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MCLEMENCEAU, having spent nearly all his life in the ranks of the radical opposition, took the French Premiership at the hour of the gravest national danger, created the political conditions which made possible the victory of 1918, and brought about the conservative consolidation of 1919. Next to his, the career of M. Poincaré bids fair to become one of the most romantic in the whole history of France. The word "romantic" coupled with the name of this very positive and matter-of-fact man may seem odd. But it nevertheless describes perfectly his political fortune; and the people who know him well, who from time to time have perceived behind his impassive face the ebb and flow of sentiment, will not dismiss it as out of harmony with his real character.
In 1922, as President of the Council of Ministers, M. Poincaré carried out the Ruhr undertaking and endeavored to build up a Franco-German policy on the foundation of a Rhineland organized so as to secure the payment of reparations -- by its own resources and by supplying a sort of mortgage, half physical, half moral, on the whole body of the German Reich. That he achieved a considerable measure of success is shown by the "Micum" report issued in July, 1924, and by the establishment of the Dawes system, now in successful operation for three full years, which Germany would not have accepted but for the pressure that had been put upon her. But, late in 1923 and at the beginning of 1924, when the occupation of the Ruhr was in full swing and when Herr Hugo Stinnes and the other coal and steel magnates were sending unofficial delegates to Paris, a larger solution of the various Franco-German problems than the Dawes system provides might well have been attempted. The vision of what could be done was dimmed in Paris by the absurd "separatist" risings and by the expectation (which the history of the German people in the last century flatly contradicts) that, somehow, the introduction of the particularist factor into the German problem would pave the way towards a solution. The opportunity was allowed to pass. M. Poincaré faced the general elections of May, 1924, with a record of foreign policy which was challenged on several grounds, and the financial and economic difficulties resulting from inflation and from the huge borrowing for reconstruction purposes provided the Radical-Socialists and Socialists with a powerful arm of attack. The Poincaré government fell and they came to power.
Let us pass over two years. The government of the "Cartel des Gauches" (June, 1924-July, 1925) had by this time utterly degraded the French currency. To enlist the confidence of the propertied classes, whose capital was being quickly exchanged into foreign currencies at an ever declining rate, and to get rid of socialistic watch-words, had become questions of life and death to the Republican régime. Of all the statesmen still available M. Poincaré was regarded on all sides as the only one who could try his hand at the task with even the remotest chance of success. But even those who were clamoring most loudly for the return of Cincinnatus were only partially sincere, and the prospect of an undiluted Socialist cabinet, headed by M. Léon Blum, loomed large on the skyline. Was not M. Poincaré a mere child as far as concerned financial matters, a school friend of old M. Robineau, the Governor of the Bank of France, who was held responsible for most of the technical mistakes that, in addition to adverse political developments, had nearly destroyed the financial and economic structure? Being by birth, education and environment prone to entertain the narrow-minded ideas of the small investors' class about the "revalorization" of the currency and opposed to the schemes of the so-called "international financiers," was he not doomed to failure? But the men of the "Cartel" felt some satisfaction over the experiment of entrusting the power to M. Poincaré -- once he had failed dismally, they would be in a position to proceed more vigorously than ever with the enforcement of their ideologic formulas.
However, as the weeks went by the critics were one by one silenced. M. Poincaré, working in his own methodical and stern manner, secured the realization of a very few principles that nobody could possibly object to -- the balancing of the budget by dint of new taxation, with a large surplus earmarked for the sinking fund of the floating debt, the transformation of the floating debt itself into a short-term debt, etc. Working by his side was M. Joseph Moreau, the new Governor of the Bank of France, M. Caillaux's excellent gift to his successor. He was seen to supply the expert knowledge and technical capacity in manipulating the money market, national and international, that most prophets had confidently said the new Prime Minister was not able even remotely to apprehend. Contrary to all anticipations, the economic structure withstood de facto stabilization of the currency at the relatively high level of 25 francs to the dollar.
It is not my purpose to examine whether M. Poincaré ought not before this to have set himself to the task of a de jure stabilization, whether, indeed, he has not allowed the most favorable moment to pass. Whatever may be his failings on that point (and we have to wait before we can safely pass judgment upon the course he chose to follow), such temporizing does not discredit him in the eyes of the electors, since the public will always believe in the possibility of an indefinite appreciation of the franc.
