General Charles de Gaulle and his entourage proudly stroll down the Champs Élysées to Notre Dame Cathedral for a ceremony following the city's liberation on 25 August 1944.
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I DO not mean this to be history; what I attempt is only a psychological analysis of the French people as they are after the past five years -- years heavier than centuries. Never in its two thousand years of history has the country known more tragic hours, never has its social, political and moral fabric undergone a more terrible ordeal. The destruction and the shock have been so great that even today, when France has regained her dignity, her independence and her place among the nations, she cannot be considered a normal political entity. Everything has been trampled under foot, torn up, rocked to its foundations. The souls of the French people have been spared no more than their buildings and institutions. Everything must be rebuilt on ground still littered with ruins. The future cannot be written on a clean white page; the past, steeped in bitterness, is inescapably present. Those who have not experienced the ruin and the bitterness will find difficulty in imagining them; yet not to take them into account would be to misunderstand the situation and to run the risk of forming most unfair judgments.

The crisis must be seen as a whole. Let us begin, therefore, with the state of mind of Frenchmen when war was declared. France's effort between 1914 and 1918 had overtaxed her strength. She sorely missed her 1,500,000 dead. Moreover, in spite of her victory, she did not feel victorious: she could not forget the vulnerability of her frontier, breached four times within a century. Hence her insistent demand for the occupation of the left bank of the Rhine and her attempt to maintain it; hence her recourse to a counterweight in the east in the form of alliances with Slav partners -- mere small change in comparison with the great Russian ally who was lost. England and the United States blamed us for these precautions and thought them expressions of a pathological obsession or inveterate imperialism. We, of course, thought that we were right in the matter. But by the time the German menace had taken shape and there was visible proof of the danger, the damage had been done: the left bank of the Rhine had been abandoned and French military intervention in central Europe had become impossible.

Let us admit that we felt a certain bitterness toward the Anglo-Saxon Powers when, reversing their direction, they urged us to adopt a policy which was liable to lead to war. We were alone on the field. England was prepared to support us, but had no army ready; and when we asked the United States for a pledge, she declined to commit herself. Once, at Munich, France saw the edge of the abyss and stepped back. A year later she got hold of herself, but when she took action she did it in a mood of desperation. Those who had fought the war of 1914 had hoped that it was the "last war." Now, under pressure of heavy necessity, another war had to be fought. France entered it without enthusiasm: it seemed a war in which there was everything to lose and nothing to gain. These were deplorable conditions under which to give battle.

The situation I have described was aggravated by the ten years of domestic disturbances through which we had passed: the uprising of February 6, 1934, and the Popular Front of 1936 had sown seeds of profound dissension. Although the Third Republic enjoyed the sincere support of the majority of the people, it never had been able since it was founded in 1875 to rally that of all Frenchmen. Now it was losing the allegiance of a sizeable portion of the bourgeoisie. On the Right there had always been a latent but irreconcilable opposition which, while giving lip-service to the Republic, nevertheless despised it and would rejoice at its fall. On the extreme Left there were the revolutionaries. Until 1914 it had been easy to control those two extremes; but now that the Revolution could cite Communist Russia, and the Reaction could lean upon Fascist Italy or National Socialist Germany, the danger had enormously increased. The country was neither Fascist nor Communist, but it found itself drawn into the orbits of the two opposing ideologies.

Parliamentary institutions could not function normally when constitutional loyalty was no longer general. The Government had to call on the reactionaries when it wanted to defend order and on the revolutionaries when it had to defend the Republic. The need to choose between revolution and reaction became so acute that at times matters of national security were relegated to the background. To distorted minds it seemed more urgent to defeat the revolution than to defeat Germany, with the result that for some people Germany became a rampart protecting them from disorder. This dangerous split in national sentiment created a crisis which affected the very meaning of the idea of patriotism. It is all still so close that it hardly belongs to the past.


