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International Socialism, Summer 1958


André Giacometti

The state of the French Left


From International Socialism, No. 1, Summer 1958, pp. 5–17.
Thanks to Ted Crawford & the late Will Fancy.
Transcribed and marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


The victory of de Gaulle has harshly spotlighted the weakness of the French Left. The following excellent article written some months before the coup shows clearly the causes of the lefts weakness – the betrayal of the “Socialist” and “Communist” leaderships. In this article Comrade Giacometti deals mainly with the Socialist Party of France. We hope to publish another article dealing with the French Stalinist Party ... Editor

To describe and analyze the French Left today is a difficult and unrewarding task. Where to begin? The concept itself has been elusive and ambiguous. It is not, as many have said, that the terms “Left” and “Right” have become meaningless. For us who continue to view the working-class as a sociological fact, as a community of action with specific interests, tasks, historical aims and perspectives, the terms have never lost their clarity. To us, the “Left” is the broad, historical movement of the working-class, the movement which represents its interests, seeks to fulfil its tasks and purposes. To spell it out: the “Left” is the movement which seeks to establish a society based on the common ownership and democratic control of production. In all countries there are organisations which, each in their own way, represent this historical movement: socialist parties, laboutr parties, revolutionary nationalist movements, trade-unions.

But if we turn to France today, we are faced with the fact that no such movement exists, at least not in organised form. There are, to be sure, the traditional organisations of the working-class: two large parties, the Communist Party and the Socialist Party (SFIO); three important trade-unions: CGT, CFTC and FO. What these institutions have in common, is their lack of real content. Of the parties, it can be said today that they do not even represent the historical movement of the working-class implicitly and in spite of themselves. The trade-unions only represent a minority of the working-class, and not necessarily its most active and conscious part. The bulk of the workers is unorganized, and the real life of the working-class takes place outside of their scope.

The two major mass movements in recent years – the strikes of 1953 and 1955 – were initiated spontaneously, outside the trade-unions, and they were carried forward to a large extent by the unorganized. Figures of actual union membership are difficult to obtain, but it seems doubtful that the number of paid-up members for the three major federations exceeds 1.8 millions (1 million for CGT, 500,000 for the CFTC and 300,000 for FO) [1*] According to a well-informed union official, the total number of union members at the Renault auto works does not exceed 2,000 – out of a total labor force of 40,000.

Union elections also give an indication: in the union elections at Renault of May 1947, abstentions ran up to 41.5%; at Citroen, the average percentage of abstentions is 50%. [1]

In the political elections, the disaffection of the working-class is even more evident. According to an analysis of the 1951 elections by the French Institute for Public Opinion Research (IFOP) 1.9 million workers voted for the CP (38% of the total CP vote) 576,000 voted for the SFIO (21% of the total SFIO vote) and 450,000 voted for the christian-democratic MRP (19% of the MRP vote) while approximately 5 million did not vote at all. [2]

The country is ruled by an omnipotent and irresponsible bureaucratic apparatus, while the people elects an irresponsible Parliament, which spawns one impotent government after another. The mechanism of official political life has not broken down but functions in a void; the mass of the people has withdrawn its interest from it and seeks to express itself by other means.

Both communist and socialist parties have become deeply involved in this shadow life of official politics: they are indeed among its main supports, and share many of its features. They are included, with reason, In the disaffection and mistrust the people, and particularly the working-class, feels towards “politics” in general.

Some will object that these parties, after all, exist. It is true, there are party organizations, a party opinion, a party press. Voters continue to cast their ballots for the party tickets. But if one looks at the role these organizations play, at their real function in society, it becomes clear that they are important only by

virtue of their inert bulk, in a purely negative way. From the point of view of the historical working-class movement, they are nothing more than obstacles. Since this has not always been the case, and since large numbers of workers and socialists still do not see it that way, it is necessary to explain. In what way. are they obstacles? How and when did this come about? Who do these parties represent and what do they want? When these qestions are answered, the perspectives of the real labor movement in France will become clearer too.

The decline of the SFIO

Since the end of the war, the history of the French Socialist Party (SFIO) has been one of steady and rapid decline.

