The euphoric welcome accorded to General de Gaulle when he marched down the Champs-Élysées appeared to confirm his authority as unchallengeable. But the relationship between the provisional government and the Resistance was still unresolved. French Communists had rightly suspected during the Occupation that his policy, aided by the British, was to ‘deform’ the popular nature of the Resistance and ‘prevent at any price a true national insurrection’. They even tried to claim that the Allies had held back from Paris in August 1944 in the hope that the Germans would crush the largely Communist-inspired insurrection. This was also a shameless attempt to counter criticism of the Red Army’s failure to come to the aid of Polish nationalists during the Warsaw uprising.
De Gaulle, with a great deal of justification, was convinced that the Communists had wanted to seize power just before Leclerc’s troops reached the city. ‘De Gaulle,’ wrote Georgi Dimitrov in a briefing for Molotov and Stalin, ‘is afraid of the French Communists and considers their activity a threat to his authority, but he is obliged to take into consideration their power established during the clandestine struggle.’
Even after the triumph of the Liberation, the provisional government’s authority remained tenuous, especially in the provinces, cut off from the capital by the destruction of roads, bridges and railway lines. De Gaulle also knew that if France was to have any claim to a seat at the conference table alongside the Americans, British and Russians, then all her available troops, both regular army and freshly brigaded FFI contingents, had to make a conspicuous contribution to the war effort by continuing the advance on Germany. He therefore could not hold back regular troops to assure law and order. This also meant leaving in place the rest of the FFI and ‘patriotic militias’, which often contained the least reliable and the most politicized elements.
Travelling across France was not easy, even for a government official with car, petrol coupons and every laissez-passer imaginable. At towns and villages, vehicles would be stopped by militiamen or a sort of ‘committee of public safety’ who would not only study the documents of all passengers in laborious detail but often subject them to an examination in patriotism. Paris, like Madrid in 1936, may have had great symbolic importance, but decrees issued there carried little weight in the countryside, especially in the south-west.
Well before the invasion of Normandy, General de Gaulle and his entourage had foreseen the main problems they would face. Several months before D-Day they had begun to select men to take over from Vichy officials in the provinces and re-establish Republican legality before it was usurped by revolutionary committees.
The provisional government could never hope to produce a fresh and untainted state apparatus to drop into place all over France. It had to work with existing institutions, most of them compromised. To curb the excesses of popular justice, gendarmes, even if they had worked with the Germans, were needed on the streets. The vast majority of magistrates who had sworn allegiance to Marshal Pétain would have to return to their courtrooms. Civil servants who had loyally served the Vichy régime were required back at their desks. And to revive the pulverized economy, factories had to be restarted with managers who had in many cases collaborated with the Germans. The instruments charged with this difficult programme, each responsible for a region, were called Commissaires de la République.
Their first priority was to provide food and essential services for the population. Claude Bouchinet-Serreulles, who remained with the Ministry of the Interior as Commissaire de la République at large, emphasized that food was the key to almost everything. Without it, public order would collapse.
Neither law nor order existed in many areas during the first few months of the épuration. In November, some twenty former members of the Resistance broke into a prison. They seized a colonel who had commanded a reprisal expedition against the maquis and, contemptuously ignoring the fact that he had been spared the death sentence by de Gaulle, shot him in a nearby field. Louis Closon in the north of France had to cope with 30,000 liberated Red Army prisoners of war who had ‘a provoking attitude, considering themselves to be in conquered territory’. But probably the most chaotic situation in the whole of France existed in the south-west, around Toulouse.
‘At the time of the Liberation,’ wrote the philosopher A. J. Ayer, on a semi-official tour of the south-west for SOE, ‘the whole of the area was in the hands of a series of feudal lords whose power and influence was strangely similar to that of their fifteenth-century Gascon counterparts.’
One of the most powerful of these modern barons was Colonel George Starr, the senior SOE officer in the south-west of France. Starr was an immensely tough man, a mining engineer who had proved a strong military leader and whose popularity had been immeasurably increased when he was able to arm most of the maquis in south-west France with air drops from England. Another was Colonel Serge Asher-Ravanel, an Alpinist, a Communist and a graduate of the École Polytechnique, who by the age of twenty-five had proved himself one of the most inspired warriors of the French Resistance.