Up to a point, this combination of circumstances explains why France accepted the armistice of 1940 with passivity. The French people had hoped that the war would not have to be fought, and had submitted to it without conviction; and then the military leaders had said that to continue the fight was impossible. General de Gaulle drew a distinction between the battle of France, which had been lost, and the world battle, which could still be won; but at the time he expressed the feelings of only a minority. There was nothing to be done, so it seemed, save wind up a business which had been bad from the beginning, especially since England would very soon suffer the same fate as France. The old leadership was swept away in the catastrophe, and the confusion was such that, to all appearances, only one fixed point remained -- Marshal Pétain. All that was really known of him was his legend; the French people did not know that he was congenitally a defeatist, nor that in the course of time he had developed an appetite for power -- power not to serve the Republic, but to destroy it. Everyone wanted to believe, sometimes not without hypocritical cowardice, that no solution advocated by the Marshal could be reprehensible. Many, on the other hand, were Gaullists in all but the name. But the country was like a man who had been hit on the head.

I do not believe that the Republic would have collapsed from internal dissension alone; but the stupor which followed defeat in war brought it down. The National Assembly, in session at Vichy on July 10, 1940, did not realize that it was sentencing the Republic to death when it conferred full powers on Marshal Pétain and entrusted him with the preparation, within the framework of the existing régime, of a new constitution. The National Assembly had lost all courage and all confidence in itself. It offered no resistance to the intrigues of a violent anti-parliamentary minority; events seemed to justify the attack on parliamentary government, and the defeated military leaders used the National Assembly as a scapegoat upon which to turn popular anger. It was the appointed hour for the enemies of the Republic. We know now that the Marshal himself, as early as 1934, had participated in secret plans to change the French system of government. In order to get a clear picture of the minds of these people one must remember the hatred they felt, not only for the parliamentary Republic, but for all the political principles of the eighteenth century and of the French Revolution. At last the time had arrived, they thought, to get rid of this despised régime. To such minds, even the defeat of France was not too high a price to pay for the desired objective.

The forces which inspired the Vichy ideology were complex, but some fundamental traits of the Government which they created stand out: it was an authoritative Government, utilizing some sort of fuehrer prinzip in favor of the Marshal. It excluded universal suffrage -- the recognized expression of popular sovereignty -- thus repudiating a century-old tradition in France. In numerous county seats, it removed the figure of the Republic, a symbolic gesture which deeply affected a people still republican in its allegiance. Reversing the policy of the preceding régime, it adopted a clerical attitude toward primary schools, though the majority of French people opposed this and not even the Catholic groups desired it. In the social field it sought to destroy trade-unionism and to substitute the Fascist-inspired doctrine of the corporate state. Its foreign policy had to operate under the harsh law of the German occupation, but while it avoided concluding the military alliance which Germany desired it expressed its anti-British feelings in declarations which were too filled with venomous rancor not to be genuine. It would be unjust to say that the Government did nothing to lighten the sufferings of the French people; and the civil servants, often devoted and courageous, helped in every possible way. The Marshal, however, was thinking too much of disciplining the French people to be thinking of France. His attitude was distasteful to French patriotism and helped awaken those who had been anesthetized by the shock of defeat.

Neither the democratic France of the French Revolution nor the bellicose and proud France of 1792 and 1914 recognized herself in this régime. The Government was not content merely to remain passive before the conqueror, pleading harsh necessity in explanation of its existence; it displayed appalling satisfaction at the course of events, and unseemly eagerness to carry on a program of reforms under German protection. The minority, deprived of power for many generations, found its revenge. It is quite true that the Marshal was acclaimed on state visits in the free zone: his personal popularity was unquestionable. But an unvoiced protest mounted against the anti-republican coup d'état he had engineered, as well as against the servile attitude of his Government.

