What is the reaction of the French people to the politique de grandeur-the policy which, in the name of France, General de Gaulle is projecting on a world scale? Before this question can be answered we must first ask: How is French policy shaped and decided? Next, how is it made known to parliament and public opinion? Third, do the broad masses of the people have access to adequate and objective information on which to base their judgment of this policy? Only then can we turn to the question: What is their judgment?

A statesman who has been familiar with General de Gaulle's working methods for over 20 years offered this confidential description of how French foreign policy is made today: "When he deals with foreign policy, the General goes into seclusion and plunges into prolonged meditation. He seldom consults experts or advisers, even those very close to him. For a long time he mulls over the questions that need to be resolved. Then, suddenly, often without even informing his ministers, he announces his decision. The Minister of Foreign Affairs, and certainly the Council of Ministers, are called upon only to execute and apply the decision which the General made entirely by himself. There is usually no real debate on diplomatic issues within the Government." The men of Quai d'Orsay by and large confirm, albeit reluctantly, this description of the method which reduces them to the role of mere executants of orders from on high.

Once a decision has been made in the Elysée, there follows a fairly short period of briefing the leading French diplomats, a process which takes place in absolute secrecy. A very few men are acquainted with the General's over-all strategy: the Prime Minister, the Minister of Foreign Affairs, a handful of high officials whose rockbound Gaullism is a pledge of their discretion, the Minister of Information and sometimes the French Ambassador to the country to which the decision applies. That is all. There are generally no leaks. When there are, they are deliberate, never fortuitous. In Paris, leaks are practically never indiscretions or trial balloons, as they are in other countries (the United States, Great Britain and the Federal Republic of Germany, for example). They are already part of the second stage-the stage of execution. It is often through these leaks-more or less detailed and confided with a fine show of reluctance-that the foreign embassies in Paris learn of the event soon to be announced. This is the rule for the major decisions, such as the recognition of Communist China.

Quite often, however, the General prefers a surprise effect to careful psychological preparation. In such cases, the ministers concerned and his closest confidants are equally ignorant of his decision; he explodes his bombshell all by himself. He took that line with the French veto of Great Britain's entry into the Common Market and the refusal to adhere to the Multilateral Nuclear Force in January 1963.

But assuming that his top ministers have been informed, there comes the moment when the General announces his decision to the public. This he usually does at one of his press conferences which he holds, on the average, twice a year. They should really be called "press convocations," since the press is merely summoned into the General's presence, and the unvarying procedure has nothing in common with the unrehearsed dialogue which marks this institution in other countries. In reply to questions prepared and submitted in advance, de Gaulle makes four or five speeches which he has learned by heart and which he delivers in a highly individual manner and with considerable vigor, secure in the knowledge that he will not be interrupted or asked embarrassing questions. These press convocations are given wide television and radio coverage. President de Gaulle sometimes chooses to announce his decisions in a special radio- television broadcast, advertised several days or weeks in advance and without a thousand assembled newspapermen for a backdrop. Speaking directly to his "Frenchwomen and Frenchmen," the General delivers an address also learned by heart, and shows himself to be a master of the technique of visual and auditory effects.

II

Once the great decision has been announced to the French people, one would normally expect it to be publicly debated. But for a variety of political and psychological reasons, since the birth of the Fifth Republic such debates have been unknown. They could take place in parliament, or in the press, or on radio and television. Yet as a rule the French public hears only the arguments "for," not those "against."

The legislature, whose powers were reduced under the new 1958 Constitution, devotes a few plenary meetings two or three times a year to General de Gaulle's foreign policy. But owing to the scheduling of its sessions or the deliberate design of the government, these debates take place many months after a particular decision has been made and when it is already being implemented. Moreover, the French people hear little about these debates and care less. The Third and Fourth Republics have left an anti- parliamentary spirit in the country, based on memories of "useless palavers." In any event, as de Gaulle has commanded an absolute majority in the National Assembly since 1962, and as the Senate (where the majority of members, on the contrary, tend to be anti-Gaullist) has only limited advisory powers under the new Constitution, the government is always certain of obtaining the necessary approval of its foreign policy. The one and only time that such a debate worked to the disadvantage of the government was when the nuclear strike force was discussed in 1960; yet even then the majority, which opposed that tremendously costly program, did not-despite a negative vote-succeed in getting the government to resign. At that time, in the midst of the Algerian War, most of the deputies feared that the Assembly would be dissolved, with the result that the Union pour la Nouvelle République, General de Gaulle's party, would win an even more crushing victory than it subsequently did in 1962.

