26

The Republic at Bay

The unrest which France had experienced in the summer of 1947 appeared minor by the autumn. On 28 October, a pitched battle took place in the streets round the Salle Wagram near the Place de l’Étoile. Anti-Communists organized a meeting in the hall – used until quite recently by GIs for Tuesday dances – to denounce Stalin’s crimes. Some 10,000 Communist counter-demonstrators advanced to attack. But large forces of police, gendarmerie and CRS riot squads managed to maintain their cordon round the area. The heavy fighting left one killed and 300 injured, including Communist municipal councillors and mayors. The police were almost as tough in their treatment of press photographers and newsreel teams.

That day had also seen a stormy session in the Assembly. Jacques Duclos had accused the government of being Pétainist valets of the United States. ‘It was a remarkable parliamentary performance,’ wrote one observer. ‘He succeeded in goading everybody else to fury while remaining perfectly calm himself.’

Two weeks later, Marseilles erupted in riots. The Communists, exploiting a rise in tramfares, led an all-out attack on the new Gaullist mayor, Maître Carlini, the winner in the municipal elections. The law courts were sacked by a mob intent on releasing prisoners arrested in earlier demonstrations. The crowds then converged on the Hôtel de Ville, which they took by storm, and proceeded to beat up Carlini. Things were so bad that Gaston Defferre, the Socialist baron of the city, did not dare go out in a car without a sub-machine-gun on his lap.

On 17 November, the mining regions of the north and the Pas-de-Calais came out on strike, demanding pay rises to catch up with inflation. Within five days every coalfield in France had been closed down. The situation was equally volatile in Paris and its suburbs. Metalworkers, including those at Renault, came out on strike in the middle of November, demanding a 25 per cent pay increase. De Gaulle warned his entourage that the franc would collapse. There was only one consolation for the government. The purges of the Paris police seemed to have worked. Depreux felt confident enough to send them in to clear the Citroën works occupied by strikers.

De Gaulle became increasingly convinced that his return to power was at hand. Ramadier’s government of Socialists and Christian Democrats seemed to be cracking up, so the General tried to treat the municipal election results as a referendumwhich had produced a vote of confidence in the Rassemblement. He demanded the dissolution of the Assembly and a general election. But this only strengthened the determination of the Socialists and the MRP to resist him.

Contradictory signals were coming out of the Gaullist camp. While one of the General’s associates reassured the American Embassy that he was not anxious ‘to pull the rug at this moment’, he himself announced, ‘we haven’t arrived at the Rubicon to go fishing’. Jacques Soustelle told a contact in the US Embassy on 3 November that de Gaulle did not want to come to power before the hard winter was over; and Gaston Palewski repeated the same message the following day. Ten days later, Colonel Passy was sighted at lunch with de Gaulle and Soustelle. There was also a belief, shared, it would seem, by both de Gaulle’s entourage and the Americans, that the Communists were trying to provoke a crisis ‘that would bring de Gaulle to power before de Gaulle [was] ready’.

Paul Ramadier, worn down, continued in office only in answer to President Auriol’s pleas. The results of the municipal elections had been a severe blow to his position and morale. In the second week of November, he suffered from a heavy bout of flu just as he came under pressure from his MRP partners for a change of ministers to counter the Gaullists. Finally, on the afternoon of 19 November, he offered his resignation again, having heard that he did not have the full support of his own party. This time President Auriol had to accept it. The next morning (the day of Princess Elizabeth’s wedding to Prince Philip of Greece in Westminster Abbey), France was without a government and paralysed by strikes.

Léon Blum, seventy-four years old and still frail from his imprisonment in Germany, appeared the only candidate who might muster sufficient support. On 21 October, in his speech to the National Assembly proposing his candidacy as head of government, he warned of the double danger facing the political system. When the votes were counted shortly before midnight, Blum was nine short of the minimum. Robert Schuman, the Minister of Finance, was told: ‘It’s your turn.’ The following afternoon Schuman received his majority, with only the Communist Party and the semi-official Gaullist group of deputies opposing his candidature.

