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Shane Mage

De Gaulle – a Lesser Evil?

(Spring 1960)

From International Socialist Review, Vol.21 No.2, Spring 1960, pp.43-45.
Transcribed &marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

You felt like “a bleating lamb ready for the slaughterhouse,” said one French intellectual. It was easy to back the general; but how answer: What “if the fascist forces had been unleashed?”

ON MAY 13, 1958, a combination of Army officers and right-wing European residents seized control of Algeria. The insurrection of May 13 led directly to the overthrow of the Fourth French Republic. Charles de Gaulle took power as the “savior” of France.

On Jan. 25, 1960 history seemed to be repeating itself. Newspaper headlines screamed of an “uprising” in Algiers, with the French Army units stationed there acting in complicity with the rioting, armed civilians. But this time there was to be no Sixth Republic in the offing: the “colons” surrendered sullenly. What had made the difference – De Gaulle’s “personality,” or something more serious, more fundamental?

The context of the present tumultuous development of French politics is the effort of the Fifth Republic to liquidate the crushing heritage left to it by its predecessor. The Fourth Republic collapsed because of its inability to end the Algerian war, and the coup de grace was administered to it by a combination of fascists, gangsters, army officers, and ambitious politicians (many of the conspirators fitting into several or all of these categories.) The De Gaulle regime from its very inception has been faced with the continuation of the Algerian war and a built in conspiracy within itself. The “men of May 13,” the representatives of the French “colons” who rule Algeria, have until now held positions of power on all levels of the state. The Prime Minister himself, Michel Debre, was implicated in an attempt to assassinate the commander-in-chief of the army in Algeria. As long as the fascist plotters kept their grip on the state apparatus, there could be no end to the Algerian war.

But the Fifth Republic must end the Algerian war, which costs France almost two billion dollars a year, blocking the further modernization of the French economy and military establishment, tying down the bulk of the French army, killing over 2,000 French soldiers a year, and discrediting the De Gaulle regime in international politics. And it is equally clear that there is no military solution to be hoped for: the war can be ended only through negotiations with those in control of the armed struggle, the leaders of the “National Liberation Front” (FLN) who have formed the self-styled “Provisional Government of the Algerian Republic” (GPRA).

At the start of the Algerian revolution the governments of the Fourth Republic refused to negotiate with the Algerian nationalists. At that time a socialist tendency, the “Algerian Nationalist Movement” (MNA) was predominant in the Algerian nationalist movement. Concessions to Algerian nationalism, then, would have opened the door to a socialist revolution in which French capitalism would not merely have lost control of the Algerian economy but would itself have been directly menaced.

During the past four years however, the FLN, led by former right-wing Algerian politicians like Ferhat Abbas and M’hasid Yazid, has been able to gain complete control of the Algerian resistance movement. The methods it has used to eliminate the MNA have been those of assassination and slander – but they have succeeded, thanks in large measure to all-out financial support from the Arab States and political support from the Stalinists and their fellow travelers who have always considered the MNA “semi-Trotskyist” and thus a major enemy. The victory of the FLN has meant safe bourgeois control of Algerian nationalism and thus dispelled the spectre of socialism.

De Gaulle, though he used the Algerian colons and their fascist friends to come to power, is not in the least bound to them. Under cover of “personal” rule, the Fifth Republic is the direct representative of the decisive sections of French capitalism. The Fourth Republic, was ruled by a parliament made up of representatives of all the special interests within French capitalism – from the sugar beet growers and moonshiners to the Algerian colons – who were very adept at rolling all the necessary logs to protect every special interest, no matter how backward or detrimental to the system as a whole. But De Gaulle, who has long been closely linked to the house of Rothschild, has formed an authoritarian and “technocratic” government in which the interests of the big banks and industrial corporations count for much more than the interests of small businessmen (whose representative, Antoine Pinay, was forced out of the government at the end of last year).

De Gaulle’s colonial policy too, has been that of the “modern” sections of French capitalism. Well before his return to power De Gaulle had openly advocated a “liberal” colonial policy. Today the great imperialist countries: England, France, Belgium, the USA, have understood that colonialism is an outlived, obsolete, and dangerous political form, giving rise to revolutionary movements. They have fully grasped the fact that in the long run the western powers can hold on to their present dependencies only in partnership with a native ruling class similarly interested in the preservation of capitalism. This partnership, of course, requires the political form of national independence. De Gaulle, since 1958, has laid the basis for the independence of France’s entire African empire, from Mauretania to Madagascar. De Gaulle’s Algeria policy can be understood only as an integral part of his general colonial policy.

