Tony Cliff
and Ian Birchall

France – the struggle goes on

The non-CP “left”

Although it is the Communist Party which has the main grip on the French working class, and is therefore primarily responsible for its betrayal, certain representatives of the non-Communist left attempted to play a role in the crisis. In order to understand why the working class treated them with the contempt they deserved, it is useful to look at the history and record of these men and institutions.

The principal section of the non-Communist left in France is the Socialist Party – SFIO – French Section of the Workingmen’s International: its name is virtually the only connection it retains with either internationalism or the working class.

The SFIO since the Second World War has never managed to have an effective working-class base. In 1951 it was estimated that 32 percent of Socialist votes came from communes of less than 2,000 inhabitants, and only 31 percent from towns of more than 20,000 inhabitants. It is strongest in the South West and Mediterranean areas. [87] Its membership is declining – in 1945 it had 335,000 members, in 1950 it had 140,000, and in 1962 it had 91,000. [88]

The party made little impact on youth, partly due to witch-hunts; in 1947 the youth sections lost their autonomy for Trotskyist heresies; ten years later youth sections existed in only 48 of 90 departments. [89] The party is openly imperialistic. Jacques Fauvet notes that the party had never been so united right across the spectrum from Mollet and Lacoste to Defferre (who often took a more left line) than on the Suez intervention.

It should be noted that among non-members of the SFIO Mitterrand wholeheartedly supported Suez and Mendès-France gave it qualified approval. [90]

It should be remembered that the SFIO still describes itself as a Marxist and revolutionary party, and uses appropriate language.

Typifying this is Guy Mollet, the General Secretary of the SFIO since 1946, who has shown unparalleled skill at manipulating the party machine.

Mollet was brought to power by the left of the party. At the 1957 Socialist conference he still remembered enough of Marx to produce a quotation to justify the Suez adventure.

Yet what was Mollet’s record? Apart from Suez and his policy over Algeria, the following points might be noted:

He played a key role in de Gaulle’s return to power in 1958 – an issue on which the SFIO was divided. On 30 May Mollet met de Gaulle, and told the press that the meeting “had been one of the great moments of his life”. [91] During the election that November, Mollet – not opposed by a Gaullist candidate – waved an autographed photo of de Gaulle at election meetings. [92]

Mollet remained in the de Gaulle government till December 1958 – he then wrote to de Gaulle saying, “I do not regret any of my decisions since May, and am happy and proud to have been able to help you found the institutions of the republic on a firmer basis”. [93] The SFIO continued to support de Gaulle’s regime throughout the duration of the Algerian war.

Among other worthies of the SFIO we may mention:

Jules Moch: Minister of the Interior, 1947-50 – reorganised the police force, appointing, following Vichy precedents, eight super-prefects to control the police effectively; was responsible for the CRS shooting strikers, killing two and wounding many. [94]

Robert Lacoste: Appointed by Mollet as Resident-Minister in Algeria. Among the “achievements” of his reign there may be noted the torture of Henri Alleg, and the disappearance and murder of Maurice Audin. As the Algerian crisis of 1958 came to a head, Lacoste’s role, linked to that of the “Algérie Française” elements, became clearer.

(In the recent elections Messrs Mollet, Defferre and Lacoste were all supported by the CP in the second ballot.)

In the Fifth Republic the SFIO has, for electoral purposes, merged with various smaller left groups into the FGDS (Fédération de la Gauche Démocrate et Socialiste – Federation of the Democratic and Socialist left).

The Federation, as the coalescing of several bureaucracies, represents the combination of the defects of all the groups it contains. We may note particularly its policy of selecting candidates, which guarantees renomination to sitting deputies of any of the constituent groups – this means little chance for new blood to get into Parliament; it also means that the Federation must endorse and campaign for men like Max Lejeune, personally responsible for the kidnapping of Ben Bella in 1956, leader of the extreme “Algérie Française” tendency of the SFIO, and for a time de Gaulle’s Minister of the Sahara; or even Georges Bonnet, vicious anti-Communist of the 1930s, Foreign Minister at the time of Munich, personal friend of Ribbentrop and debarred from Parliament in 1944-53 as a wartime collaborationist. Bonnet and Lejeune were both re-elected in 1967 with CP support in the second ballot.

The presidential candidate and leader of the Federation is Mitterrand, of the UDSR (Union Démocratique et Socialiste de la Résistance).

In 1953 Mitterrand wrote:

For me, the maintenance of the French presence in North Africa, from Bizerta to Casablanca, is the first imperative of national policy ... I believe in the virtues of firmness and the necessity of prestige. [95]

Travelling in Algeria before the outbreak of the rebellion in 1954, he refused to meet representatives of the nationalist parties. [96] When the rebellion broke out, he immediately dissolved the main nationalist party [97], and said:

Algeria is France, and from Flanders to the Congo there is one nation, one Parliament. That is the Constitution, that is our wish. [98]

Although his position on Algeria shifted pragmatically later, Mitterrand nonetheless appeared as a defence witness for Salan at his trial in 1962. [99]

The Federation has also inherited those sections of the Radical Party which were unable to accommodate themselves to Gaullism. The Radical Party, with a petit bourgeois and peasant base, had been the dominant party in the 1930s; it combined Jacobin language with conservative policies (opposition to votes for women, etc). Its weak Resistance record left it a divided and declining party in the Fourth Republic. It sought allies opportunistically, uniting with the Gaullists in the municipal elections of 1947, and the Socialists in the 1951 General Election.