The lack of publicity given and weight attached to parliamentary debates is not due merely to the people's hostility, the General's contempt or the Constitution he pushed through in 1958 to confirm his absolute power. The fault lies also with the opposition, which is disunited, often timid and certainly short of political leaders of any stature or reputation. Pierre Mendès-France has lost his deputy's seat and no longer has either a newspaper or a political party with which to reach large audiences. The same is true of former Prime Minister Paul Reynaud. The few statesmen well acquainted with diplomatic issues-such as René Pleven, Guy Mollet and Maurice Faure-are still too closely identified with the Fourth Republic. Other more popular men, such as Antoine Pinay and Gaston Defferre, have until recently shown little interest in problems of foreign policy. In any event, the opposition generally refrains from attacking de Gaulle on his foreign policy and even indirectly supports some of his ideas which are challenged abroad-as for example his conception of France's independence vis-à-vis its allies, notably the United States.

Since parliament has virtually no hand in the molding of public opinion, what other means does the average Frenchman have of forming an intelligent concept of the policies of the President of the Fifth Republic? Basically, the press, radio and television. General de Gaulle is supposed to have said: "The newspapers are against me. I have television. I shall keep it."

What does the French reader find in the press? The General's alleged opinion that it is hostile to him is not entirely justified. Of course there are Communist and pro-Communist dailies in France which oppose him. There are also some opposition weeklies: L'Express, France-Observateur, Le Canard Enchaîné and Témoignage Chrétien of the non-Communist left, and Carrefour, Rivarol and others of the right and the pro-fascist and anti- Gaullist extreme right. But these reach only a limited public.

Among the mass-circulation dailies, two or three in Paris and several in the provinces have been making well-documented and well-founded reservations and criticisms, especially since de Gaulle's policy took its sharply anti-American and anti-British turn in 1963 and 1964. Such men as Raymond Aron, ex-Ambassador François Poncet, former Prime Minister Paul Reynaud, have openly protested against the General's intemperate language and peremptory decisions, particularly with reference to the recognition of Peking, the negative policy of France in NATO and the neutralist policy in Southeast Asia. In the provincial press, criticisms of de Gaulle's solitary decisions have been increasingly frequent. Moreover, large economic interests have been showing concern over the possible effects on them of France's isolation from her traditional European and overseas allies.

Nevertheless, de Gaulle has some unquestioningly faithful dailies and weeklies which sometimes fall into excessively militant and xenophobic Gaullism when dealing with matters of foreign policy. The mass-circulation newspapers which are read by the great majority of "average Frenchmen" devote relatively little space to reports on foreign policy and still less to comments on it. They record the General's decisions without taking sides and allow little room in their columns for accounts of the unfavorable reaction of world opinion to some of his more "shattering" edicts. Occasionally they highlight foreign opinions favorable to the General, allowing the reader to believe that these views are typical or official. Such peculiar "coverage" of foreign news is not the result of government censorship, which does not exist in France. It stems rather from an odd self-censorship practiced by the newspapermen because the General exercises the same fascination on them as he does on their readers.

Hence among West Europeans the French are probably the least well informed about foreign opinion of their own country and its policies. By judiciously selecting pro-de Gaulle press reports and speeches, such as are still to be found in England, Western Germany and the United States, and by ignoring- whether deliberately or not-the hostility and mistrust aroused by French policy, the great majority of French newspapers give their readers the illusion that France is highly respected and that its policies are widely approved of abroad. For example, a perusal of French newspapers would have given the reader no inkling of the anxiety and mistrust which the General's diplomatic decisions have been arousing in the United States, Great Britain, Western Germany, Belgium, Holland, Italy, the Scandinavian countries and the British Commonwealth.

