23 JUNE 1961, Page 4

Troubles of Personal Government



THE restored dignity of the French State has a strange look today. It is true that the Government does not fall down under strain or criticism. But it is also unable to keep open the public roads of Brittany. It has poured out mollifying decrees in an unsuccessful attempt to calm the demonstrating Breton farmers. It has made important wage concessions to the civil servants under threat of strike. It is still unable to stop the plastic bombers of the extreme Right; their outrages, which long did far worse damage to buildings than to people, are now rending the flesh and smashing the faces of passers-by. Peace is still far off in Algeria. The career guarantees of both military and police officers have had to be suspended to permit a purge. The similar guarantees of magistrates (i.e., both public prosecutors and judges) have had to be suspended in Algeria. Then, of course, there is the long series of generals coming up for trial and receiv- ing prison sentences of from ten to fifteen years.

It must, of course, be said that the mere fact that the Government is there is an enormous advantage, whatever the merits or demerits of its Ministers. Fifth Republic Ministers are not released from office when they get into a mess. They are compelled to go on until they get out of it and there is at least always someone there who has to take the responsibility. There is no gaping interregnum as under the Fourth Repub- lic. But the present accumulation of troubles is a severe one and it does in some important re- spects undermine the structure of the State itself.

For one thing, is it really a good thing for the Ministers to fall into disrepute and indignity? They are all at least a hard-working lot, but not necessarily all the best men. The President would no doubt argue that you cannot have a team of geniuses and that the essential is to keep them long enough in office to come up against the facts of life and achieve results. But the fact is that some of the Ministers, M. Rochereau of Agriculture for instance, have simply been pum- melled until they gave way. It is also strange to see prefects and sub-prefects besieged, and the commanders of riot-police negotiating with tractor-mounted demonstrators about how long the highways are to be occupied.

There is a further trouble. Good government depends upon contacts through which authority will be warned in time where discontent is reach- ing bursting-point. The French Parliament is for the moment so weakened that it no longer usefully fulfils this purpose. The government party, the UNR, occupying two-fifths of the seats, has been reduced to a team of parliamen- tary charwomen. It is M. Debre's party for all practicable purposes, for though it aspires to be the President's, it serves only to straighten out the difficulties which M. Debrd meets in his attempt to carry out the President's will. One of the functions of the prefects has always been to keep the government informed of what is going on, but perhaps because party life is now so flaccid, they seem, judging by the results, to know little. Half the country is asleep, but the other half is conspiring.

That is one of the sinister things about events in Brittany. The leaders there are young. They do not like the older school of agricultural dema- gogue, who lean to the extreme Right. They are, indeed, to a great extent the product of new Catholic movements, with sympathies mainly on the Left. But in Algeria, while doing their military service, they have been through a school of con- spiracy, violence and fait accompli. They have been up against these not only in the rebel camp but in the French Army. If they were quick observers they must have known that the army was often conducting a policy of its own and frequently getting away with it. They were them- selves submitted to the methods of psychological warfare. They are now engaged in very efficient conspiracy in facing the forces of .law and order with the faits accomplis of cut communications and beleaguered market towns.

Behind the alarums of Brittany is the long failure of French governments to deal with the problems of the poorer farmers, and with those of the distribution of farm produce. This is not a fault peculiar to the Fifth Republic, but it is one with which the Fifth Republic ought to have been particularly qualified to deal, raised as it was above the lobbies and pressure groups of the well-to-do farmers and middle-men that beset the Third and Fourth Republics. There is, of course, a reason. The main attention of the one fount of policy has been turned in other direc- tions. President de Gaulle has been preoccupied almost exclusively with Algeria and France's place in Europe and the Atlantic Alliance.

Here we are back in the structural problems of personal government : where choices of policy needing drive behind them really depend upon one man and one man only. President de Gaulle's government is in some ways more strictly per- sonal than those of any of the twentieth-century dictators.: He has not a party machine at his disposal—and that no doubt by deliberate choice. In his first bid for a return to power at the head of the French People's Rally (1947-49) he had such a machine and it seemed at one moment as if he would sweep back into office at its head. But no sooner was it involved in French parlia- mentarism than it split and split again until finally, at the beginning of 1953, the rump defied the General's will by entering a coalition, while he was on his back recovering from an eye operation. The General governs through a small group of devoted men who report straight to him and. enable him to supervise directly the mini- stries in which he is concerned. Agriculture is evidently not such a ministry—and even today it is doubtful if it stands high in his preoccupa- tions, or even perhaps in those of M. Debra who, as Prime Minister, is 'delegate general' for the administration of Metropolitan France.

Indeed, Algeria is giving the President such immediate concern that it is understandable he should turn his back on other matters. Three weeks of negotiation had seen a steady rise in murders and other terrorist acts by the Algerian rebels while at the same time the activist Euro- peans have continued their bomb outrages unde- terred, it would seem, by the arrests made in conection with the murder of the able and enlightened police chief, Roger Gavoury. The rebel negotiators may have sincerely believed that the French Government should, and would, accept six months' negotiation at a snail's pace, but it was in fact impossible for any French Government to do this with the murder rate ticking up in Algeria : this could only sharpen the anger and stiffen the resistance of the Euro- pean minority and thus steadily increase the dan- ger of yet another outbreak on the Right. But the alternate policy on which de Gaulle is thrown back in Algeria after adjourning the negotiations is also unlikely to bring a speedy reward—that is, the cautious extension of the completely de- militarised and normalised areas in the hope that a genuine Algerian nationalist party in opposi- tion to the rebel leadership will show itself. Quite apart from his seventy years, the President has not got worlds enough and time.