Schuman, an austere Catholic bachelor and a firm moderate, had a slightly crooked, rubbery-looking face, with a bald crown and large ears. Once, when a junior official failed to recognize him, he raised his hat and said that surely he recognized the cranium, it had been caricatured enough in the newspapers. Schuman came from Lorraine, which meant that during the First World War he had been obliged to serve in the Kaiser’s army – a turn of fate which the Communists used shamelessly in their attacks on him. The other knife which they twisted mercilessly was his very brief service in Pétain’s first administration in July 1940. They did not mention the fact that Schuman was one of the first politicians arrested by the Germans.

The other key member of the government was Jules Moch, who took over as Minister of the Interior. Moch, with his round tortoiseshell glasses, pinched face and toothbrush moustache, looked like a provincial schoolmaster. He was a polytechnicien, pitiless with statistics and mathematical calculations. Yet his predecessor Édouard Depreux described him as ‘a sensitive man, loyal and faithful to his friends’, and, most significant for the times he was about to live through, he possessed ‘a profound sense of the State’. The Communists found it hard to attack him: as a Jew, an anti-cleric and a Socialist, his loathing of Vichy had been unfeigned, and his son had been killed by the Gestapo.

Moch faced the hardest ministerial task since the Liberation. The autumn coal strike, with stocks still depleted from the previous terrible winter, made the government extremely vulnerable. The miners from the north of France were in combative mood when colonial troops were ordered in to protect the pits fromsabotage, but the ‘gueules noires’, as the miners called themselves, received an unexpected boost. Spahis from the garrison at Senlis stacked their rifles on the platformat Lens station and refused to take them up, despite threats from officers. The Ministry of the Interior quickly sent in CRS riot police to seize their weapons and force the Spahis into a train which returned them to barracks.

At the Bully coalfield, some thirty German prisoners of war in their field-grey overcoats joined the attack on the CRS. A number of carbines were seized from them, and three CRS were taken prisoner by the miners. They were apparently so frightened that they told their captors all they knew. A Resistance veteran was disgusted: ‘Do you realize that we had friends who died under torture having not said a word?’ The miners released them, but held on to their identity cards so that they could be pursued if they broke their promise to say nothing to their superiors.

The idea of Spahis and Germans helping the miners aroused great hopes of international solidarity. The Communist Party press encouraged its followers to see this struggle as the last push needed to overthrow a tottering regime.

As the strike hardened and miners’ families were left without money for food, the party organized the evacuation of their children to Communist households elsewhere. Miners who defied the strike call and continued to work were called ‘canaries’ because they were yellow. Their wives were often ambushed outside shops by the wives of strikers.

When Moch took over as Minister of the Interior on 24 November, he suffered from a shortage of riot police to deal with the outbreaks of violence. He also found that he had inherited an over-centralized system, never designed to cope with simultaneous emergencies right across the country. The situation was desperate, but this very fact forced the government to be courageous.

The Ministry of the Interior was in a state of pandemonium. Moch had to be in constant contact with up to ninety prefects of départements. Many prefects, afraid of getting no reinforcements from the Ministry of the Interior, turned to the general commanding their military district and, without informing Paris, asked him for troops. Others who had been instructed to send help to one of their besieged colleagues either questioned their orders or delayed implementing them in case their own area erupted. During the last week of November and the first week of December, the ministry received an average of 900 telegrams a day. In one twenty-four-hour period, Moch subsequently informed the prefects, the number rose to 2,302. Since most of these signals were in code, the cipher clerks were submerged.

Moch was so short of men that at one point he found himself sending bodies of riot police of fifty or fewer from one part of the country to another and back again. The station at Brive, for example, was finally relieved by fifty men from a CRS company based in Agen and 100 men allocated to the Massif Central. Even more alarming, Moch found that, in spite of his predecessor’s purges, several CRS units still contained so many Communists from the FTP that they were completely unreliable and had to be disbanded.

