France was now starting to see the effects of Marshall aid, which began to fuel economic recovery more rapidly than people had dared hope. Already in 1948 there had been signs of a new attitude emerging. ‘There seems to be a change of heart in my community,’ the Chief Rabbi told Jacques Dumaine. ‘Today fathers no longer choose their sons-in-law from among the ranks of the State civil servants; two years ago the opposite was the case. Is this perhaps a sign that commercial activity is reviving in France?’ Janet Flanner noted that for the first time since before the war the shelves in the shops were no longer bare. ‘The average Frenchman can now find in the shops nearly everything he wants except the means of paying for it.’
In November of that year, General Marshall visited France to see how the plan was developing. Paul Claudel made a speech of welcome in which he said: ‘The word “plan” until now did not sound very good in our ears! It signified for people already exhausted and over-burdened the subjection of the human being to distant objectives. But the Marshall Plan, that we can understand straight away, just as we understand the Red Cross.’
The country was on its way to recovery now that the last wave of strikes had crumbled. Despite all the damage caused to the economy, France was in a better position than Great Britain to take advantage of American aid because the Monnet plan to reshape French industry was in place. Jean Monnet persuaded both the government and David Bruce, then the director in France of the Economic Cooperation Administration responsible for executing the Marshall Plan, to allocate a large proportion of the available funds to industrial regeneration. The priorities – steel, coal, hydroelectric power, tractors and transport – had been established. Little time was wasted. The British government, on the other hand, suffered the illusions of a victor: it did not believe a long-term plan for rebuilding its industry was needed. Investment was channelled towards existing production, not to new factories and new machinery for the future.
From the beginning of 1949, daily life in France started to become easier. In January, only a few weeks after the end of the strikes, a state loan – the first since the Liberation – was fully taken up. Bread rationing came to an end, mainly thanks to Marshall aid, since the drought of 1948 had drastically reduced the harvest. Dairy products were no longer rationed from 15 April 1949, the first anniversary of the European Recovery Programme. Prices became less volatile, wage demands eased and inflation slowed. Even American caution began to relax, as an ambassadorial dispatch to Washington shows. ‘While I do not desire to over-emphasize or exaggerate, in my opinion it is safe to say that at last France shows signs of pulling herself together and appears to be on the way to recovery.’
The year proved so calm, in comparison with what had gone before, that foreign journalists based in Paris complained that they no longer had anything to write about. The new mood of inactivity was attributed to the Prime Minister, Dr Henri Queuille. Queuille may have been unexciting, but he was cleverer than he appeared and provided the stability that was so desperately needed. His most important appointment was that of Maurice Petsche as Finance Minister, who, without political fanfare, started to free the economy and also the franc by narrowing the rate of exchange between the black market and the official rate.
Imports from the United States had been huge during 1948 as Marshall Plan produce flooded into the country, ‘but by the end of 1949,’ Averell Harriman later reported to Washington, ‘exports had more than doubled’ and the trade gap had narrowed. Coal production was rising. Steel production was close to Monnet’s ambitious target of matching the record set in 1929. Car production rose from 5,000 cars in 1947 to over 20,000 by the end of 1949. The rapid increase in traffic, and in the noise of klaxons, produced the most striking change, especially in the centre of Paris, where fewer and fewer bicycles were to be seen.
The Communists no longer dared to attack the Marshall Plan head on, because it only drew attention to the way they had tried to sabotage the country’s recovery. Banners at the May Day demonstration concentrated on the peace campaign. Observers from the American Embassy noted with measured satisfaction that the number of marchers was markedly lower than the year before: ‘Quietest May Day since Liberation reveals not so much satisfaction of workers with their living conditions as their growing apathy and increasing lack of faith in slogans, formulae and organizations.’ On the other side of Paris in the Bois de Boulogne, a crowd of 100,000 Gaullists gathered in an RPF counter-demonstration and then dispersed quietly. The day seemed to underline the fact that political passions were spent, at least for the time being. And as if to confirm the impression that immediate dangers were over, the Soviet forces in Germany lifted the blockade on Berlin later in the month.
The harvest proved much better than in 1948, with an excellent wheat crop. In September, Queuille and his government, furthering their policy of greater currency freedom, allowed the franc to devalue by 20 per cent against the dollar. The British, in a far graver position, were forced to devalue the pound by 30 per cent.