In Toulouse itself, there were many armed bands which included large numbers of foreigners, mostly Spanish Republicans, but also Georgian deserters from General Vlassov’s renegade army. The Spanish Communists, meanwhile, were plotting an invasion of the Val d’Aran, which took place in October. Some 3,000 men organized in twelve guerrilla brigades crossed the frontier, hoping to stir a national rising across Spain, but they did not last long once the Spanish Foreign Legion had been let loose after them.
‘Toulouse was the souk for all sorts of adventurers,’ remarked Jacques Baumel of the Combat Resistance movement. Not all the groups were left-wing. A colonel of extreme anti-Communist views tried to seize the border area and link up with General Franco’s forces. He was reputed to be the main organizer of the ‘maquis blanc’, which owed allegiance to the Comte de Paris.
Pierre Bertaux, Commissioner of the Republic for the region, knew the area well, having been a professor at the university before the war. He found himself sitting in an empty Prefecture, ignored by everyone except a few naphtalinés – mainly Pétainist army officers who had earned the name by joining the Resistance at the eleventh hour, in uniforms reeking of mothballs. When Colonel Starr came to see him, it was to make the point that he took his orders from the Allied chain of command, not from an as yet unrecognized provisional government.
In the middle of September, de Gaulle went on a tour of regional cities – Lyons, Marseilles, Toulouse, Bordeaux – to establish his authority in the wake of liberation. He clearly regarded Toulouse as the place for his showdown with the Resistance.
De Gaulle’s aircraft, bearing the cross of Lorraine, landed at the aerodrome of Blagnac on the morning of 16 September. It was very late, and the reception committee of maquis leaders, some 150-strong, had become impatient in the cold wind. They cheered up when the aircraft door opened, expecting a little speech of warm congratulation for all they had done towards the liberation of France. But all they received were some brief handshakes, cold nods and a rapid departure. The General’s entourage had arranged formidable security precautions, with escort cars and motorcycle outriders.
Pierre Bertaux accompanied de Gaulle into Toulouse. The young Commissioner of the Republic made the mistake of trying to amuse de Gaulle with an account of how Colonel Starr had come to his office and announced that with his 700 armed men he had only to bang on the table to sort out any problems. De Gaulle flew into a rage and asked why he had not arrested this Englishman. Bertaux had to admit that not only had he failed to arrest Starr, he had invited him to lunch that day to meet the head of the provisional government. De Gaulle told him to cancel the invitation.
As they reached the outskirts of Toulouse, de Gaulle ordered the driver to stop the car. He intended to walk to the Prefecture. In this city of trigger-happy guerrillas, he would once again demonstrate his authority, as he had during the fusillade at Notre-Dame. He made no secret of his conviction that this young Commissioner of the Republic badly needed a lesson in the art of leadership. But to Bertaux’s relief there were neither shots nor even enthusiastic crowds when de Gaulle began striding along. The exercise having proved a severe anticlimax, the General decided to waste no more time and allowed Bertaux to call up the cars and motorcycle escort.
Starr received the message that his invitation to lunch had been withdrawn and that de Gaulle wished him to report to the Prefect’s office that afternoon. He had half expected it, but it did not improve his mood. Ravanel, the head of the maquis, fared little better, even though he had been appointed by General Koenig. He had travelled in the other car with André Diethelm, the Minister for War, who refused to acknowledge his presence. Ravanel was included in the lunch; yet de Gaulle’s attitude towards him and his officers was one of conspicuous disdain. He asked each member of this ‘belle brochette de colonels’ what their real rank had been during their military service. This degradation of Resistance rank by a career officer was reinforced during his speech to the populace, when he spoke only of the achievements of regular French forces, without mentioning the Resistance.
When Starr appeared in his British uniform in the Prefect’s office, the General’s fury reignited at the thought of an Englishman being so influential on French territory. He even said that Starr and his followers were no more than a band of mercenaries. Starr, restraining his temper, pointed out that a number of his subordinates were regular officers of the French army. This made de Gaulle even angrier and he ordered him to leave Toulouse immediately. Starr retorted that he came under the orders of Allied Forces Headquarters, not the provisional government, and that he would not abandon his post until instructed. If General de Gaulle wished to arrest him, then that was his decision.
