Paris after the liberati.., p.25
Paris: After the Liberation 1944-1949, p.25Antony Beevor
De Gaulle began to realize that his hopes for post-war France were frustrated from within as well as from without. When the Consultative Assembly debated the crisis in the Levant on 17 June, he was appalled to find that the bulk of the criticismwas directed, not against the British, but against his own government and France’s traditional policy in the region. On the evening of 26 June he told General Pierre de Bénouville, a hero of the Resistance, that he ‘intended to retire from politics altogether’. Bénouville then repeated this to Louise de Vilmorin ‘under the seal of secrecy’ – but she relayed the news to her lover, the British ambassador.
De Gaulle had far more serious causes for concern than the Levant, or his disastrous foray in the Val d’Aosta. The food situation was so bad that the Minister of the Interior sent a secret telegramon 7 July 1945 to the Governor-General of Algeria, urgently demanding two shiploads of sheep to avert a crisis. Beans and lentils were shipped in from South America. The country had less than two weeks’ supply of grain. And this was summer. The winter would be far worse.
France’s economy was in a disastrous state, but de Gaulle paid little attention to financial matters. Whether or not he ever uttered the famous remark ‘l’intendance suivra’ – ‘the baggage train will follow’ – is an academic question, but this was certainly his attitude. His two ministers responsible for economic affairs, Pierre Mendès-France and René Pleven, became locked in disagreement in the winter of 1944, when he summoned them to his residence in the Bois de Boulogne on a Sunday afternoon to discuss their opposing points of view. Pleven did not want a strict fiscal policy because of the hardship it would cause in the short term. He put his case simply and plausibly in under half an hour. Mendès-France, a far cleverer man, argued passionately for over two hours that unless the French government had the courage to stop paying inflationary wage settlements, it would never rise out of its present state of destitution. The result of this meeting was that never again would de Gaulle allow anyone to talk to him about economics for three hours.
Mendès-France’s plan was absolutely correct in fiscal terms, but the country and the government coalition could not have withstood the political effects of the misery it would have caused. France’s financial salvation, like that of the rest of Europe, lay not within her own resources but in the generosity or self-interest of richer nations. Yet the primary objective of de Gaulle’s next trip abroad was not to raise loans, but to persuade the Americans to let France have the left bank of the Rhine and her share of an internationalized Ruhr.
Bidault told Duff Cooper that ‘with de Gaulle in his present frame of mind the less travelling the General did in foreign countries the better’. But de Gaulle’s trip to the United States at least did not turn out a disaster.
On 21 August, after the trial of Marshal Pétain was out of the way, de Gaulle set off for Washington, accompanied by Bidault, General Juin and Gaston Palewski. The future peace of Europe, he told President Truman, would be guaranteed by reducing Germany to a collection of minor states restricted to agriculture, while France was built up as the industrial giant of Europe. De Gaulle dismissed Truman’s view that the problem in establishing peace was essentially economic. Truman listened politely. He even put up with de Gaulle’s little lecture on ‘why France saw the world in a less simplistic manner than did the United States’.
De Gaulle might have taken a slightly different line if he had been aware of a briefing document given to Truman before their meeting. This report, if it deserves the term, conveyed in a series of crude caricatures the attitude still prevalent in US government circles. It summarized France thus: ‘A country which, from the highest in the government down to the poorest peasant, is sitting back waiting for something to happen; which is completely unaware of American sympathy and aid; in which the cost of living permits only the rich to really subsist; a country where the young, from the best to the lowest families, live and thrive on the black market; a country with such an inferiority complex that frank discussion is difficult if not impossible; a country convinced that the United States and Russia will have to fight it out in a war in the near future, and which is convinced that in the interim the Communists will control Europe.’ This diatribe ran on for three pages. It recommended that de Gaulle should be ‘sent back to France with a sufficiently striking and publicized diplomatic victory to ensure the continuance of his government’, provided he agreed to certain commitments, and that ‘a sizeable American armed force should be kept in France to protect our lines of communication and supply to our occupying force in Germany’.
‘Conclusion: The French people in their present desperate and discouraged state resemble to a frightening degree the German people twelve years ago. Another really bad winter and the Allies may find that they have substituted the double cross of Lorraine for the crooked cross of Munich. This would not necessarily be de Gaulle’s personal desire – but events might force his hand. It behoves us to move fast and forcefully.’
President Truman was fortunately not burdened by Roosevelt’s historic dislike of de Gaulle, and on the whole their meetings passed off well. But there was one element in this document with which Truman firmly agreed, and that was the protection of military lines of communication. A year later he was to show that he would be prepared to move troops into France to secure the rear of the American forces in Germany, without informing the French government until the very last moment.
