29 MARCH 1963, Page 6

Incantation Disenchanted


PARIS n RESIDENT DE GAULLE'S system of rule has r been called 'government by incantation.' He has established his authority with very little use of force. The nation does not feel itself to he under police rule. Parliament has been manoeuvred into a corner by a skilful exploita- tion of its own defects and of their effect on public opinion. The press is mainly, though mildly, in opposition. The army gave the coup de grace to the Fourth Republic, but the master of the Fifth has played it off the stage, has prose- ,:uted and gaoled its best-known leaders and left it to fume off its anger.

It is against these successes that the President's striking failure to deal with the coal miners, at least up to the time of writing, must be measured. I he failure must be called the President's, though they have mainly been dealt with by the Govern- ment; that is, one stage down from sovereign power. This is, after all, the President's system of rule. The President, too, did go through all the motions of taking over direct command in the economic sphere way back in February, and at the beginning of the strike we were all given to understand that the President would intervene personally if the appeal to the nation by the Prime Minister, following on that by the Minister of Information, did not succeed. So badly did M. Pompidou's appeal fail that it became ob- viously inadvisable for the President to come out into the arena. Instead, quite a different sort of president, M. Pierre Masse, the President of the Planning Commission, was pushed blinking into the limelight and asked to calculate how far the miners' wages had really been allowed to fall behind the average pay in privately-owned industry. M. Masses report showed the Govern- ment's calculation of 4 to 5 per cent. to be badly in error, for it concluded that the wage-lag was 8 per cent. if you counted as a,.2 per cent. in- crease the reduction by 2 per cent. of the miners' working time, and therefore 10 per cent. if you kept the miners' earnings distinct from the hours they worked. The miners' estimate of an 11 per cent. wage-lag was, in other words, almost right.

The Government declared that it accepted the report, but it did not recognise its own error (that would have been contrary to the principle of government by incantation) and put forward a revised offer which did contain some compli- cated concessions, though none on the question of working hours or a fourth week's paid holiday, such as is now being granted in industry after industry where work is a good deal less dis- agreeable than in a coal mine. Meanwhile, it is apparently time to forget that it once tried to get the miners to go back to work by requisition order.

The Government's achievements up to date have been as follows. Its justified preoccupation with inflation has appeared in the unpleasing light of a determination to keep the miners in a less favourable place than most other indus- tries. It has produced amongst the miners a solidarity between the three rival trade union organisations that is rarely seen in France. It has made their strike an infectious example for the vast mass of other nationalised workers and State employees. It has mobilised the Church on the side of the strikers, and a large section of public opinion. It has prolonged the strike to a point at which tempers may become nasty, infection rampant and economic consequences grave. A revision of tactics may have improved the situa- tion by the time this is in print, but at all events there has been a serious disenchantment about government by incantation..