Even the fall of Queuille’s government in October – a Socialist manoeuvre to protect themselves from working-class criticism – had little effect on the stock market. There was no threat of a coal strike and fuel reserves had nearly doubled over the previous year. The biggest cloud was the conflict in Indo-China. Another 16,000 conscripts had been sent out, increasing the army there to 115,000 men.
From the third week of November, Communist energies were directed away from domestic affairs. They were focused on what the party believed to be an event for international rejoicing – Joseph Stalin’s seventieth birthday on 21 December. Orders went out from the Central Committee that everyone must contribute towards the event. The run-up to the great day was treated like a presidential campaign, with 30,000 posters depicting the heroic leader and half a million pamphlets printed.
An exhibition of presents, reminiscent of a royal wedding, was held at the metalworkers’ union building on the rue Jean-Pierre Timbaud. Twenty-three panels illustrating the life of Stalin decorated the hall, where some 4,000 contributions were displayed. They included embroidery and handiwork of all sorts, even a doll’s bonnet by a little girl who had died in Auschwitz, the music score of a specially composed ‘Chant à Staline’, scores of poems, including one by Éluard, and works of art almost entirely in the socialist-realist style. One prominent Communist painter was horrified to see that a work which he had proudly presented to Maurice Thorez for his house at Choisy-le-Roi had been included in the pile. This bizarre cargo of bric-à-brac was to be loaded into a railway wagon and dispatched to Moscow. Stalin is unlikely to have bothered to cast an eye over it, or the book of congratulations signed by 40,000 visitors.
On 19 December, the Bruces gave a dinner party for Ernest Hemingway, the ambassador’s companion-in-arms during the Liberation of Paris just over five years before. With Hemingway they invited Duff Cooper, Marie-Louise Bousquet, Pauline de Rothschild and Christian Dior. The high point of the dinner was woodcock accompanied by Romanée Conti. Heming way boasted of having shot over 8,000 duck with a syndicate of friends near Venice. But this was not a good time for him. He was working on Across the River and into the Trees and suffering from a crisis of impotence which the massacre of ducks had failed to relieve. Like the American colonel in his novel, Hemingway could not come to terms with the fact that the war was over.
The last year of the decade was approaching its end, but Fourth Republic politics continued along the same slippery path. Georges Bidault, who had patched together another ministry at the end of October after the fall of Henri Queuille’s government, wondered what he would find in his Christmas stocking: ‘Some fruit, I expect, an orange, a banana – or its skin.’
On the left bank there was rejoicing as friends, including Jean-Louis Barrault and Jean Galtier-Boissière, gathered spontaneously to congratulate Jean-Louis Vaudoyer, the belle-lettrist and director of the Comédie-Française during the war, on his election to the ‘Immortals’. Laid out on the sofa were the habits verts – the green tail-coated Paris sera toujours Paris uniforms of the Académie Française – which Vaudoyer’s grandfather and great-grandfather had also been privileged to wear.
For Galtier-Boissière the most memorable night was Christmas Eve, when he gathered all his friends around himin his apartment overlooking the Place de la Sorbonne. This huge, generous man, with his moustache and ‘gros yeux affectueux’, and his face red from many vintages of Bouzy rouge, had a great gift for friendship along with his compulsive irreverence. His long-suffering and devoted wife, Charlotte, was continually having to tell him off for some misdemeanour or other. At one book-signing session in the provinces, when very drunk, he had written erotic dedications for the women who came forward with copies. Their outraged husbands had promptly torn out the offending pages.
Galtier-Boissière’s love for the fast-disappearing Paris of brothel, bal musette and old-fashioned restaurant was matched only by his loathing of modern political cant. Stalinists like Aragon once again became a favourite target in his monthly satirical magazineLe Crapouillot, which he had relaunched in June 1948 with another all-night party of drinking and his favourite songs, like ‘Coeur apache’ and ‘L’Hirondelle du Faubourg’. Aragon had already returned the insults frombefore the war. In his novel Aurélien,published just after the Liberation, he had depicted the immensely tall and brave Galtier-Boissière as the miserable little Fuchs, editor of a magazine called Le Cagna – a trench-bunker in poilu slang, as opposed to a trench-mortar.
That night, Galtier-Boissière and his friends laughed, drank, talked and sang their way through to the last Christmas of the decade. One guest was a brilliant mimic and as the night wore on he went through his ‘numéros’ towards his pièce de résistance: ‘an astonishing ventriloquist act, using as his partner one hand decorated with make-up; the climax was the entry of the famous lioness Saida into the main cage and the lion-tamer putting her through her tricks… Suddenly we noticed that it was seven in the morning.’