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ON THE Sixth of February the divorce between French public opinion and the French world of politics became manifest for all to see. It had been so complete that down to the very last moment Parliament and the Government had failed to perceive the extent and the violence of public dissatisfaction. Wholly engrossed in parliamentary manœuvres and election worries, they had lost touch with the people. They did not know how devastating the depression had been, that the people gradually were coming to feel that the mere casting of a ballot was not the way to express themselves clearly, and that stronger measures would be required if they were to make their voices heard through the partitions separating the political world from the rest of the country.
All through January the passions of Paris had been mounting as the scandals in the courts, in politics and in finance were brought to light. The members of the Government had so little perception of the public state of mind that they looked upon the restlessness in the streets as a demonstration engineered by the extreme Right. Then on the evening of the Sixth of February it added a technical blunder to its psychological misapprehensions. It crystallized the vague sentiments of 90,000 people who were out in the streets looking about for a way to express themselves, and at one stroke transformed them into 90,000 rioters.
The Sixth of February was the day of the middle classes. The depression reached France somewhat later than other countries, and so did not attain its peak till late in 1933 and early in 1934. Its effects were not as visible in France as elsewhere, since the number of unemployed in proportion to the general population was not so high as in the United States, England or Germany. That was partly due to the fact that large numbers of foreign laborers who had come from Poland, Czechoslovakia or Italy during the "boom" years simply were dismissed and sent home. The depression fell most violently upon the middle classes, upon the masses of small traders and clerks. What happened on the Sixth of February was not a revolt of the unemployed. It was a demonstration by people who were threatened with insolvency in their various lines of trade. It was directed against a government engrossed in its manœuvres and struggles for place, careless or not aware of the fact that the middle classes were faced with ruin, and doing nothing to help them.
This was the first occasion where the war veterans took a hand in public life in France on some other issue than the defense of their rights and pensions. In Paris the veterans largely belong to the middle classes. There being no middle class organizations, as such, to defend middle class claims, the veterans' associations stepped into the breach.
Though the discontent of the middle classes crystallized in Paris, it soon extended to the large towns; and today it is spreading to the rural districts, where the soil is ready because there also the depression has been causing much distress. The middle classes and the peasantry are traditionally the backbone of the moderate parties and of the Radical Socialist Party. But today those party alignments are breaking, and there also is dissension among the leaders. Can they be regenerated, and go on living and governing? Or are they to disappear in favor of some new political alignment? That is the question which the Sixth of February has brought before the people of France.
Since the Sixth of February the old parties have been falling to pieces. In spite of the urgency of the situation they have been unable to gain a new outlook or find new leaders. The old leaders seem to have no idea but to take advantage of the breathing-spell provided by M. Doumergue to lay plans for battle on the one terrain they know: elections. When the rank and file show impatience with the old patter and open hostility to the old groupings and alliances they are simply bewildered. They rummage about for new combinations that will satisfy the new aspirations that they hear expressed. They do not find them.
In all the different parties there are minorities made up of young men who are tired of the old leaders and are ready to desert them the moment they see the right reason for doing so. It is significant that the demands and platforms of these active youthful groups are virtually all the same, from whatever point on the political compass they happen to come.
Under what form and on what basis can a remodeling of French political life be brought about? The middle classes are becoming more and more aware that they have been paying the piper, that the old political parties have not represented and protected their interests adequately, that they are being squeezed between, on the one hand, the interests of capital and big business (which also control the French press), and, on the other hand, the interests of organized labor, with its powerful unions and organizations of public employees. The middle classes see that they must get together and organize if they are to make themselves heard. Traditionally they have been divided between the Radical Socialist Party on the Left and the moderate groupings of the Center. The ministries that have succeeded each other, whether preponderantly Left or moderate, have deceived them, impoverished them, neglected them. Now, disgusted with parliamentary manœuvres, they are beginning to organize on an extra-parliamentary basis. They are out-and-out republicans, and deeply attached to their individual liberties. But they are beginning to see that as things are they will always be sacrificed to the great concentrations of economic interests. They want a change. But they are still uncertain just what sort of change it should be. They dislike vague and romantic adventures, and instinctively they are against the proposals of extremists. But they are ready to rally to a formula that seems likely to protect their interests.
