WITH the results of the latest French elections fresh in mind, but without going into detail about them, I should like to discuss here the conditions in which the French people vote and their underlying concept of government. International opinion--and American opinion in particular--is always interested in what is happening in France since she is one of the cornerstones of the European structure. Moreover, the presence of France in North Africa could not be ended without grave peril to Western civilization. In addition, the question is often asked how it happens that a people held to be so intelligent govern themselves so badly. French politics always seem something of an enigma. Why should they be so incomprehensible to foreigners, especially to Americans? First, because Europe is not America--and though this fact is obvious, it must be stated at the very start. Secondly, because a "parliamentary régime" is not a "presidential régime" and the difference lends itself to a host of misunderstandings when comparisons are drawn or interpretations attempted. Finally, because France is France, the prisoner of a long past through which she has evolved in a political climate peculiarly her own.

Thus, while the elections of January 2, 1956, can be explained in part by current circumstances, they cannot be fully understood unless one keeps in mind certain constants which manifest themselves regularly from one election to another, regardless of the specific issues raised or the parties involved. Changeable as she seems, France is actually one of the most stable countries in the world in reactions and basic tendencies, so much so that some persons even reproach her for this at the very moment when her superficial instability is giving cause for grave concern.


It must always be remembered that the Frenchman, the man in the street as well as the intellectual, is above all an individualist. But, it may be argued, there are individualists everywhere; this is scarcely a Gallic monopoly. The answer is that the individualism of the Frenchman is Latin in essence, which means that he has a capacity for stating problems clearly and for seeing in any solution the principle involved and the direction in which it leads. This quality of mind, admirable in itself, becomes a serious liability in politics, since it prevents ready adjustment by compromise. Every argument becomes a matter of principle; the practical results are relegated to second place. Further, since every Frenchman has his own individual outlook, there naturally must be a great number of political parties. A simple yes or no answer does not satisfy the French. This means that each party inevitably develops within itself a left, center and right faction. As a result, government can function only through coalitions, and these are especially precarious because they are founded on such subtle combinations. Thus the means often obscures the ends. I should like to point out that this political game is intelligent; contrary to what superficial observers might believe, it always makes sense. Perhaps it is even too intelligent, if it can be called politically intelligent to separate intelligence from effectiveness. As to all this the French are held to be blithely indifferent, ready to sacrifice practical considerations for a principle even when expediency counsels the opposite. From this point of view French politics certainly are interesting; speaking for myself, I wish they were less so.

History seems to have aggravated the conditions in which France chooses her leaders and formulates her basic political ideas regarding authority and freedom. Indeed, from the time the Revolution posed this fundamental dilemma France has never succeeded in resolving it. The reason is that she won democracy and freedom through a long struggle against reactionary régimes which only in the last extremity would acknowledge the sovereignty of the people, the supremacy of the elected assemblies and the complete secularization of the State. This struggle has produced a democratic tradition which will admit that only the elected assemblies truly represent the popular will. The French left thus inclines to suspect that any administration which governs with authority is reactionary; it fails to distinguish clearly between arbitrary rule, discredited by its abuses, and the authority essential for governing at all. Even necessary restraints upon freedom are accepted reluctantly.

True, France has gone through one experience of how to solve the problem of authority within a democracy, that of Bonapartism; but it was achieved at the expense of freedom. It accounts for the French mistrust of the presidential type of régime in which the chief of state has broad powers. Americans do not share this mistrust, for Washington was not Napoleon.

As for the secular state, it was achieved in France against the constant opposition of the Roman Catholic Church. Indeed, the Church has never fully recognized it. This explains why the question of clericalism or anti-clericalism, especially in relation to the schools, always figures in French political thinking, even if only in latent form. Today it still--or rather again--poisons the relations of parties which on other counts would get along together quite well. This is no minor problem.

