THE middle-of-the-road parties, as they would be called in Anglo-Saxon countries, came out on top in the recent French elections, but the Pleven Cabinet formed after long delay does not provide the strong government we all had hoped for, since they are more badly divided among themselves than before. The right wing of the Center has been strengthened at the expense of the left wing, and some of that right wing may be attracted to the Rally of the French People, the Gaullists. The Communists received 450,000 votes less than in the elections of November 1946, a drop from 28.4 percent to 26.48 percent of the total. This is about what they had in the elections of the spring of 1946. The Rally of the French People (R.P.F.) received a little more than 4,000,000 votes, that is, 21.74 percent. Together the two extremes add up to a little less than the majority of the total ballots cast. Thanks to the electoral law which favors the "affiliated" parties of the Center, however, this gives them but 224 deputies out of 625--markedly less than half.

The strength of the Center parties is receding. The Socialist Party lost 650,000 votes, giving it 14.54 percent instead of 17.9 of the total. The Popular Republican Movement (M.P.R.) suffered the staggering loss of 2,650,000 votes, or more than half of the number it obtained in November 1946; it now has 12.38 percent instead of 26.4. The Left Republican Rally (R.G.R.), which includes the Radicals, lost slightly--2,194,000 votes as against 2,381,000 or 11.54 percent instead of 12.4. The moderate groups of the Right, Republican Liberty Party (P.R.L.), Independents and Peasants, gained slightly, with 2,496,000 votes and 13.13 percent compared with 2,466,000 and 12.84. In the Assembly, the Socialist Party increased its deputies by four, the M.R.P. lost 62, the R.G.R. gained 34, and the Moderates of the Right gained 12.

How should these statistics be interpreted? The size of the Communist vote, after three years of the Marshall Plan and the effort to organize an Atlantic army, is not discouraging for the side of freedom but hardly justifies rejoicing. The strength of the Communist Party is declining--and even a slight but plain decline is serious for a party which bases its propaganda on the assumption that it is riding the wave of the future. But its support is not seriously weakened in the cities and in workers' districts. Its adherents are particularly strong in three regions: in the southeast, in the west center, and in Paris and the north. Here they constitute more than 30 percent of the voters. Some of the voters whom it lost had become Party adherents in 1946 because of economic troubles and were not aware of the nature of the bond with the Soviet Union. But where Communism had gained a firm hold it was little shaken. The supposition that large numbers of French Communist voters are not authentic Stalinists, but are merely discontented with low living standards, is not borne out by the evidence. The majority of Communist voters really favor the Soviet Union. According to opinion polls, 84 percent of the Communist voters say that in the event of total war their sympathies would go to the Soviet Union. The great majority of Communist voters certainly approve of the Communist foreign-policy slogans.

But there are many questions which opinion polls leave unanswered. Verbal acceptance of the ideas suggested by the Party does not signify that these voters wish for the invasion of France by the Red Army, or even that they would refuse to fight against it. Their attitude in case of war would depend upon a multiplicity of factors--the prospects for failure or success of French arms, the circumstances of the outbreak of war, the firmness of the military and civil authorities. Ideological preferences are not necessarily the most important factor.

Does all of this mean that everything that has been done to combat Communism in France since 1946 has been in vain? I do not think so at all. Even though the Communist vote has not been significantly reduced there are other noteworthy signs of change. For one thing, the Communist press has lost half of its readers. For another, the Party has been having difficulty in organizing political manifestations; the one against General Eisenhower, for example, was a failure. Unless strictly union demands are at stake the workers follow strike orders very reluctantly. The dynamism of the Party has noticeably weakened. This is not to say that any other party has a stronger appeal; workers who vote Communist do not believe that any other party would espouse their interests more effectively. But it is safe to say that the appeal of the Communist Party today is more negative than positive. Granted the difficulty of accurately measuring such intangibles as the lowering of dynamism, the decline of faith, and doubt as to the usefulness of revolutionary action, one living in France still has the impression that such a process is under way among French Communist voters. And some tangible signs confirm it. The fringe of Communist sympathizers--those who used to say, "I am not a Communist, but"--has shrunk greatly. More and more people are for or against. Those who evade the choice are mainly the intellectuals. To sum up, the Communist Party is still a source of trouble and division, but it no longer can paralyze or sabotage the economic or political life of the nation. Exactly what damage the secret army which it maintains would be capable of causing in time of war no one knows.


