Fighting Back against the Communists

‘It looks as though the Communists are having everything their own way everywhere,’ wrote the British ambassador in 1946. ‘They have the great advantage of knowing what they want.’ This belief was widespread, but not entirely true. French Communist leaders were still receiving remarkably few instructions from Moscow, and they had been lulled into a false sense of security by their comparative successes within the democratic system.

Communist strength on paper appeared almost overwhelming. Benoît Frachon, during his secret conversations with Politburo member Mikhail Suslov in Moscow in June, claimed over 5.5 million members in the Communist-controlled trades union movement. Even if this figure was inflated, his assertion that ‘through the CGT, the French Communist Party influences the working class’ was largely true.

The French Communists, however, did their best to hide their control of the CGT, as a senior member of the party acknowledged in a letter to the Kremlin. ‘After the CGT Congress we ended up with a committee of seven communists and six reformers. This was conditioned by our situation: we must not hand ammunition to our reactionary enemies allowing them to describe the CGT as Communist.’

In his report to Suslov, Frachon did not paint a very optimistic picture. It is of course possible that this was a defensive measure after Ponomarev’s demand that the party intervene in the running of the French zone of Germany. Communist influence within the army was ‘very weak’, Frachon told him. The army was ‘full of Vichyists’, which explained ‘the reactionary policy of the French military administration in Germany and Austria’. He then added that whatever the influences within the army, ‘I do not believe that the reactionary forces are planning to use the army against us in a coup d’état.’

De Gaulle’s increasingly palpable presence in the political wings began to alarm both the left and the centre. After the speech at Bayeux in June 1946, the General permitted René Capitant to found the Union Gaulliste. It was a way of testing the waters without risking his own dignity. This prototype virtually collapsed under its own sudden success, attracting half a million members and twenty-two members of the Constituent Assembly by September. The Communists renewed their accusations that ‘le général factieux’ wished to return as a dictator. The Christian Democrats of the MRP also began to worry that the Gaullists might poach their supporters.

Bidault, the MRP’s first Prime Minister, hoped to make an alliance with de Gaulle; but the General was inflexible. He concentrated his ire upon the new draft of the Constitution. His displeasure was hardly surprising. The latest draft did give some additional powers to the President, and the Senate was replaced by a Council of the Republic; but all real power still lay in the hands of the Assembly. Politically, de Gaulle was making the same mistake as the Communists had in May: he was turning the referendum on the Constitution into a vote for or against himself. When polling booths closed on 13 October, there were 3 million more abstentions than in the May referendum, but the draft Constitution for the Fourth Republic was approved. The General was scathing. Only 35 per cent of those eligible to vote had supported the draft Constitution. This encouraged him to plan his own mass movement.

On 20 December, de Gaulle denounced the Constitution again in a communiqué to Agence France-Presse. Nine days later the draft was voted through the Assembly. Refusing to give in, de Gaulle spoke a few hours later at Épinal, urging French voters to reject it. ‘Franchement non!’ he exclaimed. ‘Such a compromise does not appear to us to be a framework worthy of the Republic.’ Compromise, in de Gaulle’s canon, was still a mortal sin.


Bidault’s government resigned after more legislative elections on 10 November in which the Communists once again won the greatest number of seats. Their share of the total vote had increased to 29 per cent. Maurice Thorez, as leader of ‘le premier parti de France’, demanded to be Prime Minister.

The Socialist Party faced a most uncomfortable dilemma, made worse by Thorez’s studied moderation as he lobbied for support with dignity and charm. One of their leaders is said to have burst out in sobs: ‘I’d prefer to slash my wrists than vote for Thorez!’ But Gouin argued that they had no option, otherwise they would lose all credibility: the workers would not understand their supporting Bidault, a Christian Democrat, then refusing to support a Communist. Yet he was certain that, even with their support, Thorez would never receive the absolute majority necessary. Vincent Auriol, a wise and experienced Socialist of the old school, agreed with Gouin.

