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Tom Kemp

Tremors Under the Fifth Republic

(October 1960)

From International Socialist Review, Vol.22 No.1, Winter 1961, pp.21-24. [1*]
Transcribed &marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The capitalists breathed a sigh of relief in 1958: De Gaulle had established his “strong” regime. But the solution solved nothing and the General faces the fate of his predecessors

Recent weeks have once again revealed just how deep are the fissures in French society behind the apparent solidity of the façade provided by the Fifth Republic.

While indifference remains widespread – is, indeed itself a symptom of crisis – it is rarely based today on a confident belief that De Gaulle has matters in hand. Even his friends have pierced the myth upon which his successes have been based; one by one, behind the throne, they are getting ready to fix the succession – if they can do so without the decisive intervention of the masses. And slowly, hesitantly, it is being realized by opponents that the regime is not impregnable and is not able to solve the problems of French capitalism.

For the present, the heavy incubus of the long record of betrayal of the official working-class organizations still hangs over the opposition, but there are signs of a change, and these signs, restricted as they are, have been sufficient in recent weeks to evoke an almost hysterical response on the part of the government. Papers have been seized, their offices searched, activists have been detained and left-wing university teachers and radio employees, as well as other intellectuals, have had sanctions taken against them. Both the new lines of opposition – directly striking at the essence of state power and the idea of “legality” – though supported only by a small vanguard as yet, and the measures used against them have caused heart-searchings through the ranks of France’s important, and predominantly left-wing intelligentsia. As the most sensitive section of French society it reflects the slight tremors which foreshadow the more intense shocks which the regime will have to face in the near future.

TO UNDERSTAND what is happening now, we have to cast our eyes back at the last decade of French history. In May, 1958, the regime had reached an impasse from which it could only escape by a sharp turn to new methods. Its problems were reflected in the low state of morale of the French ruling class and the deep divisions within itself which became an obstacle every time determined action seemed called for. The undermining of the confidence of the ruling class was no new thing. It had been apparent in the thirties; it brought about the capitulation of 1940 and had provided the background to the governmental instability of the period since 1945. It had weakened the capitalists in face of the working-class challenge. Indeed, only the “peoples front” policy of compromise and betrayal (i.e. supporting De Gaulle) by the Socialist and Communist party leaders in 1944-47, as in 1936, had enabled capitalist rule to survive. But it survived under constantly deteriorating conditions.

The French Empire was in process of disintegration. The French voice in the counsels of the great powers had become thin and was ignored with impunity. The shattered post-war economy was put back into action with billions of American dollars and with the exhortations of the Communist party leaders to “produce first.” (The CP only changed its tune when the crucial time for social change had passed away.)

Buoyed up by external aid, the French economy got into gear and embarked on a process of uninterrupted expansion. But this expansion was accompanied by sharp social strains and divisions within the ruling class and proved extremely painful to large sections of the petty bourgeoisie. The reasons for this lay in the antiquated nature of much of the apparatus of production and distribution and the pressures imposed upon it in the course of modernization. Conflicts and clashes of interests appeared between the modernizers in industry and the civil service and the vested interests of the older sections of the economy and their political friends. Hence the emergence of a number of warring but barely distinguishable political parties and groups all representing one or another section of the bourgeoisie or of the threatened peasantry and petty-bourgeoisie.

Thus, although in the fifties industrial production moved up at a brisk rate and important industries were given a face lift, social disintegration and political incoherence advanced with equal rapidity. With the onset of the nationalist revolt in Algeria in 1954, the situation steadily worsened and new opportunities were opened up for working-class action which the “left” parties failed to take advantage of. The Socialists, when in the government, carried on the war; and the verbal opposition of the Communists did not prevent them voting the special powers needed by the government to deal with the “emergency” nor was it matched by effective support to the Algerian revolution or to the big detachments of the Algerian proletariat forced to work in French industry by the poverty of their own country.

No Way Out

On the other hand the French bourgeoisie was forced to hang onto Algeria at all costs. Not only did it have a big economic stake, but a successful national struggle against colonialism would be a signal for a generalized revolt in the other African colonies. Moreover, without North Africa, the world position of France would once more be downgraded. These were the main reasons for building up in Algeria an army of some half a million men, largely composed of young conscripts. This vast army, officered by men anxious to revenge the defeats suffered in Indochina, was given virtually a free hand to maintain French rule at any price and by all means. In this it was seconded by the million-strong settler group in Algeria itself, profoundly influenced by racialism and right-wing extremism.

