De Gaulle Returns to Power

Feature, Modern Era

European and World Politics Take on a New Pattern

The great events in the past shine out of history clearly; we have small doubts about the forces which swayed them one way or the other and fewer still about their consequences. With our own period, it is different. We are aware that, since the war, great changes have shown themselves; yet the nearer we are to these changes, the more we participate ourselves in them, the less easy it is to see which are the significant events from which they received their momentum.

Let us take, for example, the movement,  towards European unity, certainly one if not the, most important trends of the post-war epoch. Its beginning seems to us to lie partly in the inter-war period but mainly in the creation of various economic organisms such as the Schuman Coal and Steel pool of 1948, of Euratom, and by the Treaty of Rome in 1957, the Common Market. Yet there are other factors of equal importance which have helped towards the unity of Europe, the creation of the Council of Europe, of the North Atlantic Treaty Alliance of 1949 and, throughout the whole post-war period, the gradual reconciliation between France and Germany.

As one looks at the picture of the world since 1945 from a less great distance than historians will do some fifty or a hundred years hence, but with as much detachment as possible, one dramatic event stands out in European affairs, even if its meaning and its consequences are still by no means clear. This is the overthrow of the Fourth French Republic and the return of General de Gaulle to power.

In 1953, Paul Reynaud described France as “The Sick Man of Europe” and his phrase evoked no surprise. Unlike West Germany and Italy, who were still “working their passage” into Atlantic society after the war, France was nominally one of the victorious powers. Economically, she was only beginning to recover from the war; politically the state of France was disastrous. A large and vigorous   Communist   Party   made   parliamentary   government difficult. But the Fourth Republic governments could not use Communism as an excuse. Since 1946 there had been no less than fourteen changes of government. It was not only the changes of government that did the damage and the fact that attimes of crisis in international affairs France was on several occasions without a government at all. It was the failure of weak coalitions in the National Assembly to pursue clear policies. For four years from 1950-4 France could not make up her mind about the European Defence Community, for instance.

The attitude of Britain and the United States was increasingly to regard France as a doubtful ally. If the French were over-susceptible, the way France was treated sometimes did not diminish the fierce reaction felt in France against: what they considered France’s subordination to the Anglo-Saxon powers. At the Bermuda Conference in 1953, for example, when the French Prime Minister, a rather undistinguished conservative, Joseph Laniel, arrived to confer with Eisenhower and Churchill, the Marseillaise was not played and, by an inconceivable error, Churchill and Eisenhower travelled together from the airport and Laniel was put in a car with the Foreign Ministers. A trifling incident? But it was galling to a proud nation.

Three years before 1954, a great French general, de Lattre de Tassigny, who might have saved the French position in Indo-China had he lived, had asked for greater American aid in the task of fighting the Communist rebels. The aid was refused. In 1953 and 1954, when French opinion was already inclined to see the wisdom of negotiating with Ho Chi Minh, the Americans suddenly stepped up military and financial aid and prevented France from ending the war. The terrible defeat at Dien Bien Phu came whilst France was at last trying to extricate herself from Indo-China.

When France had got out of Indo-China and more or less liquidated her discreditable and shifting policies in Tunisia and Morocco, a greater calamity fell on her, the civil war in Algeria. The Algerian revolt, at its beginning, was treated as of relatively small importance because the French could not believe that the bulk of the Algerian Muslims wanted to fight for independence. By 1955, however, the rebellion was serious; three cities in eastern Algeria were attacked simultaneously by rebel bands. By 1956 most of the army from Indo-China was in Algeria, two divisions were withdrawn from NATO and conscripts were drafted across the Mediterranean in large numbers. France had an army of half a million in the field, and was committed to a major military effort.

Many politicians realized that though the French Army was not likely to be beaten in battle, there was no purely military solution. But with a tough vigorous reaction of French public opinion on the Right, which wanted no dealings with the rebels, with the desperately bellicose Europeans of Algeria and with the feelings of the French Army that it would refuse to be betrayed again as it had been over Indo-China, there was small chance of a reasonable policy being evolved by a weak political system which the bulk of the nation already regarded with alternating indifference and contempt.

