French Communists would like to drop the Iron Curtain along the English Channel. So far, there is no guarantee they won’t
DOUGLAS LA CHANCE
EVENING in the French National Assembly. The shahhy and gloomy old debating chamber of the Palais Bourbon is in semidarkness: all lights but the dim 80-year-old ornate chandeliers overhead have been turned off to save current. Deputies slouch back in their chairs or congregate in groups along the aisles at the back and sides. On the high tribune a speaker is reaching his peroration. He is Jacques Duelos, the chamber’s vice-president and the executive secretary of the French Communist Party. He is proposing his chief, Maurice
Thorez, the secretary-general of the party, as president du conseil—premier of a new government. He puts the formal motion.
“No, no,” cry voices at the back. From the Centre and Right of the green and gold room, which when known as the Chamber of Deputies was the scene of so many stormy incidents and dramatic sessions during the devious history of the Third Republic, there is an audible rumble, half protest and half threat, of “Never!”
Duelos, a rotund little former pastry cook, whose alert countenance usually reflects only wit and good humor, looks coldly down on the heaving rows as he gat hers up his papers.
“You may talk, my friends,” he tells them. “You
may even stop it today. But what may not be today will certainly he tomorrow.”
With an ironic bow he walks down and takes his place on the floor of the House.
“Look to the East”
ON THE same day the man Duelos nominated for office, Maurice Thorez himself, is speaking before a mass meet ing of 10,000 coal miners in the town square of the Pas-de-Calais village of Bruayen-Artois. The broad-shouldered, lion-headed, 46-year-old Communist leader is at home with his audience, who belong to his own old trade; a trade besides that votes 90% Communist at elections. He starts right in with the kind of remarks that are bound to appeal to the miners.
Since they know better than anyone else that they have to work overtime and often on Sundays in their outmoded, unhealthy and pitifully barren diggings, principally because France is not getting as much coal from her neighbors as she did before the war, Thorez repeats some of the French Communists’ favorite charges: that Britain and the
United States are holding back deliveries of Ruhr coal in order to rebuild the German trusts.
As a growl of anger surges through the crowd of dirty-handed, weary-eyed men in overalls, the dapper speaker on the flag-draped balcony of the town hall adroitly switches to generalities. For the first time in public a French Communist policy for foreign affairs is expressed. Neutral observers among the listening newspapermen catch their breath at the frankness with which the Communist chief—who has not yet heard the result of the Assembly vote on his premiership candidacy— disposes of vital international issues, including the hitherto avoided question of historic French alignment with the Western powers.
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foreign policy, Thorez tells the miners, will be based on respect for the United Nations and the maintenance of peace. But after this soothing beginning he gets down to brass tacks. Peace, he charges, is being endangered and France is partly responsible. The conduct of French foreign policy since the liberation—he does not need to tell his hearers that this has been in the hands of George Bidault’s MRP or Popular Republican Movement, a Catholic progressive party that is Communism’s principal opponent in France has endangered the interests of democracy. A bloc is being built up—the West against Soviet Russia and F rance is becoming part of it. The monopoly capitalists of Britain and the U. S. are determined to isolate Russia and punish her for her advanced policies. Fie implies that they have their agents among the permanent officials in the Quai d’Orsay, the French F'oreign Office. Solemnly he assures his audience that all this will be changed when a Communist government takes powers
How? He has an alternative policy to put forward that will then be put into effect. France—that is, progressive, truly Socialist, Communist France —can find no friends among the Western capitalists. Where then will she look? Naturally to the Elast, comes the answer. There she can find friends.
“We must re-establish our trade and cultural relations with central and eastern Europe. We must make our friends among the new and popular regimes where democracy recently has won great victories.”