Today, then, we are confronted with the paradoxical fact of the Radical-Socialist and Socialist parties going to the general elections of May, 1928, under the leadership of the man they threw out of office four years ago, privately and even publicly showering all sorts of praise upon his wonderful performance, and yet asking practically for the same mandate that they received before. Will Cincinnatus be sent back to his plough? Will the dramatic romance of M. Poincaré terminate in dismissal and failure? Utilizing the financial foundations which he has laid down in the course of the last fifteen months, will the parties of the Left endeavor to build up a régime of a very different nature from his, both in home and foreign politics? Shall we have to sing once again that monotonous anthem of politics, "sic vos, non vobis . . . "? While avoiding rash forecasts, let us try to make some sort of answer to that query.
The first point to be noticed is that just as in 1924 M. Poincaré is not in a position to go to the country and ask its judgment regarding an achievement that stands by itself and is complete. Even making allowances for the fact that hardly anything final is attainable in politics, there still is something obviously incomplete and undetermined about the present status of his financial reform, just as there was something unfinished and undetermined in the Ruhr undertaking when the electorate was called upon to vote in 1924. I have already mentioned that M. Poincaré has so far deliberately refused to clinch the financial rehabilitation of France by stabilizing the currency for good, that is, by making the banknote convertible into gold at a fixed rate and by allowing capital to move freely in and out of the country. As long as these measures have not been taken M. Poincaré's opponents can always deny that his system has fully vindicated itself. When he was noticed to hesitate and waver regarding what kind of use he would make of the occupation of the Ruhr, a foreign ambassador in Paris is quoted as having said that the Premier was always sure to take the right train but that he couldn't be relied upon to get off at the right station. I do not wish to make that epigram my own, but it certainly summarizes the argument which people who for their own purposes wish to find fault with M. Poincaré are sure to level at him. From what someone has left undone, it is a very easy and current practice in politics to draw disparaging inferences against what someone has done.
A second point to be emphasized is that personally M. Poincaré does not appeal to the country in the way a first-rate political leader would do in the United States or in England, and that he does not even go into the campaign at the head of a well-organized party -- to a lesser extent, indeed, than he did in 1924. Then, at any rate, he was master in his own cabinet, which he had formed himself and reformed; and in both houses of Parliament he had a majority of senators and deputies owing him political and even personal allegiance. Even in those favorable circumstances he overlooked entirely all considerations of home politics and gave a practically free hand to the prefects in the provinces. What he was not willing to do then he will certainly refrain from attempting this year, sitting in a cabinet where many of his colleagues belong to an opposite school and regarding himself as having been specially commissioned to deal with the finances of the nation and to abstain from exhibiting any personal bias in the control of public affairs generally.
Now this course would be quite intelligible if all the participants in the Cabinet of National Union acted in the same spirit, and if it were generally agreed (to take a concrete case) that at the Ministry of the Interior no particular pressure was to be put on the prefects and on the host of officials who, as is well known, play a decisive part in French elections. Such abstention from political pressure would seem the more natural as the present Minister of the Interior, M. Albert Sarraut (though belonging to the Radical-Socialist Party, of which his brother, Maurice Sarraut, was the supreme leader till a few days ago), is neither a partisan nor a fanatic.
But whenever a national union of some sort has been established in France, in 1914 and since, it seems always to have been tacitly understood that the Radical-Socialist officialdom, which has enjoyed a hold on the country for over twenty-five years, should not be disturbed in its possessions. When the war broke out the prefects were Radical-Socialists to a man. Even in the high days of the Bloc National (1919-1924), no Premier, no Minister of the Interior, ever dared infringe upon their tenure and privileges. MM. Millerand, Briand and Poincaré, though supported by conservative majorities (1920-24), were careful to entrust the Ministry of the Interior, which sets in motion and regulates the whole electoral machinery, to authentic Radicals or Radical-Socialists -- M. Steeg, M. Marraud, M. Maunoury, who were supposed to secure for them the patience and the goodwill of the men of the Left. Under the national union of 1926 such a state of affairs could only be confirmed and even further accentuated, because the Radical-Socialist Party was now the predominant partner. The electoral law of last July which suppressed the imperfect system of proportional representation and revived the old single-member constituencies of pre-war days, was obviously framed against the conservatives, notwithstanding the fact that these conservatives have their official spokesman, M. Louis Marin, in the cabinet and that M. Poincaré himself is a lifelong advocate of proportional representation. Recently when M. Millerand was put forward by the conservatives as a candidate in the senatorial election in the Department of the Orne, the enterprising Radical-Socialist prefect there could be seen at the fairs and markets accompanying the candidate of the Radicals, M. Labbé, and utilizing his right of bestowing administrative favors in order to drum up electoral support. Similarly, it is alleged that at the War Ministry, now in the hands of M. Painlevé, a foremost leader of the "Cartel," all the promotions are controlled by a young major high in the hierarchy of free-masons. This strong Radical-Socialist influence can be detected everywhere in the administration.