This protest crystallized around the name of General de Gaulle, though he himself was only a symbol. No outstanding civilian personality rallied to him at first, so that the movement had no definite political orientation. Some said that all his followers were Communists and others identified him with the Action Française; but this gave even greater significance to Gaullism, from the national point of view, since it implied that both the Left and the Right supported him. The Left, however, furnished most of the recruits for the movement, and the Government began to look upon it as an opposition party in revolt against the authoritative principle: a "despicable Gaullist" meant someone who was disobeying the Marshal. To a great many people, devoid of malice but lacking in courage, Vichy represented order, social permanence and, above all, a defense against revolution. In this there was no question of pro-Germanism. Indeed, real "collaborators" were few. Those few were men who loved money, influence or honors (men whom the Germans knew how to corrupt), or embittered failures getting revenge for their past obscurity, or unprincipled politicians betting on a German victory, or profiteers. And there were irresponsible persons who did not have the capacity to reckon up the meaning of their actions. Generally speaking, the masses were protected by their inherent common sense. German propaganda, insistent, yet vulgar and clumsy, did not touch them.

The alien presence gradually became unbearable. After the crisis of surrender and the ensuing stupor, national sentiment began to be reborn. In those who were militant, the process was conscious; in others it was merely an instinctive reaction -- the elimination of a foreign body from the organism of France. It had not yet become the Resistance, but the ground was being prepared. The Resistance started when the Germans, abandoning all pretense after the events of November 1942, abolished the two zones and extended their control over the whole of France. Russia was in the war on the side of the Allies, and the Communists, who had remained in the background, placed their zeal and their capacity for organization at the service of the movement for liberation. When Germany began to round up civilian workers, the Maquis were constituted. Requisition for the labor battalions meant deportation, and to avoid it men took refuge in the mountains or in isolated parts of the countryside where they organized groups, supplied with arms by parachute. Resistance of this kind, requiring initiative, imagination and a spirit of adventure, had been the tradition of France since the Vendée, and French individualism was admirably suited to it. It is difficult to estimate how many of those who took part in this movement were convinced patriots, how many were deserters who simply did not care to go to Germany, and how many were adventurers to whom this life on the edge of civilization was attractive. If one believes the official Vichy propaganda they were mostly thieves, with a few simpletons. In fact the movement was political, and also genuinely military, since most of the groups were organized under the command of officers; and the tacit but effective support it received from neighborhood populations made it a national movement. The police, told to arrest these "outlaws," protected them and often worked with them. The Resistance was less open but no less active in the cities, where the centers of the movement were located. Its leaders, hunted and trapped, assumed fictitious names, changed their domicile daily, led the life of persecuted vagrants. When they were caught, the Gestapo tortured them to make them talk. These were heroes, whose sacrifice and courage can never be adequately described.

At this point it is necessary to analyze the political psychology of the men of the Resistance, for therein lies the key to the present difficulties of liberated France. The Maquis belonged to all political parties, but mostly to the Left. Many of them were Communists, pursuing their own aims at the same time that they conscientiously worked for the liberation; there were some sincere Catholics professing advanced social doctrines; and there were many young bourgeois -- students in the higher technical schools or the universities. These young men led the life of conspirators and had no sympathy for parliamentary procedure; they despised the Deputies, though they remained grouped by parties. This sort of life, based on direct action, was a new experience and left its mark. The political atmosphere of the Resistance was that of trade-unionism or Jacobinism rather than of liberalism. The movement considered itself more representative of the deepest will of the nation than an elected body could be. The qualities naturally brought to the surface in these volunteers were vastly different from those required for peacetime life: physical courage, devotion, a spirit of decision and, at times, not too many scruples. Thus, stimulated by the needs of the moment, a new élite began to emerge which, if it survived, would introduce a new spirit and untried methods into politics.

But we must not believe that the past had been wiped out. A great part of the bourgeoisie greeted the fall of the Third Republic joyously, and the extreme Left dreamed of replacing it with something quite different. But in the provinces the masses of the people regretted the old régime, with its elections, its horsetrading, its easygoing ways: perhaps it was precisely its faults which made it seem so attractive in retrospect. If one believed the talk in drawing-rooms and the press, public opinion had come to despise the Deputy, but the fact was that the Deputy retained his influence in the electoral district. For this reason the anti-parliamentarism of the Resistance does not mirror the mood of the country at large.