Both of these incidents the one a prophecy, the other a declaration of aims in foreign policy took place on Dec. 5, 1946. They were reported at length in the press, but it is doubtful if many people in France or among the diplomatic world generally ascribed any special significance to them. As Duelos had jeeringly forecast, the Assembly turned Thorez’seandidacy down by a large vote; and the statement of
Communist foreign policy, although revolutionary in its implications, did not mean much coming from a party out of power. Even among such professional observers as diplomats and newspapermen few bothered to take note for future reference« Not, that is, until Feb. 14.
On that date the Syndicate of Functionaries, the union to which all French civil servants and government employees below the rank of departmental chief must belong, went on strike. Throughout F rance government offices and state-owned factories and businesses were deserted; all public transport stopped; radio and telephone shut down; the very police forces disappeared from the streets. The confusion in Paris, where the always unruly traffic became snarled beyond power of movement, was indescribable. Most department stores and luxury shops closed down and put on steel shutters, not used since the liberation, in case lawbreakers attempted to take advantage of the lack of police. Millions were unable to return to suburban homes because of the stoppage of the “Metro,” the city’s underground railway, and all the bus services.
The paralysis of the country’s vital functions, which was what the strike in sum amounted to, lasted only four hours. The stoppage was ominously described by the syndicate leaders as a “token” one, implying that if their demands for a 25% wage increase were not accepted by the Ramadier government they would go out for good. On this occasion, however, they forbore to press the point. By eight o’clock on the evening of that chaotic Friday all services were moving again, and most people looked back on the brief affair as an interesting, if inconvenient, interlude.
Thoughtful Frenchmen, however, who for some time had felt the growing impossibility of effective government by coalitions, hopelessly divided on basic principles, wondered when there would be another, longer lasting and
iisastrous strike. They also asked selves why the strike had taken e at all.
In this point there could be little lbt. No one believed that the fuñona ries had gone on strike simply to rce the government to grant their pay aise. The cabinet had been in closed »ession considering these at the time the stoppage order had been given by the union leaders; it was known that a considerable number of its members, including the Communists and left Socialists, had been in favor of at least offering a compromise. Furthermore, the government workers were not the only union to have put forward wage demands; a complete program for general wage increases in deserving cases had just been presented to the government by the C.G.T., the vast omnibus union to which the government syndicate was subordinate. It was evident that the functionaries had not called their strike without permission from the C.G.T.; political journalists reported that they had done so with direct encouragement from the senior organization.
Sit and Wait
And there was no doubt about who decided C.G.T. policy. The union admitted, and Communist organs boasted, that 75% of its direction was in Communist hands. More important than this in the case of the token strike, the executive secretary of the C.G.T., Benoit Frachon, was a Communist. Frachon was known to have once publicly crowed that “by pushing a button” he could stop every wheel in France. Frenchmen therefore had little difficulty in tracing the inspiration for the strike.
But this did not reveal why it had happened. Why, of all C.G.T. unions, had the civil servants been chosen to strike? It seemed that their selection meant violation of a rule cardinal to C.G.T. policy since the liberation: avoidance of inconvenience to the public or the national effort. Speculators on this point felt the chill of unwelcome truth when they realized that the strike, indeed, did not put nearly as much pressure on its declared object, the government, as it did on the public at large.
This was when people remembered Duelos’ prophecy and Thorez’s foreignpolicy declarations. Those statements bore the marks of supreme confidence of coming victory. They displayed a carelessness toward opponents’ reactions of a party on the road to power. It was not hard to conclude that the civil servants’ near - general strike showed the method the party planned to use to assume independent command in the state.
The name of that method, a name the party and its sympathizers understandably disliked, was blackmail. The short civil service strike had been the first such outbreak in the generally orderly labor-relations history of postwar France. But it would not be the last. There would be more; services would be interrupted intermittently; the crazy economic spiral of rising prices and wages that Leon Blum had almost managed to do away with would begin again with full force. Gradually respect for democratic methods and divisions of government could be counted on to wither away, and the people of their own accord would begin to cry for a strong hand. And when that moment came the Communist Party would be ready and willing.
