From Fourth International, Vol.4 No.3, March 1943, pp.76-79.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).
The military defeat in France was followed by a political development notably different from that of the other European countries invaded by German imperialism. While the Dutch and Norwegian governments simply transported their household gods from The Hague and Oslo to London, the French government collapsed; its attempt to move to North Africa in order to continue the struggle failed, and it was succeeded by a new regime.
In the other German-occupied countries the places left by the governments emigrated to London were either occupied by Hitlerian satraps or by native political adventurers – Quislings or Musserts. Around the latter gathered all those who hoped to profit from the German victory. However, the Quislings could never pretend to represent more than a minority of the possessing classes and soon became simply Gauleiters.
In France in July 1940, the deputies and senators, sacred guardians of the Third Republic, delivered the power to the hands of Petain-Weygand-Laval in Vichy. The new gang was the political instrument not of the minority but of the great majority of the possessing classes of France. Having lost all hope of an English victory and thinking no more than to save what it could through “collaboration,” the bourgeoisie abandoned the struggle against German imperialism. The instrument of this policy was the Vichy government. Fascist adventurers such as Doriot and others did not receive the power, as Quisling did, but were reduced to a secondary role: in the hands of the German chiefs they became an auxiliary means of pressure on Vichy.
The cause of this special development in France must be sought above all in the country’s political history during the years immediately preceding the war. February 1934 had disclosed the break in France’s political stability, marked the polarization of the country into two opposing camps and heralded the end of the democratic regime. The revolutionary offensive of 1936 was unable to attain a victorious conclusion because of the failure of the working-class leadership (Blum, Jouhaux, Thorez). After the defeat of the drive to the left, the political center of gravity started to move gradually to the right. Daladier, the day before still a hero of the Popular Front, was governing more and more by decree-laws. The revolutionary crisis had been averted, but none of the fundamental problems had been resolved. Each class in society remained discontented with the others.
Explained in great part by these political developments, the military debacle shook the French bourgeoisie, which was still trembling from its fear of the revolutionary crisis, and was solely preoccupied with consolidating once more its rule over the country. It now clearly appears that from the point of view of French imperialism the correct decision would have been to continue the struggle against Germany in July 1940 from Algiers or from London, with all the resources of its colonies and its intact navy. However, the error committed by the Vichy people was not merely a technical error of appraisal of the various contending military forces, but was determined by a much more profound political necessity.
For it to continue the struggle the French bourgeoisie would have needed a self-confidence, a faith in the future and a political cohesion which was actually far beyond its command. Scarcely out of the revolutionary crisis, politically divided, without perspectives for tomorrow, it saw an understanding with Hitler as the safest decision for the present. As for the future, it would see later. Thus was born the Vichy regime, which is not to be accounted for either by an error of calculation or by “treason,” as many would like us to believe.
Vichy itself understood this determinism better than all the garrulous Left, Stalinists included, who cried treason. A governmental appeal in July 1940 explained the political evolution of the Daladier government from parliamentary democracy to semi-Bonapartism:
“Everything cried out the impotence of the regime which could maintain itself only by disavowing itself through the use of decree-laws. Thus it was making its way, at each step. towards a political revolution which war and defeat only hastened.” (Our italics.)
After the defeat of the revolutionary offensive the impotence of the democrats led inevitably to Bonapartism. The military defeat speeded up this process and gave, of course, some special features to the new regime.
When all seemed lost on the battlefield, a young general, Charles de Gaulle, until then unknown outside of military circles, broadcast an appeal from London for the continuation of the war. The appeal met no response within the ruling circles, either Right or Left, and at the beginning, it seems, made little impression on the broad strata of the population. Around De Gaulle rallied a few professional military men, generally belonging to the middle cadres, and colonial administrators, generally from the poorest colonies, farthest from the metropolis. The poor reception which De Gaulle received in the beginning alone would suffice to refute the thesis that Vichy was the result of a plot of a few “traitors” and not the product of profound political currents.
The Gaullist movement at first pretended indifference to politics, its sole aim being to carry on the war on England’s side. De Gaulle had royalist sympathies, it is said, but this fact played no role in the development of the movement, all the less so since the French royalist leaders rallied to the policy of collaboration with Germany. The Gaullist chiefs were above all military men, with the scorn for “politics” customary to their caste. That was their only political coloration at the origin of the Gaullist movement.
But a change soon came. Vichy was not only a government of collaboration with Germany, but also one of political reaction. Democratic liberties were suppressed. As often happens in a struggle, the position taken by the adversary often determines that which the other must take. Vichy combined pro-German collaboration with a dictatorial policy. The Gaullist movement, champion of the patriotic anti-German struggle, soon had to oppose itself to Vichy on the grounds of internal politics as well.
