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Pierre Frank

One Year of Gaullism

(April 1959)

From Fourth International (Amsterdam), No. 6, Spring 1959, pp. 28–31.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.

When this issue is published, it will be nearly one year since de Gaulle was installed in power, the parliamentary French Republic having given way to a regime of a typically Bonapartist personal power.

In a series of articles published in previous issues of this magazine, we have see how the operation was carried out. A recently published book, The 13 Plots of 13 May [1], though written in a journalistic tone to glorify those who benefited by the operation, confirms the gist of what we pointed out. The groups that were kicking up a row in Algeria, the little groups (fascist or other) in Paris – all that meant very little. They provided more noise than action. The overthrow of the parliamentary regime was possible only because of the combination of two factors: the refusal of the army’s top cadres, especially the chief of the general staff, General Ely, any longer to obey the civil power that derived its authority from the parliament; the activity of the general-secretary of the Socialist Party, Guy Mollet. According to the authors of this book, he “was a 14th plot all by himself and perhaps the most representative of them all.” And indeed de Gaulle was able to come to power only because Guy Mollet sowed the greatest confusion in the SP and thus more than contributed to the paralysis of the working class, disoriented by the whole policy of the French CP, especially on the Algerian question.

We have also seen, in the previously published articles, the deeper why of the operation: because the dynamic and modernized part of French capitalism could not go forward with a parliamentary structure of power which under the then conditions of French society gave too many possibilities for the archaic and sometimes even parasitic sectors of the economy to impede the necessary advance of the re-equipped sectors. We may say that this understanding of the deeper causes of the change of regime is now spreading to many circles both in the workers’ movement or its periphery and in bourgeois spheres.

Never before has the French bourgeoisie brought about such a change of regime under genuinely peaceful conditions. Never before has it had a power concentrated in so few hands. The new parliament is not even asking to use the meagre prerogatives accorded to it by the new constitution. The governmental cabinet is above all an office for recording the decisions taken by de Gaulle and a few key-men, some of whom are not even ministers. A “Community” has been set up between the Fifth Republic and several republics that were formerly colonies, which has no statute and is worked out among a few men without any control over them.

Thus de Gaulle pictures himself in the lineage of Louis XIV and Napoleon I. “L’etat, c’est moi.” I order ... my government ... my ministers ...

But what has he done in the year now ending? We leave aside those speeches worthy of a colonel presenting the regimental flag to recruits. We shall mention only as a reminder his paternalist proposals about international policy to a world which is quite able to distinguish between the France of capitalism’s beginnings and the France of today.

Where the new regime has produced some impression among the open-mouthed is in the Malraux floor-show. Since the University was almost unanimously hostile to the new regime, de Gaulle has enjoyed making a bit of noise about a few decisions concerning the administrations of the state theatres.

During the last 12 months, the government has issued a spate of ordinances which have considerably modified certain fields, especially in the administration. Nobody can say what all these ordinances contain – nobody, that is, save the prime minister to “My General,” Debré, who is a real fanatic about administration and who believes in the virtues of the state bureaucracy.

But two questions were posed to the new regime: the economic situation created by the launching of the European Common Market and by a recession in Europe; and the Algerian affair.

In economic matters, the government could not do other than to put itself at the service of French capitalism so that it may take its place in the Common Market. It also utilized the recession in order to make a strong attack on the conditions of the laboring people, especially on social security. Wages have again fallen behind prices. All this was done in the name of economic “liberalism”: the principal financial expert who prepared the government’s decision invoked the authority of Bastiat! Already, however, a tendency is coming out for measures of a Keynesian sort.

Still, the French economy, whatever the means employed, is going forward – into a blind alley, for the government wants to engage in numerous projects, including the manufacture of an atomic bomb, while showing itself incapable of finding a solution to the war in Algeria that is costing about 2,000 million francs a day.

If de Gaulle arrived at power without too great difficulties, if Guy Mollet and Thorez, each in his own way, led the masses astray, it was above all because the governments resulting from the 2 January 1956 elections, where the voters voted for peace, got deeper and deeper into the war, and many people thought that de Gaulle could bring peace in Algeria. His private remarks prior to May 13th, like those of an oracle, were interpreted by everyone in the meaning that best suited himself. Illusions about de Gaulle’s position on Algeria existed – perhaps still exist – even among the FLN tops.

Once arrived in power, he continued this game of sibylline declarations, after which the press and parties would engage in ridiculous exegeses. He regained – probably with some difficulty – the control of the top men of the army in Algeria; the matter is more doubtful concerning a whole series of officers who are not near the end of their careers. He did not succeed in breaking up the FLN – which seems to have been his main objective – because he really had nothing to offer. And now he is seeing in Algeria the revival – this time aimed against himself – of the discontent of the ultras, who attribute the continuation of the war to aid from abroad, to defeatists and traitors in France, and to de Gaulle’s complicity with them.

