order should be maintained, come what may, and it is remarkable that the General himself did not sense this mood in the country more clearly. He had conjured up the specter of chaos in his defeat at every election since 1958: four constitutional referendums, three parliamentary elections, and the presidential election of 1966, when he was returned to power for seven years. This time he cried wolf once too often.
In any case De Gaulle always showed himself to be determinedly indifferent to the political reactions of those whom he governed, and in his last year in office he was almost continuously out of tune with his nation. His end was certainly his own making. He did not have to call his last referendum. He did not have to pose the referendum question in a way which agitated and offended so many intelligent voters who had supported him in the past, and fie did not have to affront others by again threatening to resign if they did not agree with him. Still, it would have been out of character and inconsistent with his own particular style and philosophy of the exercise of power for De Gaulle to have acted any differently than he did. Power has always been a purely personal matter for De Gaulle, not to be shared, and for eleven years he periodically sought to renew his mandate directly from the French people in one way or another. The Gaullists won an overwhelming parliamentary election victory after the May-June upheavals in 1968, but this was not good enough for the General. It was not his victory, but a victory for a lot of candidates for the National Assembly, and De Gaulle was determined to reassert his own supremacy through the device which had always worked for him in the past—referendum, lint the national mood had changed.
This was reinforced, moreover, by the fact that Georges Pompidou was waiting in the wings, confident and reassuring, and also by the sudden emergence into the political spotlight of Alain Poher (rhymes with nowhere). Brief though his moment on the national scene turned out to be, Poher again demonstrated the remarkable individuality of French politics and political life, in which a complete unknown with no organization and without the backing of a single major political party or leader can suddenly emerge and overnight become a leading candidate for the highest office in the land.
Although Poher has now returned to the relative obscurity of the presidency of the French Senate, his brief moment was not without its impact and importance. A senator since 1954 and a minor figure in several governments of the old Fourth Republic, Poher was elected Senate president in October, 1968, through the efforts of a quiet political coalition in which Jean Monnet played an influential role. The constitution of the Fifth Republic designates the president of the Senate to succeed as interim President of the republic should the chief of state die or retire from office. Since De Gaulle had made it known for a long time that he was determined to change this order of succession, the French Senate was well aware that it was heading for a constitutional showdown with the French President. In particular, De Gaulle detested the former Senate president, Gaston Monnerville, an intelligent but waspish Cayenne Negro whom De Gaulle would not even permit inside the Elysée Palace. The senators accepted. therefore, that it would be politically wise to remove their principal target, Monnerville, in the showdown which was clearly coming.
Poher, a modest and unassuming man, had not even thought of trying to become president of the French Senate until it was urged on him. In domestic affairs, he had a record of consistent independent support for De Gaulle, but more important to the Monnet group and to the political developments which followed, he was an ardent European of the old school of Robert Schuman, whom he had served as a junior minister in the days when tire European Coal and Steel Community was born. Support coalesced around Poher, and while the De Gaulle government was preoccupied with the mounting financial crisis of last October-November, Poher slid into position as De Gaulle’s constitutional successor. When De Gaulle then got around to his referendum six months later to abolish the Senate as a legislative body and make the Prime Minister the presidential successor, Poher immediately rose to the challenge and proved to be a formidable and effective defender of constitutional traditionalism. Had Monnerville still been Senate president, his opposition could have been dismissed by the Gaullists as the attitude of an embittered politician who had opposed De Gaulle every step of the way. But Poher had supported De Gaulle, and his campaign against the referendum was serious and effective. In his final television broadcast on the eve of De Gaulle’s defeat, he told the French people:
Nothing obliges General de Gaulle to renounce his mandate if the referendum is defeated. He has been elected for seven years. That is why I regret his determination and I hope that he will reconsider his decision. For my part, I have absolutely no wish for the functions of interim President, but if I assume them I will carry them out with all the firmness necessary because that is my duty as a republican and a democrat.
So much for the “chaos” warning from the man who would succeed De Gaulle. Poher’s calm words seemed to reflect exactly the mood and attitude of a majority of the French people, 53 percent of whom voted against the referendum.
When Poher arrived at the Elysee Palace the afternoon after the referendum, he modestly set up in the office of the secretary-general of the palace rather than take over the desk used by De Gaulle. But his first acts were to dismiss the chief of De Gaulle’s private secret service, Jacques Foccart (who was later brought back by Pompidou) , and to order the state television and radio service to open up its news programs and report all political activities of all candidates fully and impartially. In the presidential election campaign which followed the referendum, Poher’s greatest impact came on the European issue—which is precisely what the Monnet forces had anticipated when they backed him as the interim successor to De Gaulle. During the election campaign he stated:
France is not called upon to play a role of domination. For ten years we have disconcerted our traditional friends without convincing new ones. If I insist on the need to create a living Europe, it is to give our country the economic power indispensable to a great modern nation, a power which is the only means of ensuring our independence. Isolated we cannot have influence. Jointly responsible within a community, our country can play a decisive role.