The ‘full and free’ elections for which Roosevelt had originally wanted to wait before recognizing de Gaulle finally took place on Sunday, 21 October 1945. Combined with the elections for a Constituent Assembly was a referendumon the basis for a new Constitution. Only the Radicals wanted to retain the discredited Third Republic. The main question for a Fourth Republic was whether the Assembly should be given supreme powers, as the Communists especially demanded, or restricted powers, as de Gaulle insisted. Sixty-six per cent of the electorate agreed with him that the Assembly’s powers should be restricted, for it was widely held that France’s capitulation in 1940 was due to the weakness of the executive power under the Third Republic.
As for the elections to the Assembly, predictions on the outcome were mixed. Many people expected the middle class to vote Socialist as the best way of keeping out the Communists. But the conservative vote went elsewhere: to the Mouvement Républicain Populaire, headed by Maurice Schumann. Although impeccably liberal and resistant, the Catholic MRP bore out the jibe that it was a ‘Machine à Ramasser les Pétainistes’, because after the collapse of Vichy, no credible right-wing party remained. This deficiency falsified the post-war political spectrum from the start.
The MRP did very well in traditionally conservative areas such as Brittany, Normandy and Alsace, and gathered in the considerable quantity of Pétainists in Paris. These were the first general elections in which women had the right to vote, a fact which undoubtedly benefited the MRP, for, as all the polls showed, women were generally more conservative and pious than men.
The final result gave the Communists 159 seats, the Socialists 146 and the MRP 152. The Communists and Socialists could have formed an absolute majority between them, but in August the Socialist Party conference had rejected the proposals for a merger. The Socialists wisely insisted that a tripartite coalition was the only solution for the country. They could even argue that this was the expression of the charter of the Conseil National de la Résistance, which had been filled with well-meaning generalities about unity and progressisme.
Although all passed off quite smoothly, de Gaulle was disenchanted by the return of the party system. He frankly disliked the mechanics of constitutional government, especially since the size of the support for the Communist Party – 5 million votes representing just over 26 per cent of the total – made it the largest in France. The Communists had more than tripled their vote since 1936. Not surprisingly, they expected an appropriate level of representation in the Council of Ministers.
The opening session of the Constituent Assembly took pla
De Gaulle, as events turned out, had little to fear. He was voted head of government by a unanimous vote of the Assembly accompanied by a motion that ‘Charles de Gaulle a bien mérité de la patrie’, a rare honour in French history. This was, at least in theory, the crowning moment of his wartime achievements. It made the ensuing plunge into crisis all the more dramatic.
Two days later de Gaulle received Thorez and rejected his demands for ministerial posts. He, de Gaulle, was forming the government, not the Communist Party. Thorez then wrote and published a reply, saying that de Gaulle had insulted ‘le caractère national de notre parti et de sa politique’ and the memory of their ‘75,000’ martyrs. (As Galtier-Boissière put it, out of the 29,000 French men and women executed during the Occupation, 75,000 had been Communist.)
The following day, 16 November, de Gaulle encouraged a rumour that he was about to resign. But this exercise in brinkmanship had not been thought through: he was painting himself into a corner. He broadcast a speech on 17 November, saying that he would not entrust the Ministry of the Interior to a Communist and give them control over security matters, nor would he trust them with foreign policy, nor with the armed forces. Senior officials were dismayed by this pointless provocation.
Two days later François Mauriac, in Le Figaro, emphasized that without de Gaulle at the head of government, France would fall under the influence either of the Anglo-Saxons or of the Soviet Union. That same day, 19 November, Gaullist groups demonstrated on the Boulevard Raspail, chanting: ‘It’s de Gaulle we need! Down with Thorez!’ The Palais Bourbon was sealed off by a cordon of troops and police set up roadblocks in many parts of Paris. The Communist Party, on the other hand, as Luizet reported to the Minister of the Interior, had evidently ordered its members to be very discreet.
Behind the military cordon, the general drift of the debate in the National Assembly went against de Gaulle. Despite expressions of admiration for the General, the message was clear. He had to accept a more or less equal division of ministerial posts between the three major parties.
That night, a depressed Gaston Palewski dropped in at the British Embassy. Everything, he thought, would be over in two days. Duff Cooper asked whether it really would be so dangerous to let the Communists have the Ministry of War for six months. Palewski was certain that they would turn the army round and stage a coup d’état.
Talk of coups d’état became infectious. A rumour ran round the next morning that de Gaulle, not the Communists, was planning to seize power with the backing of the army. The Communists restricted themselves to a vigorous complaint at de Gaulle’s refusal to make one of their members Minister of War. The party warned that de Gaulle should not ‘consider us as second-rate Frenchmen’. It had nominated General Joinville, an officer promoted from the FFI, as its candidate. Joinville, a well-known Communist sympathizer, was anathema to the regular army.