De Gaulle’s biggest success in France had consisted in pushing into the background the Algerian war which from 1955 to 13 May 1958 had been at the centre of all manifestations of political life in France. In the recent municipal elections, it was a question of social security, of unemployment, of the pensions for the last two wars’ ex-servicemen; the Algerian war was scarcely mentioned, in fourth or fifth place. The Communist Party did nothing to breast this current. And so it is not to be hoped for that this state of affairs will be rapidly overcome. But it is inevitable that the war of Algeria will come back, and strongly, into the foreground, for there are the above-mentioned costs which will bring about disastrous economic consequences; for there are, despite the lies in the press, an exacerbation of the fighting in Algeria and daily losses in human lives. If the reaction is alone in making itself heard at present, it is nonetheless true that the great masses of the metropolis do not feel that this war is in their interest and are skeptical about its outcome. The deficiencies and betrayals of the workers’ leaderships contribute to making the Algerian question into a factor of putrefaction in the social body.


We had defined Gaullism as a Bonapartist and not a fascist regime. Just as Trotsky had done for pre-1933 Germany, the distinction thus made had for its aim an understanding of the correlation of various social forces in order to deduce therefrom the prospects and possibilities for the workers’ movement.

De Gaulle, we said, wanted to set up a strong power; he was able to establish a regime that will demonstrate brutality toward the masses, but the resolute use of the forces of the state does not alter the fact that this regime has only a weak social base of its own. It will operate especially by balancing between opposed social forces. In the last analysis, this means, socially speaking, that the new regime, even when it proves its strength, is extremely unstable, and that it must at certain moments find itself faced with critical situations which will afford possibilities to the workers or risk being exploited by fascicizing forces. The new regime has not avoided civil war, as is thought by so many petty-bourgeois imbeciles who would not hesitate to call themselves men of the left; it has only postponed the deadline for awhile, changed the correlation of forces, and turned the initiative over to the bourgeoisie.

In the months following May 13th, it might have seemed that our analysis was erroneous: how could it be said that the new regime had a narrow social base when in the September referendum it had collected 80% of the votes? when in the November legislative elections it had succeeded in taking about 1,500,000 votes away from the Communist Party – something unseen since the Liberation? Not to mention the collapse of old bourgeois parties like the Radicals.

The March 1959 municipal elections have provided a more complete chart of what happened in the country. Granted, the purely local and municipal aspects of these elections must be taken into account. But the political trends were clear in the big cities, where these elections have a pronouncedly political character. The Communist Party won back close to a million votes; the polarization was also visible on the right; the Radical Party, formerly the great occupier of the town halls, disappeared, part of its inheritance falling to the Mollet Socialists, part to the right. Whereas, after the November elections, the government thought it had got too much of a good thing, after the municipal elections it did not know what kind of a face to put on the matter. “I do not concern myself with the electoral conjuncture,” the general finally said, not ill content to leave his prime minister to get out of the scrape as best he could.

The alleged Marxists of the Thorez and Duclos stripe, whom a combination of circumstances has put at the head of the majority of the workers in France, pretend not to remember the votes of the second half of 1958, and cynically declare to the members of the French CP: the municipal elections show that the voters agree with us because our line is correct. This political existentialism in reality just conjures away a phenomenon that is new and of considerable importance.

It is possible that between September-November 1958 and March 1959 about a million former Communist voters may have voted UNR and then returned to voting PCF. It is more likely that the real figure of the voters who thus oscillated between these two formations was in the neighborhood of half a million, for various indications testify to the fact that there was a change in the nature of the abstentions: in September and November, it was former rightist abstentionists who took the trouble to vote in order to support de Gaulle, while former Communist voters stayed home, considering that it was at that time useless to vote. In March 1959 the opposite phenomenon occurred: on the right, many people, disappointed in de Gaulle, went back to abstentionism, while the left went to the ballot-boxes because everyone felt that an anti-government vote was coming.

Whether the first or the second hypothesis be accepted, a phenomenon unknown since the Liberation appeared: very big shifts (either from abstention to voting or vice versa, or from one extreme to the other) were made by a considerable number of voters, to the amount of between half a million and a million.

In this way, de Gaulle’s arrival at power, which was to put an end to the cascade of ministries, which was to ensure political stability, was accompanied by considerable oscillations on the part of very broad masses, going from one extreme to the other. This phenomenon is apparent in the election results, while on the surface of things there was only political apathy to be seen.

