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Pierre Frank

Gaullist Bonapartism Throws Off Its Camouflage

(March 1960)

From Fourth International (Amsterdam), No. 9, Spring 1960, pp. 20–25.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.

At the moment of writing, many French politicians and journalists are discussing whether de Gaulle, by refusing to summon a special session of the parliament despite the formal request of more than half its deputies, has violated the constitution which he himself got adopted in September 1958 or whether a provision therein permitted him so to act. A wonderful subject to keep professors of constitutional law busy for years! But to understand how and why it happened, it is preferable to use Marxist analysis, and, on this occasion, what it teaches us on the subject of Bonapartism.

Even since de Gaulle arrived at power, we have made a distinction between the fascisizing forces which brought off the May 13th coup d’état in Algiers with the support of the army, and the state power that was set up in Paris, the Bonapartist power of de Gaulle, an expression of a very dynamic wing of big capital. [1] It must be added, however, that this Bonapartism at that time had characteristics that seemed to be in partial contradiction to the classical definition of Bonapartism. On the one hand, the army in Algeria constituted a force still independent, to a considerable extent, of the new power in Paris: one of de Gaulle’s essential goals was to ensure himself of the control of the army. On the other hand, de Gaulle began his reign by associating in the government Pinay and Guy Mollet, the heads of the two main parliamentary parties of the Fourth Republic. Bonapartism is above all a sabre and a philosophy. Whereas de Gaulle, at the beginning, did not have a firm grasp on the hilt of the sabre, and the philosophy of “grandeur” and of the firmness of the executive power was decked out in tawdry parliamentary finery. But in less than two years the situation has been clarified and we are coming to classic Bonapartism.

The Army and State Power

The army was the main force which de Gaulle had to and still has to take into account. Having undergone a series of defeats for twenty years, it has – like any beaten military man – thrown the responsibility on to the civil power. Especially when it was beaten or fought to a standstill, not by those gentlemen of the German Supreme General Staff, but by the Vietnamese, Algerians, etc. This situation helped to develop in this army currents that favored “the psychological weapon,” i.e., fascist or fascisizing currents that had themselves worked out a policy for Algeria, whose goal was to make it into a French province.

As the representative of the essential interests of French capitalism, de Gaulle is determined to reach a solution in Algeria that guarantees the predominance of French capitalist interests there; but he knows that Algeria is “Algerian” and will never be French, and that he had to get the army to give up its illusory goals. This operation required time, and various efforts, involving the elimination of certain highly placed chiefs, first by pushing them upstairs to honorific posts, and conversations with many subalterns during several “tours round the messes”; and it was completed by checking and defeating the January 1960 attempt at a fascist Putsch in Algiers. The ultras felt driven to action by the removal of General Massu; they thought that they had at their disposal, as in May 1958, the aid or the benevolent backing of the army. And indeed, in the army there were not lacking cadres who felt sympathy for their attempted Putsch. But de Gaulle, speaking over the radio on January 29th, placed them before the alternative – either obey or make a pronunciamiento – and they obeyed.

The present condition of the French army (that is, of its cadres and its special troops) deserves some explanation. It is not only reactionary, as any army of a capitalist state is. It is at present politicized in an outstandingly reactionary way and it is a political force that the state power has to take into account. But, since the January 1960 events in Algiers, it is certain that this army, even though there will still be certain grumblings or certain angry shouts here and there, will submit to de Gaulle’s authority. First of all because, as Delouvrier, highest French functionary in Algeria, said, “There’s no other de Gaulle.” And then because the army and de Gaulle are in agreement today about staying in Algeria. After the most recent Algiers events, many men of the left said that de Gaulle had made to the army the concession that it would remain in Algeria and, when the time came, have control of the referendum about self-determination. This was no concession by de Gaulle, because it had never previously been his intention to let go of Algeria as the ultras accused him of wanting to do. We shall return later to the Algerian question. For the moment the French army is involved there in guerilla warfare that has lasted more than five years, after seven years of war in Vietnam. This long and embittering contact with the colonial revolution, in the absence of anything that could possibly be called an intervention by the French proletariat, has in any case made the army a hotbed of reactionary and fascisizing cadres, and great efforts by the workers of France will be necessary to overcome it.

The Political Parties and the Gaullist Regime

Relations with the parliamentary world presented a less thorny problem than those with the military men, though one that in the long run has no less important consequences.