It is clear, then, that M. Poincaré at the head of his present ministry can under no circumstances appeal to the country against the Radical-Socialist machine and what it stands for. Were he to set his face against it he would have to resign at once. He might be compared to one of those generals of the old Tsarist army who were compelled to lead Trotzky's red troops, and, when they had done their day's work, were cautiously confined in a well-guarded cell and supplied there with a good dinner.
But, supposing the Prime Minister were a free agent and could move freely on the political field, would he be ready to unfurl a flag of his own, to have a clear-cut program posted up all over the country and to ask for a mandate? Even if unfettered as a Prime Minister, would M. Poincaré, as a man, be prepared to engage unreservedly in the struggle? Where does he stand in the ebb and flow of groups, teams and factions? Answering that question, we reach the heart of French political ethics.
Behind the medley of factions, there are in actual or virtual existence today five big parties. Passing from the Right to the Left, their characteristics are somewhat as follows:
1. Religious, national and social conservatism. M. Marin (now in the cabinet) and, outside Parliament, General de Castelnau, the head of the Catholic Federation, can be called the most representative men of this section. Since his recent victory in the senatorial election in the Department of the Orne, M. Millerand, the socialist of a quarter-century ago, is obviously joining hands with them. No account need be taken of the royalist forces, which though very active intellectually fail to rally any mass of people.
2. National and social conservatism, modified by "laïcism" (i.e. the separation of church and state), the defense of the secular schools, the refusal to grant a legal status to religious orders, etc. MM. Poincaré, Barthou and Tardieu may be mentioned as the leaders of this party -- the lineal successors of Gambetta, Ferry, Waldeck-Rousseau, the men who built up and managed the Third Republic.
3. National conservatism, modified by devotion to the furtherance of League of Nations ideals and to "laïcism," and favoring gradual social changes in the direction of greater social equality though without changing the basis of private ownership. These are the tenets of the Radicals and Radical-Socialists, the latter laying particular emphasis on social evolution (a favorite expression of theirs) and promotion of the Geneva Covenant. MM. Loucheur, Albert Sarraut, Doumer (President of the Senate) are typical Radicals, while MM. Herriot, Malvy and Bienvenu Martin might be put down as typical Radical-Socialists. M. Caillaux and his friends are Radical-Socialists but with a pretense of intellectual detachment and a technical equipment that make them unpopular with the rank and file. Hardly distinguishable from the Radical-Socialists proper are the "French Socialists" -- Painlevé, Briand, Jean Laval, de Monzie. They have found it convenient not to cast their lot in with the Radical-Socialists unreservedly because of a desire for more freedom of movement either left or right. For example, in the May, 1914, elections M. Briand fought for the conservative cause. "Thomas, mon ami," once said M. Briand to the director of the International Labor Bureau, whom he was urging to give up international socialism, "Thomas, my friend, you will not be worth anything till you have joined the great party of all the renegades!" On the other hand, M. Painlevé is always to be found in the same boat as M. Herriot.
4. Internationalism, "laïcism," reconstruction of society in accordance with Marxist theories but short of violent methods. MM. Blum, Paul-Boncour, Renaudel, Ferdinand Bouisson (President of the Chamber of Deputies), are the chiefs of the "French Section of International Socialism," though as a matter of fact M. Paul-Boncour, who comes of a well-to-do family and has acquired a great position at the bar, usually behaves as a Radical-Socialist behind the screen of Geneva.
5. Communism, with all the Russian implications of the word. After this rough characterization of the parties, it would seem fairly simple to forecast what part a French politician will play in Parliament once it is known under what label he has been elected. M. Poincaré belongs in party No. 2: whence the doubt as to the real color of his flag?