But before this policy could be implemented De Gaulle had to get Algiers under control. The softening-up process went through several stages. Immediately after taking power De Gaulle made a triumphal trip through Algeria, assured the “colons” that he had understood them (”Je vous ai compris”) echoed the slogan “Algerie Française”; then staged the completely falsified “referendum” of Sept. 28 in which nearly 100% of the Algerian Moslems supposedly voted “Oui” to the French Constitution.

In November 1958, having made these gestures to appease the Europeans of Algeria, De Gaulle turned to the FLN with an offer to negotiate “the peace of the brave.” At that stage De Gaulle was not in sure enough command or under enough pressure to offer anything more definite, and although undercover negotiations took place (GPRA “Premier” Ferhat Abbas met French Foreign Minister Couvre de Murville in Lausanne, Switzerland) there was no end to the war.

In the summer of 1959 the French high command initiated the “Challe Plan” to concentrate the overwhelming power of the French army in the Kabylia mountains, stronghold of the FLN. Supposedly a new attempt to win the war, in reality the place was designed to persuade the cadre of the French army of the impossibility of a military solution.

Then on Sept. 16, 1959 De Gaulle made his key political move – the famous offer of “self-determination” to Algeria, followed on Nov. 10 by an appeal to the FLN leaders to come to Paris and negotiate the application of the self-determination. The response of the FLN was an acceptance “in principle” combined with a seeming rebuff – a negotiating committee was named consisting exclusively of prisoners in French jails! In reality this response had no other objective than to give De Gaulle more time to get full control of the French administration in Algiers, for under no conceivable circumstances could the FLN name a genuine negotiating mission excluding its political leader Ferhat Abbas and its military chieftain Krim Belkacem.

In December, two further developments fully set the stage for the denouement in Algeria. In a speech at St. Louis de Senegal De Gaulle consecrated the independence of the Federation of Mali, the former “French West Africa.” Only fifteen months had passed since Mali had gone from colonial status to “internal autonomy” – and now it was to be independent! How long could anyone expect Algeria to lag behind the far more backward countries of tropical Africa? At the same time, in Tripoli, the FLN after a three-week meeting reorganized its top leadership. Dropped were the leaders oriented toward Cairo or Peking – in full control remained the “Paris” and “Washington” factions.

De Gaulle could now move to the inevitable test of strength with Algiers. The decisive point was the semi-Fascist Gen. Massu, military commander in Algiers, darling of the local “ultras” – and well known political idiot. It was not hard to organize Massu’s downfall: De Gaulle’s representatives in Algeria, commander-in-chief Challe and Special Delegate Delouvier told the correspondent of a German newspaper that Massu might have some interesting things to say, that would be worth publishing. Massu, all unsuspecting, spoke his “mind,” and soon the Süddeutsche Zeitung appeared quoting Massu as denouncing De Gaulle’s self-determination policy and predicting that the Army would oppose any attempt to implement it. Before he knew what had hit him, Massu found himself under temporary arrest and whisked back to Paris.

The “uprising” that followed Massu’s removal was no surprise to those members of De Gaulle’s inner circle who in the previous weeks had been cited in the press as commenting on the desirability of “trouble” in Algiers in order to let De Gaulle take special powers (though he already had almost dictatorial powers) and put parliament to sleep for a year (though it could not have been said to be very awake in the first place). No doubt by pure coincidence, this was exactly what De Gaulle did once the “uprising” had been squelched.

An informative journalistic account by M. and S. Bromberger, of the overthrow of the Fourth Republic was entitled The Thirteen Conspiracies of May 13. Behind the events of Jan. 24-30 this year there were also a large number of undercover plots – and this is perhaps the main reason why the true situation remained so mysterious for the first days, producing among many observers a panic fear of an all-out fascist coup.

In reality there were and still are, fascist conspiracies involving high army and police officers, aiming at the overthrow of the De Gaulle government. And although the Algiers “uprising” was the result, not of an attempted coup, but of a governmental provocation, it also became closely entangled with these conspiracies. It has since become clear that a serious attempt to overthrow De Gaulle was (and perhaps still is?) being planned for a precise date: the beginning of April when De Gaulle would be visiting this country and just before the arrival of Khrushchev on his visit to France. An insurrection in Algiers, whose main forces would be provided by the “Territorial Militia,” the paratroop divisions, and the openly fascist political organizations (like the “French National Front” of the ex-brothel keeper Ortiz) was to coincide with a wave of anti-Khrushchev demonstrations to be organized in metropolitan France by the “Catholic Nationalist civic groups” of Georges Sauge. To “prevent civil war” the Army would be forced to take complete power under the patronage of a “respected” figure like Marshal Juin and set up a “Government of Public Safety” like that origiaally projected for May 13.