This decline of the SFIO is equally striking on all levels: in terms of numerical strength, of organizational structure, of social composition, of age composition, of political, cultural and theoretical vitality. The statistical facts of the decline have been assembled by scholars such as Raymond Fusilier, Pierre Rimbert, Maurice Duverger and others, who have devoted well-known studies to this problem. It is useful to summarize these data here, as they save a lot of explaining. At first, the decline in membership is perhaps the most striking fact [3]:


. . . .




. . . .



. . . .



. . . .



. . . .



. . . .



. . . .



. . . .



. . . .



. . . .



. . . .




. . . .


) approx.


. . . .



A glance at these figures shows that since 1945 the SFIO has lost over two thirds of its membership. After having been the strongest ever in its history in 1945, it is now at the lowest ebb since 1927. Moreover, the departure of the old members is coupled with a failure to recruit new ones. In his essay on the SFIO, Maurice Duverger remarked [4]:

“in the years 1925–1928, when the party’s strength was about equal to its strength today, many new members joined it every year (between 20,000 and 50,000 each year). People left, but others came to take their place. When the total number dropped, as in 1932–34, it meant that the number of the former was greater than that of the latter, but the recruitment remained significant: about 19,000 new members joined in 1933, almost 15,000 in 1934. Today this turnover no longer exists. The sources of recruitment have practically dried up. Old members leave, nobody takes their place; only 708 new members in 1948, for a total number of approximately 285,000! In 1950, the party claimed 5,000 new members, but the rounded and vague figure leaves room for every kind of doubt, Since 1951 the party leadership no longer dares to publish figures, which is symptomatic.”

The nature of this decline is different from that of previous crises. Since the founding of the unified party in 1905, four significant drops in membership occurred. All these drops are short in time (none lasts longer than three years) and can be attributed to specific causes: World War I and its consequences, the split which gave birth to the Communist Party, the departure of the “neo-socialist” right wing in 1933, the expulsion of the left wing – the future PSOP – in 1938.

The present drop in membership is a continuous process of almost ten years, if one excepts the short-lived recovery of 1954–56. It is not the result of one or several splits, as before the war, but of a general decline, although small groups have left the party in 1948 and in late 1956, Very few of the former members left to join or to form other organizations: there is no amputation, only a wasting-away. Splits assume political vitality, energy, fighting; a wasting-away may mean many things, but excludes all of the above.

It could be pointed out that the drop in membership is not a phenomenon confined to the SFIO, but one which has affected all French parties since 1945. The Communist Party, for instance, has dropped from 1 million members at the end of the war to 430,000 members today, while the circulation of L’Humanité has shrunk from 601,000 copies in 1945–46 to 173,000 copies in 1954. The general process of de-politization does not account, however, for the extent of the drop. Moreover, the popular vote of the SFIO has also shrunk considerably during the same period [5]:


number of votes





1946 (June)



1946 (Nov.)






In 1932 and 1936 the SFIO represented approximately 20% of the voters; thus, even if one discounts the effects of the general turn to the Left at the end of the war, the decline remains substantial.

The party’s Paris daily, Le Populaire, dropped from a circulation of 278,000 copies in 1945–46 to the level of a miserable one-sheet bulletin today, with a circulation of 27,000 copies in 1955, of which only 35% were actually sold. It has declined further since.

Why this unprecedented drop in membership and influence? There are general political reasons which we mentioned above: the withdrawal of the French people from political life. But the specific reasons weigh more heavily in the balance. In the immediate post-war years, where the French working-class and, for that matter, most other people, were looking for radical solutions, a party that took the main responsibility for prosecuting the war in Indo-China, repressing the nationalist movements in Algeria and Madagascar, freezing the wages, stabilizing the political regime and turning the country into a pawn of US foreign policy could not help but disappoint its working-class and left wing supporters. In fact, the consequences of a conservative policy at that particular time turned out to be more serious than a passing disappointment: it was during these years that the party shifted its social base and changed its political nature. It was not until the government of Guy Mollet that the full impact of these changes was revealed.

It is true that between 1954 and 1956 the downward trend was slightly reversed. For one thing, the party was getting close to rock-bottom and those oppositionists that remained in spite of their disagreement with the leadership represented a selection of case-hardened people, determined to stay in the party even under very difficult circumstances, On the other hand, the party had undergone a long “opposition cure”. Its role in the Indo-Chinese war and Jules Moch’s activities as a Minister of the Interior were far enough removed in time to be forgotten by many. The statements of the party leaders seemed to show a genuine desire for reform, and their strong support of “Mendesism” led many people to view the SFIO once again as a party of reform with potentialities for growth and, perhaps, radical developments. Although the party did not grow nearly as much as the “Mendesist” wing of the Radical Party, it also benefited from the general trend towards liberalism and reform.