‘The strikes were called,’ Moch wrote in a debriefing paper for the prefects, ‘because the economic situation gave the working class real grievances. * The Communist Party showed great cleverness in exploiting these legitimate grievances to set in motion an overall movement which had a definite political and international character, and one of whose main objectives was that of discouraging American aid to Europe.’

The US Embassy became extremely perturbed at the determination of the Communist union leaders. The way that the strikers broke machinery in factories, to make sure that scab labour could not be brought in, indicated a determination to sabotage the economy before the Marshall Plan could take effect. James Bonbright, Douglas MacArthur Jnr and Ridgway Knight begged Caffery to help finance Force Ouvrière, a non-Communist breakaway from the CGT; but Caffery refused to contemplate such intervention in France’s internal affairs. In fact, funding was found elsewhere and passed through the American trades union movement.

The atmosphere of violence grew more oppressive. Henri Noguères, editor of the Socialist Party newspaper Le Populaire, received a warning from Moch that the Communists might attempt a commando raid on the newspaper. Knowing that the police were too short-staffed in Paris to offer permanent protection, Moch sent round two containers of weapons from the Ministry of the Interior so that the staff of the paper could defend the building themselves. Leading figures in de Gaulle’s Rassemblement also felt in danger from surprise attack. ‘The Colonel sleeps with a great gun by his bed,’ wrote Nancy Mitford to her mother, ‘far more frightening than anything, as you can imagine he has no idea about guns!’

By a curious stroke of fate, a prominent figure associated with de Gaulle was killed in an accident a few days later. On 28 November, a dark foggy day on which snow fell in Paris, news arrived in the evening that General Leclerc, the city’s liberator three years before, had died in an air crash aged only forty-four. A rumour rapidly circulated that somebody had put sugar in the petrol. Some compared his death to that of General Sikorski. ‘The whole population of Paris,’ wrote Nancy Mitford, in a sweeping generalization, ‘is certain it was sabotage and it’s done the Communists a lot of harm.’ She was, no doubt, repeating the Colonel’s firm belief.

Palewski, whose brother-in-law was also killed in the crash, had dined with Leclerc a week before his death. He claimed that Leclerc had said that evening, ‘We are all in danger now.’ Rumours, almost certainly beginning in the wilder fringes of the Rassemblement, spread that Leclerc had even urged de Gaulle to seize power. The fact that L’Humanité devoted only a couple of lines to the announcement of Leclerc’s death somehow seemed to confirm Gaullist suspicions that the Communists had been responsible.

At the same time as Leclerc’s death, public order operations took on an increasingly military aspect. The Ministry of the Interior was in constant contact with the Ministry of War, exchanging information and discussing options. French troops in the north were strengthened to stop Belgian Communists slipping across the border to sabotage the mines and prevent them from reopening. But even the army did not have enough men for the tasks allotted. Altogether 102,000 reservists from the classes of 1946 and 1947 had been recalled from the middle of November. In addition, the French army had reformed the Senegalese troops guarding German prisoners of war into a further nine battalions ready for deployment. But even these reinforcements were not considered sufficient; the government announced on 30 November that it was recalling another 80,000 reservists from the class of 1943.

In Paris, there had been comparatively few disorders. A minor insurrection took place in the 18th arrondissement when an officer of the fire brigade led 300 young Communists in an attempt to capture the telephone exchange. Before the assault the Communists, many of them sons of railway workers, smashed all the police telephones in the area. Those who escaped arrest were forcefully reprimanded by their superiors in the party for having acted without orders. The Prefect of Police, Roger Léonard, could hardly believe his luck that the Communists did not try more such adventures. He had only 150 policemen left in reserve to cover the whole city.

The capital was particularly vulnerable to strike action. For those coming into the centre of Paris to work by métro or suburban rail, life became almost intolerable. ‘The train is jammed and often obliged to stop, either by sabotage or by the women and children of the strikers lying down on the tracks.’ Strikes in the public services included the mail, refuse collection and power supplies. Cooking became impossible, electricity was cut without warning as it had been the previous winter, and water pressure dropped so low that the top floors of buildings failed to get even a trickle from the tap.

