Gareth Jenkins Archive   |   ETOL Main Page

Gareth Jenkins


Man in the middle

(October 1983)

From Socialist Review, No. 168, October 1993.
Copyright © Socialist Review.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Review Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The Republic of de Gaulle
Serge Berstein
Cambridge University Press £30

General de Gaulle came to power in June 1958 because the French Fourth Republic could not solve the Algerian question.

His authority rested on his past reputation and the fact that he was an outsider to the discredited political establishment.

Now he was being recalled to his destiny, as the Gaullist myth had it. De Gaulle exploited his mystique to impose a new constitution which downgraded parliament and turned the hitherto largely ceremonial office of president into a position of real power.

De Gaulle masked his authoritarianism by manipulating universal suffrage. He got away with this because he imposed solutions which French capitalism as a whole needed but which no fraction of the ruling class had the confidence or support to bring about.

The first and most pressing problem was Algeria. De Gaulle played to both ends of the spectrum. To the far right he let it be known he championed an Algeria which would remain French. To the centre and left he let it be known that the present colonial arrangements would have to go.

De Gaulle tamed the army apart from a few extreme right wing diehards he then smashed. He realised that whatever his personal sympathies Algeria would have to be given its independence.

With the Algerian question out of the way by July 1962, de Gaulle was well on the way to solving the problems of France’s place in the international economy. Traditionally France had been a mainly agricultural country, dominated by the small producer and reliant on protectionist tariffs. The key was rapid modernisation of the economy via the state.

The postwar Fourth Republic had begun this process of modernisation. But its political structure acted as a brake.

The concentration of power in de Gaulle removed these constraints. Economic planning was streamlined to create semi-monopolies (both private and public) in key sectors like steel, aviation, chemicals and cars. The currency system was reformed. Protective tariffs were abolished.

Though the working class bore the brunt of the costs of modernisation, it took some time to become a real threat to the regime.

Partly this was because the composition of the working class changed. But it was also because the left itself was in trouble. The Communist Party was on the defensive from the fallout over the 1956 Russian invasion of Hungary. Its opposition to de Gaulle was blunted.

The reformists were still demoralised by the role they had played in the Fourth Republic and like their counterparts elsewhere mesmerised by the apparent ability of modern capitalism to overcome crisis.

The author of this book tends to accept the idea that France was so transformed under de Gaulle that the working class became marginal.

So for him May 1968, with its ten million strong movement of strikes and factory occupations, was not a reminder that the working class was alive and kicking. Rather it is to be explained by the inability of society to cope with the new aspirations it had fostered. It could not be a ‘working class revolt’ in the Marxist sense because it bypassed the CP and the trade unions.

De Gaulle survived the revolt but departed the next year. The ruling class had discovered that the advantages of the Fifth Republic now outweighed the advantages of de Gaulle himself.

Gareth Jenkins Archive   |   ETOL Main Page

Last updated: 25 February 2017