The silence which followed was unbearable. De Gaulle was finally forced to acknowledge the reality of the situation. Starr’s popularity in the region was such that news of his arrest could lead to serious disorder, to say nothing of further problems with the Allies. De Gaulle, mastering his own emotions, had the sense and good grace to stand up, walk round the desk and shake the British officer’s hand.
Starr was still obliged to leave Toulouse shortly afterwards, but de Gaulle later agreed that he should receive the Croix de Guerre and the Légion d’Honneur for his services.
De Gaulle’s confrontation with the Resistance in Toulouse, although partly symbolic, was also an experiment before attempting his decisive move of forcing the FFI, in practice as well as in theory, to become part of the conventional armed forces of the provisional government. He saw very clearly that the Communists did not want their forces thrown into battle against the Germans under Allied command. They wanted to keep them back for the crucial struggle, arguing that their forces should provide the model for a new ‘army of tomorrow’. A number of Communist leaders had convinced themselves that de Gaulle was the French Kerensky and Maurice Thorez was their Lenin about to return to power.
Towards the end of October de Gaulle played his trump card. He had ignored the Communist Party’s heavily orchestrated campaign of rallies and marches demanding ‘le retour de Maurice Thorez’, just as he had ignored Thorez’s telegrams from Moscow. Thorez was de Gaulle’s hostage and now the time had come to make an exchange (just as Thorez had suspected, according to a letter to Dimitrov exactly three weeks earlier). On 28 October de Gaulle’s representative in Moscow informed Thorez that he would receive an amnesty for his desertion from the French army in 1939, thus allowing his return to France, but he must say nothing until the decree was published in the Journal Officiel. Dimitrov immediately sent a memorandum to Stalin informing him of the development.
That same day, de Gaulle summoned a council of ministers. Everyone present knew that he was about to demand payment for allowing the return of Thorez. A proposal for disbanding the patriotic militias was put to each member in turn, but all eyes were on the two Communist ministers, Charles Tillon, the Minister for Air, and François Billoux, the Minister for Health. They knew that they had no choice. As a result even Charles Tillon, the great leader of the FTP, raised no objections when his turn came to respond. Republican legitimacy had prevailed.
The mass of French Communists, who had no idea of Stalin’s policy, were shaken at this blow to the Resistance. Over the next ten days the party went through the motions of protest, with rallies and rousing speeches, but there was never any question of confrontation with the government. Duclos himself was almost certainly far from happy with the situation, but, as had been the case with the Nazi–Soviet pact, he knew that the interests of the Soviet Union always came first.
The rank and file were determined not to hand over their weapons, often seized at huge risk during the Occupation, for they had received few parachute drops from England. All over France, weapons of every sort were greased up and wrapped in oilcloth to be buried in gardens or under floors. The quantity concealed can only be guessed at. In December, the gendarmerie detachment at Valenciennes discovered one arms cache. It contained three aircraft machine-guns, two rifles, three anti-tank rifles, one revolver, eight grenades, fifteen stick grenades, two boxes of detonators, 19,000 rounds of ammunition and six cavalry saddles. Former members of the FTP incorporated into the army at the Rouzier barracks nearby promptly threatened to attack the gendarmerie if there were any more searches.
In many parts of the country, members of the maquis refused to bow to the order from Paris, and the local Commissioner of the Republic decided to bide his time, whatever the Ministry of the Interior might decree. But the move had been made and it was only a question of time before the state re-established its monopoly of force everywhere.
De Gaulle’s speech in Toulouse had revealed his dislike of irregular warfare, and his text was imbued with his almost monarchical view of legitimacy and succession. The Liberation was a restoration, not a revolution, and Charles de Gaulle was not so much a head of government as a republican sovereign. The Communist leader Jacques Duclos used to refer to him as Charles XI.
