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Irving Howe

World Politics

Reappearance of Le Grand Charlie

(24 June 1946)

From Labor Action, Vol. 10 No. 25, 24 June 1946, p. 3.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

French reaction, heartened by its defeat of the constitution which the Stalinists and Socialists had proposed and by its ascent in the recent election to the position of France’s largest party, has indicated that it may now be preparing to play its trump card – General Charles de Gaulle. Le Grand Charlie has come out of his sulking “retirement” in order to make a speech on June 17 in which he played on the familiar notes: France needs a “strong” government, a “strong” executive who shall be “above parties” and ... well, a “strong” government and a “strong” executive, etc.

You see, de Gaulle, being a military man – a profession in which political intelligence is usually considered a scandal – has only a few ideas, which he repeats with an air of ever-increasing wisdom. He never does say for whom the government should be strong, but when one recalls the imperialist bravado which his regime displayed, as well as its attempt to act the big power despite the lack of a basis for doing so, then it isn’t difficult to understand that de Gaulle’s ideas are simply this: A “strong” government in behalf of French capitalism which will attempt to recoup France’s former position in the imperialist world, salvage what is possible of its empire, and put an end to “disorder,” that is, working class militancy, at home. De Gaulle, though his advisors are shrewd enough to realize that such an attempt would be ludicrous and suicidal at the moment, fancies himself in the role of a modern Bonaparte saving his nation from decay – just as he once fancied himself in the role of Joan of Arc.

Why His Resurrection?

More important, however, is the question: Why has de Gaulle suddenly come out into the open again? The move is shrewdly calculated. France has recently experienced a SLIGHT political turn to the right, or, more accurately, sections of the middle class which, had previously been politically indifferent or apathetic have been roused in support of the right-wing parties. And, in turn, there has been a decrease in the intensity of working-class support for the two major left parties, the Socialists and Stalinists. Thus in the recent constitutional referendum, the working-class sections of Paris while continuing to vote as “their” parties directed them, registered a total vote less than the combined SP-CP total in the October, 1945, elections.

In a word, the working class in the recent election continued to support the Socialists and Stalinists. The Socialist vote dropped slightly from its October 1945 percentage, from 23.5 to 21 per cent. The Stalinists remained at 26 per cent. Since there was a greater total vote – also indicative of increased political participation by the middle class – this means that the total SP vote remained the same, despite its percentage decline, and the CP vote increased by 300,000. The SP-CP total vote was 47 per cent.

But it was the Catholic MRP vote which registered a considerable increase, from its 23 per cent in the October, 1945, election to 28 per cent in this election. Its total increase was 1,000,000 votes. Part of this increase was probably brought about by the last-minute appeal which the Pope made in behalf of the Catholic parties in Italy and France – an appeal which, while it did not move the French workers from their traditional “left” allegiances, undoubtedly succeeded in rallying middle class and rural votes for the MRP.

Right-Wing Parties Formed Bloc

Another reason for the better showing of the MRP is the fact that the right-wing parties combined into blocs in support of both the MRP and the even more reactionary Popular Republican Party. In a large number of constituencies, the other right-wing groups withdrew their candidates in behalf of the MRP.

But while the above factors are of some importance, they are not basic. The basic factor is this: the French middle class is gradually abandoning whatever partial allegiance it gave to the “left” parties. Shortly after the triumph of the Resistance, considerable portions of the middle class and the peasantry gave their support, for the first time, to the “parties of the left.” This support was based on a feeling of social desperation, an urge for sharp and thorough change. As in all critical turning points in history, the middle class became atomized and was split up into a number of tendencies.

In this condition, when it breaks out of its social inertia and routine, the middle class is ready to follow bold leadership which makes a decisive break with the past. But this the SP and the CP did not and could not do. On the contrary, they continued to maintain a coalition with the MRP, they participated in a government which brutally suppressed the Indo-Chinese nationalist revolution, they served in practice to maintain and reorganize the capitalist status quo. And thereby they failed to provide the middle classes with the bold leadership for which they were confusedly searching. The result, as shown in the recent referendum and election, is that the middle classes have relapsed into the camp of the capitalist parties; that, in fact, they have apparently been rallied to support those parties with some enthusiasm.

So that France remains at a virtual standstill, split in half between the MRP and the other capitalist parties as against the, Socialists and Stalinists. This situation, which makes for governmental disorganization and impotence, bears within itself the danger that there will arise a desire among many Frenchmen to find a “strong man above classes” who will end the stalemate and rule in the name of the nation. And for that role de Gaulle has nominated himself this week.

It would be false to believe, however, that there is any serious likelihood of the immediate establishment of such a Bonapartist regime based on extralegal power. De Gaulle might be called back to power; his government might have SOME of the features of a Bonapartist regime; but it would still not be able to go beyond parliamentary means. For so long as the French working class has any powers of resistance left in it, so long as it contains any capacity for struggle, it will not permit a dictatorship of Le Grand Charlie to be established. And we believe that the French workers do maintain such capacity for struggle.

France, therefore, faces for the next period a continued period of uneasy balance between the leading parties, of flimsy coalition governments, and also of increasing social crisis. The opportunities for a revolutionary party remain. In light of that, the vote received by the French Trotskyists – 45,000 votes in about one-fifth of the election districts – indicates that there are possibilities for the growth of such a revolutionary party. In its rapid development lies the hope for France and ultimately of Europe.

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