The Algerian war, as it dragged on, contributed a further festering stream to the already empoisoned social relations of the metropolis. The social crisis became deeper. Repression and even torture became everyday necessities. Parliamentary democracy became quite unworkable. It ceased to guarantee the essential interests of the leading sections of the bourgeoisie; it fostered all kinds of corruption; it fell into open contempt among the people. The settler revolt of May 1958 gave it the final push and gave the bourgeoisie the opportunity to throw off its fetters altogether. The depth of the crisis was now clearly revealed and the main sections of French capital thus tacitly agreed, if its rule was to continue, some of the old differences would have to be put aside and new, authoritarian content put into superficially democratic forms. This pointed clearly in the direction of General de Gaulle, who had been preparing himself for just such a moment for over a decade.

DE GAULLE’s task was twofold. First, he had to work out more favorable conditions for French capital at home both by strengthening the state apparatus and stamping out political intrigue and corruption. Second, but interrelated with this, went the object of defeating the nationalist movement in Algeria or forcing it to come to terms in a way satisfactory to French investment interests in that country.

The first of these proceeded comparatively smoothly. De Gaulle took over when the business cycle was moving upwards again on a world scale. His regime was thus able to take the credit for continued prosperity. In addition, by putting the exchange value of the franc on a more realistic basis and holding wages in check, a distinct improvement took place in the competitive position of French exports in the world market. The yawning balance of payments gap was thus bridged, though at the expense of a fall in real wages and a check to the home market, which is only showing its full consequences with the signs of slackening of the export boom. While the indices show, superficially, a continued improvement in production, behind the rising curves lies the fact that many sections of the economy, especially agriculture, have continued to resist adaptation. The restricted purchasing power of workers and peasants and the inability of French capitalism to grapple with such problems as housing have revealed that the much-discussed “neo-capitalism” has changed nothing fundamentally; especially has it done nothing to reconcile the working class to capitalist relations of production.

De Gaulle has been living in the past two years on a tremendous fund of credit derived from the confidence placed in him by diverse sections of the ruling class, but also from the widely held belief that he had the key to all problems. Even on the home front that has not been so; and the change in the economic climate is beginning to reveal just how little he has been able to achieve in the way of a permanent strengthening of French capitalism. At least here weaknesses and omissions have been concealed. The crucial problems which no one can escape concern Algeria.

In most other African colonies, De Gaulle has found obsequious house-boys temporarily, though he hopes permanently, to stand as guarantors for French interests against the colonial revolution. In Algeria, however, he has been up against an elemental movement, already in armed action, with deep social as well as national roots. Here, although many of the leaders of the National Liberation Front (FLN), may from time to time have been prepared for compromise, the circumstances of the struggle have left little room for a deal. For one thing it would lead to their denunciation by their own more militant supporters as a sell-out. Algeria is no Senegal and no Cyprus. Moreover, the presence in Algeria of the settler movement and an army under the command of a fanatical officer corps considerably narrows down the concessions which even De Gaulle can make in negotiations to bring about a settlement which will conserve the vital interests of French capital. Consequently, the Fifth Republic has been no more successful than its predecessor in bringing to an end a bitter conflict which it stubbornly refuses to recognize as a war. The war itself, with all its consequences, undermines in its course the foundations of confidence upon which De Gaulle’s government is based.

The Youth Rebel

As it does so, the war itself becomes more and more a nuisance and an outrage to French citizens; the most acutely affected and the most sensitive to its effects are the youth and the intellectuals. It is from their ranks, therefore, that has come the first movement which has openly proclaimed the need to fight the war by illegal means if necessary, as part of the struggle against the regime itself. The trial of a number of courageous people who had given assistance to the Algerian struggle resulted in the drawing up of the now famous Manifesto of the 121, which called for solidarity with them.

The clandestine actions of the accused, which resulted in their receiving heavy sentences, have clarified the issues and sparked off a series of reactions in all directions. The panic of the government has been revealed, and, at the same time, a searchlight has been turned on the regime itself. In recent weeks there can be little doubt that the French bourgeoisie has felt more threatened than at any time in the past two and a half years. The old lack of confidence in itself has come to the fore – now expressed in a waning confidence in De Gaulle. The struggle for succession now goes forward in intensified intrigues; in plotting which resembles the last year of the Fourth Republic; and the old parties are now reconsidering their relationship to the regime itself.