WHAT happened on Monday, January 25, was simply this: the essential arm of the insurrection, the “territorials,” the Ortiz-Lagaillarde fascists, had been thrown into action some two months too soon. The political preparation was not accomplished, the French fascists were unready for action, the army officers had not established a plan to unite their action to that of the Algiers “ultras.” But there they were, behind the barricades, blood had been shed, and De Gaulle had instantly denounced their “evil blow against France.”

In this situation the organizers of the plot had only two real choices: to accelerate everything and move immediately to a coup, or to cut their losses, liquidate the adventure as quickly and cheaply as possible.

The first alternative, however, was manifestly impossible. The “Army” in a capitalist state is never an independent and homogeneous social force, still less is it the plaything of a few extremist officers, no matter how highly placed. It is the decisive instrument of rule for the capitalist class and can never be permitted to escape from the hands of that class. Of all modern armies, the French army in thirteen years of uninterrupted counter-revolutionary war in the jungles of Indo-China and the mountains of Algeria has become an “ideal” breeding ground for all forms of fascist ideology. Nevertheless, even in May 1958 the Army command was willing to side with the insurrection only after De Gaulle had covered it with his full authority, and it threw its full weight into the balance only when it became clear that French capitalism was turning to De Gaulle, and then it was under pressure of a mass movement of the European population of Algeria and faced with an inept and discredited government in Paris.

In January 1960, however, the situation had basically changed. Lagaillarde and Ortiz did not speak for the mass of Europeans in Algiers. Their demonstrations rallied only 15-20,000 activists. The rest remained passive, and participated in the general strike at the points of the guns of the “Territorial Militia.” More important, vastly more important, the big capitalists in France are solidly behind De Gaulle and, above all, behind his Algeria policy. The inescapable conclusion for the fascist core of army officers was that an open coup would mean their isolation within the army and a speedy disaster.

But the alternative – submission to De Gaulle – was also decidedly unattractive. By his removal of Massu and his “evil blow” statement De Gaulle was clearly moving for the first time to get thorough control of the Algiers army. Would not an easy victory strengthen his hand and complete the demoralization of the “activists?” Thus, although totally unprepared for a coup, the officer-conspirators were unwilling to submit: they sought a way out through pressure and passive resistance. The idea was crude and direct: instead of obeying orders to disperse the “insurgents” the paratroop garrison of Algiers fraternized with them while their officers “warned” Paris that the “rebellion” would be ended only if De Gaulle abandoned his self-determination policy and generally capitulated to them.

This, of course, was pure bluff in the absence of any intention to stage a coup – and De Gaulle was in position to call it at any moment. Though he waited for five days to do so, (partly, no doubt, to consolidate his command of the “loyal” army units, but also to heighten the theatrical effect) when De Gaulle in his speech on Friday, Jan. 29 stated his definitive refusal to compromise and ordered reliable forces from the “front” to take over from the paratroops in Algiers the “revolt” was as good as over. After swearing to die to the last man (and woman and child, whose bodies the heroes had asked to be added to their barricades) for “Algerie Française,” the “insurgents” surrendered meekly and ingloriously.

In a quick follow up, some of the most notorious Army fascists, notably Colonels Godard and Bigeard and General Faure, were removed from their posts. The “Territorial Militia” was ordered dissolved.

Alain de Serigny, publisher of L’Echo d’Alger, and spokesman for the most ultra of ultra-colonialists, was arrested for his part in the conspiracy. French fascist leader Jacques Soustelle was fired from his cabinet position (Minister of the Sahara and Atomic Energy). Overall responsibility for Algeria was given to the new Minister of Armed Forces Pierre Messmer, who as High Commissioner in West Africa, had just proved his qualifications for the Algeria job by his preparation of the independence of Mali.

In sum, the diametric difference in the results of May 13 and Jan. 25 was not at all the consequence of a fortuitous factor, the personality of De Gaulle, however large a part the De Gaulle myth may have played. The essential difference is that the weak Fourth Republic was incapable of carrying through an effective policy in Algeria while holding the workers in check – and that in the person of De Gaulle there was an alternative available. The Fifth Republic is perfectly capable of finding a capitalist solution to the Algerian war, has more than proven its ability to control the working class, and there is no apparent alternative.

Failure to understand this basic point contributed powerfully to the ideological bankruptcy and political confusion displayed (during the January crisis) by virtually, all sections of the French radical movement which, panic stricken by the “Fascist menace,” fled desperately to De Gaulle as the only savior.