Most observers have up to now looked upon the Gaullist movement as the opposite extreme. But the conventional terms "Extreme Left," "Extreme Right" are no longer meaningful. The notion that the two extremes could ever be assimilated is a device of partisan propaganda. No one really believes it. A coalition of the parties of the Center with the R.P.F. is conceivable in certain circumstances, but a Gaullist coalition with the Communist Party is not. Besides, the R.P.F. is to the "right" of the Moderates neither in social ideas nor in the class of its voters. Communists and Gaullists are both hostile to the Fourth Republic as it functions today, but the common ground ends there.

The R.P.F. might perhaps have obtained a few dozen more seats in Parliament if it had agreed to more affiliations. In any case, it has slightly fewer deputies in the Assembly than it would have had if the proportional system had been maintained intact.[i] Nevertheless, it is the strongest non-Communist party in the country and the most numerous party group in Parliament. It did not exist at the time of the last general elections, but a comparison with 1947, the year of the municipal elections, shows that in three years it has lost between a quarter and a third of its forces. This fact (already revealed by the public opinion polls) was to a large measure the result of the split between the R.P.F. and the Radical and Moderate groups which were allied with it at the time of the municipal elections. The striking thing is that in spite of the campaign against it by the government, business and the Catholic Church, it can still claim 4,000,000 adherents.

These 4,000,000 appear to embrace two different types of people. Partly they are citizens who normally vote for the moderate parties and who are particularly numerous north of the Loire, in the west, the north and the east of France. Partly they are urban voters who formerly voted for the Left. Detailed comparisons would show that a fraction of the votes of deserters from the Communists and the Socialists went back to the R.P.F., especially in the workers' quarters in the large cities. In Paris, the R.P.F. lost fewer votes compared with 1947 in workers' districts than in middle class districts. In 1947 some of the middle class and the "managerial" class inclined to the R.P.F. out of fear of Communism. With that fear attenuated, the old moderate parties have reappeared, and the votes of the middle class which supplies the moral and financial support of management have been cast chiefly for the Moderates, Independents, Peasants and the Republican Liberty Party.

Communists and Gaullists represent the new elements in the traditional system of our parliamentary democracy. The former are characterized less by their doctrine and open activities than by their bond with Moscow and their permanent conspiracy. The latter are distinguished by their desire to modify the constitution both in letter and practice. There is no common denominator in the meaning of a Communist revolution and the meaning of a Gaullist revolution. The first would mark a break with secular tradition; the second would not take France out of the Atlantic world and Western civilization. What is true is that the ballots cast for both were verdicts against the present system itself. Thus the common characteristic of the groups which are called Center is their simultaneous rejection of Communism and Gaullism--of Russian tyranny, and of "adventure," which in France means personal power--"the man on horseback." They are representative of French politics as it was before the irruption of Communism and, later, of Gaullism. Center parties which formerly would have been opposed to each other--Socialists and reactionaries, "Left" and "Right"--now find themselves condemned to govern together.

The electoral grouping called "affiliation" worked out more successfully than was generally expected. In some 30 districts the allied lists (in nearly all cases lists of the parties of the governmental majority) received an absolute majority. Thus, despite the serious loss of votes of the Socialists and the even more serious losses of the M.R.P., these two parties, the nucleus of the former governmental majority, emerged less weakened than they had feared (nearly 200 seats instead of 250). Nevertheless there is no question but that the right wing of the Center majority has been strengthened. The Socialists, the M.R.P. and the Radicals must rally at least half of what has been called the Fourth Force.

The elections of June 17, 1951, therefore had a double significance. They showed, first, that the present form of parliamentary democracy in France is being called into question from two sides; and though the victory of the parties representing tradition (more that of the Third Republic than that of the Fourth) was marked in numbers of deputies elected, the margin was much narrower in terms of the popular vote. Second, they showed that within the customary forms the French electorate favors an orientation more to the Right.

A few figures will illustrate the road travelled during the past six years. In the elections at the end of 1945 the Communists and the Socialists together obtained 50 percent of the votes. Today the two Marxist parties have no more than 41 percent. In 1945 the three large parties which together created the Fourth Republic--Communists, Socialists and the M.R.P.--obtained 73.9 percent of the votes, that is, nearly three-quarters. All three recommended a policy with Socialist tendencies; all three were supporters of nationalization and controlled economy. Today, the proportion has dropped to 53.4 percent. Intellectual fashion has changed. On the morrow of the Liberation, socializing watchwords captured the imagination. Experience was disillusioning, and liberal watchwords now have greater success.