The explanation of the obscurity and uncertainty which is such a curious feature of French political life is that no one of the French parties can expect to win single-handed. It must always be ready to make some pact with the parties either on its right or on its left. The electoral system opens the way to coalitions of that kind, since nobody can be elected at the first poll unless he gets an absolute majority of votes (half plus one), and whenever such a majority is lacking a second vote must take place a fortnight later. Under these circumstances, the main question anyone who wants to become a deputy or a senator must face is not so much "What is your distinctive program and label?" as, "With whom are you going to be connected -- with the people on your right or with the people on your left?" And the senator or deputy, after he has been returned, will not always solve the problem in Parliament in the same way as in his constituency.
The question arises for General de Castelnau: Are you willing to support a Radical against a Radical-Socialist or a Socialist at the price of throwing overboard your religious claims, the reform of the school laws, etc.? -- and it is a question that may break conservative unity, the more so as the zealots of the Action Française, infuriated by pontifical thunderbolts, do not wish to make things easy for anyone in France and are causing further dissensions on minor issues of their own.
The question arises for M. Poincaré: In order to defeat a Socialist or even a Radical-Socialist of socialistic leanings, have you made up your mind to stand by a Catholic who would make short work of the secular schools? What comes first in your thoughts, the maintenance of social order, the organization of an efficient army, or the prohibition of religious orders?
The question arises for M. Herriot: Do you prefer the Marxist social transformation offered by M. Blum or the national conservatism of the Radicals?
The question arises for M. Blum: What is your second best? The Russian terrorism of MM. Marty and Vaillant-Couturier on your left or the timid socialistic empiricism of M. Painlevé on your right?
Through the whole range of parties the same query repeats itself in various forms, but giving rise to the same sort of controversies and divisions. And, as party organizations are very weak in France (even that of the Radical-Socialists and Socialists, better equipped though they are than their rivals) there is a general lack of discipline, everyone doing in the long run as he likes and adapting himself to local conditions.[i]
M. Poincaré, then, if he means to enter into the fight, ought to declare whether M. Marin is more to his liking as an ally, or MM. Herriot and Malvy with all their ramifications extending to the heart of socialism. He will never venture to make such an open declaration because, having been brought up in the ideas of 1885, he still breathes deeply the spirit of "laïcism" and would regard a concession to the Catholic element as a betrayal of the Republican régime. He is quite ready to govern with the assistance of the Right, but that assistance must be given to him unconditionally, without any open pact, without any promise of repayment. Rather than run the risk of parting company for good with the Left, he behaves as a sort of arbitrator, as a super-parliamentarian, willing and able in times of need to set up a persuasive dictatorship, superior to groups and parties, but equally ready to resume his writing of books and articles as soon as both houses of parliament grow tired of him and party spirit turns restless and begins to claim its due.
I remember very vividly a conversation I had with him in the last days of May, 1924, after the election returns had been published and before the new Chamber had assembled. He was not yet sure that the advent of the Radical-Socialist majority meant his downfall. "I have so many friends among them," he said quietly. In that phrase, quite unconsciously, M. Poincaré faintly anticipated the development which was to occur two years later, when, without any change of majority or any real modification of the relative strength of parties, an overwhelming demand for him arose everywhere. The function he has been discharging since July, 1926, can be compared more or less roughly to the function of the dictator "rei gerundœ causa" in the early centuries of the Roman Republic. The Dictator of that primitive period was not the self-centred, self-seeking force that later on was to appear on the scene under the name of Marius, Sylla or Julius Caesar. He had no relation to the Mussolini of today. He was nothing more than a power temporarily created by the consuls or by the senate to meet extraordinary emergencies or fulfill a well-defined task: he voluntarily withdrew once his work was done, and did not try for success in the forum. Mutatis mutandis, M. Poincaré answers to the description. This much was recognized by the communist deputy who once shouted to M. Poincaré in the Chamber: "You always turn up on fateful days!" A greater recognition of his services could hardly be given.
Supposing M. Poincaré is not overthrown before the elections, what will become of him once the new Chamber has been chosen? Should the "Cartel des Gauches" win, that is, should a majority of Radical-Socialists and Socialists still control Parliament, the services of the present Prime Minister are likely to be retained only in case there is really deep anxiety regarding the fate of his financial and monetary reform, and provided the Left leaders have received the impression in the course of the campaign that, while ready to grant them a new lease of power, the country would not passively stand any tampering with the currency and the budget.
