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Henry Judd

Is France Recovering?

Social Crisis: An Economic Analysis

(January 1949)

From The New International, Vol. XV No. 1, January 1949, pp. 18–22.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

No nation has passed through so many grave social crises as France; no nation has gone so often or so deeply through the cycle of strikes, mounting into mass political and social movements, bringing into existence pre-revolutionary situations, and then passing to defeat and withdrawal. Every conceivable type of crisis is known to the French people, a battle-hardened and politically sophisticated nationality if one has ever existed.

Particularly since the conclusion of the last war, a series of social and political disturbances have occurred, all of which have their origin in the national soil of the country, but their fate has been determined by international factors more than anything else. Have the French people some national predilection that drives them toward social-revolutionary action, but which dooms them to frustration and defeat?

Our purpose is to examine the national origins of France’s social problems, their roots in its economic structure, and to suggest the reasons why there has yet to be a resolution of its crisis despite the many attempts.


After a sharp decline in his fortunes and influence, Europe’s leading contender for Bonapartist-militarist-dictatorial power – General Charles de Gaulle – has suddenly catapulted back into prominence.

The French bourgeoisie, after encouraging his decline, has now openly and fairly decisively shifted to his favor and greeted with acclaim his recent important victory in gaining an almost absolute majority in the upper house of the French National Assembly. The general is riding high and fast and preparing his organization for the taking-over of political power. Here we are not concerned with political problems and events, nor are we predicting the approaching victory of Gaullism. While the tendency is certainly strongly in his favor, many factors stand between De Gaulle and his goal.

What concerns us is the question: why has the bourgeoisie shifted to the Gaullist solution, with all its entailed anxieties, costs and uncertainties? To state the problem in other terms: Why has a middle-of-the-road stability and prosperity failed to develop in France despite the amazing economic recovery in productivity and the uplifting of French economy as a whole?

The decline of Gaullism corresponded with the dramatic upsurge of French productivity and – so it was believed – the ushering in of a period of relative capitalist stability and relative social prosperity. The new rise of Gaullism likewise corresponds with the dashing of these hopes and illusions and the opening up of a new phase of economic and social difficulties for French economy.

“Three years ago,” writes E. Germain in the November 1948 Fourth International, “the French economic crisis was a function of extreme underproduction, acute scarcity of consumer goods and a chronic lack of raw materials. Today the self-same basic illness – the senility of the capitalist order in France – assumes new forms.”

What are these new forms? But first let us examine the contention that French productivity has made major strides forward.

The Question of Productivity

According to the Paris Herald Tribune’s index (which is based upon official government reports) French industrial productivity as a whole stood at 112 in July 1948 as compared with the 1938 monthly base figure average of 100. Breaking this down in various fields, we get the following – all by comparison with the 1938 average of 100:

Coal production



Electric power


Iron ore


Heavy industry


Auto production




Building materials


Basic chemicals


Although coal imports from the United States are at record figures, French coal production (until the recent strike) rose steadily, thanks to general recovery and also monopoly acquisition of the Saar coal basin. As we see, electrical power, chemicals, textiles and heavy production were far above 1938. Only iron ore, due to the disorganization of the industry, lagged badly. On the face of things, a rather optimistic picture of economic recovery in the successful fields!

In agriculture, the same general recovery in productivity and farm stock is noticeable although at a slower pace. In general, agricultural production is 10 to 15 per cent behind and below that of the pre-war period. But France has just had her best harvest in ten years; the number of cattle and horses in Normandy (the agricultural heart of France) is back to the pre-war level; and there is certainly no serious hunger. In the same sense, the stores of Paris and the larger cities are filled with all types, qualities and quantities of consumers’ goods. In theory, everything is now available.

Yet even in these bare production statistics, certain qualifications enter to dim their cheerful sound. These qualifications, while worth noting, do not negate the undeniable fact that the French agrarian and industrial population has shown its powers of work and productivity to an amazing degree, considering the situation they inherited from Nazi and Allied occupation; the myth of French “inefficiency” and “shirking of work” in the interest of other more pleasurable pursuits ought to be dispelled.

These qualifications form part of the field of productivity itself. First, between 1930 and 1946 there has been a decline of three millions in the number of France’s producers. This loss has been to a substantially increased bureaucracy of non-producers, and the return of many foreign workers (Italians, Poles and now Germans) to their homes. This means, of course, that a comparatively smaller group of workers, handicapped by the well-known problems mentioned above by Germain, are required to produce for a population which has remained numerically stationary.

It must also be related to the obvious fact that French productivity has not increased at the same pace as that of more fortunate countries whose general advance in productivity is far above the mere 12 per cent recorded by France over ten years. Yet such qualifications alone could never account for the desperate character of this new French social crisis. We must look elsewhere and deeper.

