IT IS easy enough to understand why friends of liberty and of democratic institutions all over the world should be looking anxiously in the direction of France. Since the early part of the year our country has been racked by such a serious crisis, there has been such an uproar, discussion has been so violent and bitter, that people abroad must quite legitimately wonder whether liberty is not in danger. That would be a matter of grave concern not only to France herself but to all Europe -- even, I might say without exaggeration, to humanity at large. If the parliamentary system, if democratic institutions, were to go bankrupt in the homeland of the Declaration of the Rights of Man, so spectacular a reversal would have a profound effect on the very fabric of the modern world.

Despite all appearances to the contrary, I may hasten to give assurances that no such peril is really to be feared. To be convinced of the truth of what I say, one must try to grasp -- coolly, objectively, apart and aside from political passions -- what the crisis of the Sixth of February really was. The fact that emerges not only from the mass of testimony collected by the Investigating Commission but from my direct personal observation, is that the movement which that evening developed such violent pressure in the Place de la Concorde was brought on by two distinct forces which at that moment happened to come together and act in the same direction.

One of those forces was unmistakably hostile to the Republic. It inspired and brought together elements centering around the Action Française, men who have never concealed their hostility to the present régime. But if the demonstration had been confined to those elements, which at the most represent a few thousands of individuals in the whole of France, it could have been handled very easily. The trouble came from the fact that the other force, a force of far greater weight, was backed by large numbers of citizens who were disgusted with the impotence of Parliament and had been aroused to indignation by recent scandals. For days previous, the mails had been bringing me stacks of letters which made me quite aware of the state of mind of that important body of citizens. The people turned out into the streets at first because they were feeling the pinch of the business depression. When human beings are unhappy they readily become mischievous. The French masses wanted Parliament to do something about their distress -- just what was not so clear. They had been observing that for almost two years ministry after ministry had been overthrown without succeeding in balancing the budget, the basic premise of public order in a free country. When they discovered that mistakes in policies, untimely quarrels, party bickerings had been aggravated by downright dishonesty, their rage exploded.

Whatever one may say of the French people, it is an honest people, an upright people. It can be misled, and I believe it was very much misled on the matter of the war debts. I paid for its ignorance on that score by the fall of my ministry. But the French are accustomed to hard work and to saving. They very properly demand strict honesty on the part of their representatives. The Stavisky scandal outraged them; and their feelings were exaggerated and embittered from day to day by partisan quarreling. At last the middle-class Frenchman "went out into the street." He was represented there by those who had fought in the war, who were unwilling that their sufferings should have been in vain and, who insisted on a change. The placards carried in the demonstrations read "We want a clean Republic!" and "Down with corruption!" As I see it, the crisis of February sixth was brought on by the very attachment of the majority of Frenchmen to the republican ideal. Instinctively, vaguely, but no less resolutely, the rioters in the vast majority were defending the indisputable thesis propounded by Montesquieu long ago when he said that a republic must rest on the application to public life of the great laws of morality and have at its core -- virtue.

I have had to make this diagnosis in order to determine by impartial analysis the actual truth about the present state of mind of the French people. One further observation will be in order. In February certain differences both of feeling and conduct were to be noted between the French capital and the French provinces. Those differences were real enough, and became apparent as early as February 8 and 9. Believing that the Republic was threatened, the départements began organizing. Meetings were held all over -- the first, I think, being those in the south, at Auch and Lorient.

In case fascism, the spirit of dictatorship, had made a real drive for power -- which in any case the absence of any recognized leadership rendered virtually out of the question -- we can feel quite sure that the French provinces would have reacted vigorously. That was the import of the demonstration of February 12; the deliberate cessation of labor could only be taken as a warning on the part of the French democrats to anyone who might try to promote trouble from fascist motives. However, even if one must note climatic or temperamental differences between Paris and the provinces in the strength of democratic convictions, I do not believe that the Republic was seriously -- much less permanently -- threatened on February 6, even in Paris.

It would have been if measures had not been taken to meet public demands and calm public exasperation. The appeal to M. Doumergue to take charge, and his acceptance, enabled the government to avoid a breakdown which in the prevailing state of mind might have entailed serious consequences. The personality of the former President of France played a distinct part in the direction of quiet. There was nothing instantaneous about it. The "de-effervescence," so to speak, was much less rapid than had been the case in 1926, in the time of M. Poincaré -- a time that is, when the country was prosperous. But M. Doumergue's good nature, his imperturbable coolness, his refusal to get excited, his shrewd and farsighted wisdom, gently lowered even the oratorical tension, and from day to day excitement gradually died away.