The average Frenchman, although he is himself not free from prejudice and mistrust as regards his European neighbors and the United States, generally goes on thinking that France enjoys sympathy, respect and good will, not only in the Western world or within the Atlantic Alliance, but also on distant continents little known in France. It is true that the impact of General de Gaulle's "policy of independence" has recently won him both sympathy and an increasing popularity in some of the non-aligned countries. But in stressing this new good will, the French press all too often neglects to inform its readers of the unfavorable reaction in the West which offsets the gain in prestige elsewhere. The French thus receive a distorted picture of the image projected by their country, notably in the Western world.

The only public discussion of any magnitude on an international problem was provoked by a recent series of articles by the journalist Raymond Cartier. Their appearance in the mass-circulation illustrated weekly, Pans-Match, has really succeeded in shaking French opinion. Cartier attacks what he regards as France's excessive expenditures on aid to the French-speaking African countries. He criticizes the financial and economic effort which de Gaulle intends to make in Asia and Latin America. He preaches a kind of economic isolationism, feels that France is "wasting its money" and advocates a national withdrawal to French territory on the ground that France itself is underdeveloped when it comes to roads, schools and hospitals, housing construction, funds for education, etc. Many of his arguments resemble the past and present doctrines of American isolationists and neo-isolationists. Carrier's spirited campaign has been widely popular among the French middle and lower-middle class. His frontal attack-a most unusual event-has so troubled the government, and the General himself, that there have been official replies, explanations and justifications of the French policy of aid to underdeveloped countries. The public opinion polls have been showing for some time that the majority of Frenchmen favor a reduction in foreign aid and the application of these resources to France itself.

We mention the doctrine known as "Cartierism" and the attention it has provoked simply because it marks the first serious debate on foreign policy which seems to have aroused broad public interest. No such debate has as yet taken place on the other key points of the General's foreign policy, such as his "independence" vis-à-vis the United States, his opposition to Great Britain's drawing closer to the European Six, his recognition of Communist China, his autonomous policy in NATO and in Southeast Asia, and his propaganda offensive in Latin America. These vital issues, and even so crucial a question as the creation of the French nuclear force de frappe, do not much interest the French public-in so far as it is interested in foreign policy at all.

III

De Gaulle has an instrument which is wholly under his control and which he can use to make the French see foreign politics from his own personal viewpoint: television, which is the General's political force de frappe; and, in a secondary way, radio. We have already noted how, and with what skill, de Gaulle makes use of the television screen. There are now over 5,000,000 television sets in France, and the number of viewers, both for personal appearances of the President of the Republic and for the most popular programs, is estimated at 17,000,000 to 20,000,000. The Radiodiffusion-Télévision Française (R.T.F.) is a State agency directed by the government and immune from the pressure of private interests. Successive governments of the Fourth Republic also made use of it, often in a unilateral and authoritarian fashion, to promote their policies. But since de Gaulle's return to power in 1958, television has developed in France, as elsewhere in Europe, to such an extent that it has become a primary means of exercising political influence. The R.T.F.'s political programs are subject to strict control, which applies both to what is said and shown and to what must not appear. De Gaulle and his ministers-in particular Alain Peyrefitte, the Minister of Information, who is "boss" of the R.T.F.-are highly conscious of the impact of broadcasts, particularly telecasts, on French collective opinion. They are becoming increasingly skilled in the use of pictures, sounds and words-and also of enforced silence-to make the desired impression on a large part of the French population, especially the politically less sophisticated sector of it.

Hence it is most instructive to consider closely the presentation of news by the R.T.F.'s daily program, "Talking Newspaper," presented at 8 p.m., an hour when all of France is at dinner and which is therefore the best time to reach the whole family. The major news programs, including those with international coverage, also offer brief analyses patterned after Ed Murrow. The two best known-"Five-Column Spread" and "Seven Days Around the World"-give the French viewer some idea, at once political and visual, of the world of today, of its problems and of the part played in it by France. These programs, lasting one to two hours, are presented on Fridays at 8:30 p.m., immediately after the "Talking Newspaper"-again an hour and day when a considerable audience can be counted upon.