Unquestionably, the failure of agriculture to regain a productivity equivalent to that of 1938 contributes to a partial continuation of the bitter struggle between countryside and city. The price of agricultural produce is high – very high – and many staple items are still heavily subsidized, but the French peasant is deeply dissatisfied. The price structure of industry is such that what he desires (farm equipment, chemicals, consumers’ goods) is beyond reach. His reactions follow familiar patterns such as hoarding, resistance to putting his crops on the market, etc., plus several new forms of economic opposition which seriously affect the national economy as a whole and are related to similar tendencies which we shall describe below. In general, since France is still predominantly an agricultural nation, its lack of balance between the recovery in industry and that in farming forms a general background to the disturbances of its economic life. Yet even this would be insufficient to explain all that has occurred.

Before attempting such an explanation, it is necessary to wade through statistics which, in reality, indicate the origin of the disturbances themselves. These statistics deal with such matters as prices, wages and their relationship to prices, export-import trade, currency and finances, etc. They serve, furthermore, to give us a skeletal description of the actual state of French economy in terms not merely of production, but the more important social relationships between the various aspects of the economy.

Prices and Wages

If the 1938 annual average equals 100, then the general wholesale index of prices stood at 1698 in July 1948, with wholesale industrial prices at 1743 and raw materials at 1749. The retail price index in Paris was 1716 for foods in July 1948 (it is now over 1800 – that is, eighteen times that of 1938), and the general retail index was 1528.

In 1948 alone, a catastrophic price increase took place, simultaneous with spurts forward in production. Between January and July 1948, wholesale prices jumped 75 per cent (resale of Marshall Plan material to industry by the government) and the retail index increased 13 per cent.

If we bear in mind that, according to the National Institute of Statistics, food represents 50 to 60 per cent of the French family budget, we will realize the importance of food prices to millions of French people. Its importance is, roughly, in budgetary terms, double that of an American family. Consider then the following table:

Cost-of-food index in 1938



Cost-of-food index in July 1948


Cost-of-food index in August 1943


Cost-of-food index in September 1948


That is, food costs now more than eighteen times what it did ten years ago! The steady rise in 1948 was largely due to the fact that the government withdrew its subsidies on grain crops, with corresponding effects on prices. Stated most simply, this means that the average French worker, functionary and middle- class professional works simply in order to purchase the food necessary for him to work again. The remainder of his income not represented by food purchases is spent on rent and other living necessities. The margin left for savings, purchase of clothing and other commodities is small indeed.

The price-wage spiral was illustrated in classic fashion during the month of October 1948. A united front of the three trade unions (Stalinist, Socialist and Christian) had forced from the government a decree raising minimum wages, as well as all wage scales, by 15 per cent. This was exactly and precisely offset during the same month of October by government decrees increasing the price of coal, gas, electricity, gasoline and (as a result) an increased price in manufactured goods. The net result was zero, but this was only the latest and crudest in a whole series of such self-defeating actions.

In general, the wage-price relationship may be summarized as follows. Whereas today’s cost of living is seventeen times that of 1938, the wage and salary index is only ten times that of 1938. In other words, real wages, in terms of purchasing power, have declined by 40 per cent.

The minimum wage demand of all unions in October stood at 13,500 francs per month ($42). Yet the government finds it impossible to meet this modest demand. The wage-price relationship grows steadily worse, to the detriment of the worker, and indicates the inability of French capitalism to stabilize and steady itself. Only one price has declined steadily – French bonds issued by the state are now at their lowest value in history!

Export-Import Trade

Like the rest of Europe, France’s foreign trade is seriously unbalanced in relation to America and the rest of the world. The dollar shortage is notorious and continues despite some gains which have made it possible to lower imports from the United States and despite a corresponding gain in inter-European trading. But these are small matters compared with the fact that trade is still $130 million in the red every month; over $1½ billion annually.

Why cannot France hope to balance this deficit? To a world market demanding raw materials, foods, machines, practical consumers’ items, France offers its traditional luxury articles (wines, liqueurs, fine textiles, handicraft products, etc.) and at extremely high prices. A fundamental change in French productivity, aimed at increased output and lowered costs, would be required before the possibility of a favorable trade balance could exist. The loss of colonial and other export markets is well known.

Currency and Finances

Note circulation is now the highest in France’s history, and steadily mounting despite the various devaluations (such as withdrawal of all 5,000 franc notes) that have taken place. In the month of August there was a note increase of 32½ billion francs in circulation, making a total increase of 100 billion francs in a three-month period. In the month of September 1948 there was the fantastic total of 877 billion francs circulating in this inflation-ridden nation whose bankrupt government meets its bills by extra shifts for its printing presses.