Furthermore its choice for single rule would be logical; with its intimate connections with labor it would be obviously the only group in the country capable of taking the reins. As
moderate Frenchmen surveying these prospects realized, there were more ways of making revolutions than with rifles and cannon, although they had no doubt that these too would be available if needed.
And there was little that could be done about it. When all the cards are in your opponents’ hand, as a leader of the French anti-Communist forces said recently, sometimes, no matter how much you want to win, you must sit down and watch him play them. Marshal Foch, in the first world war, when asked why he sat idle while reports of a great enemy attack were coming in, once said. “I am waiting for the German mistake.” Opponents of the Communist Party in France today, who believe that they are watching a train of events whereby coldly and with malice aforethought the party is poisoning the newly reborn democracy of the Fourth Republic, say resignedly that this must be their role also— watching and waiting. Waiting for the Communist mistake.
Their view may be unduly pessimistic. The great mass of people in France are certainly not Communist sympathizers. It is significant, however, that the view exists. How had the French Communist Party reached such development that its bitterest opponents concede that the future depends on its actions? Certainly before the recent war it was not a major influence in France. In 1939 it had hardly 10% of the seats in the Chamber of Deputies and much less in the then powerful Senate. Even in its chosen field of union organization it had not succeeded in infiltrating the controlling levels of the C.G.T., which remained obstinately loyal to its builder and political patron, the Socialist Party.
Today all this is greatly changed. The party’s political standings have nearly tripled. At elections its share of the popular vote reaches six million ballots, or about 28% of average voting totals. Its increase in political weight and influence cannot be measured in percentages; Communist deputies now form the largest single blocs in the Assembly and in the Council of the Republic, as the Senate has been renamed after having (at Communist insistence) been shorn of most of its power. The C.G.T. is completely the party’s creature; and its influence does not reach only to its upper levels. There is hardly a union in France, apart from the minority and dissident Catholic Federation, in which there are not several Communists in key posts. The largest unions of the country, controlling the workers in such vital fields as electric power, steel, iron, the railways and the coal mines, have Communist majorities on their policy committees.
Patriotic by Chance
Nor are politics and the industrialized proletariat the only bulwarks. In the traditionally conservative rural areas of France Communist influence has shown an amazing increase since the war. In the November election the party gained a number of rural seats; in most of the others the conservative parties had a liard fight to keep the upper hand. There is a saying in France that as the peasants go, the country goes, despite all the big talk of the cities. Present trends, if extended long enough, make it conceivable that in the not distant future the peasants might go Communist.
How has this revolution in the political balance of a fundamentally stable nation come about? The factors are not difficult to discover. They are:
(1) the Communist party’s new patriotic reputation;
(2) the need for strong directions in the French economy;
(3) the nature of the party’s propaganda line;
(4) the character of the party and its leadership.
Like most other facts of life in Europe today the first two are direct results of the war. It was an accident that made the Communists patriotic. Until the middle of 1941 their attitude to the occupying Germans, governed by the then operative Ribbentrop - Molotov nonaggression pact, was one of noncooperation but pretended indifference. The Germans in turn, probably under orders, tactfully ignored the Communists’ undercover activities.
The German invasion of Russia changed all that for both sides. The German High Command in France is on record as being furious that it had not received adequate warning of the attack from Berlin, and therefore had not managed to locate and prepare to grab hold of all known French-Communist organizers. The Communists did not give them a second chance, disappearing into hiding after the first radio bulletins of the onslaught. From this moment on they became the Wehrmacht’s greatest thorn in the flesh in France.
The second factor—the need for strong control in the French economy after the liberation—came ready-made to the Communists’ hands. Their platform was outright nationalization of the principal centres of production and commerce in France; the chaos that the Germans left made this so necessary in many departments of national life that even the most conservative had to agree.
The mines were nationalized in 1944, fulfilling a long-standing Communist promise to the workers; naturally the party got the credit. Now it doubly controls the pits, through the unions and through worker representatives on the management.