Rumors are heard that former contenders for power, Pinay and Soustelle, both former ministers in the De Gaulle government, are now ganging up together with their eyes on the future. Socialist chief Guy Mollet, who only last June, at his party’s conference, boasted that De Gaulle was carrying out their policy in Algeria, has now seen fit to make an outspoken criticism of that same policy; he clearly wished to draw a sharper line between himself and a regime which, it daily becomes plainer, is not eternal. Right through the old parties similar signs of change can be discerned.

The Manifesto

At the same time, the actions of the 121, headed by Jean Paul Sartre, have outlined more clearly the nature of the policies pursued by the “left” parties on the Algerian question. The most touched is, of course, the Communist party. It began with statements which condemned the “illegal” methods used by the resistors in terms not unlike those current in the bourgeois press. Lately, however, it has been more cautious. For one thing, Khrushchev’s recent references to Algeria, have been less indulgent to De Gaulle than those of the Camp David period. For another, the rank-and-file, obviously uneasy, has been pressing for a more militant stand. Thus, while still admonishing those calling for acts of resistance – desertions, aid to the nationalists, etc. – the tone is milder, and is now accompanied by the claim that the Communists must organize and carry on work in the army, not engage in individual acts of resistance. From a Leninist point of view the argumentation appears impeccable, but it is no secret that the carrying on of communist work in the army is something which has not been done systematically for a long while. In fact, since the days of the Popular Front, when communists have been marching, with only brief intervals, behind the tricolor and shouting patriotic slogans louder than anyone else it has been quietly abandoned. It is significant, however, that, at least verbally, it should be restored to respectability. Partly through the long-run effects of Communist policy, therefore, the workers are still largely inert.

THE sensitive intellectual sections, as has been stressed, have been the first to move. But it must not be thought that the majority have acted in a positive way. They were, in fact, put on the spot by the Manifesto of the 121, but in their great majority vigorously rejected its implications, so that while prepared to speak up for freedom of speech, they were not prepared to line up in active struggle against the government. The most widely supported petition, put into circulation by the teachers’ unions, is a quite mild document by comparison. It calls attention to the “moral” problems raised for young conscripts by the Algerian war. It goes on to say “the crisis of conscience and the spirit of revolt among the youth are inevitable, [the signatories] are persuaded that they will only get worse until the cause is removed: the war itself.” This piece of undoubted logic is followed by a call for a “negotiated peace,” before peace is imposed (by whom is not clear) amidst “convulsions” in France as well as in Algeria. And a warning is included against the “ultras” and the army officers who carry on the war. There is no analysis of the nature of the conflict, just the peace slogan – which could be merely an appeal to General de Gaulle himself to make peace.

In its majority, therefore, the “left” intellectuals themselves are evading the main issues. Clearly, their consciences are tormented by what they hear about tortures and repression carried out in their name (as they sometimes put it) and by the effect of the war on youth – either by making it absorb racial poison or leading it onto illegal paths. The use of the term “convulsions” is particularly revealing. It is difficult to see how anything can be resolved in a progressive direction in France or Algeria without “convulsions” and to act on any other presumption is to play into the hands of reaction. Yet the intellectuals around such journals as France-Observateur and L’Express have not yet woken up to this. Apparently the teachers and others who sign this petition, genuine in their opposition to De Gaulle, and in their desire to see justice done, etc., still wish to be able to return to their studies and cafes with some kind of an assurance that there will be no “convulsions.”

Suppression of the Facts

All this time, moreover, the government counter-attacks at the intellectuals’ main media of independent expression. The weeklies already mentioned have been seized a number of times of late, not so much for their editorial opinions as for factual reporting about the Algerian conflict. The government, which as yet does not dare to curtail press freedom directly, hopes to wear down the intellectuals’ press by striking at it through its finances. The seizures result in heavy financial losses and also means that many readers do not see the papers at all. In fact these “independent” journals are more vulnerable than the Communist party press, which is run at a loss anyway and largely distributed through party members and cells. The government wants to destroy the “independent” papers because it is afraid of the facts about Algeria being widely disseminated – and from sources not easily smeared as “Communist” or “Russian.” In so doing, it reveals its own fear of the consequences of a widespread popular awakening. It, too, does not desire “convulsions” – which must inevitably follow an intervention of the organized working class.

But the task of the French intellectuals is not to try to find a way around such intervention, but to contribute, so far as they are able, to the construction of a new leadership which can make that intervention, when it at last takes place, a decisive one.

October 17, 1960


Editor’s Note

1*. Tom Kemp teaches Political Economy at Hull University in London, England. [sic!]

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