The nationalized Bank of France, which handles currency and financial operations for the state, reports the following facts on its condition at the end of July 1948:

This is the balance sheet of a financially bankrupt government living on deficit financing. Between January 1945 and May 1948 the state’s deficit amounted to $6 billion. This was met by a $2½ billion levy on the public and private holdings (in turn, leading to the liquidation of a large part of France’s overseas holdings), and by borrowing $3½ billion abroad in the form of foreign loans. But an end comes ultimately to such methods, and it is very close at hand.


This brief survey of French economy indicates the structural and functional nature of the French social crisis. Nothing operates properly. Everything – agriculture and industry, export and import life, prices and wages, currency and financing, distribution and consumption, production and consumption, needs and actual resources – everything is fundamentally out of balance. This unbalance in all sectors of the economy naturally prevents its normal functioning.

One section of the country has sufficient bread grains to throw away its ration tickets; another section cannot even honor the ticket’s. One section (Normandy) has all the meat, milk and dairy products needed, while nearby Paris has little or none. Maldistribution of raw materials forces a greater strain than ever on the robbing of Saarland coal, Lorraine iron ore and Ruhr coke.

It would be possible to extend this list of examples indefinitely. If, immediately after conclusion of the war, one might have described France in terms of a seriously ill patient who lies prostrate in a coma, unable to move and barely alive, it may now be said that the patient – thanks to treatment, normal processes and Marshall Plan injections – has returned to consciousness and is even able to stand on his feet, no matter how shakily. But re-examination by his doctor has revealed a heart condition, nephritis, dropsy and several other organic and functional diseases which now require treatment.

The coma has been overcome, but replaced by a new and just as serious condition.

These organic illnesses of French society, which cause it to be chronically and “fundamentally out of balance,” were not properly estimated by many – including Marxist analysts – who expected the return of a fairly stable capitalism accompanied by a temporary revival of democracy (democratic interlude). Perhaps the error consisted in attaching too much importance to the purely productive aspect of the economy, and neglecting the many-sided nature of capitalism which includes the elements of distribution, rate and cost of production, world trade and internal financing.

Actually, the confidence of the French bourgeoisie in its own structure is at a low ebb. We do not refer solely to the recent trend among the peasantry to develop a new type of the traditional hoarding, in the form of buying gold bullion on the open market and concealing it in the family mattress. This exists on a mass scale and has driven the price of gold to stupendous heights, but the lack of confidence is more profound.

The French bourgeois who has money to invest seeks new sources – gilt-edge values within France itself, wherever possible; if not, international values, or gold like any peasant, or real property. There is a distinct flight of capital from France to Switzerland, or Africa, or South America. There is no real trend to reinvestment in French industry, with the object of modernizing and rationalizing it.

Capitalism’s Dilemma

We might summarize the issue of French capitalism along the following lines: No serious progress has been made toward the solution of its real disturbances. Since only remedial measures have been employed, with the aim of stopgap relief, everything remains substantially as before. That is, an outmoded, worn-out industrial technique and plant equipment; a one-sided productivity based upon the desire for high and quick profits (luxury goods); a senile system of marketing, distribution and transportation; a low rate of productivity, together with a high productivity cost; a leveled-down population mass with a low purchasing power and therefore providing a narrow and stagnant market; a bureaucracy (non-productive) all out of proportion to the producing population; an international situation which prevents dependence upon overseas trade and which further drains away the nation’s capital.

In essence, France is now living on its accumulated capital, failing to replace what it uses, and digging itself deeper into deficit and bankruptcy each month.

This, in our opinion, is responsible for the new forward surge of Gaullism, the instability of the middle-of-the-road governments and the apparently concluding period of revived parliamentary democracy. It is against this background that one must understand the three major political movements of the country: Gaullism, with its rightist solution; Stalinism, with its Stalinist-collectivist solution; and the efforts of the center parties (Socialists, MRP and Radical-Socialists) to survive by hanging grimly on to the ropes.

If the French bourgeoisie has now more or less openly swung to support of De Gaulle, this does not mean either that its support is an enthusiastic and unqualified one, or that the discursive and vain general stands at the very door of power. The handing over of power to De Gaulle would be more in the nature of an act of abdication or default on the part of this bourgeoisie than, for example, such action was in the case of pre-Hitler Germany where the Nazis offered a dynamic program of conquest as bait. Many obstacles still stand before De Gaulle (the opposition of the French working class, the opposition of American imperialism to this bearer of grandiose pretensions, etc.), but none are greater than his own lack of a serious positive program. This, in turn, is due to the same diseases of French economy as affect all parties.

Gaullism is still essentially a negative movement – anti-Stalinist, against German revival, against American encroachment upon Europe, anti-British, etc. This is its real weakness and this is why, despite the three-year period of the Fourth Republic’s bungling and steady decline, Gaullism has not yet taken over.