This evolution was greatly accelerated by the movement of resistance inside France proper, to which the weight of the Nazi oppression gave birth after the first months of discouragement and apathy. This movement, in view of the difficult circumstances, and also the deliberate policy of the Stalinists, remained at rather a low political level, for the fact that the oppression had its source in a foreign power made it easy for the Stalinists and petty-bourgeois groups to direct the movement into the channel of nationalism. Nevertheless, the part of the population which supported the resistance movement was, in general, the working masses of the nation, and much more those of the cities than of the countryside. One can say that the bulk of the forces which support the resistance is the same which supported the Popular Front, with the addition of certain circles of the bourgeois youth and the middle military cadres. Strictly speaking, the Gaullist organization is rather circumscribed, but the popularity of the movement extends well beyond this limit. Here for example, is the story of the demonstration at Lorient on October 24, 1942 at the time of the forced departure of the workers to Germany:
“Came train time. The workers formed a procession and came to the station escorted by an immense crowd. A big detail of French and German police forces were guarding the approaches at the station. Outside the station the angry, turbulent crowd swarmed so thickly that the police themselves estimated the number present to be about 15,000. Fist-fights broke out on the station platform where Doriotists and local collaborationists had gathered. The workers were singing the ‘Marseillaise’ and the ‘International,’ with the crowd outside joining in chorus. They were shouting ‘Long Live De Gaulle!,’ ‘Down with Petain!’, ‘Hang Laval!’”
There is no doubt that this crowd, with a few additions, is the same as that of the 1934-36 demonstrations. This combination of the national and social aspects of the resistance movement, which has both negative and positive sides for future revolutionary development, is strengthened by the economic collaboration of the big bourgeoisie with Germany. One can measure the extent of this collaboration by a figure that the German press published at the end of 1942: the orders placed by Germany with the French industrialists reached at that date more than 10 billion marks or 200 billion francs. Last but very important, we must not forget the traditional division of French political life into Right and Left. The origin of this division dates back to the great French revolution which, although a bourgeois revolution, was in reality led to victory by the poorest layers of artisans in spite of the hesitations of the rich, timorous bourgeoisie. Naturally, the appearance of an industrial proletariat and of workers’ parties reduced the importance of this division. Nevertheless, it continues as a tradition in French political life and plays its role, within certain limits. By opposing Vichy, De Gaulle became, in a certain sense independently of his will, a figure of the “Left.” In the territories which he controls, he maintains the laws of the Republic and he accords Syria and Libya a formal independence which Blum himself was unable to achieve.
When the American troops debarked in North Africa, Washington placed in power one of the most compromised representatives of Vichy, Petain’s heir, Admiral Darlan. We have already had occasion to discuss the reasons for this action in this magazine.  It revealed the emptiness of all the democratic phrases with which Anglo-American imperialism tries to cover itself, and it gave a heavy blow to all those whose function is to disguise the present war as a struggle for liberty.
On the day after the American debarkment in North Africa, Secretary Hull hastened to answer the numerous criticisms of the American policy of conciliation toward Vichy. He explained that this policy had not been motivated by “any fondness for the Vichy leaders,” but solely as a means to obtain information and thus to prepare the occupation of North Africa. To answer his critics Hull made the American policy look more Machiavellian than it was in reality. Indeed, the American diplomatic service did not abstain, no more than any other diplomatic service, from recording all possible military information. Nevertheless, if Roosevelt sent Admiral Leahy to Vichy, it was not only for spying, but because of more profound political reasons: he knew that Petain represented the French bourgeoisie much more than did De Gaulle.
The deal with Darlan followed the same line. Darlan assured the continuity of political power of the bourgeoisie better than the “rebel” De Gaulle who had broken the discipline of the army. The collaboration of the Gaullists in France with the Stalinists could only add to Washington’s apprehensions.
All information coming from Europe since November indicates that the repercussions of the deal with Darlan were profound throughout the continent and that the illusions about the “United Nations,” especially the United States, were badly shattered. One of the most recent indications is a statement made in London on February 1 by Rene Massigli, a former functionary of the Third Republic, who had just escaped from France to join De Gaulle:
“The French people at first regarded the Admiral’s rise to power as a farce, but later showed anxiety as his influence grew and now viewed his ‘disappearance’ with immense relief.”
His “disappearance” was his assassination, which Roosevelt was quick to condemn as “first degree murder.” We can easily imagine that the French people had a different opinion about the end of one of their hangmen.
The circumstances of the assassination are now sufficiently clear, through the little information which the censor has allowed to pass and, equally, through the points that he has suppressed. In the turmoil of the first hours after the assassination, Washington – as could be expected – launched the theory that it was a Nazi deed, but this proved so untenable that Washington had to abandon it without more ado. With the present available information we can now reconstruct the drama. The Americans were aided in the preparation and the execution of the debarkment by some Frenchmen in North Africa. They belonged in general to the patriotic and democratic petty-bourgeois circles: lower ranking officers, students, etc. There was a group among them, it appears, that seized Admiral Darlan in Algiers on November 8 and turned him over to the Americans who had just landed. The Americans lost no time in restoring Darlan to all his former powers, investing him with the sacred mission of “freeing” France. We can imagine the anger of the men who had risked their lives believing they were overthrowing Darlan. The angry petty bourgeois readily grabs a revolver. Darlan was killed by such a young Frenchman who, without revolutionary perspectives, saw no other solution to the Darlan deal than an individual attempt to get out of the impasse.