Similar action has taken place in the electrical industry, which is now undergoing nationalization, and the railways, the national banks, and the public utilities, wherein the process has been completed. In each case the party has succeeded in getting a good number of its representatives on the “nonpartisan” boards appointed to represent the people in management.
The Communists have made political capital out of the process. They have had a chance to show the country what sort of administration they—and only they as long as labor is in their pocket
can give tremendous enterprises. Their ministers, almost continually since the liberation, have guided such vital departments as those of labor, reconstruction, national economy and industrial production; in the course of time these portfolios have grown to be almost conceded to the Party, as if they were its private property. In a sense they have become so, since the Communists ceaselessly push their own men into key posts as permanent officials.
Look Who’s Nationalist
This fits right in with the party’s propaganda policy. Since the end of the war this has been exclusively national. The first sign of the change was given at the party’s first postwar convention held here in the spring of 1945. Before 1939 such meetings had always been veritable orgies of internationalism. But, in basic patriotic sentiment, the recent convention would not have offended the sensibilities of the Daughters of the American (or at least the French) Revolution. All Russian flags had disappeared from the hall; their place was taken by one gigantic tricolor. Over the door in 20foot letters were printed the words of
the Marseillaise. There was no mention of Marx or Lenin or orthodox Communism to be seen among the texts which lined the walls; on the contrary all the messages were of such substance as, “The need of the hour is work” and “The country needs your services.”
Experts on Communism may observe that the leopard does not change his spots. Indeed it is quite obvious that the change is a calculated and simulated one. But there is little doubt that the new nationalistic claims have come to be accepted by a great part of the French public. It has been estimated that of the party’s six million votes less than a million and a half belong to party members and sympathizers of the type called “fellow travellers” in North America. The other four million are the ballots of the “politically unconscious,” as the Communists themselves term them, whose hair would stand on end if they realized they were helping to create the Stalinist state. These are the people convinced by the “national party” propaganda.
All Communist parties stem of course from the same ideological roots. But it is quite obvious that if the French Communists have attained a popular success of this measure there must be some factor in their make-up different from that of the notoriously unsuccessful British, American and Canadian Communist parties. Very cursory examinations show that there is. It Is a quality that the party publicists like to call its “proletarian character.” Another less fancy term might be “political ability.” Or, as an American has described it recently, the party’s “Tammany Hall complex.”
Something of a Prodigy
The French Communist Party talks very little; is evidently effective; and counts very few long-haired intellectuals among its members. There is no French Communist equivalent of Bloomsbury and Greenwich Village.
The leaders of the party are chosen for their possession of the “proletarian quality” that is felt to be vital to gaining real influence among the workers. Such a type par excellence is Maurice Thorez, the secretary-general and party chief. Thorez is an authentic proletarian. Born to working-class parents in a mining village of the squalid Nord department, he has said that his earliest memory is of a mine accident and seeing “white bodies lying on stretchers at the mouth of the shaft.”
He is also, however, as any leader of such a movement would require to be, something of a prodigy. His schooling was interrupted the year before the first war broke out, when he was 12 years old. He went to work in the mine in order to help support the large family of his underpaid parents. When the German troops invaded the Nord he fled with his grandfather and went to the Paris area, where he was put into a factory for the duration of the war.
Somehow between that time and his
calling up for military service in 1918 after the end of the war, Thorez managed to continue his education. Today he reads widely and writes with considerable literary style. He ascribes the credit for this to postwar Premier Poincare. Returning from the army, Thorez was unjustly refused a job by his pre-war employer, the mine owner, on account of the radicalism he seems even then to have developed. When he agitated about this the Poincare Government sent him to prison for six months. In jail he got at the library and read widely on the history of working-class movements. After his release he joined the newly formed Communist
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Party and soon became a professional
organizer for it.