The selection of his pre-war office at 14 rue Saint-Dominique, part of the Ministry of War, demonstrated de Gaulle’s determination to rebuild France upon elements of the past. The army was a sure foundation. He did not, however, feel the same about industry. His speech at Lille on 1 October, on the second leg of his post-Liberation tour of France, promised a programme of nationalization in terms that could have come straight from the mouth of a dirigiste socialist, if not a Communist.
De Gaulle seemed able to relax only with trusted members of his staff. Claude Bouchinet-Serreulles, who was one of his young aides in London before parachuting into France to join Jean Moulin, never forgot his ‘grande courtoisie’. The General would always rise to shake hands when he brought in the dossiers first thing in the morning. He never ate alone, usually taking one of his young colleagues to eat with him, and used the opportunity to formulate his ideas to an audience. In those wartime days, he always talked of the future, never of the past, although he had a deep knowledge of history. But with the Liberation the future had arrived and it was not comfortable. One of the main problems was his very limited circle of companions, when the breadth of problems to be discussed was so great.
Close associates, often lacking specialist knowledge, were the only people able to influence him, since with ministers his mind was usually made up in advance. His chef de cabinet, Gaston Palewski, whose job was to control access to an already overburdened de Gaulle, inevitably made the most enemies. He was particularly resented by senior French army officers. The myth of Palewski’s power spread to such an extent that people used to say that the initials GPRF (Gouvernement Provisoire de la République Française) on official cars stood for ‘Gaston Palewski Régent de France’.*
Members of the government constituted in the second week of September were to suffer many surprises – often with their appointments. Georges Bidault was the first to admit that he was an extraordinary choice for Minister of Foreign Affairs. ‘This adventure was unexpected,’ he wrote, ‘and strongly tinged with paradox.’ Having led a clandestine existence during the Occupation up to his time as head of the National Council of the Resistance, he had not the slightest idea of what had been going on in the outside world.
Pierre-Henri Teitgen, erstwhile professor of law at the University of Montpellier and member of the Resistance’s Comité Général des Études, found to his astonishment that he had been appointed Minister of Information. He commandeered a fine building on the Avenue de Friedland which the Wehrmacht had converted into a cinema. He asked one man he knew and trusted to be his secretary-general and another to be his chef de cabinet.
Starting from scratch, Teitgen faced fewer difficulties than some of the more well-established ministries. The burnt-out tank was still blocking the entrance to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs when de Gaulle’s senior diplomats, René Massigli and Hervé Alphand, arrived on 29 August. They discovered bloodstains on the main staircase and strips of German army shirts torn up to clean rifles in corners of its empty, echoing reception rooms. Eventually a few timid officials who had served the Vichy regime put in an appearance, not knowing whether they would be shot, imprisoned, or given back their old jobs.
Apart from the handful who rallied to de Gaulle, the Quai d’Orsay was still, as Alphand wrote, ‘peuplé de Vichy’. In 1940, the majority of officials had continued to work for what they thought was the government of France. This almost certainly prejudiced de Gaulle against the Quai d’Orsay as an institution. Two days before D-Day, de Gaulle had confided to Duff Cooper that Roland de Margerie – who had been Vichy’s representative in Shanghai – was the man he found it hardest to forgive. ‘He could have helped me so much, saved me from many of the mistakes I made. If he had come then he would be Minister for Foreign Affairs now.’
Alphand’s most vivid memory of those first weeks in the Quai d’Orsay was the lonely figure of Georges Bidault, hugging himself in an overcoat in front of a wood fire in an immense and empty reception room. The Germans had taken all the important files back to Berlin when they retreated, as well as most of the typewriters and filing cabinets. This booty was then shipped to Moscow in 1945 after the fall of Berlin.
Most of the other ministries were in a similar position. Writing paper was in such short supply that they had to use up the remaining batches of Vichy letterhead, striking out ‘État Français’ at the top and typing in ‘République Française’ underneath. In some departments this embarrassing practice had to continue until the trial of Marshal Pétain the following summer.
It was not just government ministries which were short of essential equipment. Hospitals lacked thermometers as well as drugs and bandages. In the terrible winter of 1944–5, there was little plaster of Paris left to mend the bones, brittle from malnutrition, which broke so easily in falls on the icy streets.