This was scarcely De Gaulle’s approach to France’s role in Europe, but it hit such a responsive note with the French people after eleven years of gloire that Poher momentarily surged into a public opinion poll lead ahead of Pompidou. The effect on Pompidou was immediate. He began to make more flexible noises about British entry into the Common Market and European policy in general.
Although Poher never stood much of a chance, he did offer the French voters a genuine democratic choice when they went to the polls. He did not leave the Gaullists and the Communists alone in the political arena, and his center-left political stance and appeal were strong enough to kill Pompidou’s hopes for an instant first-round victory. Not only did lie force Pompidou into a runoff; he also forced him to respond to political issues which Pompidou probably would just as soon have avoided. In fact, when the drift of the campaign on European questions became clear, the old-line Gaullists, alarmed at the stances Pompidou was taking, formed a “watchdog” committee for the preservation of Gaullist policy. Poher’s moment was brief, and he is back in the obscurity of the French Senate, but he served his country well and made the most of his opportunity when it came, and he deserves a footnote in history.
Pompidou, indeed, probably owes Poher an indirect debt of political thanks. The fact that he found himself in a real election contest and not just a walk-in meant that he went out and established himself as a political winner in his own right. General de Gaulle, who took himself off to Ireland until the voting was over, did not lilt a finger to help his former Prime Minister, which was probably just as well for Pompidou. He owes no political debts on that side of the ledger, and the fact that he had to make certain commitments to flexibility and the need for change in the other direction to win his seven-year term of office not only gave him his own political identity but also gave him room for maneuver when he arrived at the Elysé Palace.
Pompidou clearly stands in no particular awe of his great predecessor. Indeed, as time goes on there is more and more evidence of a fairly deep antagonism between the two men. The new President scarcely conceals the fact that he feels there were many mistakes in the conduct of French affairs under De Gaulle, whatever his place in history. The manner in which De Gaulle summarily dismissed him after more than six years as Prime Minister certainly rankles Pompidou. even though the break turned out to be a lucky one. Pompidou s choice of date for his first press conference after he became President—the first anniversary of his dismissal as Prime Minister—was a typical Gaullist gesture which certainly could not have been lost on the General. At the same time. De Gaulle remains unbending and unforgiving toward Pompidou for the persistence with which he made him self available for the presidency, instead of disavowing and forswearing till intentions or ambitions as long as De Gaulle remained on the scene.
Nevertheless, the rapidity with which Pompidou has clumped many of the Gaullist policies which he inherited has taken the French bv surprise and left the General’s ultra supporters sputtering. Pompidou certainly did not serve under De Gaulle for six years for nothing. The style is markedly different, but the Gaullist weapons of intense secrecy, sudden surprise, and attack, attack, attack are very much part of the political armory. This was seen most sharply, to the astonishment of the French and the rest of the world, in the abrupt, well-timed, and skillfully executed devaluation of the French franc on August 8, barely six weeks after Pompidou took office. But the preliminaries to devaluation had certainly shown clearly that Pompidou intended to govern in his own right and not sit looking over his shoulder at the long shadow from Colombey-les-Deux-Eglises.
This was immediately apparent in Pompidou’s choice of Prime Minister and the formation of the cabinet. In place of the aloof, austere, Huguenot intellectual civil servant and diplomat Couve tie Murville, he named Jacques Chaban-Delmas, a dapper, handsome, ambitious, energetic, extrovert politician. For eleven years Chaban-Delmas had served the Gaullist regime loyally in the awkward and trying position of president of the National Assembly, but he had become increasingly outspoken and critical of De Gaulle’s indifference and disregard of the legislature and its political mood. His elevation to the prime ministership therefore signaled that the Pompidou regime intended to take its relations with Parliament a great deal more seriously and work at smoothing out political issues instead of riding roughshod as De Gaulle always did. After that, non-Gaullists or men of independent record of support for De Gaulle moved into the key policy-making ministries of the government: foreign affairs, finance and economics, agriculture, labor, and justice. Old Gaullists were retained in posts which are largely concerned with the internal operations rather than formulation of the main lines of policy: interior, defense, social security, industrial development, cultural affairs, education, and relations with parliament.