Immediately after de Gaulle’s arrival in power, with the exception of the leaders of the PCF (French Communist Party), who could not fail to fear every thing from Gaullism, only a few bourgeois-democratic or Socialist politicians – Mendés-France, Mitterand, the leaders of the PSA (Autonomous Socialist Party) and the UGS (Union of the Socialist Left) – stated that they would not stay within the framework of the regime and wait for the period that would come after the Gaullist regime. Some others, the Radicals with Gaillard, individual figures like Edgar Faure, adopted an equivocal position toward the new regime. As the months passed, various figures could be seen leaving the government, without, for all that, taking a position against the regime: first, Guy Mollet, because of the Pinay-Rueff economic policy, aimed at the laboring masses; then Radicals or Socialists of second rank, because of the anti-laïc policy in the school question; next, Pinay himself, worried by overly rough measures against small and medium-size businesses; and finally Soustelle, wanting to capitalize on the hostility of the ultras and fascists toward de Gaulle’s Algerian policy. With the refusal to summon the parliament, it was the Socialist Party of Mollet and the MRP (Popular Republican Movement) that are withdrawing. All these evolutions were carried out in the most complete ambiguity, and by invoking pretexts rather than the real reasons. None of these political leaders, none of these formations, gave a frank explanation or formulated a categoric opposition to the regime. Not one of them calls on the masses for any struggle whatsoever. It is rather Premier Debré, a simple carrier-out-of-orders, than de Gaulle himself, whom they bring into question. All have adopted a waiting, passive attitude: let the state power shift for itself, alone, as long as it can; as for us, we intervene only to get into a better position for what will come after de Gaulle.

The result has been that in these first months of 1960 the new regime has appeared in its true light. The power is in the hands of de Gaulle and a brains-trust of a few figures who are neither ministers nor deputies; the government are above all a group of top functionaries, carrying out the decisions of the country’s real leaders. The great mass of the population does not know the names of the men around de Gaulle or even those of the members of the government. The only political connection between the state power and the mass of the population lies in de Gaulle’s own person. His refusal to summon the parliament will make no difference at all; it is merely the most finished expression of the nature of the Gaullist regime, for which even an Assembly such as that elected at the end of 1958 is intolerable if it shows the slightest desire to utter an opinion of its own.

The new regime created a new political formation, the UNR (Union for the New Republic) which almost all by itself ensures a parliamentary majority. But it is difficult to describe this formation as a political party. In the absence of any public demonstrations, it is hard to estimate its real organizational strength, but that in itself is an indication that it is not rooted in the various social strata. Since its creation the UNR has shown a dual aspect of this new “political” personnel: an unconditional lining up behind de Gaulle; a considerable appetite of men hungry for the profits of power, great and small, that leaves far behind it the long-sated palates of the old politicians of parliamentary democracy.

Bonapartism shows that just the link of the “Bonapart” himself with the mass of the population is politically sufficient in and of itself: he need not set up political formations that propose to discuss the problems of all sorts that are worrying the various classes and strata of society. The country need not concern itself with politics. Foreign policy, finances, the economy, the army, etc, etc – these are questions that lie in the domain reserved to His Highness! Under such circumstances, political formations of the right and the left – which corresponded to the functioning of the parliamentary regime and which formed the links between the state; power and the social categories that they represented – have no functions in the Gaullist regime; they bring no weight to bear on the administrations, more and more under the thumbs of the technocrats who serve the interests of a very narrow stratum of big capital.

It is not only because they have no longer any power of decision that the figures who formed the political personnel of the Third and Fourth Republics are withdrawing from the Gaullist regime, tiptoeing away. Indeed, it is rather painful for them to give up the material advantages that they might obtain by remaining in government posts. The main reason for their withdrawal is the continuation of the war in Algeria.

A Last Quarter of an Hour ... That Will Last for Years Yet

The general secretary of the MRP recently made a statement to the effect that his party had accepted giving up democracy for a period in favor of the personal power of de Gaulle because he seemed to be the only person capable of rapidly bringing the war in Algeria to an end. And indeed de Gaulle in 1958 was at the point of convergence of currents which, while different and even antagonistic, all saw in him the man capable of quickly putting a stop to the war in Algeria. The anti-parliamentary reactionaries hoped that he would do so by pushing the war to its utmost, at the same time that he was ridding France of parliamentary democracy. The classic right hoped that he would liquidate the weight of the PCF and assign parliament a subordinate place that would not upset governmental stability. The men of the left, and especially Guy Mollet, hoped that de Gaulle might be the one man who could make the right accept a moderate solution in Algeria, and that, with peace restored, it would be easy to return to a parliamentary regime, threatened by the continuation of the war that aided the growth of reactionary and fascist forces. Even a great number of Communist voters, it will be remembered, showed their confidence in de Gaulle precisely as the man who was going rapidly to bring about peace in Algeria. As Le Canard Enchainé put it, de Gaulle had been elected President of the Republic for the duration of the Algerian war.