The changes must not be exaggerated, as a few figures will suggest. At the end of 1945, the Left Republican Rally (R.G.R.) and the Moderates succeeded in securing together 25.5 percent of the votes; on June 17, 1951, they received 24.67 percent. The change here is insignificant. The "shift to the Right" which everyone is talking about is mainly due to the fact that the Gaullist votes are classified as "Right." Practically speaking, they correspond to the total of votes lost by the three other big parties. If we recall that in 1945 these very parties governed together under the leadership of General de Gaulle we see that, essentially, Frenchmen continue to have about the same preferences they have had for years. The two decisive developments are, first, the rupture between the Communist Party and the rest of the country. This occurred (or rather became apparent) in the spring of 1947, and was brought about more by factors outside France than within the country. The second major development was the break between General de Gaulle and the Socialists and the M.R.P. Of the 4,000,000 votes obtained by the Rally of the French People, at least half were on the lists of the M.R.P. in 1945; and some hundreds of thousands came from the Socialist Party. From 1945 to 1951 the two principal political losers were thus the Socialist Party, which lost more than 40 percent of its voters, and the M.R.P. which lost 50 percent. This did not prevent these two parties from taking part in the government, and they probably will often or always be in it throughout the life of the next legislature. It is a fairly consistent French custom to be governed by parties whose strength is diminishing.


In other words, politics have been and will be determined more by the manœuvring of men and parties than by the opinions of the voters. The opinions are relatively constant; it is their mode of expression which varies. There were Gaullists among the M.R.P. and Socialist voters in 1945. They remained Gaullists in 1951 even though today their Gaullism seems to assume a contrary significance.

The question for the future is not what proportion of the electorate voted for the Right or for the Left, how many for liberalism and how many for controlled economy.[ii] Rather it is, what will result from the conflict between the rivalry of groups and personalities on the one hand and governmental necessities on the other? As these lines are written no parliamentary leader has yet succeeded in forming a government. In recent years the Center parties were held together by the fear of the Communist and Gaullist "extremes." Now that this has been lifted somewhat, each Center group, and particularly the Socialist Party, is more demanding; and the relative weakening of the Socialists and the M.R.P. has increased the influence of the Moderates and Radicals, who believe that they have secured the approval of the country for a liberal program. Finally, whereas only one majority grouping was possible in the last Assembly, several are now conceivable.

The important question is whether any conceivable coalition will be strong enough to carry out the program of essential reforms. If fiscal reforms are effected, for example, rearmament will bring an increasing threat of inflation. It is not France's peculiar misfortune that a difference of views exists between liberals and the supporters of a directed economy; the same conflict exists in all the Western countries. Her misfortune is that the French liberals are not acting energetically against the factors which paralyze competition, and that those who demand controls are motivated mainly by a desire to protect the present structure of the economy, irrational as it is. In other words, there is a disastrous tendency toward a conservatism which takes from each program only the measures acceptable to all interests. In the political field, stability demands a reform of parliamentary methods and constitutional practice, though not the decisive revision contemplated by General de Gaulle. As individuals, most French supporters of parliamentary government are in agreement on certain reforms; collectively they seem unable to act on any of them.

For the time being France will not have either a stable or a strong government. She can have that only at the risk of "adventure," and with adventure ruled out there remain only parliamentary combinations, with their unpredictable results. This is a mediocre game, the legacy of another age, most unsuited to the demands of our century. During the war years most of the chief political figures--Léon Blum, Edouard Herriot, Jeanneney --said and wrote that not for anything in the world must France be allowed to fall again into the errors of the Third Republic. But the fact is that France is back in them once more and that the old men of the Third Republic and the new men of the Fourth seem to fit into the old forms without discomfort. Actually, Frenchmen do not mind living without a government, and it must be admitted that for all the political weakness of French governments since the war their accomplishments have been impressive. The present system will survive internal attacks. Whether it could withstand a shock from the outside is another matter.

[i] Had the law of 1946 remained in force the R. P. F. would have had more than 150 deputies. The Communist Party would have had more than 180.

[ii] There are M.R.P. voters who are liberals, and there are some radical electors who voted for M. Mendès-France, an admirer of British Labor and austerity.

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  • RAYMOND ARON, on the editorial staff of Le Figaro, Paris; Professor at the École Nationale d'Administration and at the Institut d'Études Politiques; author of "Le Grand Schisme" and other works.
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