The real threat lay outside Paris. Moch felt forced to elaborate a contingency plan which would concentrate all his forces on Paris and the routes from the capital to Le Havre, Belgium, Lyons and Marseilles. The rest of the country outside these Y-shaped corridors would be effectively abandoned until sufficient troops could be brought back from Germany.

On 29 November, the day after General Leclerc’s air crash, the Palais Bourbon – cordoned off by troops and police – became the scene of the most violent exchanges ever seen in the National Assembly. The Schuman government presented a group of measures to defend the Republic, including an anti-sabotage bill. During these days Robert Schuman impressed everyone with his air of calm. Jules Moch was equally resolute. He knew that he had less than a week to bring the country under control. If public order collapsed, then de Gaulle might make a move which could trigger the Communists into civil war. But de Gaulle preferred to stand back while his two enemies, the Communists and the government, fought it out.

In the hémicycle of the National Assembly the Communists yelled insults at Robert Schuman and his government. Schuman’s service in the German army in the First World War was thrown at him.

‘There’s the Boche!’ cried Duclos.

‘Where were you a soldier in 1914, Prime Minister?’ shouted Charles Tillon, one of the Black Sea mutineers of 1920.

‘Prussian! German!’ screamed Alain Signor, the author of the cringing letter to Stepanov in the Kremlin.

The barrage of insults swelled and slackened in the course of the marathon sessions. Deputies of other parties flung back their own jibes, reminding the Communists of Stalin’s alliance with Hitler. Every resentment and suspicion from the Occupation surged to the surface.

Sunday, 30 November, the second day of the session, was very cold and foggy. The streets of Paris were empty. ‘All seems quiet today,’ wrote the British ambassador in his diary. ‘It isn’t revolution weather.’ Marie-Blanche de Polignac refused to cancel her traditional Sunday-night musical salon.

Monday was another day of fog. No aeroplanes could land or take off, so, with the train strike, no diplomatic bags could get through. Roger Martin du Gard, demoralized by cold meals and the lack of water and heating, found the atmosphere of the city ‘sinister’; he could not wait to escape to Nice as soon as the trains began to run again. Nancy Mitford, who swung like many between alarm and disdain for alarmists, expressed her exasperation at the way the British press were reporting the French troubles with a streak ofschadenfreude. ‘I told the Times man,’ she wrote to her sister Diana, ‘he really must point out that blood is not actually pouring down the gutters.’ The electricity failed again, and Artur Rubinstein’s concert that night took place by candlelight.

On the third day of the marathon session in the National Assembly a Communist deputy, Raoul Calas, took over the tribune to speak. He appealed to the army not to obey the murderers of the people, a clear case of incitement to mutiny. Édouard Herriot, the president of the National Assembly, announced that it was his duty to maintain respect for the law. A resolution for Calas’s exclusion was then passed in spite of Communist protests. The session was suspended amid pandemonium.

Calas still refused to leave the tribune. His fellow Communists crowded round to protect him and offer support. The stalemate continued through the night. Shortly before six in the morning, Colonel Marquant of the Garde Républicaine arrived with a written order from Herriot to expel Calas. But each time Marquant began to advance on the tribune, the Communist deputies burst into the Marseillaise. On hearing the national anthem, the Colonel had to spring to attention and salute. As soon as they stopped singing, he tried to move forward once more, but again the Marseillaise broke out and he had to return to the salute. Finally, Colonel Marquant reached the tribune and gently took hold of Calas’s arm. ‘Je cède à la force,’ said the deputy.

The session which had started on 29 November did not end until 3 December. During its course, the balance of power tipped decisively in favour of the government. Already there were signs of the strike cracking, with non-Communists returning to work despite the violence threatened and used against them. Then, in the early morning of 3 December, a small group of Communist miners in the north destroyed their own cause. Hearing that a train full of riot police was on its way and acting on their own initiative, they sabotaged the Lille–Paris line near Arras by dislodging twenty-five metres of track. Instead of a troop train, however, they derailed the Paris–Tourcoing express. Sixteen people were killed in the crash and thirty were seriously injured. News of the disaster reached Paris in the morning. By the afternoon, there was no traffic in the Champs-Élysées and the city appeared in a state of siege, with armed police at every intersection in the centre.