The most reactionary sector was quite rapidly disappointed when it saw that de Gaulle refused to use the terms “French Algeria” and “integration,” and it prepared for a trial of strength as a result of the 16 September 1959 speech, in which de Gaulle, using the term “self-determination,” let it be understood for the first time that his own preference was for a sort of association between France and Algeria.

As for the French population in general, which wants peace but has never been called on to take the slightest action for this purpose, and as for the politicians who, faced with the fascist threat, had turned the power over to de Gaulle – they were delighted by the position he took on 16 September 1959 and again in January 1960. Wasn’t this the best justification for their own apathy? Everything that de Gaulle might lose on his right, he picked up again (and more to boot) on his left.

At the beginning of February 1960, after the collapse of the Putsch in Algiers, a referendum would have given de Gaulle more than the 80% of the votes that he had obtained in 1958. He had been the first, since the beginning of the war in Algeria, to stand up to the ultras, and they had collapsed pretty pitiably. For the first time the road looked wide-open for the re-establishment of peace in Algeria. Beside the ultras, who in France was not in favor of negotiations? Was the GPRA (Provisional Government of the Algerian Republic) doing anything except asking for the most modest guarantees that must be obtained by a people used for decades to faked elections? What obstacle could remain in the way of ending up in this “peace of brave men”? Nobody showed himself to be more confident – or, it ought to be said, more credulous – than the editors of France-Observateur, about very soon reaching a halt in the hostilities; and under these conditions, for the editors of that weekly, men like Francis Jeanson, who were in favor of the victory of the Algerian people, were not acting in the interests of peace!

But de Gaulle, who knows how to double back and to tack under certain circumstances, at other times has no fear of speaking bluntly. The Algiers Putsch was scarcely over before he obtained emergency powers for the defense of state security; once this was done, he decided to have new elections in Algeria very soon (a decision which was in opposition to serious self-determination), and he once more betook himself to Algeria to visit those gentlemen, the officers of the army. And there his language knocked the breath out of all those men of the left who had seen in him a champion of peace, and who believed that that peace was very near. It was to the effect that the FLN will not give up its arms; the army must go get them. That will take years. After which, at the end of a long time, the army will have control over the operations of self-determination. We are not in a hurry, de Gaulle added – thus showing that he was determined, under present conditions, to take the time necessary for obtaining the capitulation of the Algerians. Many French petty-bourgeois and even workers had for a long time had hope in Lacoste’s “last quarter of an hour”; with de Gaulle they could believe that it was really the last quarter of an hour. And now here was de Gaulle settling into the war for years. As an old French song puts it: it surely was hardly worth the trouble of changing the government ...


And while we are on the subject of quotations, a better one could not be found for France after these last remarks of de Gaulle than the celebrated phrase of Richefort under the Second Empire: France has forty million subjects, without counting the subjects of discontent. In less than two years the new regime has found a way to come into collision with almost every category of the population, without distinction of age, sex, or profession. The “grandeur” of France is a more or less widespread lowering of the standard of living of the laboring masses (workers, peasants, functionaries, ex-servicemen), a strangling of the laïc school for the benefit of the self-styled free schools, extreme difficulties for the students, etc. In compensation, the French have the Reggane atomic bomb and the prospect of a war of indeterminate length in Algeria. We leave aside, naturally, the scandals of every sort which are also aiming at being “grand” ones compared with those of past regimes.

Unable to grasp what Bonapartism really is, the leaders of the left have passed through various phases since the arrival of the de Gaulle regime. First of all, they believed that fascism was coming very rapidly; then that things were settling down into a paternalistic regime capable of making peace in Algeria; now many are lulling themselves with the idea that, with the regime’s inability thus to make peace, its end is near. Illusions, all along the line. The regime has set itself up on the basis of a new correlation of forces between the classes, and it is not liable to fall just because of a shift in public opinion, however serious a shift it might be. This regime will not go away of its own free will; it will be necessary to overthrow it, and for that more than a few demonstrations are needed. Established by force, it is only by force that it will disappear.

For the moment, the parties that have withdrawn somewhat from it are counting only on its wearing itself out. And they are still addressing de Gaulle, asking him to leave his regime at least some appearance of democracy.

The Communist Party and the Regime

The only party that might have effectively prepared the masses for a decisive struggle against the Gaullist regime is the Communist Party, but its attitude toward that regime is, for reasons specific to that party, also full of ambiguities.