With the possible exception of "Five-Column Spread," a program produced by journalists whose professional life is outside the government's control, the news programs, if one watches them day after day, give the very clear impression that they present a picture of the world and of foreign policy which reflects the views and furthers the aims of Gaullist diplomacy.

As regards French foreign policy, General de Gaulle's principal ideas and decisions are always upheld by image and comment, almost always without any argument or contradiction-indeed, as uncontestable and uncontested verities. This is the case with the recognition of China, the French force de frappe, the Common Market and France's stand on Cyprus or South Viet Nam. The serious difficulties which arise at various times between Paris on the one hand and Washington, London or Bonn on the other, are passed over in silence or at the very least glossed over. Occasionally, however, these diplomatic clashes are presented as satisfying proof of France's "independence," particularly where Washington is concerned. In recent months, the programs relating to Communist China and the Soviet Union have been far from hostile, and might even be considered favorable. In the case of Moscow, in particular, there is a definite effort to indicate an economic and cultural, if not political, rapprochement.

As regards the United States, there has been a systematic attempt, repeated day after day and week after week, to emphasize the crises and setbacks of American diplomacy, whether it be in Viet Nam, Panama, the Caribbean, South America or Cyprus. The comments and interviews which accompany the pictures are not aggressively anti-American, but the presentation is nearly always unfavorable to the United States position in some corner of the world. The American point of view is either badly explained or inadequately stated, or simply made incomprehensible. The alleged desire of the United States for "disengagement" in Europe or elsewhere in the world is constantly stressed, often without any reason or in obvious bad faith; in this case the aim is crystal clear-to justify the costly build-up of the French nuclear force de frappe and to explain the French Government's increasing coldness toward NATO.

An even more insidious kind of propaganda relates to the internal situation in the United States. Picture and commentary present racial conflicts in an alarming manner. By contrast, the progress achieved in this sphere (despite undeniable setbacks) and the vigorous action against racism taken by the American Government are practically never mentioned. The same attitude is taken in the newsreels which are shown in all French movie theatres and which are also under government control.

The power of American gangsters, various manifestations of brutality, the "reign of violence" and occasional short sequences trying to prove indirectly that "Americans are intellectually backward" are shown again and again on French television screens. What is the purpose of this constant hammering on negative themes? The reply seems clear enough in the light of another example.

The assassination of President Kennedy, which aroused a tremendous wave of emotion and sympathy in France, as everywhere else in the world, was exploited shortly thereafter in an entirely different sense. Again and again, French television has endeavored to arouse suspicion regarding the "plot" which allegedly led to the assassination and regarding the alleged systematic effort of the American authorities to cover up any inconvenient clues and to protect the real "plotters." Similarly, the Ruby trial was presented-as it also was in many French and European newspapers-as a symbol of the maladministration of American justice and the ineptitude of American police.

In short, by looking at the "idiot box" every day, the French viewer is induced to question the morality, the power and the integrity of the United States and of Americans. This is certainly not accidental. The question remains whether such brainwashing produces what is apparently the desired result. One thing is certain: If the France of General de Gaulle were presented in a similar manner in foreign television programs, the French would be informed at once and would be deeply indignant.

As for the State radio news bulletins, the results of public opinion polls published by the R.T.F. itself show that French listeners do not trust them. The great majority prefer to tune in on neighboring stations-Radio Luxembourg, Europe No. 1 and Radio Monte Carlo-which in principle are privately owned and have studios or transmitting stations outside French territory. However, a few years ago the French Government acquired financial or administrative control of some of these stations. They also face the constant threat of being denied the use of installations located in France, For the past year, the political news and comments of these supposedly "private" stations have been forced, through indirect pressure, to conform more and more to the R.T.F.'s "general line." Nevertheless, in the spring of 1964 these outlying stations still occasionally present "unorthodox" points of view and sometimes permit arguments or debates in which the official doctrine is not always regarded as gospel truth. But on the whole, freedom of information on the radio has been steadily losing ground and the present trend is against the objective presentation of news and comment. Here government action is slower and less open, but its unrelenting purpose is to bring the presumably "independent" stations into line with official policy.