The cold spell which started during the Ardennes offensive at the beginning of January and continued throughout most of the month was one of the worst that France had suffered for a long time. On 20 January 1945, the American ambassador sent the following telegram to Washington: ‘There has been snow on the ground for 17 days; previous record 10 days. It is still snowing – water frozen to hydroelectric plants – ice-breakers unable to smash thru 8″–12″ ice on canals fromcoalfields, so 70,000 tons of coal stuck in barges, ice-bound. Daily arrivals have dropped by a third down to under 5,000 tons for whole of Paris. Sixty-six trains frozen fast.’
Even before this, the government’s greatest concern remained the food supply. White bread had appeared just after the Liberation, thanks to flour provided by the Americans, then disappeared again as soon as the provisional government was left to its own resources. Shortages became so acute that people were saying they had been better off under the Germans. Such complaints overlooked the fact that the transport system had been destroyed in the fighting. Several main lines were impassable for many weeks after the Liberation; and after the Germans had withdrawn, taking most vehicles with them, road transport depended on a very limited number of charcoal-burning gazogène trucks. The fundamental problem, according to the Sûreté Nationale, lay with peasant farmers resisting la Collecte, the compulsory purchase of food-stuffs at fixed prices. The reactionary peasantry of the Vendée was apparently the worst. In October 1944, no more than four tons of butter in the whole département were handed over. During the same month, the Pas de Calais, with only a few more dairy cattle, produced 355 tons for the official market.
Money in these times seemed to have no politics. The Duc de Mouchy was mayor of Mouchy-le-Chastel in the Oise, a village whose peasant farmers mainly voted Communist. He was liked and trusted, to the point that one old farmer asked him to buy a diamond ring for his daughter the next time he was in Paris. The duke bought a ring as requested. But when he returned with it, the farmer promptly said that it was not nearly big enough. So the following week the duke went to Chaumet, the jewellers in the Place Vendôme, with 350,000 of the farmer’s francs in a paper bag, and bought a huge ring. This time the farmer was delighted, reassuring the duke that he still had 7 million francs tucked away in his cupboard.
François Mauriac wrote that the government’s efforts against the black market resembled those of ‘the child St Augustine saw on a beach who wanted to empty the sea with a shell’. Paul Ramadier, the Minister of Supply, demanded that the Sûreté Nationale initiate ‘la plus active répression’. Ramadier bore the brunt of the government’s unpopularity for the lack of food. He was soon known as ‘Ramadan’ and the daily rations as ‘Ramadiète’. His ministry became the target for demonstrations by committees of housewives, usually organized by the Communists. At the Hôtel de Ville, 4,000 women chanted, ‘Milk for our little ones!’ And at a mass meeting at the Vélodrome d’Hiver, the crowd yelled, ‘A mort!’ every time Ramadier’s name was mentioned.
The Prefect of Police received orders to crack down. In the second week of March checkpoints were put up on all roads leading into the city, an operation that was quickly dubbed ‘the Siege of Paris’. But the first priority was to cut the traffic in provisions, brought in by ‘suitcase-carriers’, who purchased food directly and illegally from Norman farmers. Ripening Camembert, twenty to a suitcase, and the blood from joints of freshly slaughtered animals dripping from the luggage racks made such a sickly and overpowering smell in trains that even the normal French obsession about draughts was overcome and the carriage windows left open.
Over two days, Luizet mounted a large-scale operation with his police at the Gare de Montparnasse to search the suitcases of all travellers returning from the rich agricultural regions of north-western France. But the travellers were so angry that a virtual riot developed. ‘In the circumstances,’ Luizet reported to the Minister of the Interior, ‘I felt obliged to give the order to my men to stop this sort of control operation.’
While the day-to-day struggle for food continued in the towns and cities, France’s task of reconstruction was overwhelming for a bankrupt economy and was kept afloat only by heavy American aid and loans. Factories had been destroyed or stripped by the Germans, the major ports bombed into rubble and twisted steel. There were still millions of mines to clear. SHAEF reported that 1,550,000 buildings had been destroyed, almost exactly twice as many as at the end of the First World War. There was also a severe lack of building materials and timber, much of the available stock having been used up by Allied forces.