They were proved right when the vote took place on 4 December. Thorez had made his bid and lost. Jacques Duclos, defending Thorez’s candidature in the National Assembly a few days later, made an uncharacteristic blunder when he lauded him as ‘a man who has stood the test of battle’. The non-Communist benches erupted with laughter at this description of France’s most famous deserter. The Communist deputies could only sit there, stony-faced and furious. After Thorez, it was Bidault’s turn, but he received even fewer votes.

A week later, Blum having resigned, President Auriol selected Paul Ramadier to form an administration – having first made a show of asking Félix Gouin, as an expression of confidence after the wine scandal. Ramadier, with his goatee beard and fussy professorial air, provided an easy target for caricaturists. He was known as a man of compromise, and for being painstakingly slow to reach a decision; but he was untainted by ambition, and scrupulously honest in a profession not renowned for its probity. He had accepted the post of Minister of Supply in de Gaulle’s government, knowing that it would make him unpopular. He was also a hard worker, often at his desk soon after four in the morning. When he began to telephone his ministers a little later, he was surprised to find themstill in bed.

The American Embassy, however, was deeply disturbed when the new Prime Minister nominated the Communist François Billoux as Minister of National Defence. The fact that Ramadier managed to restrict Billoux’s position to a largely symbolic role by strengthening the three service ministries was overlooked by most of his critics on the right.

Caffery had become much more alarmist in the course of the last nine months. In March, after a wave of strikes which included the newspaper unions and the Paris police, he warned the Secretary of State that while the Communists were not strong enough to ‘align France with the Soviets against the West’, the country could be denied to the Western powers. ‘Communist armed action combined with paralysing strikes, sabotage and other subversive activities would certainly prepare the way for Soviet intervention on a scale larger even than was the case in the Spanish Civil War.’ Not all Americans saw the strikes in such dramatic terms. ‘The French enjoyed having the police on strike,’ wrote Susan Mary Patten to a friend, ‘and had a lot of fun driving up one-way streets the wrong way. The cook says good riddance. The police were just a band of assassins anyway.’

The Communists, from the other side of the fence, were equally suspicious of developments. The Franco-British pact which they opposed so resolutely came into effect on 4 March as the Treaty of Dunkirk, a place chosen by Bidault to symbolize the darkest moment of the war. For Socialists such as Blumand Depreux, it signified a counterbalance to the Franco-Soviet pact signed by de Gaulle. Afterwards Duff Cooper, who had worked long and hard for this expression of friendship between the two countries, felt able to write in his diary: ‘Nunc dimittis’. He had achieved his principal aimin his last job.

Six days later the foreign ministers of the Big Four – General Marshall, Bidault, Bevin and Molotov – met in Moscow. Only Marshall and Bevin knew that post-war relations were about to take a decisive turn. For Bidault, the Moscow conference represented a Soviet betrayal. He felt he had behaved most correctly with Molotov, but the Soviet Foreign Minister, having encouraged his hopes that the Saar would be given to France, refused to support her claim in a volte-face which humiliated Bidault personally. He did not forget this. Molotov was equally unforgiving. He regarded the Treaty of Dunkirk as a move aimed directly against the Soviet Union.


General George C. Marshall, one of the most honest and selfless of all American public servants, had become Secretary of State on 21 January 1947. He was not a ‘hawk’, but he was more resolute than James Byrnes and a thorough pragmatist. He expected ‘brutal candour’ from his staff, and assured them that he had no feelings ‘except those which I reserve for Mrs Marshall’.

At the end of February, the State Department was warned by the British ambassador in Washington that the collapse of Britain’s economy meant that no further support could be provided to Greece, then in the midst of civil war, or to Turkey, still threatened by Soviet probing on its north-eastern frontier. President Truman summoned a conference with Congressional leaders in the White House on the morning of Wednesday, 26 February. As a mark of how far things had changed, the most passionate advocate of American intervention to thwart the Soviet threat came from Marshall’s deputy, Dean Acheson – the same man who had been appalled by the plan to move troops into France the previous May. ‘When we were convened to open the subject,’ Acheson wrote dramatically, ‘I knew we were met at Armageddon.’