On the other hand, if the conservative forces give a better account of themselves than in 1924, M. Poincaré will probably survive. A Poincaré government probably represents the maximum of advantages that the conservative element can hope to get in France under present conditions, just as it is regarded by the Radical-Socialists and Socialists as a barely tolerable minimum. But two facts must be borne in mind. Close relations have developed between MM. Poincaré, Herriot and Painlevé, chiefly at the expense of M. Briand, and these may weigh in the scale, adversely for M. Poincaré as well as favorably. For example there is a feeling among the conservatives that by rescuing the Radical-Socialists and Socialists from their embarrassment and helping their government with sound management, M. Poincaré is, in fact, working against the conservative cause. Indeed, the withdrawal of M. Marin from the cabinet has been contemplated on several occasions. But no action has been taken, as it was feared lest the constitution of a purely Left cabinet on the eve of the elections would pave the way for an even greater interference on the part of the prefects and a reckless spending of public funds for partisan purposes.
In order to give some sort of completeness to the picture, I must now try to describe briefly the tendencies which can be perceived in the various parties on the eve of the electoral contest. I shall not risk a forecast of the actual results.
At first sight, socialism would appear to be the principal issue. But owing to the shifting program of the Radical-Socialists and "French Socialists," imbued as they are with the tenets of socialism and at the same time inclined to resist putting them into practice, the problem cannot be stated so plainly. Rather, the battle will be fought between the uncompromising opponents of socialism and the people who half-way disapprove of it. Which coalition will prove the more compact and determined, the coalition of the anti-socialists or the coalition of those who might go by the name of "socialistic"?
Two factors distinctly favor a general coalition of the Left. A majority of the officials forming the backbone of the Left parties are not favorable to socialism, if socialism be conceived as involving the suppression of private ownership. But they are ready to absorb a good deal of socialist teaching if socialism means merely that private ownership must not be allowed to develop too glaring social inequalities. Teachers of the elementary schools (always the darlings of the Third Republic), sons of peasants sticking to scientific credos as only rough neophytes can do, postmen and so forth, these are the soul of that army. Tennessee would shudder at the sight of them. In a village of some three thousand inhabitants I observed last year no less than sixteen teachers at work, a very valuable asset indeed for the "Cartel." As to the postmen, it is sufficient, in order to convey an idea of their influence, to state that the Secretary-General of their union over-rules the Postmaster General every day.
Then it must not be overlooked that in France social jealousy exists to a degree that cannot be imagined in, for example, the United States. The provincial towns and the villages are honeycombed with it. At the top are the remnants of the old aristocracy and the new aristocrats who have wealth or some other substitute for traditions, keeping to themselves, snubbing the local manufacturer, the doctor, the notary, the university professor, the multitude of various officials. It is in the second stratum that the skeleton of the Radical-Socialist parties is to be found. The members of this business and professional class all have it in mind that the best revenge for the snubs they receive is to retain in their hands the political supremacy which was transferred to them on the 16th of May, 1877, the decisive day when the Third Republic asserted its authority. Up to a few years ago, it could be said that the parish priest took sides with the "castle," and, for that reason, the laws of "laïcism" were the parting line between the republican and the non-republican groups. But that situation hardly exists any longer. Nowadays, the parish priest as often as not styles himself democrat and pacifist, and labors on a path of his own. Moreover, things are made more complicated by the fact that of late the doctor and the notary are sometimes shy of the teacher, of the city postman, and of the farm laborer, quite a number of whom have become adepts in Marxism. But so far the socialist creed has not met and conquered the coalition of the Left established on social rivalry. Socialism, as introduced in the rural districts, does not usually go beyond the denunciation of capitalism and of large land proprietorship. It is content with the proposal that private ownership should not be allowed to rise above a level that most farmers and rural workers can hardly hope to attain. As to communism, it does not play a rôle outside some of the very big towns and their suburbs. It cannot be said yet that it seriously strikes at the root of the "Cartel."
In the aggregate, the coalition of the Left, originating in petty feelings and passions, in the narrowest outlook of life, public and private, rather than in the adhesion to any common program, is indeed formidable. Only the realization that a socialist-communist danger exists can divide and defeat it.