In January, 1956, a government headed by a Socialist Prime Minister, Guy Mollet, was elected, one of its avowed objects being to effect a cease-fire with the rebels, to be followed by negotiations. But it was the hour of the Man on the Spot, not of the government. In 1956, Mollet, on a visit to Algiers, was pelted with tomatoes by the Europeans; he was so impressed or depressed by what he saw that he cancelled the appointment of a strong liberal-minded Governor-General for Algeria and decided to follow a more or less nationalist line. Later, Mollet was about to start talks with the President of Tunisia and the King of Morocco which might have led to an Algerian solution. The French secret services, without the Prime Minister knowing, “kidnapped” the aeroplane carrying four Algerian leaders who were travelling as guests of the King of Morocco to a conference in Tunis.

An even greater catastrophe was the bombing of Sakhiet, a town inside Tunisia, by the French military who claimed that Algerian rebels were sheltering in the town. Gaillard, who was then Prime Minister, “covered” the military but, on the threat of a Tunisian appeal to the United Nations, agreed to the “Good Offices” mission of a British and an American diplomat to act as a mediator between France and Tunisia. Inevitably, the “Good Offices” mission was suspected of trying to interfere in Algeria.

The outcry against them and the Gaillard government was tremendous. There was talk of a military coup in France unless a government of the most nationalistic politicians was formed at once. But the parliamentarians evidently did not believe there was a serious risk of a clash with the military. Gaillard fell in April and no government was formed in France for six weeks, and then the strange events of May took place. On 13 May a one-day strike began in Algiers as a protest against the proceedings in Paris where it looked as though the National Assembly was going to elect Pierre Pflimlin, a Catholic Democrat, a most respected man, but who was suspected by the Europeans of Algeria and by the Right of wanting to negotiate with the rebels In the afternoon, rioters sacked the American Information Centre. At first the news aroused little alarm in Paris.

Demonstrations by the “Ultras”, as they were called, no one cared to admit that the Ultras represented most of Algeria’s Europeans were frequent and they had always been adequately controlled by the troops. When the Deputies of the National Assembly adjourned for dinner around seven o’clock in the evening, the thoughts of most of them, except a very small minority who knew something was afoot, were occupied by quite other considerations than the doings of rioters. Should they give M. Pflimlin a majority, or after all look further to the Right? Should they try a national coalition under the Socialist Mollet, combining Socialists and Conservatives?

The riots were turning out very much more serious than usual. In the early evening a huge crowd swarmed up the great staircase, some half a mile long, to the Government General building, which dominates the city, and started fighting with the armed police in the square known as the Forum outside “the G.G.”. On somebody’s orders, the police were withdrawn and paratroopers took over. The paratroopers pushed the crowd about a little less than the police, and did little to restrain those who were anxious to capture “the G.G.”. Indeed some paratroop sections actively helped the rioters. At 7.00 p.m. they had entered the building, burnt the cars of those who were working there and started to ransack the offices. Thousands of files were thrown out of the windows or burnt.

The military, half-heartedly, attempted to check the disorder. Around half past seven General Massu, the extremely popular Military Commander of the Algiers region, arrived in the building. He appeared to be angry. But at 7.45 he had agreed with the rioters to head a newly formed Committee of Public Safety, the aim of which was to take over control of Algiers and demand from France the immediate creation of a government of national union. General Salan, Commander-in-Chief of the French Army in Algeria, the Chinese General as he was called, arrived a little later. He was howled down by the mob when he tried to speak. The Committee of Public Safety broadcast its demand to the Metropolis. “No casualities fortunately in all this,” commented an officer to a journalist, “except the Republic and that’s not serious.”

“When the Deputies came back from dinner there were long festoons of ticker-tape dealing with the happenings in Algiers. The capture of the G.G. and the formation of the Committee of Public Safety aroused indignation and by four o’clock in the morning Pflimlin had a much larger majority than expected, the Communists abstaining and only certain Right-wingers declaring themselves for a government which the Europeans in Algeria would accept.

Early that morning some Right-wing leaders were arrested and the government announced it would smash the revolt, and that if necessary Algeria would be blockaded. The fleet was put in readiness. But Pflimlin also took the step of giving General Salan emergency powers throughout Algeria, of making Salan in fact his delegate. He gambled on Salan and Massu having been forced to join the revolt in order to control it. Early next day, 14 May, it looked as though Pflimlin was right. Massu, at a Press conference, said that the Committee of Public Safety would only remain in power until a Minister came to Algeria. Both generals were extremely worried by Parliament’s firm reaction.