‘Soviet pressure on the Straits [the Dardanelles],’ he told the Congressmen, ‘on Iran and on northern Greece had brought the Balkans to the point where a highly possible Soviet breakthrough might open three continents to Soviet penetration. Like apples in a barrel infected by one rotten one, the corruption of Greece would infect Iran and all to the east. It would also carry infection to Africa through Asia Minor and Egypt, and to Europe through Italy and France, already threatened by the strongest domestic Communist parties in Western Europe.’ After Acheson had finished speaking, ‘a long silence followed’. Then Senator Vandenberg said solemnly, ‘Mr President, if you will say that to the Congress and the country, I will support you and I believe that most of its members will do the same.’

Predictions of conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union were developing into a self-fulfilling prophecy on both sides. Few in Washington doubted that ‘a major turning point in American history was taking place’. On 12 March, President Truman addressed the House of Representatives: ‘I believe that it must be the policy of the United States to support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressure. I believe that we must assist free peoples to work out their own destinies in their own way…’ This statement soon became known as the Truman Doctrine.

In France, a ‘new resistance’ to Communist infiltration had become apparent before Truman’s speech. Ministers were beginning to reverse the tide in several ministries as well as in the Paris police.

The Socialist Minister of the Interior, Édouard Depreux, a great admirer of Léon Blum, exploited every opportunity to reduce Communist influence in the administration. He had removed the Communist Prefect of the Haute-Vienne from office in July 1946, having arranged financial compensation. His greatest preoccupation, however, remained the Paris police, which the Communists had infiltrated during and after the Liberation. Depreux blamed Charles Luizet, the Prefect of Police appointed by de Gaulle in August 1944, for not having done enough to counter the process. Yet Luizet could have done little to protect the force against the ferocity of the Communist-led purge committee, or their policy of replacing disgraced policemen with men of their own. Depreux’s chance came when a scandal blew up involving that notorious double-dealer Joanovici,* who had been bribing police officers by playing poker with themand losing most generously. Joanovici, who had testified against his former comrades in the Bonny–Lafont gang, had been as happy to make money with the Communists as with the Nazis. The minister promptly gave orders for the arrest of two leading Communists in the police who had links with him, a risky course, with the lack of evidence at the time. The Communist press exploded in anger, but Depreux kept his nerve.

His other move was to replace Luizet by Roger Léonard, a strong anti-Communist reputed to be a ‘very effective administrator’. During the Occupation, Léonard had been a Vichy official, but was fortunate to have been sacked by his superiors early enough to escape the attentions of a purge committee at the time of the Liberation. Just to be sure, the American Embassy reported, he had even pretended to be a fellow-traveller ‘for reasons of temporary political opportunism’.

Forcing back the inroads of Communist infiltration was just one side of Depreux’s strategy. What he and his colleagues feared most was an attempted coup from the right, which would allow the Communists to cast themselves as the saviours of Republican liberty. Depreux knew that, above all, he must not allow himself to be portrayed as purely anti-Communist. He therefore made conspicuous moves against right-wing plotters, including such cynical manoeuvres as the arrest of a group of priests and nuns who had been sheltering collaborators.

Depreux and his colleagues had good reason to be worried about a plot from the right playing into the hands of the Communists. In May 1947, the American Embassy was informed that two colonels from the US army in Germany had been offering to arm rightist groups. This shadowy affair was hushed up. Depreux, however, made another plot public, a conspiracy known as the ‘Plan Bleu’, because the document was on blue paper.

The police had been amassing evidence for several months, but Depreux waited for the right moment before making anything public. The opportunity came in June 1947, shortly after the Communists left Ramadier’s government. Depreux’s timing of the announcement that a plot against the Republic had been thwarted was aimed at elements within his own party. The left wing of the Socialist Party wanted to attack the anti-Communist stance of their ministers.