On the one hand, the leadership of the Communist Party cannot fail to denounce the regime of personal power on account of the threats implicit in it against the working class as a whole and in particular the Communist Party itself. As a political formation, the PCF is still more disdained by the political world than it has been at any time since the “cold war.” But on the other hand, the direction the PCF takes is decided, in the last resort, by the orientation of Soviet diplomacy; and for this, de Gaulle, by his personal positions in NATO and in Europe, appears as a sort of trouble-maker, a factor of tension, within the Atlantic coalition. We shall not go on at length here about the error in calculation by Soviet diplomacy, which is hoping by subtle manoevres to lead him to take the next step, advancing from his little game for obtaining a larger place within the imperialist coalition, to a total break with that coalition. This is not the first time that Soviet diplomacy has committed this sort of mistake. But the effects on the policy of the CPs is always the same. In the present case, the leadership of the PCF, brandishing the “German danger,” has several times attemped an operation of bringing pressure within the limits of the new regime, and even a flirtation with certain Gaullist fractions. One of the presidents of the France-USSR Association is Deputy Schmittlein, president of the parliamentary group of the UNR, and vice-president of the National Assembly. For the PCF leadership, the main question in French politics is not basically the question of Algeria, but the question of “peace” between East and West, to which it subordinates its position on Algeria. This is shown very concretely: when it cannot help it, the PCF leadership puts up with committees for peace in Algeria that are independent of its own Peace Movement; but tries to torpedo them because those who are active in such committees refuse to be docile tools in the variations of Soviet diplomacy. The Algerian revolution has received no effective aid from the PCF. Under the pretext that the struggle against the Algerian war must be a mass struggle, the PCF leadership has denounced individuals who have contributed personal help to the Algerians, describing them on occasion as provocateurs, especially if they are oppositional communists.

After de Gaulle’s arrival at power, and with a certain delay in reorienting itself, the PCF leadership put forward in its programme the slogan of a new Constituent Assembly – with a view to reestablishing a “renewed” democracy. But on the morrow of the January 1960 events – during which the PCF leadership yielded to the prohibition of public meetings – the spokesman of the Communist parliamentary group, Waldeck-Rochet, a member of the Political Bureau, asked the government for new parliamentary elections. This was recognizing the framework of the regime of the Fifth Republic, and not merely fighting inside it because of necessity.

At the same time, the PCF leadership, through the voice of Thorez, after general remarks against personal power, made an appeal for a grouping identical with that of the Resistance during the war years; such an appeal, on the eve of Khrushchev’s arrival in France, was plainly aimed at the Gaullists.

At certain moments the ambiguity of the PCF policy toward de Gaulle becomes evident even to considerable strata of working-class militants. Thus, during the one-hour strike on February 1st, many had the feeling that they were working for the benefit of de Gaulle. And there is not the slightest doubt that it is de Gaulle who profits most from the enormous confusion that arose in connection with Khrushchev’s visit to France, Gaullists and Communists side by side cheerfully shouting – these, Hurray for de Gaulle! and those, Hurray for Khrushchev!

Where Is Gaullism Going?

Bonapartism has taken on a clearer aspect, but it has nowise said its last word, or, as yet, shown all its characteristics.

It is scarcely worried by the fact that there is much discontent with it, because none of the big formations is carrying on an active struggle against it. Bonapartism has no need of active support; a few big tours through the provinces from time to time suffice; what it lives on above all is political apathy – an apathy that it feeds by all the means at its disposal. For it, danger will begin when political resistance becomes active, militant. We are not yet at that point.

Like the Fourth Republic, the new regime will experience its most serious difficulties on account of the continuance of the war in Algeria. The Algiers Putsch probably marks the end of the trend to the right which has steadily shown itself in France since the beginning of the Algerian revolution; but, on account of the betrayal and deficiencies of the workers’ leaderships, the possibilities – rather limited ones, on account of the regime established after 13 May 1958 – of a reactivation and mobilization of the masses against the war in Algeria are not exploited as they should be.

Nevertheless, though it must not be expected that the great masses will soon emerge from their political apathy and indifference, the series of events that have occurred from 1958 to 1960 rather favors a political re-awakening of the militants on the level of political thought. They had been overwhelmed by the May 1958 coup de force, ending in the victory of a united front of all bourgeois currents, backed by the leadership of the Socialist Party. On the occasion of the Algiers Putsch, they saw that there was division inside the bourgeois camp, and recourse was made to their own intervention, even if only of a benign sort; and it was the ultras who came out the losers. But in either case they could see how the numerically limited Gaullist team exploited at one time the right and at another the workers’ movement. For part of them, the question is now being raised of a policy that de Gaulle cannot exploit; this is an aspiration toward an independent class policy. The extent of this phenomenon must not be exaggerated, but, however limited and however little sensed it may still be at present, it is nonetheless one of the most essential factors on which a revolutionary vanguard must stake for the definition and achievement of its present tasks.