The trickiest political problem was the shunting to one side of Michel Debre, a former Prime Minister, minister of finance and economics, and minister of foreign affairs who is the chief remaining “ultra" Gaullist in the government. After much maneuvering, he accepted the post of minister of defense in the end, upgraded to No. 2 in the government, where presumably he will keep the French military from getting too chummy with NATO once again, and fight for funds to keep the Gaullist force de frappe Hying.
But Pompidou, in his first big governmental decision to devalue the franc, did not even consult Debre. Only eight men knew what was impending: Pompidou, Chaban-Delmas, Finance Minister Valery Giscard d’Estaing, the president of the Banque de France, Oliver Wormser. and four senior civil servants. The list was significant and instructive. It was a technicians’ operation par excellence, on which no visions of Gaullist political gloire intruded. Pompidou is a former banker. Both Chaban-Delmas and Giscard d’Estaing were of the elite inspecteur des finances inner circle of the French civil service before turning to politics. It is an old rule of French financial management that the inspecte-urs believe that devaluation, like death and taxes, is something inevitable, and that periodically it is best to anticipate it and act before it is forced upon you. And act they did, when more than half the country was on the traditional August holiday. Pompidou moved in the manner of De Gaulle: in total secrecy, with the weapon of surprise attack and fait accompli mounted swiftly while he was still in a position of political strength after his election victory. The Gaullists outside the government were reduced to indignant comment at this abrupt abandonment of the sacred “defend the franc" policy of the General’s.
On the economic front, devaluation in August certainly headed off a new round of speculation and monetary uncertainty for the French franc in October or November, and enables the government now to push forward to re-establish an atmosphere of confidence instead of crisis. But there was a great deal more to the move than just economics. Politically, Pompidou gained strength by acting swiftly and decisively to establish the fact that he is in power and intends to govern.
Above all, devaluation signaled an end to the Gaullist effort to establish France as the leader of a separate continental power center inside the Western world. It was always beyond France’s economic means, and was sustained politically only by the extraordinary personal power of General de Gaulle. In short, it was not merely devaluation of the franc but devaluation of Gaullism as well. Other changes are also well under way: easing of the Gaullist total arms embargo against Israel: cooperation with the international Monetary Fund and acceptance of the Special Drawing Rights scheme which was so scorned by Debre when he was finance minister in March, 1968, just before the abrupt Gaullist decline began; a return to the Council of the Western European Union, which De Gaulle ordered boycotted in February, 1969; eventually a return ter the seat at the disarmament negotiations in Geneva, which France has boycotted since 1961. With all of this, of course, there is a much warmer tone ter relations between France and Washington. We may allow ourselves to be cynical about this, for it simply suggests once again a historic truism that when France has need of us, relations are good, but when France feels no need of us, relations have been sour.
On one Gaullist fundamental Pompidou remains firm, and it will take a major effort by every government concerned to get him to budge. That is Britain’s entry into the European Common Market. Though he hasn’t indulged in Gaullist propaganda about Britain not being “European” enough to consort with the Continent, Pompidou does believe that it is not in France’s interest to have Britain in Europe. He has inherited from De Gaulle the closest thing to a Napoleonic continental system that France has achieved in a century and a half. Any enlargement of the Common Market automatically is a diminution of France’s role in the Common Market.
In devaluing the franc, Pompidou has acknowledged that France is in no position economically to act as some European sun around which satellites might revolve. But it does not follow at all that he is prepared to see the Common Market enlarged. Unlike De Gaulle, however, Pompidou is counting on inertia rather than veto to keep the British out this time. The Pompidou line is that the other Common Market countries have been hiding behind the French veto to avoid looking at the problems which British entry would create for them as well as for France. When they examine it all clearly and coldly, their enthusiasm will diminish—so the French thesis runs. Moreover, Pompidou believes that the price which Britain will have to pay will now simply be too high, and that Britain’s enthusiasm for joining Europe is going to wane along with the enthusiasm of its backers when the problems are really faced. His initial move on European political policy—to organize a summit meeting of the heads of government of the six Common Market countries—is designed with all of this in mind.
Whether things will work out the way Pompidou hopes and expects depends primarily on how the British and the other five Common Market countries elect to play the hand. On the part of Britain, it will certainly require determination and sacrifice, but all the evidence is that the British are no more willing to leave a Napoleonic system intact on the Continent, unchallenged, than they were in 1815. As for the other five, it is a question of their idealism about Europe’s future against France’s idealism. It is the Monnet concept against the De Gaulle concept still: the narrow Europe, no larger than the present grouping, or Europe of 250 million in one market instead of 185 million. Given the attitude of the new French President, the most encouraging fact is that the outcome of this new act in the drama can at least be regarded as an open question.