The details of the plot itself were too sketchy to be really convincing. It apparently involved General Guillaudot, the Inspector-General of the Gendarmerie Nationale, and several veteran anti-Communists including Loustaunau-Lacau, the only member of the Resistance to have testified on behalf of Marshal Pétain. General de Larminat was also suspended from his duties on grounds of suspected collusion. The uprising against the government was supposed to start in Brittany, where small groups would seize arms depots and American stores to equip rebel formations. ‘At the same time four tactical groups, one of them armoured, would advance on Paris.’

Caffery feared that Depreux had overplayed his hand. His dramatic version of the plot had allowed the Communists to exploit the ‘plot to [a] maximum, smearing all present and potential anti-Communist elements – General de Larminat, General Koenig, General de Gaulle and even widening the attack to include the MRP, “party of the Cassocks and the reactionary West”’.

Depreux’s next move, ten days later, was to deprive the Compagnie Républicaine de Sécurité, the riot police, of its light machine-guns and mortars. The CRS had a strong Communist presence, through party members from the Resistance who had joined from the FFI. The French Communist Party immediately denounced this measure as an attempt to leave the Republic defenceless against would-be military dictators.

François Mitterrand, the new minister for Anciens Combattants et Victimes de la Guerre, also impressed many by the stamina and effectiveness of his efforts to reduce Communist control within his jurisdiction. This had grown up during Laurent Casanova’s time in the ministry.

In the Ministry of War, the Communists’ chief enemy, General Revers, managed to resist all the calls for his removal from the post of chief of staff of the French army. Revers, while punctiliously polite to the new Minister of National Defence, swiftly removed Communists or fellow-travellers from sensitive appointments. He also purged the Gendarmerie Nationale, which came under the ministry’s control. Of the 2,000 army officers, mainly from the FFI, who were regarded as Communists or fellow-travellers, many had already been sidelined through such devices as the so-called ‘Opération de Tarbes’. This simply involved posting officers of left-wing sympathies to outposts like Tarbes in the Pyrenees, where they languished in non-existent jobs with no access to confidential information.

March 1947 was an eventful month in Paris as well as in Washington. On the very day that Truman addressed Congress, the French Communist Party found itself in a difficult position on the issue of Indo-China, where fighting had broken out the previous December between French forces and Ho Chi Minh’s followers led by General Giap. Moscow’s instructions on the subject were explicit. Communist deputies had to support the Viet-Minh and oppose the policy established by Admiral Thierry d’Argenlieu.

On 18 March, the Assembly stood in silence in memory of the French servicemen killed in Indo-China. François Billoux, the Communist Minister of National Defence, remained seated. This immediately became an issue of patriotism.

The more the Communists were isolated, the more they drew in upon themselves. Communist speeches in the National Assembly took up the most time, not so much because of their content, but because their deputies, forming a claque, would applaud their leaders’ speeches at every pause. One cynic remarked that their hands were hard not from manual labour, but from clapping.

A number of factors encouraged General de Gaulle to return to the political arena in the spring of 1947. One of the most immediate was Ramadier’s appointment of Billoux as Minister of National Defence. De Gaulle’s sense of destiny – he once said that each day he spent several minutes wondering how his actions would be seen by history – told him that the people of France would recall him to power very soon.

To the relief of his supporters, de Gaulle began to spend more and more time in Paris. They dreaded the three-hour drive out to Colombey-les-deux-Églises. The atmosphere of the house, La Boisserie, was as lugubrious as its setting. There the chain-smoking General worked on his memoirs, surrounded by wartime memorabilia, his collection of swords, and signed photographs of former world leaders, while ‘Madame de Gaulle clicked away with her knitting needles as the rain battered against the windows’.