Neutral observers might doubt whether such a man was an “average proletarian.” But this is what the powerful Communist press keeps hammering into their public, and it is evidently regarded as an essential feature of his personal propaganda line. To lend strength to it, the elegantly dressed secretary-general occasionally interrupts a polished speech during a party meeting to take out a large colored bandanna handkerchief and spit into it.
Thorez is the party’s best speaker. Moreover, despite the working-man pose, he is its glamour boy. He is tall and heavy for a Frenchman—standing five-foot-ten and weighing 170 pounds —looks much less than his 46 years. Clean-shaven, with light hair and prominent hard blue eyes, he evidently makes considerable appeal to the female element among the Communist public, who cry his name at rallies and call him “Our Maurice.” The party is conscious of this advantage in its leader’s personality, and recently induced him to conciliate the more conventionally inclined of the nonparty members by marrying his “comrade” of many years, Jeanette Vermeesch, by whom he has had two male children, aged nine and four.
Yet many capable observers believe that Thorez by no means represents the principal power in the party. These quarters point out that he was absent from France throughout the period of the party’s greatest growth—the war. This may come to be an electoral handicap, for many radical-minded veterans of the first or second world wars in France simply cannot stomach a man who disappeared in the middle of the fight and is believed to have passed through Germany on his way to Russia. It is just possible that if their good opinion meant a difference in votes that would swing the balance between present strength and a full majority, the party might quietly jettison its present “revered leader.”
It has plenty of other “proletarians” to choose from, when and if it wants them. Duelos, the executive officer of the organization, is one and he is also the party’s best parliamentarian and most agile brain. It was Duelos who led the party during the resistance; and he is reliably reported to have been the planner of most of its successful economic flanking moves since. A year younger than Thorez, he would make a capable leader; probably a more capable premier. Unfortunately, he is a Parisien and a commerçant; since the party’s strength is still largely industrial Thorez makes a more obvious appeal, whatever his propaganda shortcomings patriotically.
There are other men, however, most
of whom have come to the front since the liberation and who have good resistance records—a vital factor in postwar French politics — several of whom would probably make a leader acceptable to many Frenchmen who will not swallow Thorez. Obviously, however, if the pressure the party is now applying against coalition rule is successful, Thorez will keep his job, and will become the first Gommunist premier in Western Europe.
Don’t Forget De Gaulle
Will that happen? Or will the Communists make the mistake—possibly undue crowding of the public—their opponents are awaiting?
One thing is clear to the French people today—the disunited compromise governments they have been taught to call democratic are not carrying out the task of ruling and rebuilding successfully. Will that turn them toward totalitarianism? And if it does —helped on by Communist undermining will it be Communist totalitarianism they will choose?
Few can answer these questions. One person who might be able to is General de Gaulle, whose name, despite consistent and clever propaganda by the extreme left, undoubtedly still means much to many, possibly a majority of Frenchmen. Once since the liberation De Gaulle and the moderate M.R.P. party, pooling their strength, signally defeated the Communists on a great issue: the first authoritarian-assembly draft of the constitution. Last November they disagreed, and the Communists got the majority of the vote.
The present Assembly and Council of the Republic, in which the Communists hold the largest bloc, is elected for five years and cannot be dissolved until 18 months after the first session —the summer of 1948. It seems hardly possible that the party will not attempt to take advantage of a strength it may not gain the next time it goes to the polls. And Communist governments, once in office, have a way of staying in.
It is certain that if De Gaulle and M.R.P should link on the issue of resisting the party, and gain a considerable measure of moderate Socialist and right-wing support in so doing, a Communist coup would be made very difficult, perhaps impossible. But despairing French moderates see the party game being played so seriously today that they have little hope of such a coalition. If they are right, the near future may see a Communist or Communist-led government in France. And if this were to happen the West could say good-by to France as it has known it, perhaps also to any prospect of saving democracy in Western Europe; and could expect to see the Iron Curtain move up to the Englisn Channel, ic