On hearing the news in the National Assembly, Communist deputies expressed no regret for the victims. They accused the government of having carried out the sabotage, and compared the incident to the Nazis setting fire to the Reichstag and blaming the Communists. Such tactics did themlittle good. Newsreel cameras had been rushed to the site of the crash. Their slow pans across the wreckage created stark black-and-white images of carriages split open, revealing battered corpses inside. One commentator, in a voice vibrant with anger, talked of an ‘abominable attack’ carried out by ‘anonymous criminals’. These newsreels, shown in cinemas all over the country, had a powerful effect. The derailing of the express immeasurably strengthened the hand of the government.

On the day after the session ended in the Assembly, Maurice Thorez went north to talk to the miners of Hénin-Liétard and rally their spirits. He made no mention of the derailment. While he was absent, a grenade – a German grenade – exploded in the garden of his residence at Choisy-le-Roi. It was most probably an attempt to divert attention from the victims of the train crash.

Perhaps the most decisive effect of the rail disaster was the split it produced among strikers over the question of violent methods. The postmen, who had just returned to work, were given police protection. Other workers still out on strike came under increasing pressure from their wives to resume work before Christmas. Distrust of the Communist Party’s intentions spread even more rapidly after the crash. These suspicions proved well founded. Not long before his death in 1993, Auguste Lecoeur admitted calmly in interviews with the film-maker Mosco that sabotaging the French economy and splitting France politically was simply part of ‘the struggle against American imperialism’.

A growing number of workers resented being used by the Communists for political ends and demanded secret ballots on whether or not to continue the strike. At first the Communists resisted this by intimidation, but by the second week of December the pressure had become too great. ‘Under these circumstances,’ wrote Moch in his debriefing document to the prefects, ‘the Communist directors of the CGT no longer had any choice but to begin strategic withdrawals or suffer a total defeat. If they had delayed another forty-eight hours in giving the back-to-work order they would have lost complete control of the CGT membership. The end of the strike must therefore be considered as a Communist withdrawal, implying a serious check but not a definite defeat.’

General Leclerc’s funeral service was planned for 8 December in Notre-Dame. The event had taken on strong political overtones in the circumstances. ‘All Leclerc’s boys are pouring into town,’ Nancy Mitford wrote to her sister. ‘It is like mobilization – there will be 2,000 of them in Notre-Dame.’

President Auriol and most of the diplomatic corps attended. ‘The ceremony was fine and impressive,’ wrote Duff Cooper in his diary, ‘but the twelve other unhappy coffins detracted from the grandeur of the central figure without gaining any themselves. One regretted their presence yet felt doubly sorry for themon that account. A man’s funeral is his last appearance and he ought to have the stage to himself.’ The British ambassador then led the diplomatic corps on foot from Notre-Dame to the Invalides through two heavy showers. Leclerc’s loss would be felt most in the direction of French policy in Indo-China. He was one of the few realists left in a senior position. His strong advice that the French should negotiate independence with Ho Chi Minh had embittered relations with his superior, Admiral d’Argenlieu. Politicians in Paris, even in the Socialist Party, felt obliged to support d’Argenlieu. They had not grasped how much the world had changed.

The last strike collapsed on the morning of 10 December. The headline in L’Humanité – ‘This morning, 1,500,000 combatants returned to work as a group’ – represented a desperate attempt to paint defeat as victory of a sort. Huge mounds of refuse still lay in the streets of Paris.

That night Duff and Diana Cooper gave their farewell ball at the British Embassy, and it turned out to be the ‘gala occasion it could not have been the week before’. Nancy Mitford wrote to her mother that the embassy had received 600 acceptances, ‘in spite of the fact that no letters have been delivered for a week’.

Churchill flew over from London on the morning of the party. He arrived to a beautiful day. News of his presence caused huge crowds to gather outside the embassy in the rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré, chanting their demands for his appearance. He went out to address them in his inimitable version of the French language and received an exuberant ovation – ‘a thing he always enjoys’, his host noted with amused affection.