The working classes are very much divided. The old syndicalist leaders are standing loyally by the platform of the Second International, but their troops are disintegrating. A certain number of workers are turning toward communism, and the communist labor organization, the Confédération Générale du Travail Unitaire is being reënforced by a considerable influx of socialists. On the other hand, the younger syndicalist leaders are developing a realistic outlook which makes them incline to consider coöperation with the middle classes in order to achieve a certain number of basic reforms. In their minds, of course, these reforms would be mere steps toward the ultimate goal; in the meantime, however, they would involve important compromises as regards the immediate future. So also within the socialist labor organization, the Confédération Générale du Travail, a movement is on foot to break with the Socialist Party. At the general conference the dogma of the class struggle was dropped and various groups of workers expressed themselves in favor of a program of planned economy, though without the nationalization of the means of production.
The new ideas found today in all classes in France are especially in evidence among the young. Their attitude may be summed up as open-minded: they sense the prevalent feeling of moral, social and economic unrest, and are uncertain what the future has in store.
France is an old country governed by old men whose ideas in no way correspond to the exigencies of the modern world. The old men of the bourgeoisie are still liberals, the old men in labor circles are still Marxian. Parliamentary and economic liberalism has created a general skepticism that spells death to enthusiasm and has made any sort of constructive effort impossible. As a result, the younger people have begun to acquire a collective sense. They are becoming aware that the main inspiration of human activity must gradually pass from eagerness for individual profit to the concept of social service. To facilitate that development, which will take a long time, a whole series of reforms is required. The younger generation sees that the more immediate reforms can be brought about only through the coöperation of different social and political elements. They therefore feel the necessity of agreeing on a minimum program, leaving for the future the discussion of principles that are not immediately realizable.
In the economic domain, for instance, they reject almost unanimously the anarchical, disorganized capitalism of the liberals just as they reject Marxism. What they want is a national economy organized in a corporative form, where the state will arbitrate labor conflicts and guide the development of production but will not exploit the public nor itself own the instruments of production. Those who come from the bourgeois capitalist parties regard this as the only way of saving capitalism; others who come from the working classes regard it as the first step toward a more complete economic reform. Each is free to keep his own ideals and his program for future action. But for the moment all, whether they are young men of the bourgeoisie or young men of the working classes, agree in demanding that the first steps be taken to reform the French economic system.
It is much the same in the political realm. Parliamentary liberalism simply has no adherents left. Dictatorship by a man or a party is itself in complete disaccord with French ideas; but the young people of France have seen that it will be necessary to surrender certain powers of criticism and control in order to secure a strong government. That, they believe, is the one possible way of safeguarding those individual liberties to which all classes of Frenchmen are so strongly attached; for to defend the parliamentary system in its present form would inevitably lead to a dictatorship, and that would be the end of it entirely.
A common basis for agreement exists, then, not perhaps as to the ideal theoretical forms to be given the constitution and the economic organization of the country, but as to the basic reforms that must first be achieved if the country is to meet the demands made by the conditions of modern life. The national movement in France is not fascist, and it is not Hitlerian. It would be childish, of course, for it not to learn by the things that have been happening in neighboring lands. But France is an old country, deeply attached to her traditions. No reform can be certain and lasting unless it accepts the deep-lying principles of French national life and tries to develop and adapt them to new circumstances. The task is to work out a form of government where management and authority will take the place of anarchical individualism, governmental weakness, "muddling along." But if French liberal ideas have to be modified, the Frenchman's love for individual liberty has to be respected. No régime could endure in France if it tried to enforce any brand of étatisme. Intellectual étatisme would go even more against the grain of French character than economic étatisme. The national movement in France must solve the problem of combining the authority necessary for the political and economic organization of the country with the freedom of individual thinking which the Frenchman finds indispensable to his moral life.
