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Ian H. Birchall

Gaullism in Retrospect

(May 1973)

From International Socialism (1st series), No. 58, May 1973, pp. 17–18.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

It is 15 years this month since the crisis that brought de Gaulle to power in France. For the French Left, they have been 15 wasted years. A series of attempts have been made to regroup ‘the Left’, ‘democrats’, ‘progressives’ or whatever against de Gaulle and his heirs. Each attempt, including March’s general election, has ended in failure.

Though not everyone would share the precise turn of phrase, the strategy of the French Left has effectively been that proposed by Francois Billoux in 1959:

‘The communists and their friends ... will not allow excitable petty-bourgeois to substitute chatter about socialism for what remains the present aim in France: the restoration and renewal of democracy’.

To adopt this view – that it is possible to separate the struggle against Gaullism from the struggle against capitalism – is precisely to surrender to the mystique which the Gaullists themselves have tried to create. An outline of the origins, policies, ideology and evolution of Gaullism may serve to combat some myths.

1. Why the French bourgeoisie turned to de Gaulle

In 1958, French capitalism was in a fundamentally healthy state. Industrial productivity had risen rapidly in the early fifties, indeed faster than it was to do under de Gaulle. From 1955 to 1958 the increase in French productivity in manufacturing was eight per cent per year, faster than in any other Western European country. Between 1952 and 1958 price stability was largely achieved.

Nor did the working class offer any serious challenge. From 1944 to 1947 the French Communist Party had mobilised workers for production to restore French capitalism; after 1947 it had launched them into a series of ill-prepared battles. By the late fifties the French working class was demoralised and divided. In May 1958 only a tiny minority of workers followed even the token strike calls of their leaders; the Fourth Republic was not theirs and they felt no need to defend it.

However, the French bourgeoisie faced two chronic political problems. The first was the notorious instability of parliamentary institutions. Between 1945 and 1958 France had 27 governments, of which only two survived more than one year.

The French Right had been unable to unite itself into a single party, partly because of the existence of a large peasantry and petty-bourgeoisie, partly because of the divisions caused by the German occupation.

The various parties of the Right and Centre were agreed only on one thing – that the Communist Party, which in 1956 had gained over one quarter of the national vote and of parliamentary seats, should be excluded from any governmental alliance. As a result a workable coalition could be founded only on a mutual agreement to refrain from taking any decisive action.

In itself this would not have mattered too much. It reflected the general decline in the importance of parliament in Western capitalism. Other countries (for example, Italy) have survived long periods of parliamentary instability. But without a strong government it was impossible to deal with the problem of Algeria. Faced with the challenge of a national liberation movement, French capital could afford to evacuate. But only a strong government could enable it to surmount the opposition of the Army and the European settlers.

2. The Gaullists in power

De Gaulle was brought to power to solve the Algerian problem; and by leaning alternately on Right and Left, on the Army and the trade unions, he was able to do so. But at the same time he was able to carry through a range of policies more immediately in the interests of French capitalism.

Gaullist economic policy was clearly designed to attack workers’ living standards. The devaluation of 1958 was followed by a series of austerity programmes. Numerous economy measures were taken, for example cuts in social security benefits and war veterans’ pensions. The results were drastic. Up to 1966 labour costs in France rose less than in any other Common Market country.

De Gaulle’s policy was not one of direct confrontation with the labour movement. In the late forties, when de Gaulle had been in the political wilderness at the head of an extreme right-wing organisation, he had advocated not only the banning of the Communist Party, but the effective abolition of free trade unionism by the creation of a Capital-Labour Association.

By 1958 he was much wiser. On 3 June 1958, two days after he became Prime Minister de Gaulle invited Benoit Franchon, veteran communist general secretary of the CGT to meet him to discuss social problems. It was the first time since 1948 that the CGT had been invited for such consultation.

Though Franchon declined, the way had been opened for a new policy direction which would seek to involve the trade union leadership (especially the CGT, since they carried most weight in the main sectors of industry) in the economic planning machinery which the Gaullists had inherited from the Fourth Republic.

In other respects too, the Gaullists did a tidying-up job for the bourgeoisie. The parliamentary regime of the Fourth Republic, which had depended on the vagaries of inter-party alliances, was replaced by a strong executive power in the hands of the President.

In other countries there was a slow erosion of the powers of parliament; France witnessed a dramatic overnight transformation. The Fourth Republic’s system of proportional representation, comprehensible only to a mathematician, was replaced by the two-ballot system that naturally strengthens the solid centre at the expense of ‘extremists’. Judicious drawing of constituency boundaries helped to cut down the problem of communist representation.

But the aspect of Gaullist policy that gained most notoriety abroad, and caused most confusion among allies and opponents at home, was foreign policy. De Gaulle’s anti-Americanism, support for Vietnamese independence, rapprochement with Russia and China, quest for popularity in the underdeveloped world and attacks on Israel, all stood in sharp contrast both to the Fourth Republic and to the policies of other Western European states.