Finally, of course, perhaps the most important control exerted by the government on television and radio is to prevent its use by the opposition- except under stated and highly restrictive conditions. Thus one more vital avenue to information and free discussion is closed to Frenchmen.

IV

Given this situation, what do the French think of General de Gaulle's foreign policy? There is obviously no over-all answer to this question. Two methods of inquiry are open to us: (1) the public opinion polls taken by the excellent French Institute of Public Opinion and other specialized organizations, as well as surveys made by some newspapers among their readers; and (2) private conversations with Frenchmen and Frenchwomen of different ages and social positions and living in different regions.

In January 1964, according to public opinion polls, only one Frenchman in four thought that foreign policy was France's most important problem. Two- thirds attached greater importance to domestic and social policy. Less than half of the persons questioned were "interested in international politics." In this respect, French opinion is probably no different from opinion in other democratic countries.

The General's diplomacy is approved, by varying percentages, on many points: thus, the recognition of China, the breaking off of negotiations with Great Britain on the Common Market, and the treaty of friendship and coöperation with Bonn are approved by about 50 percent and disapproved by about 20 percent. Four out of ten Frenchmen are "satisfied with France's international role," four have no opinion, two are "dissatisfied."

The French, in 1963 and 1964, seem to be in agreement with the main lines of General de Gaulle's diplomacy. Only 27 percent think that France should be aligned with the United States and 5 percent favor alignment with the Soviet Union, but nearly 60 percent believe that France should not be aligned with either side. Nevertheless, more than half of the persons questioned consider that France's fundamental interests are close to those of the United States and nearly 60 percent feel that they are different from the Soviet Union's. At the same time, nearly three-fourths of those expressing a view believe that the United States and the Soviet Union have drawn closer in the last few years.

On some other aspects of the General's policy of grandeur, the polls show a measure of disapproval or division of opinion. Thus, in April 1964 we find that 40 percent of the French people hold that France should not have its own force de frappe, while 39 percent think that it should. But 45 percent consider that France cannot shoulder the financial burden of a French nuclear deterrent, and only 29 percent believe that it can.

When, in July 1963, France refused to sign the nuclear testban treaty, de Gaulle appears to have gone against the wishes of the French people. For prior to the signing of the treaty, 70 percent were in favor of France's accession to it (9 percent against), and even after the General held a press conference to explain the reasons for his refusal, 53 percent continued to feel that France should become a signatory. But in the space of 18 days, the percentage of those opposed to the signing rose from 9 percent to 29 percent-an indication of de Gaulle's personal influence. Again, in a poll taken last year, 46 percent of the French favored reduction of aid to Africa and 42 percent wanted expenditure on national defense to be reduced. Those figures have since risen still higher.

In shaping the attitudes of Frenchmen toward other nations, de Gaulle has known both failure and success. Under his influence, friendly feelings toward Western Germany have greatly increased. Paradoxically, however, despite all the mass media campaigns mentioned earlier, the popularity of the United States is steadily rising, while that of Great Britain varies by only a few points, as will be seen from the table below, based on the findings of the French Institute of Public Opinion. To the question, "What is your opinion of the following countries?", these answers (in percentages) were received in three separate years:

U.S.A U.S.S.R Western Germany Great Britain 1961 '63 '64 1961 '63 '64 1961 '63 '64 1961 '63 '64 Good 49 46 52 18 23 25 30 39 53 44 44 43 Neither good

nor bad 32 34 31 29 35 42 32 37 29 36 39 36 Bad 7 10 11 37 30 25 19 13 9 6 13 14 No reply 12 10 6 16 2 8 19 11 9 14 8 7

Naturally, as Dr. Gallup's countrymen are well aware, public opinion polls have only an indicative value. Results may depend on timing and on the way the question is phrased, and they do not reflect intensity of feeling. Nevertheless, we are led to the conclusion that while de Gaulle's diplomatic initiatives are usually approved by varying majorities, he does not always command approval when it comes to financial issues which affect everyone, or to age-old friendships such as that felt for the United States- no doubt more strongly in the provinces than in the Parisian stamping grounds of American tourists.