Because the French mind senses political orientations so easily --almost instinctively--it naturally considers that concepts of right and left have essential significance. Democracy triumphed through the left; reaction is expressed through the right. France, which has no conservatives of the English type, takes an incurable delight in extrapolating tendencies. The French see everything in terms of a watershed, the two sides of which slant away so steeply that one cannot maintain a foothold at the top but must necessarily fall down on one side or the other. The terms "right" and "left," which do not mean much to Anglo-Saxon Americans, have dynamic and passionate force in France; they contain the threat of a return to the past, the promise of the future. The concept of the left as cherished by its militant adherents is singular, almost childlike, akin to what inspires a Moslem as he looks toward Mecca. It is a rule of faith with them always to vote left; in fact, they believe that the further to the left they are the most effectively they will be resisting reaction. No one, not even the rightist, wants to be considered to be on the right.

One must distinguish here between a political left and a social left, for the two do not coincide; those on the political left are not necessarily on the left in a social sense, and vice versa. With the political left we are back in the atmosphere of the nineteenth century, facing the question whether the French Revolution, with all its consequences and particularly the separation of Church and State, will be accepted. On the right there is a minority which has never supported this program. There is also an anti-parliamentarian right which has its origins in Bonapartism but was rejuvenated in the twentieth century by an infusion of Fascist philosophy. It is as hostile as ever to rule by the assembly. The "defense of the Republic" must be undertaken at one moment against a return of the old régime, at another against a dictatorial offensive of the Boulanger type. At the same time, there is a growing division into right and left in the social sphere. This is an inevitable result of the industrial revolution, the growth of the labor movement and the increasing claims of the Socialist state. In this area, the issue of freedom passes over to the right, whereas in politics it found its champions on the left. The result is an overlapping of positions which further complicates a game already quite complicated enough. For we find social moderates who are politically on the left, and people socially liberal whose Catholicism draws them toward the political right.

France thus is burdened with the weight of her past, and the burden is the heavier because that past has never been entirely resigned to being extinguished but every once in a while crops up again, if not in its earlier form, then in a new one. In 1940, for example, Marshal Pétain, in his "National Revolution," called to his aid the most reactionary traditions in our history. In 1945, when France faced the task of drawing up a constitution, this recent experience was bound to weigh heavily in the decisions that had to be made. Is it any wonder so many ghosts haunted the men who were striving to establish a Fourth Republic?


The Constitution of 1946, the charter of the Fourth Republic, reflects all these anxieties. Since it was the work of a leftist majority it provided for a National Assembly elected by universal suffrage and with virtually unlimited powers. The cabinet was to be simply its delegate, always subject to dismissal. This was indeed the parliamentary régime in the democratic tradition of 1793, where the elected deputy is the sole true representative of the people. Chosen by the sovereign power, the deputy soon comes to believe that he himself is that power, so much so that he considers it little short of a scandal if an appeal is made to his constituents to revoke the mandate they have given him.

If in 1945 the Communists who then formed part of the majority coalition had had their way, there would have been no President of the Republic and no second chamber, only the single Assembly without any counterbalance, and the cabinet would have been merely its executive committee. When the referendum of May 1946 demonstrated the public's preference for a system which put certain restraints on the power of the Assembly, it was agreed that there should be a President of the Republic and a second chamber, the Council of the Republic. But the spirit of the Constitution was such that these modifications did not seriously affect the dominance of the National Assembly. The Council of the Republic, with only the negligible power of a suspensive veto, in no way corresponded to the Senate of the previous régime, and the prerogatives of the President of the Republic were jealously limited. A strong executive able to counterbalance the power of the National Assembly was not wanted. Thus France deliberately turned her back on the type of presidential régime favored by General de Gaulle. Even though the leftist majority was drawn almost entirely from the ranks of the Resistance, it feared a possible dictator in the person of the liberator himself.

It must be remembered that this was a period when the political temperature was at a fever pitch which could not last. The authors of these institutions meant them to be uncompromising, but in practice a sort of law of equilibrium has tended to correct their excesses. Nor is this kind of adaptability out of keeping with the French national mentality. The President of the Fourth Republic has become an essential element of the régime just as the President of the Third Republic was. Elected for seven years, presiding by right over the Council of Ministers, and having the responsibility of designating the President of the Council, he plays a rôle of influence rather than authority but still one of great importance. In short, he is president in the European rather than the American sense. As for the Council of the Republic, a limited revision has increased the importance of its suspensive veto so that it can at least make its existence felt. Nevertheless, the régime continues to be what its authors intended--a parliamentary régime with power centered in the Assembly.