The platform common to all the reformist elements should aim at enabling the country, still in the throes of individualist anarchy modified by an arbitrary and rigid state control, to find her balance in a world where collective organization based on economic nationalism is becoming more and more the general rule. Its purpose must be to restore independence and effective authority to a government which now is being exploited by special economic and social groups. Those groups today form the outskirts of public power, and through their financial and other forms of influence they are able to make the state act to their selfish advantage. To carry out the necessary reform a spirit of close-knit solidarity must be established between the social classes, which must be shown how to coördinate their activities in the national interest, how to reinvigorate public morality by restoring to the individual, under collective discipline, initiative and responsibility in work and independence in thinking.
In the economic field, this means the development of a corporative system that will establish a community of interest between the people as a whole, as represented in its political assemblies, and the people as an active producing entity organized in its unions and corporations. At the base would be the individual, free and responsible in his own enterprise -- with the single proviso that his initiative be in the national interest. Corporations, grouping individuals of like category, both employers or workers, would coördinate their efforts and would in turn act as arbiters through regional councils and a National Council which would adjudicate economic and social conflicts and guarantee that the producing elements had representation at the source of public power. At the top would be the state, controlling the activity of the nation, acting as arbiter in the general interest, assuring an equitable distribution of the products of the country's labor and capital.
The corporative régime would respect individual liberties and would not in any sense dry up the fountainheads of individual initiative. It would not be obligatory; but it would bring to those who accepted its discipline such advantages that the healthy elements in the nation's economic life would rally to it out of enlightened self-interest. Since the corporations would be entrusted with the regulation of the relations between capital and labor, they, and not the state, would be charged with the application of social laws and laws relating to professional training and education.
From the constitutional standpoint, the reform would consist in reorganizing the premiership so that the head of the government would have control over his ministers, and in regrouping departmental activities in a reduced number of ministries. Parliament would revert to its rôle of audit and criticism. The national will would find its expression in a democratic government, issuing from a parliament elected by universal suffrage, and strengthened technically by the advice of the corporative organizations.
The incapacity of the old parties to carry out any such program is manifest enough. The present moderate parties, and the Radical Socialist and Socialist Parties, have too long a past behind them, they have too many responsibilities on their conscience. Any constructive program they undertake necessarily becomes a justification of their actions in the past. Above all, their counsels are too divided. The old alignments are a thing of the past. No new crystallization of opinion will ever take place about them.
At the present moment a slow fermentation is going on in French opinion. M. Doumergue's ministry having restored a certain amount of domestic calm, various groups are taking advantage of it to try to piece together some of the scattered débris from the old political craft which have gone on the rocks. All sorts of programs are being put forth, some vague, some definite. All one can say of them is that they have certain basic aspirations in common. With so many groups imbued with vague but similar ideals, the political situation is necessarily obscure. But the condition is evidence, too, that at a given moment, under the pressure of events, opinion in a very large majority in the country could rapidly come to a head.
If one examines the platforms of the Fédération des Anciens Combattants, of the Syndicats Agricoles, of the Etats-Généraux du Travail, of the Neo-Socialist Party, one notes that they are all in agreement as to fundamentals: a strengthening of governmental authority, coöperation between classes, a more even distribution of social justice. But all these various organizations, embracing between them a vast number of members, lack cohesion and discipline. To effect the indispensable and inevitable fusion of these scattered elements in French opinion some nucleus of crystallization has to be found. It can only be found in some extra-parliamentary formation. Here is where the Croix de Feu can play a rôle. The Croix de Feu, originally an organization of war veterans but now enlarged by the addition of a junior branch, has come to the fore in French political activity since the events of February. Independent of the old political groupings and the "big interests," well organized and capably led by Colonel de la Rocque, its membership is drawn from all parties and classes. In the eyes of the country it enjoys great moral prestige. At the proper moment it may constitute the nucleus around which the elements of a new political order may concentrate, replacing the old parties and achieving the union of the living forces of the French nation.