As long as the war in Algeria lasts, the future of France will be blocked. It is de Gaulle himself who stated this explicitly in his radio speech against the 29 January Putsch in Algiers. As he is now settling down for years into the war in Algeria, the obstacles will accumulate on the path of the modernization of French society; as big capital is not ready to give up its goals and its profits, it is inescapable that the masses will clash with the state power both concerning an improvement in wages for the workers, office employees, and functionaries, and concerning the general improvement in living conditions in both town and country (more and better housing, schools, roads, etc). It is to be stressed that, though the installation of the Gaullist regime was marked by a spread of political indifference, carefully kept up by the radio, the TV, and the big newspapers, the new regime has nowise been characterized by the disappearance of immediate demands, including by the big losers in the operation of 13 May 1958, the workers.

Granted, the workers’ struggles have taken on a different character. It would be mistaken to expect, in the immediate future, big generalized struggles, and false to spread that idea in the present correlation of forces. But, beginning with the Spring of 1959, the workers and functionaries have been restating their demands, and we have witnessed numerous partial and limited conflicts. We cannot within the limits of this article proceed to a detailed examination of the problems raised by these struggles or of the policy followed by the principal labor leadership – that of the CGT – or of what should have been done. Let us simply say that the CGT, guided by the policy of the PCF, did not seek to put forward general demands or to educate the workers through these struggles with a view to decisive struggles at a later stage against the political regime and against the social regime; it limited itself to exploiting, for demands at the plant or trade level, the advantage given to the working class by a period of full employment. For the French economy, apart from a few very local pockets, is going through a good conjuncture, and the war in Algeria for its part is retaining conscripts in the army for at least 27 months – which withdraws about 200,000 young men from the labor market. In any case, there is no reason to think that the workers will not continue to make demands; indeed, quite the contrary.

Other social categories are being led or will be led to make demands. The very limited economic forces which are sparking the present regime are extremely dynamic, aiming at considerably speeding up the process of modernization, and consequently of concentration, of the French economy, especially in the sectors that modernization has heretofore reached very little or not at all (a large number of conversion industries, peasantry, distribution). It is not surprising that – by the fault of the workers’ leaderships who have refused to appeal to the strength of the workers – petty-bourgeois strata injured by the economic policy of big capital have been directly polited politically by reactionary currents. Indirectly, Bonapartism makes use of this in its skilful play of counter-weights against the demonstrations and demands of the working class.

These demands by all the social categories can only become accentuated by the continuation of the war in Algeria – which is blocking the future. From a longer-term viewpoint, the agitation that will result therefrom will tend to nurture political oppositions – all the more so in that the new regime, cornered by the difficuties inherent in the perpetuation of the war, will not fail to show a different face from that rather paternalistic and benign one with which it has up till now confronted demonstrations for demands. If it permitted itself to be tough with deputies who could do nothing but chatter, sending them packing, we may be sure that it will have no hesitation about unleashing the police and the CRS, and demanding severe sentences from the courts, against the workers and the toiling masses generally.


Thus there is being revealed, in its instability and in its strength, the political regime which was the end-product of the failure of bourgeois democracy, the betrayal and deficiencies of the workers’ leaderships, the continuance of the colonial war, and the French economy’s needs for modernization. The balance of social forces turns around the person of the “providential man.” Political forces are in hibernation. The machine keeps running, partly under its own momentum, partly according to the caprices of its present “great man.” Barring an accident to him, it will run like this for a period. Will he, or will he not, attain peace in Algeria? That is the decisive question. To achieve that, he would have to make more than verbal concessions; he has to grant the Algerian people something substantial.

In the uncertainty of the outlook, one thing however is clear: while the working class of France has not been led by its big organizations to bring real help to the Algerian revolution, it is the enormous sacrifices of the Algerian people that will still provide the French workers with the opportunities to emerge from their political torpor and to find once more the path of revolutionary combat.

23 March 1960


1. See our numbers 3, 4, 5, and 6; also the author’s preface to the reissue of Où va la France? (Leon Trotsky, Ecrits, volume II, Paris, Editions de la Quatrième, 1958).

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