1960s >> 1968 >> no-767-july-1968

Le Chienlit de France

Barricades in Paris! Paris, the storm-centre of every 19th century European insurrectionary wave—1830, 1848, 1871—once again the scene of street battles. Is this the beginning of a new revolutionary era? Many would like to think so but let us look at the facts.

De Gaulle retired from active politics in 1953 and retreated to his country house at Colombey-les-Deux-Eglises awaiting the call to come back. For the previous six years he had been the leader of a movement demanding strong government. He had long realised what, from the French capitalists’ point of view, was wrong with the parliamentary regime of the Fourth Republic. After an enthusiastic new start in 1945, within a few years politics was back to what it had been in the Third Republic (which began with the bloody suppression of the Paris Commune and ended when Petain took over). Prime Ministers came and went at frequent intervals; parliament overthrew governments rather than accept tough economic measures. The parliamentary regime, with the Communist Party (PCF) in permanent isolation and opposition, gave power to the most backward elements of the French capitalist class, the small provincial bourgeoisie drawing their profits from out dated productive methods. The tax system also favoured them at the expense of modern industry, including the large nationalised sector. Any deputy had the right to propose financial legislation. Thus, just before an election, there was a spate of measures to cut taxes. The French state could never be sure what funds it would get, and inflated the currency. In all the state was weak and unable to take decisive action.

But serious problems there were requiring such action, notably the wind-up of the French Empire in Indo-China and Algeria. The parliamentary regime was unable to solve either; a strong man was called in both times. The first was Pierre Mendès-France, prime minister from 1954 to 1955, whose tough measures with regard to the withdrawal from Indo-China earned him some respect, but also the hatred of the other politicians who saw his power as a threat to theirs. They threw him out. The second was Charles de Gaulle. Almost exactly ten years before the recent crisis, on 13 May 1958, the army and settlers in Algeria rose up against the parliamentary regime. The revolt spread to Corsica, and the government was panic-stricken. Reluctantly President Coty appealed to de Gaulle. De Gaulle dictated his terms to the frightened politicians and took over. At the time many saw de Gaulle as the figurehead for a military-fascist dictatorship. This was a mistake. It is certainly true that de Gaulle came to power on the backs of reactionary elements, but they soon turned against him. Witness the many OAS attempts on his life.

De Gaulle was a strong man, not over French capitalism, but for it. The constitution for the new Fifth Republic, drafted by Debré (then prime minister), provided for a great strengthening of the executive at the expense of parliament. The traditional parties, too, were got at. The complicated system of proportional representation was replaced by the second ballot in single-member constituencies to encourage the emergence of a two-party system. Thus the power of parliament, where the backward elements of the French bourgeoisie were entrenched, was weakened.

The first act of the Gaullist regime, then, was to reshape the state in the interests of big business. This done, they set about solving the many problems of French capitalism that had accumulated over the years of weak government: peace in Algeria, tax reform, currency reform, modernisation and centralisation of industry. These were all carried through. The Gaullist regime seemed to have succeeded, so why the insurrection?

De Gaulle against the politicians of the Fourth Republic was not an issue that interested (or concerned) the French working class. They scarcely lifted a finger to defend the parliamentary regime in 1958. The French workers, weak organisationally, have always made up for this with bouts of enthusiasm. The Gaullist regime, of course, governed in the interests of French capitalism, and any capitalist government is inevitably brought into conflict with the workers. De Gaulle and his Ministers adopted the same arrogant attitude toward the working class as to the old parties and politicians. Last year, for instance, after scraping home in the elections to the National Assembly, the government took powers to rule by decree to deal with the economic situation. It is interesting to note that a token general strike called by the unions at that time was only moderately successful. One of the first economic decrees was aimed at reforming the social security system. The unions were removed from its national management and benefits cut. Coupled with mounting unemployment and wages lagging behind prices, these were the ground for discontent.

As the working class in Britain has shown, although workers now see no alternative to capitalism there are limits to how far they are prepared to be pushed around by a capitalist government. In Britain they refuse to vote Labour. In France, with its tradition of “direct action” and weak organisation (the two go together), the reaction has been more dramatic: sit-in strikes, monster demonstrations, far- reaching wage demands.

The whole thing was sparked off by student unrest and violent student-police clashes. The students in France, overcrowded, subject to petty rules of discipline and central control, certainly had grounds to complain. But their leaders —the Cohn-Bendits and others—have wider aims than mere university reform. They are out no less than to topple the government or, as they would put it, “to smash the bourgeois state” and open the way for “the workers to take power”. These demagogues call themselves “revolutionary socialists” and “anarchists”, and are greatly influenced by the mistaken and dangerous views of Debray and Che Guevara: that it is a vanguard that makes history. The reaction of the workers, with the younger ones pushing the more conservative union officials, seemed to confirm their theories. They had created “a revolutionary situation”. Now, to exploit it. In Trotskyist theory—and if reports were correct leaders of trotskyist groupuscles found themselves addressing thousands rather than hundreds; they were heard with respect by students while the PCF speakers were jeered — what is needed to do this is a Bolshevik-type party, centralised, highly-disciplined and ruthless in pursuit of its aims. No such party — thank goodness! — exists in France. That is why the student demagogues and their trotskyist friends are so annoyed at the attitude of the PCF. Cohn-Bendit has called them “stalinist scum”. They should not really have been surprised. The PCF has long been a patriotic, reformist party. Yet they are still expected to act as if they were an organisation of professional revolutionaries! But the PCF, and its trade union wing the CGT, have also been timid over wages and working condition! One thing is clear. Out of this, the PCF will emerge as discredited as the Gaullists.

A crisis may have existed in the sense that for a time the Gaullist regime seemed to be breaking up (but it still controlled the army), offering an opportunity for a determined vanguard to seize power — and if that happens, heaven help the French workers. But as the French workers are not socialist-minded the outcome will not be the start of a world-wide socialist revolution. The key opposition figures are leaders of the other two so-called socialist parties in France. Mitterrand, of the Left Federation of Democratic Socialist (FGDS), an alliance of the Social Democrats and some radicals, and Mendès-France of United Socialist Party, (PSU), a small leftwing breakaway from the old Social Democrats. Ironically, both have only recently embraced “Socialism”. Before that they were Radicals (very roughly the equivalent of the Liberals in Britain).

What Mendès-France is doing in a party that is to the left of the PCF (Barjonet, economic adviser to the CGT, who resigned because of its timid attitude, joined the PSU) is a mystery. He, like de Gaulle, believes in strong government. He, too, saw what was wrong with the Fourth Republic. He, too, is not linked with the discredited pre-1958 politicians. Mendès-France talks of the “new Socialism” which is recognised even by some of his fellow party members to be merely state capitalism.

If a new government emerges under Mitterrand or Mendès-France, perhaps with PCF participation, what then? In the initial stages it will be friendly to the workers and their organisations. Social reforms will be made. But capitalism is capitalism and sooner or later that government must itself come into conflict with the working class, especially when it faces the problem of the competitiveness of French goods in the world market. Then will begin the failure of yet another Left-wing government to make capitalism work in the interests of the workers.

The shaking of the Gaullist regime should be a standing warning to governments everywhere not to push the working class too far, and certainly not to push the students at the same time. It shows too how, in the end, every government depends on a certain amount of popular assent.

Adam Buick