The creation in Algiers of a Free French Government was not greeted with unanimous satisfaction, for it seemed to reproduce the partisan divisions of the past too faithfully. The Fighting French Army in Africa and Italy was an object of pride, however, and the constantly increasing strength of the Maquis gave the country the feeling that it was actively participating in the fight for victory and liberation. The discouragement and passivity of the dark hours that followed the armistice disappeared. Even average people displayed heroic courage, as when, after Allied air bombardments, they refused to accept the hypocritical sympathy of the Germans or join in the disingenuous protests of the Marshal. Frenchmen accepted the destruction as necessary. Nervous tension mounted throughout the country, nevertheless, fed by the hidden terror of the Gestapo, the arrests, the increasing reprisals which surpassed in vicious horror all that could be believed or imagined; and it was increased by weakness due to lack of food. Everyone was affected physically and morally. Add to all this the anxiety over the soldiers imprisoned in the Reich and the workers who had been deported -- the waiting for news that never came -- and it will be possible to understand why the country did not, and for a long time will not, have healthy reflexes.


When liberation finally came to a nation thus trampled on and raped, the past offered no experience to help in solving the problems involved in reëstablishing a free government. When General de Gaulle arrived in Paris on August 25, 1944, he found a country intoxicated with joy but with no political or administrative framework. There was no army, except the corps of Leclerc and de Lattre de Tassigny which were needed at the front. There was no police force -- or rather, there was only a police force which had so often been purged and changed by Vichy that its rôle in the liberation (magnificently played, by the way) was to promote insurrection. There was no administration, because the Prefects of Vichy, hopelessly compromised, could not be kept at their posts. On the other hand, armed troops of the Resistance, strengthened in prestige, had everywhere seized power and assumed duties for which they had not been designated. The people did not even know who they were. As no elections could be held, the Resistance forces exercised a de facto dictatorship. The situation was even more confused in local government as party men and profiteers, edging themselves into the group of real fighters, began to rule and to administer justice, often with indulgence in personal or factional vengeance as the result.

Such was the political situation facing General de Gaulle. Few members of the Resistance had even seen him; and the first meeting between the chief and the National Committee of Liberation left the impression that no real contact had been made. Matters were further complicated by the fact that the General was not returning alone; he was accompanied, or soon followed, by the personnel of his Algiers Government and by all those who, for four years, had given him faithful support in London, in Africa, in New York. Each of these groups differed in temperament, and when they met they had to adapt themselves to each other. Those who had fought the Germans in France, who had suffered from hunger and incurred terrible risks, took pride in their past ordeals. The exiles from Algeria and those returning from England had not shared identical experiences, but they all had the advantage of belonging to an existing administrative body which was ready to constitute a government.

The new Government, rather embarrassed by the somewhat disorderly fervor of the French Forces of the Interior, managed to integrate its best elements into the Army. Many of the other members of the F.F.I. had become accustomed to the adventurous existence of the Maquis and had no desire to return to regular peacetime ways; as a result, there were armed individuals everywhere who recognized no authority. The position of the central Government was made more difficult by the almost complete lack of means of communication. Bridges and roads had been destroyed, and the rolling stock of railroads tremendously depleted. To add to the confusion, it was now possible to give vent to pent-up indignation against those who had behaved badly during the occupation. Insolent collaborators, well supplied with material advantages -- the price of their betrayal -- had humiliated patriots and denounced them, sending them to their death. Now the situation was reversed: most of those who had been compromised had fled, but those who remained had to hide in order to escape vengeance. Justice was on the march. The mood of the country was not unlike that which produced lynchings in a nineteenth-century frontier town in the United States.

In a less dramatic form the same clean-up had to be made among administrative officials. No longer could it be argued, as under Vichy, that competence at administrative tasks made people indispensable. But here again, as the purge progressed, it was difficult to draw a line between action motivated by jealousy or hope for personal advantage, and sincere reform. The release from four years of repression was like the breaking of a dyke. In the weeks following the liberation of Paris, the political intoxication reached such a pitch that everyone forgot that there still was a war to be fought.

Under the circumstances, only a display of great wisdom by the Government could avert civil war. It apparently had this wisdom: it knew when to hold fast, when to give in and when to avoid the issue; and the forces which it could not change it assimilated. The ticklish problem of the F.F.I. was slowly solved. Disorder was prolonged in some places where fanatical elements continued to wield power, but these places became fewer and fewer. Civil war was averted.