In the election of January 1956, which brought the “Republican Front” coalition into power, the SFIO polled 3,171,985 votes, an increase of roughly 500,000, representing 15% of the total vote. It is interesting to note that in these elections the number of abstentions also decreased from 19.8% to 17.2%. [6]

Within three months, however, the party plunged once more downward, this time to hitherto unfathomed depths. By its policy in Algeria and in the Middle East, and by its brutal suppression of the opposition within the party, the party leadership created a situation where, for the first tirae since 1947, compact groups were leaving the party, the “Action socialiste” group, led by Andrée Vienot of the Ardennes Federation, being the most important. The loss of party membersi resumed and increased with every new sanction against militants of the opposition: the expulsion of Weitz, the sanctions against Pivert, Philip and others, the dissolution of the student organization, etc. In July 1957, Maurice Duverger estimated the party membership at 96,000; it has doubtlessly gone down since. [7]

In terms of popular vote, on the other hand, the party has held its own since 1951: this is shown by the various local elections which have taken place since 1956, and it has remained so even after Suez. An analysis of these votes shows the reason: the party of Mollet and Lacoste has won the support of right-wing voters, who have come to view it as a solid bastion for their ideas and interests.

This brings us to the center of the problem: more important than the numerical decline itself, is the change that has occurred in the party during this decline. Its recent political evolution cannot be understood without reference to the changes in social composition, geographical distribution, age composition and organizational set-up within the SFIO. The partial recovery of 1954 – 56 then appears as the result of a misunderstanding that was rapidly and decisively cleared up during the government of Guy Mollet.

The most recent data on the party’s social composition go back to 1955. They concern the party membership as a whole (based on a sample of 15,000 members), the cadres (i.e. the members of the Executive Committees of the Departmental Federations, the members of the parliamentary groups and the members of the Directing Committee) and the voters. The figures concerning the election candidates refer to the 1951 elections, “No profession” means mostly housewives. [8]

social group





election cand.




general pop.

workers (industrial)








workers (agriculture)






civil servants







office workers





pensioned and ret.












shopkeepers artis.















no profession








prop. of women






* included under “farmers”

Among the party membership, 58% are wage-earners, and 30-35% are probably workers: the,figure for “civil servants” includes probably one third or more workers in the public services (railways, city transport, electric power and gas), who have a special statute, and the figure for “farmers” includes a small number of agricultural workers. Nevertheless, the specific weight of the working-class in the party is small. If one combines the results of political elections and of union elections, it appears that the SFIO has no working-class following in any of the basic industries nor, as we shall see, in the main industrial concentrations; very little in mining, next to nothing in the metal industries, in steel, in maritime transport, in the building trades. The workers of the SFIO are mostly scattered in small enterprises, and work for the most part in secondary industries; leather, ceramics, textile.

On the other hand, the “new middle class” (civil servants and office workers) represents about 25% of the membership; the “old middle class” (shopkeepers, artisans, professional) about 20%. These categories are relevant because under the present circumstances the political behaviour of most civil servants and office workers is determined not so much by the fact that they live by selling their labor power than by their bourgeois aspirations, There are notable exceptions: the bank-clercs in Paris, for instance, and the post-office workers, but in general the “white collar” groups have remained conservative.

The change in the social composition of the SFIO parallels a geographical shift of the basis of its support from North-East to South-West and from the industrial to rural regions. This is the phenomenon that Duverger called the “radicalization” of the SFIO, that is, the tendency of the party to adopt the features of the Radical Party and to replace the latter on the political spectrum.