Turning now to my own private poll, based on recent and extensive conversations on foreign policy issues with persons of different backgrounds, ages and political views, in Paris and in the provinces, I have drawn the following conclusions:

1. The great majority of the French people are rather pleased and flattered by what they regard as the General's challenge to the United States, the Soviet Union and, to a lesser extent, Great Britain. They see it as a sign of increased French power and prestige and fail to glimpse the danger of a profound deterioration of the Atlantic Alliance and of French relations with America and Britain. Nevertheless, a minority composed of intellectuals, members of the liberal professions and businessmen who know something about the English-speaking countries through travel or reading, disapprove of the manner and substance of de Gaulle's anti-American and anti-British decisions.

2. A certain selfish nationalism apparent in the positions taken by General de Gaulle-an attitude which might be summed up by the slogan "France above all"-is also approved of by the great majority of those to whom I talked.

3. The somewhat condescending contempt which most French men have always felt for their next-door neighbors-the Spanish, the Italians, the Swiss, the Belgians and the English-is still there. But the traditional fear of the Germans, mingled with respect for their past performances on the field of battle and in the industrial sphere, is being gradually transformed into feelings of friendship; painful memories seem to be as readily forgotten as debts of gratitude. The European idea has certainly lost ground under the impact of the General's policies, while the traditional xenophobia of the French has increased in the last few years. Yet, paradoxically, the broad masses of the French people continue to think that they themselves (and their policies) are respected, approved of and loved both by their neighbors and by the rest of the world.

4. The attitude toward the United States and toward Americans is ambivalent. A general feeling of friendship and sympathy is still there. Nevertheless, as the French have a certain inferiority complex-military, economic and historical (the 1940 defeat, the 1945 liberation)-they are flattered by the fact that de Gaulle is not afraid to "stand up" to the Americans.

5. The possible conflict in financial terms between the General's policy of grandeur (heavy expenditures on the force de frappe and on aid to the underdeveloped countries) and the country's own internal needs (housing, schools, highways, rural development) is only beginning to be understood by the French. It is certainly in this sphere that de Gaulle's policy is least popular and that the opposition, if it manages to organize and make itself heard, has the most effective case against de Gaulle.

6. Blind faith in the General and respect for his omniscient wisdom are widespread among the population, particularly among women, and even in traditionally left-wing circles.

7. The Communists, who are the most highly organized political party in France, and who have their own means of propaganda (newspapers, periodicals, public meetings, trade-union action), are now attacking de Gaulle mainly for his domestic social and economic policy. They have recently soft-pedalled criticism of his foreign policy, because of the growing gulf between Paris and Washington (indirectly to Moscow's advantage) and no doubt also because of the prospects of a rapprochement between the Soviet Union and France.

8. The French have greater reservations about the General's military policy, which they find somewhat over-ambitious; this is true of all classes of society. I found hardly anyone who had any illusions that in case of a world conflict France would wield great power, or would even have an important part to play. In general, the French are conscious of the unequal stature of France as compared to the two superpowers of today-the United States and the Soviet Union-or the giant of tomorrow, Communist China. But the fact that de Gaulle behaves like an equal of the world's greatest powers undoubtedly pleases them, and because of that attitude they are willing to give him carte blanche in the conduct of foreign affairs.

9. It does not follow that the French are with the General in all the diplomatic undertakings to which he commits the country. As we have seen, his very negative attitude toward America is not unreservedly accepted; most Frenchmen realize, after all, that the United States with its nuclear weapons constitutes the one shield that protects France and Western Europe from the danger of Soviet domination. But one need not be in General de Gaulle's confidence to hazard the guess that he too is fully aware of this fact.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now