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Irving Howe

World Politics

On the French Referendum

(13 May 1946)

From Labor Action, Vol. 10 No. 19, 13 May 1946, p. 3.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The most significant event in Europe last week was the referendum in which the people, by a substantial majority, rejected the constitution which had been offered to them by the Gouin government and supported vigorously by the Stalinist party and half-heartedly by the Socialists. The vote was, at latest count, 10,552,478 against and 9,323,709 for the proposed constitution. Though there is not yet enough information on which to attempt a thorough analysis of this event, a few preliminary remarks may be made.

It must be soberly recognized that the capitalist class of France has won an important victory, its most important victory since De Gaulle, with the aid of the Stalinists, derailed the Paris resistance from revolutionary into capitalist legal channels after the withdrawal of Hitler from Paris. We say this not primarily because of the formal issue involved – that is, the constitution itself – but because the referendum had obviously become a test of strength in which the parties, the Catholic MRP and the Radical Socialist Party of French capitalism, bent every effort to defeat a constitution which they labeled “communist.” De Gaulle, despite his “retirement,” gave support to the movement to defeat the constitution. It became clear that the referendum was a test; and the Right won.

Proof of this is furnished by the undisguised glee with which the results have been received in Washington. In the New York Times of May 7, 1946, James Reston writes about the new prospects of France getting a loan from America:

“While officials do not like to concede that French internal politics affect their consideration of the French loan, it may safely be reported that the conservative vote has certainly not hampered France’s chance of getting the aid desired for the modernization of French industry.”

And a report in the Chicago Sun for the same date by Alexander Kendrick lists as one of the possible domestic French results the “possible scrapping of the government’s nationalization program by the Assembly.” The United Press further reports that “French stocks and bonds spurted up noticeably Monday and black market francs soared in value.” This much is clear: the parties of the Right, that is, of big business, made a test of the referendum; and they won. Why?

Why the Right Parties Won

The major reason for the victory of the Right can be found, we believe, in the record of failure and ineptitude of the Socialist-Communist-MRP coalition government. For months now this government and that of de Gaulle before it – in both of which the “parties of the Left,” the Socialists and Stalinists, played decisive roles – have been unable to solve the most simple and elementary problems of the French people. They have failed to smash the parasitic black market. They have applied their previously announced program of limited nationalization of industry in a timorous and hesitant fashion; so much so that the French capitalist class has had the opportunity to make a partial recovery and regain some of its old selfconfidence (as witness the rumors of “plots” by de Gaulle to establish a Bonapartist government).

The masses, formerly so full of a renewed revolutionary energy as a result of the successful partisan struggle against the Nazis, have sunk into relative apathy once more; they have had talk, promises, but little action. The government in which the Socialists and Stalinists predominate, has failed them.

Yet a breakdown of the referendum vote indicates that in the heavily industrialized cities there was a majority in favor of the new constitution. That is, the workers by and large seem to have continued to support the Socialist-Stalinist leadership during the referendum though – and here is a crucial point – without sufficient enthusiasm to roll up a sufficient majority to overcome the conservative vote of the rural areas.

It was apparently the middle class which was excited and stirred by the parties of the Right to defeat the constitution. In the elections of the Constituent Assembly in October, only 60 per cent of the eligible electorate voted; in this referendum the very high percentage of 85 per cent voted. Since most of the increase in votes took place in rural areas, it would seem that the middle class turned out in full force to vote against the Socialist-Stalinist constitution. But during the past period, large sections of the middle class had given their support to the “parties of the Left.” Why this present shift?

It is possible to suggest several reasons for this shift in middle class sentiment, which have an intimate connection with the causes of decline in working class enthusiasm. Parts of the urban middle class and the peasantry had for the first time in French history given their support last October to the Stalinists and Socialists out of a sense of desperation, a desire for serious and drastic action to clear up the terrible economic and social mess in which France found herself. But no such action had been taken. As always, the working class can win the middle class to its support only by decisive and bold measures; a policy of hesitancy will drive the middle class back to the Right.

Another important reason for the middle class shift was the fear – in many ways quite legitimate – which they had and which was exploited by the MRP and the leading French capitalist politician, Edouard Herriot, that the continued growth of the Stalinists represented a threat of totalitarian dictatorship in France.

Referendum a Test of Class Strength

Formally, the issue was: Shall the new French legislature be a single house without the cumbersome “checks and balances” of an indirectly elected Senate and a powerful executive and judiciary which the Right wanted? But the formal matter of a unicameral legislature – which we Socialists have “always considered desirable – was soon obscured by the test of strength between classes and the fear of totalitarian domination. For instance, during the debate on the proposed constitution, Herriot was able to pose as the defender of a free press against the “Left,” which shamefully urged press restrictions. The ineradicable totalitarian brand which is stamped on Stalinism was skillfully utilized by the politicians of the Right to corral votes against the constitution.

And, finally, an additional reason for this result is that it was a vote motivated by considerations of international politics. The sharpened split between Stalinist Russia on the one hand and Anglo- American imperialism on the other resulted in a reflecting internal cleavage in France; and there can be no doubt that the referendum result is a victory for the latter bloc as against Russia and its puppet French Communist Party. The tragedy of the situation is that the legitimate desire of the French people not to fall under the domination of Stalinism forced them in this case to cast a vote which has given sustenance to the Anglo-American bloc and the parties of French capitalism. The criminal policies of the “parties of French Left” are directly responsible for this result.

Though we have not yet received the relevant issues of the paper of the French Trotskyists, we have been informed that they, our French comrades, urged the workers to vote “Yes” in the referendum. Without necessarily indorsing all the provisions of the constitution, they felt that the test of strength between classes which this referendum represented far transcended the formal constitutional issues.

Where this new development leaves the French workers and what are the new tasks they now face as a result of the referendum, we shall discuss in a future article.

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