Before 1919, the SFIO was mostly a northern party, based on the industrial regions of Paris and of North Eastern France (steel and mining). After the split leading to the founding of the Communist Party, the movement towards the South begins. By 1928 and 1932 the SFIO began to replace the increasingly conservative Radical Party in its traditional strongholds in the South-West and in the West, In 1946, the SFIO weakens in the North, East and Center Regions, and again gains in the South. Duverger concludes: “except for the mining departments of the North, the SFIO has become more a southern than a northern party; it occupies the position of the old “republican left” of pre-1900 days, which had no specific socialist;characteristic. It thus inherits the Radical traditions.” [9]

Today, the two “industrial” departments of the Nord and Pas-de-Calais represent about a quarter of the party’s membership. The second largest group is the Paris region (Seine and Seine-et-Oise) representing about a tenth. The Marseille region (Bouches-du-Rhone) represents another tenth. The rest of the membership (over half) is distributed in the provincial federations, most of which are Southern.

The shift from North-East to South-West also involves a shift from the industrial to the rural regions: in the elections of 1951, the votes of the SFIO were composed as follows:

from communities

under 2,000 inhabitants:



between 2,000 and 5,000:



between 5,000 and 20,000:



between 20,000 and 100,000:



over 100,000 inhabit.:


This does not mean, however, that the party has succeeded in gaining significant support among the farmers, like the CP has been able to do: as we have seen, only 8% of the SFIO voters are farmers. The SFIO tends to become less a rural party than a party of the small provincial towns. [10]

The political consequences, of this shift have not been either immediate or direct. The two large federations of the North, with a working-class majority, have been so far among the most steady supporters of the Mollet apparatus, while several southern federations have voted for minority resolutions. The geographical shift has reflected more directly on the psychological climate within the party, and on its organizational habits. Like all parties in the Marxist tradition, the SFIO was originally organized as a centralized and disciplined mass party, based on an active membership of hundreds of thousands, welded together by a system of sections and federations. This structure is now being increasingly replaced by another type of organization, characteristic of bourgeois parties; the party comes alive only at election time, and is held together between elections by a committee or bureau of party functionaries. The membership hardly participates in the life of the party, nor is the party relevant to the lives of the members. Often, the local committees claim a membership that exists on paper only and whose dues are paid by generous donators. These paper members then become some of the most reliable supporters of administrative majorities at party congresses.

In other places, the local party section becomes a club where old-timers meet to cultivate memories of the Popular Front or Liberation period. It is easy to see how difficult it would be to spoil the atmosphere of the club by suggesting action on the issues of the day.

These organizational habits and practices bring the SFIO close to Saragat’s Italian Social-Democratic Party, which is in every respect more degenerate than its French counterpart and perhaps represents the image of the latter’s future.

The evolution from mass-party to electoral machine is also shown in the “membership ratio”, i.e. the proportion of party members to voters. In left-wing mass-prties, the ratio ought to be high: the higher the ratio, the more intense the participation of the ranks in the party’s life, the stronger the roots of the party in the population. For the social-democratic labor parties of Britain and Austria the ratio’is about 40%,in Sweden and Denmark it is about 35%, in Norway 25% and in Switzerland over 20%. In France, the “membership ratio” of the SFIO exceeded 10% only once, in 1936, but hardly ever dropped below 7%. In 1946, it was 9%. In 1955, however, it had dropped to 4%. [11] Today it is even lower, since the party membership has decreased much faster than the popular vote.

Finally, the party has grown old. The sampling of 1955 indicated the following proportions for each age group (in percent) [12]:

under 25 years



from 25–30 years



from 30–40 years



from 40–50 years



over 50 years



Another sampling of 1952, by the French Institute for Public Opinion Research, among the party’s electorate, confirmed these results: [13]




average in
tot. pop.

under 35 years




from 50–60 years




over 65 years




These proportions grow worse as one gets closer to the top leadership. Although the SFIO is not strictly speaking a party of old people (the average age of the members and voters is higher in the right-wing parties, and the proportion of pensioned and retired voters is highest in the Radical Party) it is a party on the older side of middle age, with an insignificant proportion of youth and more important, with an inability to recruit among the youth. Among its top leaders and parliamentarians, it has its generous share of the ancient French politicians “who never resign and rarely die.”

The high proportion of older people in the age-structure of the party has had a double effect: first it determines the psychological atmosphere: slow reactions to new situations, a world made up of pious recollections, of small, rigidly observed routine habits. Secondly, it reinforces the conservative tendencies of apparatus rule: advancement is slow and based on seniority alone. Creative intelligence, drive, outstanding abilities are not an asset but a handicap in this kind of organization.