But despite the nationalist rhetoric and provocative gestures, Gaullist foreign policy never subordinated the needs of French capitalism to abstract ideology. On the contrary. De Gaulle’s regime was capable of sharp twists and turns to adapt to prevailing needs. In 1960 de Gaulle spoke of the ‘wretched yellow multitudes of China’, in 1964 of ‘China’s great and ancient civilisation’, and in 1968 returned to the classic anti-communist rhetoric of the Cold War. From 1959 to 1963 France encouraged US investment, from 1963 to 1966 was hostile to it, and after 1966 again gave it selective encouragement.

One of the problems facing French capitalism in 1958 was that, although its competitive position had considerably improved, two major markets were closed to it. The Atlantic Alliance was an obstacle to trade with Eastern Europe; the Suez adventure and the Algerian war were a barrier to trade with Africa and the Arab world.

Hence de Gaulle’s ‘neutralism’. It was a desire to heal the wounds of the Algerian conflict, rather than any anti-Semitic hangover, that led to de Gaulle’s celebrated attacks on Israel. Such a thorough job of image-building was carried through that, in 1965, when plans were being made for the conference of Afro-Asian countries in Algiers, (in fact never held) it was proposed to invite just three non-Afro-Asian guests of honour – Castro, Tito and de Gaulle.

3. Ideology

The policies of the Gaullist regime can all be seen as reflecting the practical needs of the French bourgeoisie. But if the Gaullists were pragmatists, they were pragmatists who understood clearly the importance of using ideological weapons.

In order to carry through the policies of his real backers, to extricate French imperialism from Algeria without too great a right-wing backlash, to avoid direct confrontation with the trade unions, de Gaulle had to manoeuvre in a Bonapartist fashion between Left and Right, seeking support now from the Army, now from the trade unions.

Although Gaullism always drew a considerable part of its support from the electorate of the classic Right, this was never enough to guarantee Gaullism its predominance. Though de Gaulle was by background, inclination and rhetoric a man of the Right, he did his best to dissociate himself from his excursion into Mussolini-style politics of the late forties; his Second World War record, where nationalism and anti-fascism were intertwined, was the strongest part of his image. Indeed, de Gaulle’s most implacable enemies, the only ones who tried to physically liquidate him, were on the Right and not the Left.

More important, de Gaulle was repeatedly able to mobilise sections of the Left in his support. Although it was right-wing rebels in the Army who finally brought him to power in 1958, in the preceding period the most eager advocates of his return had been on the Left, notably the associates of Mendes-France.

At least a million of those who had voted communist in the 1956 general election supported de Gaulle in the 1958 referendum. And later on de Gaulle was able to win the adherence of men like Pierre Le Brun, a former national secretary of the CGT, Andre Philip, Socialist Party stalwart and then member of the PSU, and former Trotskyist David Rousset.

4. Post-Gaullism

Already in the mid-sixties the question of de Gaulle’s successor was being discussed in ruling-class circles. First, a section of the bourgeoisie was getting increasingly hostile to de Gaulle’s anti-American policies. A first warning was given by the candidacy of Jean Lecanuet in the 1965 Presidential election, which forced de Gaulle into contesting the second ballot. A survey of 100 chairmen of the biggest private firms showed half of them backing Lecanuet against de Gaulle.

Secondly, a trend towards stagnation in the economy was becoming clearer and by the beginning of 1968 unemployment was approaching half a million; while at the same time working-class militancy was growing. This exploded in the massive general strike of May and June 1968, involving 10 million workers. De Gaulle was saved only by the role of the Communist Party, prepared to sacrifice short-term success in. the interests of proving its total dedication to the parliamentary system.

The struggle ended in stalemate; the potential challenge to the regime was warded off and the Gaullists won a landslide parliamentary victory; but the working class made substantial economic gains and did not feel themselves defeated or demoralised.

French capitalism did not suffer unduly from the strikes; indeed, in many companies profits rose. But a huge trade deficit rapidly appeared, and the flight of capital led to a tempering of the quarrel with the US.

It was in this situation that the French ruling class felt it opportune to jettison de Gaulle. While it is true that the referendum of April 1969 showed de Gaulle getting less working-class votes than at any previous election, it is nonetheless true that the essential factor in his defeat was the loss of support of a significant section of the Right, including, behind the scenes, leading Gaullists.

Pompidou, a former director of the Rothschild Bank, and an unambiguous representative of big capital, replaced him. In order to get himself elected, Pompidou had to make various gestures of goodwill to the Centre; but in reality he was far more a prisoner of the Right than de Gaulle had ever been. Without de Gaulle’s personal prestige, he could not afford the luxury of pursuing eccentric deviations in foreign policy; hence a much more friendly attitude to the US and a welcome to the expansion of the Common Market.

At home his economic policy consisted of devaluation and the associated measures necessary to make the working class pay for it. Between October 1968 and October 1969 wage earners’ buying power fell more than in any year since 1959. And the scheme for making Renault workers into shareholders, a symbolic gesture in the direction of participation, collapsed amid the indifference of all concerned.

March’s election results confirm the transformation. The mystique of Gaullism has faded away, and the Gaullists are just a diminished part of a broader right-wing coalition. But the bourgeoisie still rules openly through a right-wing government, and the Left, despite alliances, despite compromise, remains out of power. To more and more workers it must be becoming obvious that anything short of a clear anti-capitalist policy is futile.

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Last updated: 23.9.2013