The shortage of coal was so serious that well before the winter started urgent telegrams began arriving at the Ministry of the Interior from prefects, warning of the consequences. On 29 October a signal reached the Place Beauvau stating that Rouen had less than four days’ supply left. The train due had not yet arrived, and even when it did it would take three days to unload it. There was suspicion in the provinces that Paris was receiving privileged treatment. ‘We are most unhappy,’ the mayor of Rouen wrote to the Minister of the Interior, ‘to see Paris with theatres, cinemas and métro running long after working hours while Rouen suffers in its ruins without any help.’
One of the most striking items in the mass of data provided by opinion polls during the period following the Liberation was that its sample rated the confiscation of illicit profits as the top priority for ministers to tackle. It even topped the issue of food supply.
Communists, working on the Stalinist theory of sabotage – that every setback must be the work of a fifth column – had no doubt where the fault lay. ‘The insufficient purge has left the controlling levers of industry and government departments in the hands of people who collaborated with fascism before and during the Occupation.’ Even the government, while needing to keep experienced administrators in their posts, was privately forced to acknowledge that injustices remained. The minister initially responsible for reconstruction admitted that the government faced ‘un problème délicat’. The companies which had worked with the Germans were the best equipped – in finance, manpower and raw materials – to tackle the daunting tasks faced by France. Many of the larger construction companies had not even existed at the start of the war; now they assumed ‘une importance anormale’. Meanwhile, ‘patriotic’ companies which had refused to work with the Germans were very weak.
The Communist Party’s threats of reprisal against collaborationist industrialists had begun well before the Liberation and were repeated in L’Humanité as the Allies approached Paris. ‘The directors of the Renault factories must be made to pay for the lives of Allied soldiers killed as a result of their enthusiasm to equip the enemy.’ Louis Renault was arrested and sentenced on 23 September for having sold over 6 billion francs’ worth of material to the German army. The sixty-seven-year-old industrialist died a month later in Fresnes prison. His wife claimed he had been murdered; the doctors said it was a stroke. Marius Berliet, head of the truck manufacturers, and his sons were imprisoned in Lyons without trial, but they were hardly the worst offenders. Renault, Citroën and Peugeot had between them manufactured nearly 93,000 vehicles for the Wehrmacht, while Berliet had produced only 2,239. The banker Hippolyte Worms was another important figure to be arrested. Yet the vast majority of industrialists who had worked for the Germans, including the builders of the Atlantic Wall, escaped untouched.
Companies were confiscated and nationalized, some because they had genuinely collaborated, others because unavoidable collaboration provided the excuse to nationalize key industries. The Communists, once Charles Tillon became Minister for Air, were determined to have a fully nationalized aircraft and transport industry.
Surrounded by revolutionary rhetoric and the threat of nationalization, French industrialists’ and employers’ groups, known generically as le patronat, sent a memorandum to de Gaulle complaining about the campaign. It insisted that it had ‘fulfilled its duty to the nation by keeping the means of production on French soil while carrying out managerial resistance on an unrecognized scale. It must protest against the myth that France was saved by the working class alone.’ But such arguments were disingenuous. Only a distinguished minority of managers sabotaged the work and the justification for maintaining production implied that France’s long-term interests lay with a continuing German occupation rather than eventual liberation.
In the climate of the moment, with the right seen as morally bankrupt after Vichy and the Occupation, there was a strong tide of opinion in favour of change for the sake of change. The achievements of the Resistance and the fraternity of the Liberation should be pushed forward into peacetime, to create a more equitable society. This political instinct or emotion was described as progressisme – a word which was convenient for Communists, who did not want to alarm potential fellow-travellers or right-wing socialists who feared Communist plans, but did not yet dare say so openly.
For those across Europe who had lost so much, progressisme seemed to offer the only way forward, leaving behind both the moral ambiguities of the war and the misery of the Depression in the 1930s. But conservatives and political free-thinkers who questioned such assumptions saw it as a slide towards Communism. Aldous Huxley, viewing a destroyed Europe from the United States, expected a Pax Sovietica to spread across the whole continent. He, like many, feared that it would be impossible ‘to put Humpty Dumpty together again’ except in a ‘nightmarishly totalitarian and pauperized form’.