At the rue Saint-Dominique it was a day of negotiation, as political leaders arrived in groups or singly in answer to the General’s summons. Meanwhile, the deputies in the Palais Bourbon waited in a fever of impatience, rumour and speculation. Throughout the country there was deep disquiet. Many feared that de Gaulle had played his hand so badly that he would be forced to give in to all the Communist demands. The directorate of Renseignements Généraux provided updated situation reports on the mood of the people every few hours.
When de Gaulle himself finally emerged that evening to go home, he faced a barrage of questions as to whether a government would be formed the next day. Confining himself to one of his Delphic evasions, he said: ‘One has the right to hope that.’
Of all the politicians visiting the rue Saint-Dominique that day, the most uncommunicative were the two Communist leaders, Maurice Thorez and Jacques Duclos. The next morning, a police spy in Communist Party headquarters – identified in the reports of the Renseignements Généraux only by the code XP/23 – overheard Duclos on the way to a politburo meeting say to a colleague: ‘Yesterday we were tricked. Today all we can do is try to get one ministry more than the Socialists.’
In the end a compromise was reached. The Communists did not get a ‘decisive portfolio’ – either the Ministry of the Interior, Foreign Affairs or the Ministry of War – but Charles Tillon was made Minister for Armaments. Maurice Thorez was made vice-president of the Council of Ministers, a deputy premiership which was meaningless, and the Communists received three other portfolios: Industrial Production, National Economy and Labour. According to Bidault, the Communists then became very cooperative.
The winter did not improve. There was a feeling in government circles of a slide in slow motion towards disaster. From 10 December, the electric current in Paris was cut off either in the morning or during the afternoon. It also often failed in the evening, leaving parties in darkness and lifts out of order.
André Malraux, whom de Gaulle had appointed his Minister of Information in the new Council of Ministers, prophesied at an embassy lunch party on 3 December ‘that the Communists would attempt to obtain power by force within the next twelve months and that they would fail’.
De Gaulle was thinking along similar lines. A conversation he had with Jefferson Caffery on 6 December was significant, because it revealed the fundamentally flawed state of his thinking, which was to persist for a number of years.
‘There are only two real forces in France today: the Communists and I. If the Communists win, France will be a Soviet Republic; if I win, France will stay independent.’
‘Who will win?’ Caffery asked.
‘If I get my breaks at all, especially in the international field, I will win. If France falls, every country in Western Europe will fall too, and all the Continent will be Communist.’
Paradoxically, during this period of drift one of the most decisive developments in France’s post-war history took place. It was brought about by Jean Monnet, the least pretentious of great men.
Monnet, who came from a prosperous family of Cognac producers, had deep roots in the countryside yet believed passionately in industrial modernization. This ‘father of the European Community’ was the most admired and influential planner of the century, yet he possessed no formal qualifications. He joined the arms-purchasing committee on the outbreak of war, then after the fall of France Churchill recruited him for similar work in the United States, where he became the chief author of Roosevelt’s Victory Plan to produce an overwhelming output of military material.
Monnet won the trust of virtually everyone he met. In all the major Western countries, he made friends with the leading bankers, industrialists, administrators and diplomats through small private dinner parties where the principal theme of conversation was the post-war reconstruction of Europe.
Monnet, although untalented as a public speaker, possessed a rare gift of finding the most telling argument for each person. ‘You talk of greatness,’ he had said to de Gaulle towards the end of the war, ‘but the French today are pygmies. There will only be greatness when the French assume the stature
He returned to the theme in the second half of 1945. France had to transform itself if the country was to command any respect in the modern world. De Gaulle told him to prepare detailed recommendations. He liked the idea of a strategy which aimed to make France rather than Germany the industrial giant of Europe. On 5 December, Monnet submitted a five-page memorandum to de Gaulle. It was approved by the Council of Ministers on 3 January 1946. The decree was counter-signed by nine ministers, including four Communists. Monnet’s brilliant drafting allowed almost everyone – from industrialist to Communist – to read his own politics into the plan and agree with its objectives.
The Commissariat Général du Plan was rapidly established, with the help of Gaston Palewski. To avoid ministerial jealousies and manoeuvring, Monnet worked directly under the Prime Minister. He kept his staff small and very unministerial in style. Eighteen modernization commissions were set up, but the key in Monnet’s mind was steel production. The previous record for production had been in 1929. Monnet’s objective was to reach the same level by 1950, then rapidly exceed it by 25 per cent. De Gaulle dreamed of achieving France’s domination of European industry by using coal exacted from the Ruhr, but the Americans were firmly opposed to a new version of the reparations which had embittered Germany after the First World War.
The plan was over-ambitious with France’s catastrophic lack of fuel, raw materials and spare parts; and a ruthless application of priorities – a guns-before-butter approach – was politically unthinkable when the overwhelming majority of the population lived in such misery. But Monnet’s infrastructure would be in place and ready when, in 1947, the Marshall Plan offered the French the opportunity to rebuild their future.
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