The Rightist Program

Yet the French Right in general has its proposed solution to the difficulties of the nation, and Gaullism tacitly accepts these solutions. The series of cabinet crises and replacements, despite its comic-opera appearance, did mark a political trend; and close examination showed each new cabinet shifted slightly more to the right. That cabinet which included Paul Reynaud must be understood as a preview of a Gaullist government which failed only because it was premature. The trend is steadily towards a bridging of the gap between the post-war period of parliamentary democracy and Gaullist dictatorship.

The rightist program is the following:

  1. Destroy the influence of the Stalinist party (a) either by outright suppression, or (b) by curbing it through legal or other methods.
  2. Prune the many social reforms and labor measures of the government in all aspects and sufficiently to lower the budget deficit considerably.
  3. Weaken the nationalized sectors of the economy (coal mines, airplane building, electrical power, etc.) by permitting private investments in these industries, and eliminating all union influence over their management (the Reynaud Plan).
  4. Balance the budget by method (2), and “soak the workers and middle class” in taxation.
  5. Stimulate capital investment in private industry.

With or without De Gaulle, no group or section of the French bourgeoisie has a more imaginative or practical program than the above to offer. On the “middle-of-the-road” side of the ledger, we find no program whatever. The Socialist Party, the MRP and the Radical Socialists have no hope beyond that of somehow stumbling along, and depending upon the continuity of American financial and economic aid to provide empiric solutions to the day-to-day problems, while the surrounding atmosphere of social disorganization remains untouched.

On the left, only the RDR (Revolutionary Democratic Front) has put forward proposals which bear a relationship to the real problems of French society.

In an analysis of the budgetary and balance-of-payment deficiency problems, the organ of the RDR (Gauche, August 1948) proposed the following:

  1. Increased taxation on the higher brackets, and an extension of the taxation coverage to those elements still successful in avoiding taxation.
  2. An increase in the volume of production put out by the nationalized industries by greater capital investments in those already nationalized, and the extension of nationalization to still more sectors of the economy.
  3. An increase in public and social services (already far beyond that known in America, for example) so as to lower general living costs.
  4. Balancing of the budget by a reduction of current military expenses, and the complete withdrawal of the various disastrous colonial expeditious in Indo-China, North Africa and elsewhere.
  5. An ending of subsidies to private industry and the utilization of this money for nationalized industry.

The long-range problem of modernization and rationalization of French economy (the only real solution to the low-productivity and high-cost questions) is something that only a massive capital levy on all forms of wealth and private hoardings could solve. This is why the famous Monnet Plan for modernization exists only as a paper document.

We are now witnessing the profound effects of the inability of French capitalism to stage a sufficient all-around recovery, essential for the achievement of even a temporary and mild stability. The possibility of a still greater recovery has long been excluded by the fact that French capitalism, more than any other in Europe, long ago turned in upon itself and began to devour its own vitals. What was expected – and now it appears to have been a false expectation – was the limited recovery we have mentioned.

Perhaps more than any other in importance is the psychological effect this past three-year period has had upon the French people. Much of it is obvious to even the foreign observer: a rapid disillusionment and an openly cynical attitude toward the Fourth Republic; a belief that pervades all layers of the population that traditional parliamentarism has exhausted itself (and everyone else) ; a turning away in great masses from Stalinism which has shown it can only launch self-defeating adventures; a reluctant drawing of the middle classes and sections of the workers toward Gaullism. Yet this attraction toward the Peacock General is not a powerful one – it is more negative and despairing than anything else; a longing for some stability accompanied by the concept that perhaps only the general can end the perpetual Stalinist guerrilla warfare.

Most important of all, however, of these mass reactions – and surely the greatest cause for worry – is the loss of self-confidence and initiative that is so noticeable among a great working class which has always distinguished itself particularly by these characteristics of confidence, initiative and boldness. Yet these unbroken series of defeats, false alarms and forays, turnings-back and blind-alley attacks have had their deep effects upon the French proletariat and its traditions of struggle. Apathy, rather than energy; despair, rather than hope; confusion, rather than clarity – these are the real characteristics of the best sections of France’s population today.

It will take more than any of us are gifted enough to foresee to reverse this trend, and rouse the French workers from their ideologic slumbers. A boldness of program and approach, an open coming to grips with the issue of Stalinism and its totalitarianism, an exhibition of energy and clarity – these are the real requirements. Much as the RDR marks an advance in this direction, and a break with various sterile pasts such as that of French “Trotskyism” and Socialist Party “Blumism,” this new movement of the French people has still much ground to cover before it attains the needed goal. Fortunately, there is still time for it and other political groupings in France to continue along the line of revolutionary progress.

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