Professor Philip Williams in his "Politics in Post-War France,"[i] the best book on the Fourth Republic, calls attention to the similarity between this Constitution and the English system with its all-powerful House of Commons, its king who reigns but does not rule and its House of Lords which has virtually no real prerogatives. These institutions have brought England ministerial stability and stable parties. How is it, then, that analogous institutions in France produce exactly the opposite result? The explanation of this is in part psychological, in part due to a difference in circumstances.

Take, for example, the multiplicity of French parties which is so often the cause of reproach. The difficulty is that too many questions of fundamental importance on which the various parties have cause to disagree have come up for decision at one time. The nineteenth century bequeathed to us the problem of dirigisme versus free enterprise and that of separation of Church and State. Problems more urgent still, most of them resulting from the Second World War, now have us by the throat: European integration, German rearmament, the pro-Russian or pro-American orientation of our foreign policy, the colonial crisis. The fact that these problems, distinct in themselves, have arisen simultaneously increases the difficulty of forming a stable majority. A majority can be found on each of these problems taken singly--E.D.C., for example, or the separation of Church and State--but when it comes to obtaining a majority which will agree on all these questions at once the task becomes truly formidable. Yet this is just what must be done if the cabinet is to reach decisions binding upon all its members, representing different parties in the coalition. The Socialists and Popular Republicans may agree on a social program, but the Socialists oppose the subsidies for Catholic schools sponsored by the Popular Republicans. Gaullists and Catholics may be together on the school question, but not on the question of European integration.

Such divisions are in large part responsible for the cabinet instability which has become tragically characteristic of the French parliamentary régime. Unfortunately this instability follows logically from the circumstances described above. The moment the cabinet is considered the delegate of the Assembly majority, any change in the center of gravity or composition of that majority necessarily involves a cabinet shake-up. The process is a little like the way a skipper trims his sails as the wind changes. If the cabinet is not overthrown it comes apart; certain ministers refuse to associate themselves with some measure they do not approve. Actually the disadvantages are not as serious as they appear to foreign observers. When there is a cabinet crisis, certain ministers change or the same ministers are merely shifted around; but no civil servant is displaced, and the day-by-day administration continues without interruption. Furthermore, as the same ministers hold over from one cabinet to another, they form as it were teams of government. This leads to the paradox of stable policy with unstable cabinets. Our international critics nevertheless have a strong point when they complain that the representatives of France in diplomatic negotiations are hardly ever the same from one year to the next.

How, despite such a capricious régime, does France survive and even prosper (for she is not in a state of crisis)? To understand it, one must remember that two parallel traditions have been maintained since the eighteenth century: a political tradition characterized by constant variations and affirmations of principle without fundamental regard for practical effects; and an administrative tradition originating with Napoleon characterized by permanence and solidity. The two do not obey the same rules or the same spirit, but the second is no less national than the first.


In spite of all this French politics do not lack continuity. If instead of considering each cabinet individually one classifies them by groups having the same general complexion, one begins to discern periods of continuity which to a certain extent counterbalance the instability of the separate cabinets. Since the Liberation there have been three such periods. During the first, from 1944 to 1947, the majorities were based on the coöperation of the Communists, Socialists and Popular Republicans (Catholic left). When Ramadier excluded the Communists in May 1947, a new tripartite régime was formed, more toward the center this time, embracing the Socialists, Popular Republicans and Radicals. The electoral system of 1951 was devised in order to consolidate this combination against both Communism and Gaullism. The system must be understood if the results of the 1956 elections, held under the same rules, are to be interpreted correctly.