From another point of view, the social composition has also contributed to strengthening these tendencies: the high proportion of civil servants has undoubtedly favored the bureaucratization of the party and the rule of the General Secretariat. The habits of discipline, of obedience to authority, the acceptance of administrative hierarchy and dependence are always present in a large group of civil servants and office workers, and assert themselves with particular force in a conservative social climate.

The rule of the apparatus is also favored by the heterogeneity of the party’s class composition: in the absence of a dynamic policy, the apparatus is the principal force which keeps together the contradictory interests that have sought shelter in the party.

One of the most important consequences of this situation has been the disappearance of the party ideology: the apparatus shuns theory, as it necessarily involves critical thinking. For ten years now, any interest for theory has been confined to the isolated minorities on the Left, mostly composed of individuals who have learnt to think in other organizations before joining the party.

In actual practice, the ideology has been replaced at best with liberal empiricism (as in the case of the “center” faction led by Defferre) or with a vague feeling of solidarity with the “little man”, at worst with the kind of party patriotism in which the organisation has become and end in itself. The effect achieved is not unlike that of Stalinism in the CP: the party can do no wrong, the leaders of the party must not be criticized lest the criticism be used aginst the party by its enemies, etc. This is what André Philip refers to when he says that the parly “seems to have lost the very notion of truth” and that an action “is held to be good or evil not on its own merits but according to the party affiliation of the men responsible for it.” [14]

The reaction of Mollet to the capture of the Moroccan plane carrying the leaders of the FLN is typical in this respect: anger when he received the news, then acceptance and endorsement in order to cover up for Lacoste. The responsibility of the left minority in this situation should not be hidden: during the electoral campaign in Paris in January 1957, the 1eft-winger Mirelle Osmin defended the official party policy in spite of her well-knowh opposition to the party leadership, contributing only to the discredit of the opposition and to the confusion of party members and sympathizers.

One may summarize the preceding point by quoting Duverger’s description of the present state of the party [15]:

“Without doctrine or program, the party confines itself to the defense of immediate interests, supporting in a day-by-day fashion the demands of the interest groups under its protection [2*] without relating them to each other or to the general situation, without even analyzing their chances of success. It agrees to wage-raises, but without undertaking the fiscal and social reforms that would enable it to limit profits; it agrees to lower the prices of foodstuffs but without ceasing to support useless agricultural products; it is all in favor of economic expansion, but without touching marginal enterprises: all those are themes which the SFIO holds in common with all other French parties, each insisting on one or the other aspect, according to the weight of the different interest groups within the party. The Radicalized SFIO is becoming increasingly assimilated to French conservatism: a conservatism of little people, nicer than the other kind from a sentimental point of view, actually much worse since it involves the acceptance by the victims of their condition as victims. The verbal reference to socialism only exists for the sake of a good conscience; in this country of ours, the conservatives insist on seeming revolutionary to others and, most of all, to themselves.”

We have seen in the preceding sections of this survey the ways in which the sociological degeneration of the SFIO has determined the shift towards an inferior kind of bourgeois politics. It is necessary at this point to turn to the other aspect of this process, and to assess the part that policy has played in the degeneration of the party. This, in turn, raises other questions: to what extent can a change in policy by the party leadership or by sections of the party modify or reverse the present process of decline? What are the forces that make policy in the SFIO of today, and what forces could be expected to change it?

It should be clear that as complex a process as the complete sociological and political transformation of a mass-party cannot simply be explained by a “mistaken” policy of its leadership, nor can it be said that the adoption of a “correct” policy by this leadership would annul that process. One could also express the wish that the left wing of the party should adopt a militant yet realistic policy which might, even under the present circumstances, neutralize the right wing and change the party all over again. But such wishes remain empty speculations when the forces don’t exist that could create such a policy and act upon it.