How to explain such a contradiction? The operation of May 13th destroyed the completely tottering equilibrium of the Fourth Republic, but did not replace it by any new equilibrium of a genuine sort. The old political representation has become inadequate, and great masses are hunting for solutions, for extreme rather than temperate solutions. This is what they had the opportunity of expressing by their ballots; but they are apathetic and have not taken any action because, first, de Gaulle had at his disposal a certain amount of credit (which is still not entirely squandered), and then because nobody called on them to act, especially not the workers’ and leftist organizations which are presenting as the only perspective the renovation of defunct republics.

This apathy does not mean that society has been politically atomized, as a fascist regime would have done; it indicates a long ripening of forces which do not succeed in finding a way out, and to which nobody possessed of authority is proposing a solution.

And so, despite all the instability inherent in the new regime, nothing indicates that it cannot last for some time. For big capital, it is an almost ideal regime, since weaker interests have no means of bringing pressure on the direction of the state. The real forces of fascism, i.e., the networks that Soustelle & Co are setting up, do not yet have mass strength. The working class finds itself paralyzed by its leaderships. All this combines to enable the Bonapartist regime to tack along and to appear to be powerful over a society that does not know how to pull itself together again.

Under these conditions, although the workers’ movement is no longer in the state of prostration that it found itself in on the morrow of de Gaulle’s arrival at power, and although in the most recent period we have observed some stirrings, we must not have the illusion that the working class is already climbing back up the hill. Indeed, it has not yet had the opportunity of seeing the new regime in all its aspects: there have been no big strikes or big clashes with the forces of capitalist order. The working class’s still great parliamentary illusions have even been strengthened by the municipal election results.

Nevertheless, a new element has just come to light within the masses: a rapprochement between the Communist and Socialist rank-and-file. Whereas for several years now there were observable growing reservations among the Socialist voters about voting for better placed Communist candidates on the second ballot – this was seen even among voters of the UGS, which did not hesitate to call for voting for PCF candidates, and this tendency was still being shown in the November 1958 legislative elections – for several weeks now the contrary trend has been observed; in spite of the directives of the Socialist leaders, a large number of voters transferred their votes to the Communist candidates; and in the municipal elections agreements were made in quite numerous places throughout France for joint lists on the second ballot.

It can easily be imagined how the leadership of the PCF argues from this fact that it proves the correctness of its policy. It does so with all the more effrontery in that it quotes only the most favorable figures. Now if these are examined more closely, it can be seen that, for every Socialist who turned toward the candidates of the PCF, there were two and sometimes three who did not do so. In other words, for the moment this trend of the rank and file toward unity is not strong enough to flood irresistibly over the reformist leaderships’ heads. True, it is necessary to take into account the social composition of the body of Socialist voters, which is not formed only of workers – far from it. But an enormous pressure for unity in the working class would be necessary to overcome this situation, and we are not yet at that point. For if the new regime is acting in a way that aids a trend towards unity, the policy of the PCF has nowise changed the feeling of distrust of very broad masses toward the PCF, the methods it uses in various organizations, and the “Hungarian-style socialism” that it advocates.


Thus the first year of the Gaullist regime is about to end without apparently anything stirring. That is both true and false. Since his arrival at power, de Gaulle has strengthened the state machinery, but he has not yet had any clash with the masses. What has been revealed by the elections is that transformations have been produced which, though molecular, are very deep and run in an absolutely unforeseeable direction.

Under these conditions, the present atmosphere of apathy will probably still continue for a period, till the day when everything that is ripening in the depths will surge up, to the great surprise of everybody. We must be prepared and prepare the workers’ movement, under the current sluggish conditions, for the period that will follow, and especially for its abrupt turns.

As a result of the theoretical and political research now being done in little groups with few or no roots in the worker masses, we are witnessing a profusion of the most confused conceptions. There are many who reject what Stalinism (in theory at least) retained of Bolshevism, while keeping the opportunism cultivated by the leadership of the PCF. On one point, however, some slight progress has been made: the idea is developing that, among the causes of the May 1958 defeat, there is to be found the lack of a perspective and programme of transition toward socialism. Thus, although there is confusion – and to spare – about the content of this programme, on the means of promoting it, especially concerning the question of the government to be advocated for this purpose, the idea is making progress – without being stated in these precise terms – that the dilemma is not democracy or fascism, as the Stalinists à la Thorez claim, but socialism or fascism, as only we Trotskyists have been declaring for years now.

And it is only by opening up the prospect of a fight for a socialist society that there can be effectively prepared the overthrow of the personalist regime. The great worker masses have not yet reached this point, but their coming experience will orient them along this road.

April 1959


1. M. and S. Bromberger, Les 13 complots du 18 mai, Paris (Fayard).

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