POLITICS IN FRANCE
By ROGER STEPEANE
FRENCH politics are dominated today by three elements—the proximity of the elections, the regrouping of political forces, and the presence (or more accurately the shadow) of General de Gaulle. It is now expected that the new constitution will be sub- mitted for public approval, by means of a referendum, on May 5th, and that a general election will take place on June 2nd. All parties in the Government are together trying to elaborate a con- stitution acceptable to the maximum number of voters ; it is obvious that if the new constitution secures only a small majority it will never be born alive. Hence there are many compromises in the discussions. But this desire for union is limited only to the prepara- tion of constitutional texts ; each party naturally wants to increase its own power in the coming election.
It is common knowledge that France is governed by the three parties that hold an enormous majority in the Assembly-152 Com- munists, 139 Socialists, 149 M.R.P. (Mouvement Republicain Popu- laire) out of a total of 575 Deputies. But this coalition owes its existence much more to a marriage of reason than to a marriage of love ; each of the three was unwilling to take the risk of leaving one of the others in opposition. For no one is ignorant of the advan- tages of an Opposition, especially in a devastated country where everything has to be reconstructed and the Government is necessarily bound to disappoint the public. And now it is somewhat odd that, after having governed the country together for almost two years, these three parties will go before the electors vigorously attacking one another.
One knows that in a democracy the exercise of power wears down the force of the parties governing. For a time the great French parties might have hoped—since they were all in the Government— to have escaped attack ; hoped that no one else would benefit from non-participation in power. But unfortunately for them an opposi- tion, which did not exist after the elections of last October, has managed to emerge. The Radical Socialists, a traditional Govern- ment party, were the great victims of the last election ; they obtained only 25 seats. Now, aided by the prestige and talent of M. Herriot, they have profited from the situation. First, they refused any anticipation in the Government, so that the three chief adversaries hould alone bear the responsibility. Then M. Herriot led a tireless
paign against General de Gaulle, accusing him of not being a emocrat and of aiming at personal power. The French since apoleon have been obsessed by the fear of a military dictator, and they reacted to this campaign. The elections, according to political commentators, showed the nation's will to accomplish what was both " new and reasonable." The former President of the Council continually insisted that what the French had accomplished was the new with the unreasonable. He demanded a return to pre-194o principles and legality, insisting that these must be re-established before France progressed further. These argtitnents found listeners among all sorts of malcontents—the Liberals who feared the nationalisation measures and were troubled by the new laws on the Press, and the old Republicans who were afraid of the apparent disorder of the new regime. Indeed, the four years of Vichyite propaganda against the .Radical Party (the typical party of the Third Republic) had an influence on certain electors—who chiefly voted Communist—but these will certainly return to their old loyalties and will rally to M. Herriot's party, which will now seem to them the best defender of the liberties they are so much attached to. One can therefore prophesy important Radical gains in the next election.
After the liberation of France, the old traditional Right, which had patronised and upheld Petain, was completely discredited, and did not dare to canvass under its own banner. Instinctively, its sup- porters voted for the party which seemed most moderate—the
M.R.P. The clericalism of M. Georges Bidault's friends of the M.R.P. seemed a guarantee of their Conservatism, but, not wanting to swim against the current, these voted for the nationalisation demanded by a large section of opinion, without seeing that they were disappointing many of their electors. The moderate leaders, with M. Paul Reynaud at their head, hastened to profit by this situation ; they embarked on a violent campaign against the rule of the State in all its forms and for a return of economic liberalism—a familar theme among men of moderate opinion. Thus, not being bound by the party truce, they instituted a vigorous offensive against the M.R.P., taxing it with demagogy ; against the Communists, accusing them of being agents of Moscow ; and against the Socialists for being responsible for de Gaulle's resignation. These attacks must have had some effect, and it is probable that this "parti republicain de la liberte" will gain a good number of seats in June. Thus the M.R.P. will lose seats.
Meanwhile, the " Labour " parties will have to assume responsi- bility for the policy of deflation—always unpopular and continually opposed in France. Hence there will be a diminution of Com- munist, and above all of Socialist, votes. The small parties which had their birth in the Resistance Movement are disappearing. The M.U.R. is virtually absorbed by the Socialist Party, while the U.D.S.R. has split into three. One portion is joining the M.R.P., another the Socialist Party, and the third the "Bloc des Gauches Republicains." This bloc is the only new formation which has appeared in France since the last election, and it is still too new for its strength to be estimated. It has not announced its doctrines, but has contented itself with empiric criticisms, particularly attacking the present ballot system in France. It includes moderate pro- gressives (corresponding very much to Conservative Independents In England) and Radical and Socialist Independents, such as M. Soustelle, former Minister of Information.
It is possible that this group was inspired by General de Gaulle. At any rate, his followers have rallied to it. And de Gaulle's own position remains d9ubtful. Everyone agrees in saluting him as the liberator of the soil and the restorer of public liberties in France ; but his sudden departure—which he has not explained—has created a certain malaise. His friends have asserted that he did not share in the Assembly's idea of a permanent control of the Executive by the Legislature. The Left-wing parties wanted to establish a regime after the English pattern, but the General preferred a Presidential Government on the American model. These divergences, accen- tuated by undoubted incompatibility of temper—the General's temper is not always excellent—provoked a crisis. Each side has taken up a position it will not relinquish. The Assembly is elabora- ting an ultra-Parliamentary regime, and the General is rallying round him all the adversaries—avcwed or unavowed—of democracy. He will do nothing to gain power. He himself said to M. Francisque Gay that the times of coups d'etru are past. But he will not refuse power if he thinks France needs him. And as he possesses a certain pride, it is not impossible that one day he will give way to the solicitations of his friends and of a floating public opinion. Frequently, alas, in times of disturbance, the French have lacked faith in democracy, and have appealed to non-Parliamentarians, the men they believed to be above the mêlée, men who were, in reality, always Conservatives. Petain is the last result of this state of mind.
The democrats of France now know that, if they fail in their attempt at rebuilding a free Franc; opinion will veer towards the hero of June 18th, who still has a halo of immense prestige. But they also know that the General de Gaulle of tomorrow would not, in the words of Maurice Schumann, be the same as the General de Gaulle of yesterday, and that he would be, above all, an "homme d'ordre." (In France the hypertrophy of the idea of order has always been a sign of absolute Conservatism.) Once more it is the democrats who hold the fate of democracy in their hands ; and once more that fate is bound up with both the reconstruction and the prosperity of France.