It is probably true that the presence in the party of a strong and homogenous Left in 1944–5 would have determined an entirely different evolution. The sociological base for an independent and militant labor party does exist in France: the social-democratic workers of tho Northern and Eastern departments, a large part of the Communist workers, the Catholic workers of the West. As late as January 1956 the leader of the CFTC; in Nantes pointed put to the SFIO that its electoral victory in that region was due to the votes of the Catholic workers, and urged the party – ironically – to follow a more militant course in order to cement this alliance. [16] By that tine, however, the SFIO was no longer in a position to turn itself into the basis for a political regroupment of the working-class. In 1945, when hundreds of thousand of young men and women from the Resistance movement felt attracted to socialist solutions, tho operation could have been successful had it been carried out by the Left – the only section of the party capable of implementing such a perspective. But in 1945 the Left was neither strong nor homogenious, not even to the extent of keeping itself together. The historical reasons for this cannot be discussed within the framework of this article [3*]; suffice it to say that a conquest of the party by tho Left had become a pious wish by 1948. [4*]

Above all other things, the recent history of the SFIO teaches the lesson that good intentions, and even policies, that are good in themselves, are inevitably defeated when working at cross-purposes with the fundamental trends of an institution. The failure to face this fact accounts for the quiet and thorough defeat of the SFIO’s left wing.

Institutions have their own logic; the political history of the SFIO since the end of the war has been the history of nen who, by the logic of that particular institution, have been compelled to transgress every principle of socialism, or have been forced out of positions of influence. It is important to remember that the present leadership of the party came to power in 1947 as a left-wing caucus (with Mollet as General Secretary and Dechezelles as Assistant Secretary) and that it came to power by defeating a right-wing led by Daniel Mayer, who today opposes Mollet’s policy – from the Left? Within one year, the party had returned to the bourgeois politics which the left wing had fought: was in Indo-China, “Third Force” coalitions, support of US foreign policy and opposition to the economic demands of the working-class. Then, as today, the party has acted as a machine to produce conservative politicians.

As in the case of Stalinism, the institution has not only transformed the men, but also the meaning of words and ideas: “party discipline” now means blind obedience to the Secretariat, anti-”clericalism” is a pretext for fighting the Catholic Left, “internationalism” has become a pretext for opposing the right of the Algerian people to self-determination.


1*. There are about 10 million potential union members in France: 1.2 million agricultural workers, 6,5 industrial workers and 2 million office workers. There are also about 400,000 teachers but their case is different: almost all belong to unions, most of which are federated in an independent organization, the Federation de l’Education Nationale. Their unions are outstanding for their militancy, their high degree of internal democracy and their high standards of organization.

2*. André Philip defines this policy as “practical conservatism”, thinly disguised by a general ideology of the defense of the “little man” against the “big man”.

3*. They have been explained in two valuable studies by Saul Berg in The New International, February and March 1947.

4*. In March 1949, the former National Secretary of the SFIO Youth wrote: “The few attempts of some cadre elements, mostly former left oppositionists, to modify the structure of the party and to give a political education to its members remained without results. The failure of the socialist factory groups illustrate very well the lack of real basis for the efforts of certain militants who intend to organize the workings-class with a party that has neither the social composition nor the policy necessary for such work.” [17]


1. Le Monde, May 9, 1957.

2. Jean-Daniel Reynaud and Alain Touraine, La representation politique du monde ouvrier in Partis politiques et classes sociales en France, Colin, Paris 1955.

3. Raymond Fusilier, La situation actuelle du Parti socialiste francais, L’Observateur, June 18, 1953 and Maurice Duverger, SFIO: mort ou transfiguration?, Les Temps Modernes, Nr. 112–113, 1955.

4. Duverger, ibid., p. 1865

5. Fusilier, ibid.

6. Le Monde, January 5, 1956.

7. Duverger, Demagogie de bureaucrates, Le Monde, July 12, 1957.

8. Pierre Rimbert, Le Parti socialiste SFIO in Partis politi-ques et classes sociales en France; Sondages, review of the IFOP, Nr. 1952; Maurice Duverger, op. cit., Les Temps Modernes, p. 1869.

9. Duverger, op. cit., Les Temps Modernes, p. 1868.

10. Sondages, 1952, Nr. 3.

11. Duverger, op. cit., Les Temps Modernes, p. 1870.

12. Rimbert, op. cit.

13. Sondages, 1952, Nr. 3.

14. Andre Philip, Le Socialistic trahi, Plon, Paris 1957. p. 205/6.

15. Duverger, op. cit., Les Temps Modernes, p. 1873.

16. Gilbert Declerq, Questions posées au Parti socialiste, Tenoignage Chretien, Jan, 20, 1956.

17. Marcel Rousseau, Sur la crise de la SFIO, Confrontation Internationale, March–April 1949.

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