Under this system, all seats go to the ticket winning 51 percent of the votes in a department or section of a department. If no party wins a majority, the seats are distributed among all parties in proportion to the number of votes received by each. However, if two or three parties declare that although they are retaining their separate identities they are forming an electoral alliance, they are considered as a single party for the purposes of the election and are allowed all the seats if their pooled votes total more than 50 percent of the votes cast. This system puts a premium on coöperation between parties and works against isolated parties, for example, the Communists, who in the 1951 elections won a relatively small number of seats in proportion to their voting power. In the 1956 elections, the divisions between the center parties were too great to permit an effective rapprochement, with the result that the Communists without getting more votes than before picked up more seats. Viewed in this aspect, the elections take on quite a different meaning.

Despite the existence of a strong Gaullist element to the right, the tripartite majority régime, based on the center, could have maintained itself in power after the 1951 elections if the question of subsidies to the Catholic schools had not arisen to separate the Socialists from the Popular Republicans. This made it necessary for a governing majority to look for support further to the right, even to the Gaullists; and this in turn drove the Socialists toward the left and revived the idea of a popular front. But any alliance between parties as different as the Independents on the right and the Popular Republicans, socially oriented toward the left, was bound to be precarious, the more so because they were not in agreement on the problem of Europe and German rearmament, just then coming to the fore. Governmental instability increased, but suddenly two circumstances cleared the air. For one thing, prices, which had been rising constantly for ten years, began with the Pinay régime in 1953 to be stabilized, while American and European prosperity began to be reflected in the French economy. For another, the strong personality of Mendès-France emerged, and he assumed leadership of a new majority oriented toward the left. But could a left majority be constituted without the aid of the Communists, or a center majority without the Socialists and the Radicals who follow Mendès-France? A split ensued in the center of the Assembly between the parties and the leaders--Mendès-France and Edgar Faure--who had lately been coöperating. Faure called for the dissolution of the Assembly in December 1955, hoping to obtain clear guidance from the people as to the direction in which French policy should move. But as the dissolution took place without any change having been made in the electoral system, and as no alliance was made among the deeply divided center parties, the seats were distributed proportionately.

Under the system as it functioned in the 1956 elections, the voter cast his vote less for individuals than for parties. This abstract concept may be pleasing to the French mind, but it separates the voter from reality. As a result, the balloting was more like a census than an election. On the essential issues the electorate did not give any clear indication of its opinion.

Three spectacular results demand attention: the gain of some 50 seats by the Communists (their number rose from 95 to 144); the sudden eruption onto the scene of 51 Poujadist deputies on the extreme right; and the adoption of an intransigent position by the Republican Front, which chose to place itself on the left side of the watershed, in opposition to the former majority of Edgar Faure. These results will appear less startling to foreign observers if they will recall the analysis presented earlier in this article. Once again the French have been true to their traditional psychology; no really new currents have appeared. It would be too much to draw from this election any definite conclusions as to French tendencies, whether reassuring or otherwise. From the point of view of public opinion, no clear-cut indications appear. However, from the tactical and governmental point of view, the new distribution, not of votes but of seats, raises difficult problems.

The Communists have 144 seats in the new Assembly as against 95 in the old, but it will be seen that they have little reason to crow if it is remembered that the 25 percent of the votes they garnered throughout the country represents no increase in their actual voting strength. Their gain of nearly 50 seats is due solely to the fact that in the absence of an alliance among the center parties, the Communists, unlike five years ago, are represented proportionally to the votes they obtained. French Communism appears to have reached its ceiling long ago, and it can be concluded that France is not going and will not go Communist. Nevertheless, there were 5,492,000 Communist votes, and the foreigner wonders how it is that so many Frenchmen vote that way. It is generally agreed that France is not at present in a state of economic crisis; prices have not risen for two years, nominal and even real wages are unquestionably increasing and there is no unemployment. If the French were Anglo-Saxons, this situation would surely have been reflected in the elections. In France, nothing of the kind.