The party began at half past ten. Virtually all the corps diplomatique came. The ‘conspicuous exceptions’ were the Russian, Polish and Yugoslav ambassadors. Churchill, beaming, in white tie and full decorations, entered the salon where his parents, Lord Randolph Churchill and Jenny Jerome, had been married. On his arm was the beautiful Odette Pol Roger in a spectacular red satin dress.

Guests wandered in admiration through the high-ceilinged and gilded reception rooms. Like Churchill, all the men were in white tie with full decorations, the ribbons and sashes vivid against the black tail coats and starched white waistcoats. Diana Cooper had invited several designer friends – Dior, Balmain, Rochas and Molyneux – and they looked at their own and other creations with a critical eye.

Susan Mary Patten wore a dress by Schiaparelli – ‘heavy ivory grosgrain, with an enormous bustle, very Lady Windermere’s Fan’. Christian Dior bowed to her and said, ‘That is one of the greatest dresses I have ever seen, and I wish it were mine.’

The Gaullists there that night, such as Gaston Palewski and Pierre de Bénouville, were puffed up by John Foster Dulles’s statement the day before that General de Gaulle was ‘the coming man in France’. Dulles had even made a point of ignoring Bidault at the London conference. Jefferson Caffery was one of many who were exasperated at this clumsy intervention in French politics. Support for de Gaulle would have been more to the point in 1944; in December 1947 it simply came as an insult to Schuman and Moch, whose determination and stamina during the previous two and a half weeks had won the respect of even Malraux and Palewski.

Susan Mary Patten was deeply embarrassed when the playwright Henri Bernstein came up and said, almost within Robert Schuman’s hearing, ‘Well, thank God you Americans have at last declared yourselves for de Gaulle. Bravo for Mr Dulles.’

Perhaps provoked by Dulles’s praise of de Gaulle, Jules Moch made sure that the Americans appreciated the efforts made to defend Republican order; but his main objective was to put pressure on the United States to hasten financial aid to France before unrest erupted again. With Caffery, he was, of course, preaching to the converted. The ambassador’s reports to Washington extolled Moch’s ‘courageous and energetic measures which have tended to bolster the government’s and his own prestige’. But he also believed firmly that without the announcement of the Marshall Plan, the Schuman government would never have been able to inspire sufficient determination among its officials and political colleagues to resist the Communist onslaught.

The Minister of the Interior did not rest on his laurels during the remaining months of that winter. He bombarded the prefects with briefing papers and plans for improving the countrywide security apparatus. Political Orientation Instruction No. 1 of 26 December 1947 set out the background to the recent strikes. In it Moch warned that the majority of the population still faced real hardship and that the Communists would make the most of it. The civil authorities must therefore expect renewed disorders next year, probably between mid-February and mid-March, because that would be the period of greatest scarcity of foodstuffs and coal. (In fact the next serious wave of unrest did not come until June.)

Moch hurried forward his predecessor’s programme of eliminating Communists from the Paris police and the CRS riot police. Such was the success of this procedure that the balance was entirely reversed. By the summer of 1948, it was estimated that 19,000 out of 23,000 policemen in the capital were anti-Communist. The Ministry of the Interior meanwhile altered the distribution of CRS riot police around the country so that more were deployed close to the main danger areas – the coalfields of the north and the larger industrial centres of the east. Moch also asked the Ministry of War to formnew squads of Gardes Républicaines from the gendarmerie. In critical regions, the army was to allocate infantry battalions as permanent reserves for security duties.

The idea of commanders of military regions exercising control was anathema to Moch. He said that he wished to avoid ‘the psychological and political disadvantages which often accompany a declaration of martial law’, but he also did not trust anybody else, certainly not the Ministry of War, to control civil unrest. Neither he nor Robert Schuman lost sight of the fact that only a real improvement in the standard of living would reduce the power of the Communists, and that depended on the Marshall Plan.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!