The plotting in Algeria and in France, however, had gone a great deal deeper than the leaders of the European rioters, Salan or Massu, or the newly formed French government, realized. The Army commanders, particularly the colonels, were determined on a show-down with the whole political system which they regarded as weak and potentially dangerous to French interests. So too was a group of supporters of General de Gaulle headed by a young French industrialist, Delbecque, from the north of France. For him, as for some of the Army leaders who were plotting, the rioting had started just a little too early. Delbecque had hoped that Soustelle, the leader of the small Gaullist group in the National Assembly, very popular in Algeria where he had been Governor-General in 1955, would arrive. But Soustelle was under house arrest in Paris.

However, Delbecque’s view was that a call for the return of de Gaulle would be backed certainly by some of the Army colonels and by some of the influential Europeans, even though the name of de Gaulle was not at all popular with the majority of Europeans in Algeria. And those who backed him had never been given any direct evidence that he was in favour of their cause. The Army leaders were not Gaullist either in their majority, but, on the 14th and the 15th of May, when they realized what a dangerous position they would be in if the government was going to hold out against the revolt, a government headed by de Gaulle seemed to them the only alternative to ignominious surrender to Pflimlin.

On 15 May, General Salan once more addressed the great concourse of people who seemed to station themselves permanently in the Forum as though to keep alive their Revolution. He was playing for time and he made an adroit speech,, telling the crowd that a government of national union to safeguard Algeria would come out of their struggle. He ended with the words, “Vive L’Algerie Francaise, Vive La France”. The crowd cheered him. But as he stepped back, Delbecque, who was by then a member of the Committee of Public Safety, came up to him and forced him forward; Salan said, “et Vive de Gaulle.” The cheering continued; it seemed even to grow louder.

This was the decisive moment of the revolt, for though there was only a handful of Gaullists in Algeria, the mention of de Gaulle had an electric effect in France. Generals, civil servants, industrialists who had been hesitating were now prepared to help an uprising which backed a nationally respected figure. Early in 1958 it had been the progressive Left, headed by Mendes France, which, in view of the worsening situation, had demanded the return of de Gaulle. President Coty himself had made overtures to the General. From the moment Salan reluctantly had shouted his “Vive de Gaulle”, the revolt in Algiers took on something of the appearance of a national revolution. On 17 May, Soustelle, who had escaped in the boot of a car to Switzerland, arrived in Algiers. Salan was still playing a double game and had not officially broken with the government. But by then the Colonels and with them the easily swayed mob were solidly in favour of de Gaulle.

During all these four days, from the 13th to the 17th, the civil War in Algeria seemed to be suspended. The Algerian rebel leaders Were watching. Muslims found the European crowds demonstrating against the Paris government comparatively friendly, and some Muslims were persuaded by the Army to demonstrate side by side with the Europeans. After the revolt had become Gaullist, there were in Algiers and Oran and Constantine some genuine Muslim demonstrations. For Muslims, de Gaulle meant the opposite to what he presumably meant to the rioters who had sacked the G.G.; so in this strange affair, opposites found themselves side-by-side.

General de Gaulle had only come to Paris from his home at Colombey in Champagne, once a week, to visit his publishers who Were producing his war memoirs and to meet some of his intimate friends. He was, however, the best-informed man in France, and everybody, except the representatives of the political parties, visited him from time to time! everybody including people such as the Russian, Tunisian and Moroccan Ambassadors,the leaders of the French armed forces and the heads of the State departments.

He had, of course, known that Gaullist were concerned with the events of 13 May, but he had no knowledge of their acts. Indeed he had refrained from making any statement concerning his views on Algeria; he had refused, though strongly pressed by Soustelle, to make known, however vaguely, his attitude towards a French Algeria. All he would say was that until France created a strong State with a government which had authority, the problem of Algeria would go from bad to worse. This did not prevent the Europeans in Algeria from thinking that de Gaulle would never surrender Algeria and would support them; nor did it prevent reasonable Frenchmen from thinking that the General knew it was no good attempting to suppress Algerian nationalism and to fight against the tide of world affairs.

After General Salan’s “Vive de Gaulle” of 15 May, de Gaulle issued a short statement to the Press saying, “I’m ready to assume the powers of the Republic.” It was a typically ambiguous phrase and “assuming the powers” gave offence to the Parliamentarians. On 19 May the General gave a Press conference in Paris which the government was strongly urged to ban.

The Communist trade unions tried to create a general strike but this was a failure. At the Press conference, General de Gaulle made it clear that on no account would he take power unless he was called on by the National Assembly to do so. Everyone knew, he said, his antipathy to dictatorship. He spoke in friendly terms of the Socialist leaders. When asked why he did not condemn the army in Algeria he raised a great laugh: “Let us be serious,” he answered, “the government has not condemned the generals, on the contrary they have handed over their powers to them, why then should I, a private citizen?” For many Frenchmen it was suddenly apparent, however, that France had at least one great man among little men intriguing and fighting for position on both sides of the Mediterranean.