In Paris, de Gaulle established his headquarters at La Pérouse, the hotel near the Arc de Triomphe which his wartime secret service had used as its first headquarters at the Liberation. On Sunday, 30 March 1947, he made a speech at Bruneval in Normandy, the site of a commando raid during the war. As an official commemoration, the meeting attracted the presence of the British and Canadian ambassadors, as well as detachments from their countries’ armed forces. Yet the idea for this event had come from Colonel Rémy, as a way of assembling former members of the Resistance under de Gaulle’s new banner. Ramadier was exasperated, but any attempt by the government to restrict the ‘Liberator’ – as the Gaullists called their leader – looked churlish. The Communists, meanwhile, claimed his audiences were composed of ‘ladies in mink coats and old colonels smelling of mothballs’.

De Gaulle finally decided to go ahead with the plan for creating a mass movement, the Rassemblement du Peuple Français. ‘On va refaire la France Libre’ was a popular cry among his wartime associates, ‘les hommes de Londres’. But their tendency to refer to the new movement by its initials, the RPF, displeased the General. That sounded like yet another of the political parties he loathed so much. He insisted on calling it ‘le Rassemblement’.

The creation of the RPF was announced to the people of France at Strasbourg on 7 April. Soustelle set up the first group in the capital of Alsace that evening. A week later, the movement was officially registered. The Strasbourg celebrations were again linked to a semi-official event which drew the American ambassador, Jefferson Caffery, from Paris. He and de Gaulle inspected a guard of honour together, which confirmed Communist suspicions. But both French and Russian Communists were wrong to assume that Caffery’s attendance signalled that the American government was planning to back de Gaulle. In normal circumstances Caffery always punctiliously refused to meet de Gaulle, making an exception only for occasions such as this.

A propaganda struggle had meanwhile broken out at a wonderfully trivial level. When Nancy Mitford had wanted to dedicate her unexpectedly successful novel The Pursuit of Love to her adored ‘Colonel’, Gaston Palewski, he had been flattered and told her to put his full name in the dedication, not just his initials. He regretted this bitterly when the Communists realized that Nancy Mitford was the sister of Unity Mitford. In February, a Communist publication produced an inaccurate article under the equally inaccurate headline, ‘Sister of Hitler’s mistress dedicates daring book to M. Palewski’. It was followed by several other pieces. Palewski, fearing the General’s wrath, persuaded Nancy to go abroad until the fuss died down. She obediently departed into temporary exile and wrote to him from Madrid in the middle of April, ‘Like the Archangel Gabriel, you chase me away from heavenly Paris.’ But to turn the tables on the Communists, she said she would dedicate her next book to Jacques Duclos – ‘Let him laugh that one off.’

By the end of April the Socialist Prime Minister, Paul Ramadier, had come to think that it might be possible after all to govern without the Communists. The end of tripartisme was accelerated by the contradiction of Communist deputies voting against the government in which their own leaders were ministers. Ramadier, with studied courtesy, insisted on the principle of collective responsibility within a government.

On 25 April, an unofficial strike at the Renault factories spread with great speed, taking the Communists by surprise. They accused Trotskyists of fomenting trouble, but the strike gained such support that Communist leaders had to shift their position if they were to retain any credibility among the workers. The party’s politburo denounced the government’s refusal to raise wages. Thorez, the Vice-President of the government, did not worry about such a flagrant paradox. He refused to believe that Ramadier contemplated an administration without Communist ministers.

He was not alone in this attitude. Gaullists were certain that the Socialists would find it impossible to continue. This led them to the optimistic notion that the resulting crisis could be solved only by their leader sweeping back to power. Left-wing Socialists, meanwhile, never imagined that such a momentous step could be taken without their agreement.

Bidault, on his return from Moscow, did not hide his feelings about Molotov and Stalin in front of his Communist colleagues in the Council of Ministers. Thorez promptly voiced his support for Stalin and rejected the government communiqué. On the eve of the 1 May demonstration, Ramadier summoned General Revers. He asked him to put the army on a discreet state of alert and to prepare military transport in case a general strike took place. Armoured vehicles from the 2e DB were brought in from Rambouillet and concealed in the École de Guerre.