This behavior was all that could be expected from the Communist and Socialist parties which in their own respective ways had become supporters of De Gaulle after destroying the chance to resist his seizure of power. But left-wing socialists too shared in the flight. The editorial of Jean-Jacques Servan-Schreiber in L’Expres of Jan. 28 is a perfect illustration of this.

Servan-Schreiber begins by recalling De Gaulle’s direct responsibility in perpetuating the “built-in conspiracy” he inherited from. May 13. He then poses, as a first step, the question “should we support de Gaulle?” and responds, “The answer is as clear, as simple, as it was in May 1958 concerning M. Pflimlin. There is the present and there is the future.” For the future he wishes to maintain a principled opposition to the De Gaulles and Pflimlins and the capitalist system they represent. But the present? There he has no choice but to support the lesser evil, Pflimlin against De Gaulle, De Gaulle against Lagaillarde.

BUT is the answer that simple? Servan-Schreiber must immediately come to grips with the complete failure of Pflimlin. On that score he has no illusions: to stop De Gaulle it would have been necessary to call on the working class, to form armed workers militias; and the bourgeoisie was prepared to face “anything but that! Reach agreement with De Gaulle, compromise with Massu and Salan, that at least would preserve the social order, avoid any great upheaval. Bui, to appeal to the people meant disorder, adventure, who knows? The Popular Front.” Note, in passing, how even the most “leftist” of French socialists, whether in the PSA or the UGS, refer to the Popular Front as to the ultimate in revolutionary action. Even though Servan-Schreiber and Bourdet (unlike the Stalinists) are at times capable of an abstractly correct analysis of the failure of two “Popular Fronts” in the last twenty-five years, in practice the Popular Front remains their political horizon.

Servan-Schreiber’s argument lands him in a hopeless contradiction: if indeed the capitalist government is bound to capitulate since it cannot mobilize the working class against its own army, what can be achieved by giving political support to it, except to lull the workers and thus aid in the victory of the “greater evil?” And if the government can master the rebellion without calling on the workers, because it retains the confidence of the decisive sectors of the capitalist class, then again what is gained by supporting it in the “present” except to disorient the workers and undermine your own “principled” opposition for the “future?”

But this does not in the least imply indifference about various possible governments on the pretext that all are capitalist. The replacement of Pflimlin by De Gaulle was a grave defeat for the French workers: that of De Gaulle by a front man for the thugs Ortiz, Lagaillarde, etc., would be a complete disaster. There is an answer to the dilemma of “how to defend a capitalist government that is certain to capitulate to a military coup” and it is not a complicated one: the independent self-mobilization of the working class. The action of the Russian workers in August 1917 against the Kornilov insurrection, that of the German workers in 1920 against the Kapp Putsch, are only two of the many historical examples.

In his own way Servan-Schreiber is aware of this. At the moment of crisis he could only plead to De Gaulle to “choose” to resist, but a week later he looked back – and what he saw filled him with panic:

“It was not De Gaulle who yielded before the blow from Algiers, it was we.

“I do not speak symbolically of ‘we the left’ or ‘we the democrats.’ I say very precisely, very concretely: you, myself ... Were you immediately contacted, mobilized, made active and effective by a democratic organization of your choice (party, union, defense committee, etc)? Were you in contact with friends, comrades, colleagues in order to act? ...

“You and I, and everyone else were posing the questions: What will De Gaulle say? What will De Gaulle do?

“But not the question: What will I myself do tomorrow morning?

“If the fascist forces had really been unleashed this time how would you have defended yourselves, how would you have grouped yourselves, how would you have armed yourselves? And if you cannot answer these questions ... you were a bleating lamb ready for the slaughterhouse.”

The passivity of the French workers, in large part caused by their stunning defeat of May 1958, is however, not to be counteracted by support to De Gaulle, even only in the “present.” Panic, even if it makes some things stand out more clearly, is a bad guide to policy. De Gaulle is now moving to end the Algerian war, to remove the threat of a fascist coup: but he is doing this solely on a capitalist basis.

Peace in Algeria on the basis of a deal between De Gaulle and Ferhat Abbas, whether or not Algeria becomes nominally independent, would symbolize the failure of the Algerian revolution, and could not satisfy the Algerian masses since the land and resources of their country would remain in French hands.

In France, the De Gaulle regime is likely to become even more authoritarian, to move still further to the right. Revolutionary socialists cannot give an iota of political support to De Gaulle or to the leaders of the FLN. The path to socialism in France lies in resolute opposition to the “strong state” of De Gaulle.

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