In domestic politics a shift to the Left was clearly necessary. General de Gaulle interpreted the political situation acutely. Almost at once he declared himself in favor of the Republic and named his régime the "Provisional Government of the French Republic." By so doing he responded to the wishes not of all the people (some remained faithful to the Marshal) but of the great majority. It remained to be seen what kind of a republic it was going to be: representative, Jacobin or authoritative. Would it preserve the existing social order or would it be revolutionary? And would the Provisional Government begin "structural reforms" without waiting for a popular mandate -- that is to say, could the Government's great achievement of liberating the country stand in lieu of a formal delegation of power by the people?

Many who had been active in the liberation felt that now that the Germans had been ejected and the Republic (though provisional) reinstated, the job was done. The Resistance, however, held that the "revolution" was still to be achieved. In a country like France, revolution is a word heavy with meaning. What kind of revolution? The atmosphere of conspiracy of the years of occupation had influenced former liberals. They felt no urge to restore the régime of the Third Republic which had neither prepared for war nor avoided it. They were moved by the spirit of revolutionary change which called for the social democratization of the country, for a doctrinal leadership capable of drastic action, untrammelled by parliamentary prepossessions and functioning in the manner of a committee rather than of an elected assembly. This attitude is directly inspired by the French revolutionary tradition of the nineteenth century and also by Russian Communism, and is reflected by the large number of Communists in the resistance groups. Nor can it be denied that the presence of the Germans has left its mark; a tendency to fall back upon certain authoritative ways of approaching a problem, a distaste for the methods of liberalism, are in the air. We must not forget that France is a continental country, susceptible to influences from the east.

It is still too early to know whether these tendencies, which spring both from a sincere desire for national renovation and from a wish to hold on to present power, correspond to the instinct of the population as a whole. It seems to me that if the people were free to choose they would welcome a régime of elective government which would safeguard personal interests and give play to political aspirations. As we have noted, communities are still attached to their spokesman, the local deputy, and the attachment is strengthened by the fact that government decisions are apt to be somewhat arbitrary. If a national election were held, parliamentary institutions would have a good chance, for the Republic left a deeper imprint on the French people during its long years of existence than is sometimes supposed. Nonetheless, events have dug up the political ground so thoroughly that it remains to be seen whether the old republican tradition will survive; and even if it does, the conditions under which representative government will function will be new and different.

Here is France on her feet again -- miraculously risen from the dead, conscious of having regained her dignity and independence, proud of the spontaneous and heroic gesture she made in joining with the Allies to drive the enemy from her soil. How does this France of 1945 see herself in relation to the other nations?

France felt the humiliation of the defeat deeply, but she believes she has regained her honor. The average Frenchman considers that he has recovered his moral place in the world; yet he must affirm it over and over again, somewhat nervously, for the memory of those awful years has left him hypersensitive. He is afraid he may be treated with insufficient consideration. Besides, he feels obscurely that the proportions of the world have changed and that his own stature is no longer what it was. He was resentful, for example, when it was suggested that French would not be included among the official languages at the San Francisco Conference. France is aware of the important place she occupied in the development of civilization, and she does not resign herself easily to the fact that her rôle as civilizer does not ensure her a corresponding political standing. In spite of her ruins, her losses in men, all her accumulations of exhaustion and suffering, she has the will to survive, to recover her strength. Her leaders are ambitious on her behalf, and she will heed their call: sursum corda.

Never has France raised herself so quickly after falling so low. How can one describe a recovery so astonishing, so unexpected, so miraculous? The crisis of the Hundred Years War was less dangerous, for love of country had not become quite separated from loyalty to the king. This time the pit yawned and the extent of the catastrophe was unmistakable. The rebirth of France has, in truth, been a resurrection. Jeanne d'Arc did not doubt, nor did General de Gaulle: history will associate these two names.

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  • ANDRÉ SIEGFRIED, Professor at the Collège de France; author of "America Comes of Age," "Post-War Britain" and many other works
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