I must not be misunderstood. The optimism I voice in these pages does not blind me to the dangers that democratic ideas are called upon to face in many countries, ours included. The concept of democracy is at the same time juridical and moral. Its ideal is equality; it proclaims justice; it is based on the enrichment of human personality. Unfortunately, for a century or more, machinery (a slave that is today in revolt), money, the power of the economic factor in human life, have been entangling human liberty in an ever and ever tighter net. Facts, figures -- things without souls -- have been tending to stifle ideas. The people publicly expresses its desires through its assemblies. The power of money and business seems momentarily to be vanquished and to submit. But let the apparently favorable moment come -- financial difficulties, as in 1925 and 1926, scandals, as in 1933. At once it resumes its offensive and drives forward; and the drive is toward dictatorship. The invisible is ever threatening the visible. That is what has made the victory of the Left so precarious in France, though it was a triumph expressly willed by the majority of the country. A pessimist might say that political liberty, in the full meaning of the term, has ceased to exist. The news that is given to the public is itself colored and doctored. How many Frenchmen are there today who have any accurate knowledge of the essential elements in what has been called "the Roosevelt experiment?" It is a sad thing to note that the powerful instruments that have been devised by science for the dissemination of knowledge have at times tended to serve and strengthen falsehood rather than truth.

If they are to hold their own, our democracies have a great effort to make. They must, first and foremost, maintain order. They must fight against their worst enemy, which is demagoguery, elder sister to dictatorship. If legislatures are not farsighted enough to discipline themselves, if they refuse to bow to the exigencies of the times, dictatorship will triumph. Liberty must learn to be more courageous than dictatorship. It was in deference to that truth that, in the government at present in power in France, men who were adversaries yesterday joined hands to make a common defense of two essential things: the maintenance of the Republic, and the security of France.

That association has so far yielded excellent results. The strength of our government bonds is enough evidence by itself. But we cannot stop there. We cannot stop even at planning and executing far-reaching social reforms. We must go deeper. In order that the Republic may live beyond peradventure we must transform it, rejuvenate it.

That is not an easy task. Last year M. Raymond Poincaré set forth his ideas on that subject in a magazine article.[i] He expressed his hostility to any revision of the Constitution of 1875 -- as the phrase goes, "the trip to Versailles," where the French constituent assembly meets. Why? Because, said he, even those who agree that the Constitution has to be revised do not agree as to the nature of the revision. M. Poincaré, for his part, is unwilling that the deputies should be deprived of their right to initiative in matters of finance. "In both England and France," he notes, "the question of budgetary prerogative has always been the main cause of revolutionary movements. Are we to be set back hundreds and hundreds of years? Few republicans will lend themselves to any such reversion to habits of the past." M. Poincaré thinks, and courageously says, that it is the duty of the executive to oppose abuses and mistakes on the part of the people's representatives, but that "the prerogatives of the Chamber in matters of finance constitute the very essence of democratic and representative government." Once again I find myself in agreement with M. Poincaré. As he sees it, the main cause of the difficulties we are in at present does not lie in the Constitution. It lies in the rules of procedure in the Chamber, in the practice of giving excessive powers to big committees and commissions. All we have to do is change those rules. In addition, I can see great advantages in reducing the number of deputies. A Chamber of six hundred members is always in danger of turning into a mere public meeting.

And shall we demand a new election system? I am very skeptical, personally, on that point. What is involved here is a question of forms rather than of substance. I have seen our electoral laws changed many many times and never with any appreciable advantage. A country that looks for a cure in a new method of balloting reminds me of a person who has serious trouble with his stomach and hastens to change his cook.

I attach much more importance to a regulation of the relations between government and business. In the severe international competition that prevails today a country cannot hold its own unless it subjects itself to a nation-wide discipline. The Soviets have grasped that fact and have proceeded to a methodical and rational organization (as I tried to describe in my recent book). There can be no doubt that France is suffering from an excess of individualism incompatible with the necessity of regulating the general organization of the world. In 1929 I created the "Economic Council." Its work still remains uncoördinated with the economic activity of the nation at large. Yet the political world and the economic world have somehow to be brought into communication.

In that indispensable association, I believe, the leadership should lie with the political. If the statesman ignores the economic field a lack of balance at once occurs, and economics takes its revenge and sets up a dictatorship. On the other hand, if economics gets the superiority, then statistics, facts, money, machinery, soon come to oppress human individuality. The outstanding problem of our time, in an intelligent effort to safeguard civilization, is to find a place for economics in a broadened and renovated governmental system.

Political power must keep its eye upon the different aspects of that process of integration, it must find ways to reconcile the rights and duties of its executive agents (in other words, of the public officials) with the higher rights of the state. "L'état, c'est nous!" It must find the proper place for those trade or syndical organizations which guarantee protection to the workingman against possible abuses by the employer. Nothing, however, can lessen or eliminate the governing statesman's need to grasp situations as a whole, intelligently and with a sense of responsibility.

If France recognizes the force of those laws, as I believe she is willing to do, there is nothing to fear as regards the future of the Republic. We had the Boulangist movement, and it passed. We had the Panama scandal, and it passed. We had the Dreyfus affair, and it passed. Now we have the Stavisky scandal. It will pass. It will never be said that a rascal, halfway a lunatic, was able to decide the destinies of France. France still remains ardently and deeply republican; and that is a good thing for many countries in Europe that need her example and her support. And there is one more truth that must not be forgotten: the Frenchman is a creature who finds it hard to do easy things, and easy to do difficult things. When all is said and done, the crisis through which the Republic has just passed will prove to have been good for it.

[i]L'Illustration, April 29, 1933.

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  • EDOUARD HERRIOT, former Prime Minister of France; Minister Without Portfolio in the Doumergue Cabinet; member of several French governments, and for many years Mayor of Lyons
  • More By Edouard Herriot