On every occasion the conservative forces have proved themselves to be far less cohesive. From one angle, the history of the Third Republic is the history of their internecine quarrels and divisions. The Royalists of the Action Française are apt to think that, after all, a victory of the most extreme socialists would serve their own purposes by pushing the republican institutions to the brink of the abyss; and they sometimes act accordingly. Thirteen years ago the exponent of rural socialism in the south, M. Compère Morel, was elected by the royalist vote. Members of the Catholic Federation may be found who will withdraw their support from a Radical if he does not pledge himself to the repeal of the laws of "laïcism," a step that would alienate from him the large body of his followers and involve his defeat.
Is it possible to speak of a French industrial party aiming at the protection of large economic interests in anything like the way that Germans or Englishmen or Americans speak of a "big business" party? Hardly. Since the war something has been done to give more power to large economic interests in Parliament and in the press. But these efforts have been spasmodic and ineffectual. At the time of the Ruhr expedition it was commonly said abroad that M. Poincaré was the regular servant of the iron founders, coal owners and steelmakers. In fact, when M. Poincaré practised at the bar he always made it a rule never to accept the briefs of any big corporation and as a result had to specialize in lawsuits arising out of divorces, wills, etc. But the theory is even more absurd in so far as it assigns big industry a paramount influence in politics. Associations of industrialists may occasionally interfere in a constituency -- for instance at Belfort, where M. André Tardieu was elected by their efforts. But, speaking generally, they have not as yet succeeded in banding together the various conservative factions. Just now an organization called "Le Redressement Français," headed by M. Mercier, an electrical magnate, has been formed and well endowed to propagate this motto: Let all conservatives get together on as large a common basis as possible, namely the fight against radicalism; at any rate let them concentrate against the reds and if necessary help the Radical-Socialist to defeat the Socialist. It remains to be seen whether such propaganda will be effective.
The weakness of the conservative camp lies in the fact that it is permeated by no common feeling strong enough to offset the mutual antipathy of one group for another, and no permanent framework into which all groups can fit themselves and proceed to work out a plan of battle. Self-appointed staffs of self-appointed very second-rate leaders appear in the towns a few weeks before polling day, recruiting a rank and file by making speeches and posting up programs. A friend of mine, Henri de Kerillis, having failed by a narrow margin of votes to be returned to Parliament last year, is now educating the conservative committees in the use of the electoral methods of the British conservatives -- such obvious things as posting up placards telling a succinct story by a picture and a phrase, and the checking of the electoral lists that are in the keeping (safe or unsafe) of the municipal corporations and that, so far, nobody has ever thought of perusing. His success has been immediate. Thousands of towns and villages are now regular subscribers to his placards, which he sells at cost price. All his blows are directed against the communists, the socialists, and anyone who keeps company with them. But it is still too early to say whether the popularization of these electoral instruments will succeed in forging a common bond.
The American who happens to read this article will probably exclaim to himself: How is it that French policy, having been so continuously in the hands of Radicals and Radical-Socialists, should nevertheless wear so conservative an appearance? The answer is that while the men who label themselves conservatives generally get the worst of the fighting, conservative ideas sooner or later permeate and control the Radicals, Radical-Socialists and even the Socialists. The greatest national and conservative leaders of contemporaneous France, Millerand, Théophile Delcassé, Clemenceau, were once elected against conservatives -- I mean conservative in a very large sense, sound republicans of the Poincaré type. And once again the "Cartel des Gauches" of 1924 is now under the harness of M. Poincaré.
But the result is not entirely satisfactory. It means that out of the four-year life of a legislature, two years, if not more, are spent in wild scheming and experiment, with consequent waste of time and national strength. The country as it enters upon a new phase of this recurring cycle can be compared to a man who, having won a high university degree, suddenly finds himself deprived of all his learning and set again to learn to read and write in the elementary school. Confronted in Europe with highly efficient governments and nations, France can hardly afford to develop in such a haphazard manner. Even an occasional dictator "rei gerundœ causa" like M. Poincaré cannot always make good the waste.
[i] Now and then, of course, party discipline of a sort is asserted. For instance, M. Franklin Bouillon has just been expelled from his party because he recommended the setting up of an anti-socialist union.