Darlan’s place was taken by Giraud, a general until then outside of politics but known for his Rightist sentiments. Darlan’s advice was followed even after his death. Thus Peyrouton, former Vichy Minister of the Interior who introduced the Nazi police system in France, has just been named the new governor of Algeria. As we learn from the January 31 New York Times, “early in December Darlan proposed that Peyrouton be sent for,” and, at Casablanca, Roosevelt approved the choice of the defunct admiral.
The consequences of such a policy are easy to imagine. The North African dispatches have informed us of the political apathy reigning among the population. A cable dated January 27 declared:
“As far as the mass of Frenchmen is concerned, the honeymoon is over in dealing with the Americans. Those who retain a lingering faith in America as a champion of the oppressed pray that the United States will retrieve the political situation ‘before it is too late.’ Distrust springs mainly from the ‘new collaboration’ of French officials who were lately pro-Vichy and pro-German with American officers.”
Washington’s principal argument to justify its policy was that in Algeria the population was 90 per cent for Petain. This is no doubt true for the milieu in which Mr. Murphy and General Eisenhower circulate. The answer to this impudent claim is very simple: “We dare you to call for an immediate general election. If you are right you have nothing to lose.” Of course, such an answer would demand a political firmness far beyond the power of the Gaullist movement. Its fundamental solidarity with Washington and London on the question of the war absolutely prohibits it from having enough courage and initiative to undertake such a campaign.
It is interesting to examine De Gaulle’s arguments in his controversy with Washington. They will enable us to better understand the character of the movement. In a December 6 radio appeal, De Gaulle declared in speaking of Darlan and his confederates:
“The nation will not permit that these men, having failed in foreign war and feeling themselves condemned, should save themselves by creating conditions from which would spring civil war.” (Our italics.)
Thus, according to the general, the deal with Darlan is dangerous because it revives class antagonisms. Since then, several spokesmen of the Gaullist movement have underlined the fact that Washington’s policy in North Africa increases the danger of communism in France, against which the Gaullist movement is a much better guarantee than Darlan or Giraud.
These declarations show us that De Gaulle, yesterday still ignorant of politics, has quickly appropriated all the old arguments of the democratic conciliators who always present themselves as a better protection against the revolution than the reactionaries., We must recognize that in the present case there is a great deal of truth in the declarations of De Gaulle and his friends. If De Gaulle had joined Darlan or even Giraud, the resistance movement in France proper would have undergone a great shift to the left. By his refusal of reconciliation De Gaulle retains a popularity which can be worth much more for the bourgeois order in the future.
Concrete political estimates are so much the more difficult now that France is muzzled. The French in North Africa constitute only a weak minority amid a large Arab population. The Gaullists are a few thousand emigrés. In such circumstances the role of individuals may be especially important. Thus the division of the two movements unquestionably reflects, to a certain degree, the rivalry between the two generals; De Gaulle made a difficult decision when the military situation was more grave than now and he firmly intends not to leave the fruits of it to the eleventh hour penitents. However, it would be light-minded to see in this merely a personal feud.
De Gaulle does not want to cut himself off from the resistance movement in France proper, and in a way he leans on this movement. One of his aims in doing so is, of course, to prevent the movement from going further to the left. Giraud, and behind him Washington, dread this illegal movement and prefer to have no contact with it. They intend to resolve the military problem without worrying about anything else. Thus it is interesting to note that Giraud has not yet addressed a single appeal to the French people. Probably he does not yet know whether he should address himself to the Vichy gang or to those whom it persecutes!
The American invasion of North Africa marks the end of the regime which was born at Vichy in July 1940. This regime could maintain a precarious existence in face of Germany only because it controlled colonies beyond the reach of Hitler. Naturally, the limits of maneuver were very narrow. But with the American debarkment they have been reduced to nothing. Laval is now little more than a clerk for the German administration.
The military developments lead, at a more or less rapid tempo, to the defeat of Germany. Once more the bourgeoisie in France itself is going to turn toward America. Giraud represents, much more than De Gaulle, the axis around which the political regrouping of the French bourgeoisie will take place. Notwithstanding Roosevelt’s declaration that the French people will themselves decide their future, Washington could not have failed to give guarantees for the future to Giraud and to the proconsuls who surround him. A troubled epoch approaches and it is wise to make arrangements in advance!
If De Gaulle is now left to one side, this does not mean that he has ended his political role. After the collapse of the Hitlerian empire, Anglo-American imperialism will find the masses in France embittered by poverty and oppression and not at all disposed to knuckle down to the old rulers. If a Giraud does not work, then imperialism must try a De Gaulle. But it is a question whether any cover, even the most left, can save this rotten order.
1. North Africa: A Lesson in Democracy, December 1942, and Darlan and the Liberals, January 1943.
Last updated: 15.6.2005