15 SEPTEMBER 1961, Page 5

Assassin's Gifts



T HE unsuccessful attempt to murder President ,de Gaulle as his car raced through the night at seventy miles an hour to his country home at Colombey-les-deux-Eglises gives him immediately certain political advantages, but also points one more warning finger at his regime's principal weakness. The advantages are so obvious that a Whisper campaign is already afoot to the affect that the attempt was a put-up job. This is highly improbable, for even as things turned out, with the main charge of plastic and dynamite un- exploded, the President ran a very grave risk. As always, he was driving very fast; the explosion smashed one of the side-lights and released a sheet of flame as well as smoke that obscured the wind-screen. With a less skilful driver there would have been a Very serious accident.

The first advantage to the President has been the attraction for all but the most impassioned °PPonent, of his exhibition of quiet courage. This i3 entirely in keeping with what was known of his character, but since his arrival in Paris in August, 1944, he has had little occasion to show It in metropolitan France. The second advan- tage is the refutation of the argument that he was keeping Article 16 of the Constitution in force much too long. This article was applied at the time of the April meeting. It runs : When the institutions of the Republic, the Independence of the Nation, the integrity of its territory, or the execution of its international commitments are gravely and immediately threatened, and when the normal functioning of constitutional public authority is interrupted, the President of the Republic takes the measures required by the circumstances after officially consulting the Prime Minister, the presidents of the Assemblies and the Constitutional Council. He informs the nation by a message. These measures. must be inspired by the intention to give constitutional public authority the means of accomplishing its mission within the shortest Possible time. The Constitutional Council is consulted with regard to them. Parliament meets as of right. The National Assembly cannot be dissolved during the exercise of the exceptional Powers.

No sensible person would deny that the con- ditions for the application of this article were present during ex-General Challe's attempt to seize the command of the army in April. But were they still at the beginning of September? Had not the government had time to stamp out the ashes of the plot that came to a head in April? The question was being asked all the more vigorously, because the President was interpreting the article as excluding both independent legislative action bY the assembly and a vote on a motion of cen- sure against the government since the logical c°nsequence of a successful vote of censure Would be the dissolution of parliament and new elections which Article 16 expressly excludes. As the President is not responsible to parliament, action based on Article 16 cannot be discussed there. Thus in practice the parliamentary safe- guards that the article seems to contain are of little value.

It cannot in fact be argued that the uses made of the Article by the President have been exces- sive in view of the original danger. He has con- ducted a purge 'amongst officers of the army and police, and the magistrates in Algeria (much too lenient a one, many people would say) and he has extended the power of detention by the police without intervention of a magistrate to a total, in practice, of twenty days, which can be followed by an internment order. Such things are surely necessary, however undesirable, so long as there is really a danger to the republic. The President's would-be assassins have demonstrated that there really is still such a danger. They were certainly not engaged in a personal vendetta, but were act- ing for a body of men who were aiming to over- throw democratic institutions. The enemies of the Republic were not merely the obscure insurance agents and clerks who were responsible for con- cealing a gas-cylinder full of dynamite and plas- tic by the roadside and trying to set it off as the President's car passed, but men like Satan, who has held some of the highest posts in the State's gift, with a rebel staff of highly trained officers, and a great power of persuasion within the army and in certain sections of the bour- geoisie. For the moment, therefore, a whole series of opposition arguments have lost their edge.

But the very relief felt throughout the country at the failure of the murder plot underlined the most important criticism against the President. He could rightly claim in his last press conference that his Fifth Republic was preserving the essen- tial political liberties, those of the parties, the trade unions, the press; but their preservation seems ever more obviously due to him in person. The direction of policy, the maintenance of pub- 1k order, the interpretation of the constitution, the defence of liberties, all go back to this one man. This one man struck down, what would be left of the Fifth Republic?' The President has allowed institutions to wither. Until quite recently he seemed indifferent to the dignity of his own government. He has refused all offers of sup- port and rejected all possible allies. His press con- ference, four days before the attempt on his life, was one of the most sharply criticised of his career. In these circumstances the danger to the State of the loss of its chief might well have been catastrophic. There can be no preparation of a successor within the peculiar structure that he has set up.

So, paradoxically, in comment after comment, the expressions of relief that France still has her great man have merged almost at once into criti- cism of his tendencies, and urgent recommenda- tion that he should change his ways. He has been -warned that the short respite which his worst enemies have secured him by trying to kill-him will not last long. The criticisms remain valid.

Such criticisms have certainly not affected him in the past. There was no indication of any attempt in the last press conference to appease the more angry sectors of opposition such as the peasants, no apologia for the tactics adopted about Bizerta, no cushioning of the shock to the army on being told that the war they had sup- posed they were fighting for seven years to keep Algeria within the French fold was neither to the interest nor to the honour of France. Indeed, this press conference, so much criticised at home, is having results, or at least is being followed by events abroad, that seem if anything likely to encourage him in his lone-wolf tendencies. The passage about Berlin has been praised in the USA and has been almost immediately followed by closer collaboration between the French and American armies. The passage about Bizerta, which seemed to exclude a settlement, has been followed by a volte face on the part of President Bourguiba with whom negotiations now seem im- minent. The passage on the Sahara at last gives hope of successful talks with the rebel leaders.

Most men of President de Gaulle's stature have to be taken as they are. It would be surprising if there was any substantial change in his behaviour, as those in charge of his security are the first to regret. None the less, the deep impression made on French -minds of the peculiar vulnerability of the Fifth Republic through the person of its leader may well have its uses. What he has given to his country is pretty evident during more than - three years of stable government. That it would be extremely difficult to do without him now is certain. But it is already very likely that others will have to do the hard thinking about the transi- tion which must some day come, back from the present highly personal form of government to a more institutional one.

And if we all redouble our efforts, by next year's Conference we can have lost another 108,000 members and be another £94.000 in debt.'