As I stated above, the Frenchman votes more for principles than for practical considerations. Does this mean that there are more than five and a half million Communists in France? Clearly not--and this is the strangest paradox of all: we know that from two-thirds to three-quarters of those who vote Communist are not themselves Communists and have not the slightest desire to see a Soviet régime established in their country. Why, then, do they react as they do at the polls? For complex reasons, among which principle, class interest, protest and political manœuvring all play their part. Many people vote Communist because they think Communism is on the left, and as a matter of principle they always vote left. If we could prove that Communism was on the right, the Party would unquestionably lose a large part of its support. Then, too, it gets the votes of many wage earners who believe that it is the party of the working class and so is in the best position to defend their interests. These voters reason that the more the Communists are feared the more they are listened to. To these must be added the very poor, the ill-housed, the wretched, who feel that any change must be for the better and who consequently see no danger but only possible good in voting for the Revolution. In addition, many women vote Communist because they believe that Moscow favors peace--a fact which should cause Americans to reflect on the ineffectuality of their propaganda. All of these people, whether militant adherents of a principle, well-meaning innocents or rascals who should know better, are playing a dangerous game, for the deputies whom they help to elect do not represent them but a foreign Power.

The success of the Poujadist party is rather easier to explain in so far as it sheds a strong light on certain very French forms of discontent. Poujade is an agitator, unquestionably possessed of a dynamic personality, who for several years has been exhorting the small merchants to protest, by direct action if necessary, against the highhandedness, tactlessness and all too real lack of consideration shown for the taxpayers by the fiscal authorities. To a great extent Poujadism is a result of deflation, or at least of the end of inflation, for the movement did not develop until after prices had levelled off. As long as prices kept rising, middlemen, not excluding black marketeers, enjoyed a spectacular and easy prosperity. Stocks increased in value overnight; cost prices hardly had to be calculated. As for taxes, which were payable on income received the year before, by the time they became due the currency had been still further devalued and the burden had become that much lighter. Once prices were stabilized or declining, this beautiful paradise vanished. When it is further taken into account that improved methods of distribution have been achieved at the expense of the middleman, it will be understood why the small merchants fear that their very existence is threatened. And as Keynes has said, "Men will not always die quietly." It was therefore easy for a man like Poujade, demagogic and persuasive, to incite an element among the taxpayers who were the more ready to rebel because the fiscal authorities treated them so cavalierly. In France the civil service is always only too ready to think of itself as the heir to Louis XIV.

We have long been familiar with movements of this type. They almost always originate among the lower middle classes and are generally on the extreme right, in the tradition of Bonapartism, Boulangism, anti-Semitism, anti-parliamentarianism and, one might say today, Fascism, although in France the term is somewhat confusing. Thus the movement, in so far as it embraces elements other than the small merchant class from which it sprang, has in it something of General Boulanger, of Drumont (the anti-Semite), of Colonel Laroque (Croix de Feu), even of Maurras. Doubtless its supporters also include more than one Gaullist or Vichyite. The "national malcontent" is a very French type--demanding, complaining, opposing because of temperament as much as circumstance. Realizing that Poujadism is a part of this tradition, we shall do well not to exaggerate its significance. At the same time we would make a mistake not to take it seriously, for although it certainly does not imperil the régime it is nonetheless symptomatic of a basic malaise. Even if they do not know exactly what they want, 50 Poujadist deputies can, by joining their votes to those of the Communists, increase the difficulty of constituting a parliamentary majority.

France has always suffered from extreme leftist and rightist minorities which do not participate in good faith in the exercise of republican government. To constitute a majority with the aid of the Communists would be to resurrect the Popular Front, a mortal peril to the Republic, as Socialists and Radicals are well aware. But to constitute a majority with the aid of untrustworthy elements on the extreme right would only encourage the formation of just such a popular front under the false pretense of "defending the Republic." This is to be feared above all else. Numerically the center commands a majority, exclusive of Communists and Poujadists. The partisan and personal rivalries which separate the Republican Front from the groups in the center and on the liberal right make the consolidation of this majority very difficult. Yet the exigencies of a situation which is serious to the point of real danger make it imperative.

[i] New York: Longmans, Green, 1954.

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  • ANDRÉ SIEGFRIED, until recently Professor at the Collège de France; French representative at many international conferences; author of "America Comes of Age," "Post-War Britain," "America at Mid-Century" and other works
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