Most of its deputies supported Suez and the special powers in Algeria. Between June 1957 and April 1958 two Radical prime ministers governed France; in this period the army got increasingly out of hand, torture was rife in Algeria, and Sakiet in Tunisia was bombed.

To the Federation, Radicalism offers a touch of middle-class respectability and appeals to nostalgia for the Popular Front; to Radical career politicians, like Félix Gaillard (prime minister at the time of Sakiet), the Federation offers a Parliamentary seat and Communist votes on the second ballot.

A more cautious treatment is required to deal with the PSU (Parti Socialiste Unifié), which took by far the best line of any of the official parties during the May events. The origins of the PSU go back to 1958 when some members of the SFIO, unable to tolerate Mollet’s leadership and in particular the Algerian policy and support for de Gaulle, left; this group included former ministers and was not exclusively left. It formed the Parti Socialiste Autonome which by 1960, with some dropouts and new elements from outside the Socialist Party, developed into the PSU. Its real growth was based on its clear opposition to the Algerian war, in opposition to the CP’s foot-dragging.

As a result, the PSU’s ideology is vague – the Canard Enchaîné once maliciously commented that in the coming elections each party would present its policy, except the PSU, which would present two. In 1965 it organised a seminar at Grenoble for the “couches nouvelles”, the technocratic elite, on economic problems, and showed a strong tendency to become the political expression of the technocracy. In particular it has developed the strategy of the “counterplan”, an essentially reformist device.

After saying this, and making it quite clear that the PSU is in no way a revolutionary Marxist party, it must be stated to its credit that it is an open party in which free discussion can take place, and in which revolutionaries can work and propagandise. In the recent events it not only strongly supported the students, but defended the dissolved left groups, and in the elections it invited non-members from the Comités d’Action to stand as PSU candidates on Action Committee programmes.

For foreign observers, there is a danger that the PSU will be confused with Pierre Mendès-France, a politician much more loved outside France than in it: Mendès-France represents the extreme right of the PSU, and unlike other PSU members receives electoral support from the Federation.

The Mendès-France government of 1954-55 showed Mendès-France up for the opportunist and neo-capitalist he was and has remained. He did indeed negotiate the peace in Indochina, but his motive was clear. As he said, “We must choose – We shall not make an army in Europe as long as the haemorrhage in Indochina lasts”. [100]

When the Algerian rebellion broke out, Mendès-France’s neo-colonialist liberalism seemed to be on the wane – he said:

The departments of Algeria are part of the Republic ... Never will France, never will any Parliament or any Government yield on this fundamental point. [101]

We have already noted the actions of his Minister of the Interior, Mitterrand. It was, furthermore, Mendès-France who sent Jacques Soustelle to Algeria as Governor-General.

More recently Mendès-France supported Israel, and declined to take sides over Vietnam. [102]

During May and June 1968 he became more and more estranged from the PSU, where the “Centre”, led by Michel Rocard and Marc Heurgon, wanted to support the rebellious students to the end, while Mendès-France wanted to stick to the PSU’s former line, which was the development of a “new left” within a union of the entire left, including both the PCF and the FGDS. (A few days later it was announced that Mendès-France resigned from the PSU.) [103]




87. A. Philip, Les Socialistes (Seuil, 1967), p.173.

88. A. Philip, Les Socialistes, p.174.

89. P.M.W. Williams, Crisis.

90. J. Fauvet, La Quatrième République (Fayard, 1954), pp.321-322.

91. A. Werth, De Gaulle Revolution (London, 1960), p.162.

92. A. Werth, De Gaulle, p.375.

93. A. Philip, Les Socialistes, p.169.

94. P.M.W. Williams, Crisis, p.347; Histoire, III p.50.

95. L’Express, 5 September, 1953.

96. Histoire, III, p.124.

97. P.M.W. Williams, Crisis, p.46.

98. Histoire, III, p.125.

99. In the Archives Secrètes de la Wilhelmstrasse, IV, p.433 (Plon, 1953), Ribbentrop gives the following account of a meeting with the French Foreign Minister Georges Bonnet: “He told me that on the one hand they didn’t want to receive any more Jews coming from Germany – we should take measures to see that they do not come to France – and on the other hand that France would have to get rid of about 10,000 Jews and send them anywhere – possibly Madagascar.”

100. J. Fauvet, La Quatrième République, p.189.

101. Histoire, III, p.125.

102. International Socialist Journal 22, p.608.

103. Times, July 30 1968.


Last updated on 21.4.2003