The decisive day came on Sunday, 4 May. The Communists had formally withdrawn support from the government’s policy of freezing wages, so Ramadier had called a vote of confidence in the National Assembly. Supported by the Christian Democrat MRP, he won by a strong margin –360 votes to 186. Soon after nine o’clock that evening, Communist ministers were summoned to a meeting of the Council of Ministers at the prime ministerial residence, the Hôtel Matignon. Ramadier was polite, but inflexible. Thorez refused to resign, so Ramadier read out the section of the Constitution which gave him the right to withdraw portfolios. Thorez and his four colleagues left the room. The remaining ministers sat there, astonished at how easy it had been.

This realignment was not limited to France. In Belgium, Communist ministers had left the government in March; while in Italy, they had been forced out in April. Western Europe was clearly entering a new stage.

Paul Ramadier had a less exacting duty to perform six days later – the presentation of the Médaille Militaire to Winston Churchill. The Médaille Militaire is France’s highest military decoration and can be presented only by a man who already holds it. Ramadier was an impeccable choice, having won the decoration as a sergeant during the defence of Verdun.

Churchill, dressed in the uniform of his old regiment, the 4th Hussars, was met at the entrance to the great courtyard of the Invalides by a small guard of soldiers with fixed bayonets. He was then marched forward to where Ramadier awaited him with a whole battalion, drawn up in review order. Churchill wept with emotion during Ramadier’s speech.

That evening, President Auriol organized a dinner in Churchill’s honour at the Élysée Palace. ‘Churchill,’ wrote Jacques Dumaine in his diary, ‘his tail-coat plastered with decorations and a cigar sprouting from the middle of his smile, strolled down the Faubourg Saint-Honoré on his way to the banquet. This was a sight which brought everyone to their windows, and cheering broke out as he passed.’ The old statesman was delighted by the apocryphal story that any holder of the Médaille Militaire, if incapacitated by drink, had the right to be driven home without charge by the police.

The next day, Churchill received a rousing welcome from the crowds at the march-past at Vincennes celebrating the second anniversary of Germany’s defeat. Afterwards, Duff Cooper took him off to lunch at the Château de Saint-Firmin at Chantilly. There, he met Odette Pol Roger, one of General Wallace’s three daughters who were so famed for their beauty that they were known as the Wallace Collection. Madame Pol Roger became Churchill’s last flame.

Ramadier’s government had also offered a Médaille Militaire to General de Gaulle, but he had refused it brusquely. He also refused Auriol’s invitation to the dinner in Churchill’s honour. Although he could not admit it, Ramadier’s effective stand against the Communists had exasperated him. He refused to change his tune, however. ‘Make no mistake,’ he said to Claude Mauriac, ‘we are right into a Weimar Republic.’

De Gaulle’s pact with Stalin three years before had blackened him in the eyes of many potential followers on the right. But at Rennes on 27 July, he openly attacked the ‘separatists’. He described the French Communist Party as ‘a group of men whose leaders place the service of a foreign state above everything else. I say this all the more forcefully because I myself have tried, up to the limits of the lawful and possible, to attract them to the service of France.’

While de Gaulle compared Ramadier’s administration to Weimar, the Communists compared RPF mass meetings to the Nuremberg rally. Nancy Mitford went to the Vélodrome d’Hiver on 2 July to see her adored ‘Colonel’ speak to a huge crowd. Palewski was a far greater success than anyone expected. Claude Mauriac wrote that ‘he was suddenly transfigured’. Malraux followed. His speech began in its habitual way, difficult to understand, but then ‘finding its rhythmlittle by little, as a torrent finds its bed. And then emerged a great prophetic voice which electrified the whole audience, the voice of a sage, of a poet, of a religious leader.’

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