The Press conference established de Gaulle in many men’s minds as the third choice between the rebel army and the ineffective government. It did not end the crisis however. Pflimlin received several large favourable votes in the National Assembly and he told journalists that it was a case of seeing who could hold out the longest. The Republic would fight the Algerian fascists. Throughout France, however, Right-wing groups and Gaullists were in full activity, not always in harmony with each other. Squadrons of the air force dipped their wings when flying over de Gaulle’s house at Colombey. The independent newspaper Le Monde, which had given great support to the liberals in their protests against torture in Algeria, came out in favour of the de Gaulle solution.

Then on 24 May some delegates from Algiers landed in Corsica and with the support of the Gaullists and of paratrooper battalions stationed in Corsica captured the island without firing a shot. A party of armed police surrendered to them. The newly elected Committee of Public Safety of Corsica started a long series of radio broadcasts to cities in the metropolis, urging them to assist in forming Committees of Public Safety and demanding a government headed by de Gaulle. The Minister of the Interior ordered the despatch of a battleship and troop transports to subdue Corsica. This was countermanded by Pflimlin, who described it as folly.

More and more it was clear that only an appeal to the Communists could produce a force in France capable of reacting to the threat from Algiers. A civil war and an alliance with the Communists appealed to few parliamentary leaders in principle; and it was not at all certain that the working classes, including the Communists, were any more than the middle classes prepared to take up arms for the government. The Fourth Republic in fact was dead long before it officially died and the public was indifferent to its fate. Such were the fruits of twelve years of government by “The System”.

After Corsica, paratroop landings supported by garrisons in Paris and in South-west France might come any night, and only the likelihood of General de Gaulle’s return to power warded off its danger. President Coty threatened to resign if the Party leaders could not agree to call on de Gaulle and, in spite of bitter opposition from his own Party, Guy Mollet saw de Gaulle. Gradually a majority for a de Gaulle government appeared a possibility. De Gaulle agreed to speak before the Assembly like any other Prime Minister. He was quite firm about being given powers to remake the constitution. But his provisional government would include Pflimlin and Mollet and a popular conservative leader, Pinay.

He was invested on 1 June. The revolution was over. The General’s speech at his investiture was short and conciliatory. As someone remarked, it might have consisted of one sentence: “Gentlemen, between you and the Seine is, Me.”

The Gaullist revolution saved France from a military coup d’etat and enabled, painfully and only after another four years, de Gaulle to solve the problem of Algeria. The Fifth Republic has given France stability which has been favourable to her steady economic growth. It has not perhaps supplied France with a political system which will outlast de Gaulle. Yet it is unlikely that French politics will ever return to the confusion and inefficiency which, marked the Fourth Republic, though, of course, this is not absolutely certain. But, with whatever reservations one may make, France in 1965 could no longer conceivably be described as “The Sick Man of Europe” as she had been nine years before.

In 1957 the Six countries of Europe, France, West Germany, Italy, Belgium, Holland and Luxemburg, signed the Treaty of Rome, which brought into being the European Economic Community and the Common Market. France, however, in 1958, was ill-prepared to go into the Common Market. The French franc was weak, France’s industries and agriculture, if they were to function successfully in an integrated Europe, had to undergo reconversion to larger and more efficient units, and technical modernization. It looked as though the Fourth Republic governments would not be able to face up to this task. De Gaulle, whom many people considered likely to be an enemy of European economic integration, decided to honour the Treaty. France, indeed, has played since 1958 the role of hurrying on rather than retarding the lowering of tariff barriers and the organization of the Market. De Gaulle immediately quickened the movement towards Franco-German reconciliation by his friendship with Dr Adenauer and his visit to Germany in 1962, which had an immense public success.

De Gaulle’s actions inside the Atlantic Alliance have been much criticized. He has turned France into a nuclear power, with her own deterrent force. He has recognized Red China and generally emphasized his country’s independence of the United States. The effect of his leadership cannot yet be properly judged. But many people in Europe, whether from the West or the East, consider that, apart from saving his country and therefore Europe from disruption in 1958, he embodies, with sagacity, a new spirit in the world, one which refuses to accept the domination of world politics by the two giants, the United States and the USSR. This was made possible by the strange revolution and by the plotters who overthrew the Fourth Republic in May, 1958.