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Pierre Frank

Mr. X Versus de Gaulle


Special Congress of French Socialist Party

PARIS – The special congress of the Socialist party, which met at Clichy February 1–2, ended in a unanimous decision to run Gaston Deferre as candidate for the presidency of the republic. But the congress was greatly divided throughout its sessions. “They asked us for an amicable agreement on nominations [to a resolutions committee],” Deferre said at one time, “in the name of a friendliness and spirit of conciliation which, I must say, has been rather scarce for several weeks.” It took five hours of argument behind closed doors to reach agreement.

However, on the big political problems there were actually no differences. In substance, the quarrel involved mainly the relations between the candidate and his party. (Not the party and its candidate.)

Guy Mollet is incontestably the man who best understands the importance of the Socialist party in French politics as the hinge between the bourgeoisie and the working class. He understood the role it could play in 1958 in bringing de Gaulle to power; and he seeks to maintain its capacity for the inverse operation, in case of need. Deferre, in contrast, is one of those Socialist politicians, common in France, who utilize the Socialist party to gain election but who have their own electoral following and who feel no need to abide by the decisions of a congress if they find it inconvenient. One of the strongest objections to his candidacy – from Mollet to activists in the most distant provinces – was that he was imposed upon the party by a series of maneuvers. From the way he treated his party in becoming its candidate, it can be guessed how he would act toward it if he were elected president of the republic. If he were elected ...

Count Chicks Before Hatched

A comic aspect of the debates at the congress was the care which both Mollet and Deferre displayed through hours of oratorical dueling in refraining from calling things by their right name. Deferre saw himself already elected; Mollet similarly visualized himself – the head of a victorious Socialist party – as prime minister. A lot of wind went into haggling over the relationship between the president of the republic and his prime minister.

But can they be thinking, in case they win, of maintaining the Gaullist constitution of 1958? Certainly. “Elected in accordance with the constitution of 1958, he will carry out the duties pertaining to his office and will uphold the constitution in spirit and letter,” declares the unanimously adopted resolution of the Socialist congress.

What they accuse de Gaulle of is not having respected his own constitution, of having made “improper and erroneous interpretations” of it.

Finally, don’t think that it’s only a short-time business. The resolution also mentions “reefs to be avoided,” among them “an upset, innovations so great that there would be a risk that the public would not understand clearly what we want.”

Moreover, in undertaking an electoral campaign, “the party maintains its complete freedom for the day, without doubt very distant, when the problem will be posed of over-all structural reform.” (My emphasis.)

There is not much to be said on the “program.” The truth is that the candidate Deferre does not want a program but only “options” (?); the partisans of Mollet don’t want a program either, the pretext being that it is up to the head of the government and not the president of the republic to handle this. The net result was a document of less significance than the platforms produced by the major party conventions in the United States. It commits no one.

Avoid “Force de Frappe” Issue

However, one point should be noted. Not a word is said stopping the “force de frappe” (de Gaulle’s nuclear striking forces).

Deferre’s eel-like capacity to wriggle was well demonstrated when he was asked what his stand was on this at a press conference February 5.

“We are for general, controlled disarmament,” he said, “thus we are for the suppression of national striking forces. To ask French political figures today, ‘Are you ready to stop everything?’ is a false problem. The real problem will be posed in two years. If many are taking a stand against the national striking force, a part of the public is in favor of a European striking force. At the moment, it is not possible to undertake a formal engagement. My intention is not to say what I would do if elected. Thus I will refrain from any demagogic promise. What is certain is that it is necessary to provide France with a modern, and if possible European, force.”

Still another very significant aspect of the Socialist congress should be noted. At a time when the Socialist party leadership is attempting to “discuss” with the Communists (in a bizarre way, as I noted above), the rare times when the question of the French Communist party came up clearly the intention was revealed to ignore it in this business of the presidential election. No one asked that the Communist party be consulted in regard to the campaign.

The explanation is very simple. So far as the election is concerned, the Socialist delegates (there was not a worker among them) had their eyes turned to the right, toward the Radicals, the Christian Democrats in the Mouvement Republicain Populaire, and others who would be repelled by dealings with the Communist party.

To this passing consideration should be added something more profound, related to the fact that sooner or later contact must be established. “At a time when a thaw is beginning in the Communist world,” one of the delegates said, “we must keep the CP dangling on our ideological conceptions.”

The “left” thus has a candidate now who does not wish to frighten anyone. It would be incorrect to believe that this nomination will not exercise a certain influence on political life in France. This will come much less from the “style” that Deferre is trying to give his candidacy, and the vague themes he is now elaborating on, than from the fact that regardless of what is said about the spirit and letter of the Gaullist constitution, the candidacy, in the eyes of the masses, will appear as an alternative – for or against de Gaulle.

In short, whether Deferre likes it or not, the struggle can force him to take positions on the problems of genuine interest to the masses, and the struggle can have a certain logic which is not necessarily that of a candidate who fears innovation.

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Last updated: 20 July 2018