The close of 1949 marks an obvious end to the immediate post-war period, but the great issues of that time did not of course finish with the decade. The three main ones covered in this book – the Occupation and the épuration as part of the guerre franco-française; the intelligentsia’s admiration for revolutionary ruthlessness; and France’s complex relationship with the United States – either continued to affect Parisian life or resurfaced later.
If the Communist Party was the first to suffer from the economic recovery in 1949, Gaullism soon became the first casualty of political calm. ‘The General’s stock,’ wrote Frank Giles, ‘like the price of gold, tended to rise in times of trouble and fall when the going became smoother.’ Memories of the fatal street-battle in Grenoble, combined with de Gaulle’s apocalyptic declarations, now made people uneasy. Despite the renewed instability of government, with few administrations lasting more than six months, his Rassemblement dwindled rapidly in the early 1950s. The majestic ‘J’attends’ which de Gaulle had uttered after his resignation in 1946 was to last for twelve years until the crisis over the colonial war in Algeria provided his opportunity.
The greatest beneficiary of political stability in 1949 was economic planning. Jean Monnet did not waste a moment once the Marshall Plan began to achieve its objective of reviving commercial activity. From his desk at the Commissariat du Plan, his vision had always stretched beyond France’s recovery to a united Europe, a project which he had conceived while the war continued. The Continent needed strength and unity if it was not to be dominated by the superpowers.
Using as a precedent the joint committees created by the Marshall Plan, Monnet launched a diplomatic offensive in the spring of 1949 to persuade British politicians and civil servants to expand economic cooperation. They, however, were taken aback by French determination: the whole idea made them either uneasy or sceptical. They had already resented Averell Harriman’s attempts to push Britain into a closer embrace with European governments. Their lingering attachment to Empire and a world role within the Atlantic alliance meant that Britain’s heart was not in Europe.
Convinced by the end of 1949 that Britain could not be a useful partner, Monnet turned his attention to Germany. His main strategic project, a European Coal and Steel Community, was known as the Schuman Plan, after Robert Schuman, who had been the most influential Minister of Foreign Affairs on the Continent. Schuman’s objective now was to bind France and Germany together ‘in an embrace so close that neither could draw back far enough to hit the other’. Konrad Adenauer, then emerging as leader of the nascent Federal Republic, realized immediately the opportunity this plan offered for the rehabilitation of Germany and became an enthusiastic supporter. Monnet, with Schuman, did not want to allow the British the chance to prevaricate or water down the proposals. He issued an ultimatum to each eligible country, although the prime target was the British government. Those who wished to accept the Schuman Plan in its entirety had to reply by eight o’clock on the morning of 2 June 1950, or stay outside. Bevin was scathing. He refused to believe such a plan could work; the Cabinet and most senior civil servants agreed. The post-war development of Europe was decided. Any British pretension to leadership on the Continent was finished.
France had been able to breathe a sigh of relief in 1949 with the Communist threat at home greatly diminished and the end of the Berlin blockade, but a new phase of the Cold War opened in 1950. Mao Tse-tung, the victor of the Chinese civil war, signed a Sino-Soviet pact in Moscow, and six months later the Korean War began. The fear of atomic war and Soviet tanks on the Place de la Concorde resurged dramatically.
The French Communist Party vigorously continued its peace propaganda and Picasso’s dove became the most over-used image of the age. Yet even at this crucial moment, personal rivalries cloaked in ideological nuance seethed in its upper ranks. Doctrinal purity in art soon provided a casus belli for the hardliners.
Picasso’s decision in 1944 to join a party which still officially condemned non-representational art as decadent had complicated matters for the Communists. At first, the purists of socialist realism had restricted their criticism to coded attacks. But the change in the party line dictated by Moscow in 1947 affected almost everything. ‘The fresh air of Soviet art,’ declared Pravda that summer, ‘is polluted by the stale stench of capitalism’s artistic bankruptcy.’ Picasso and Matisse were held responsible. The main thrust, however, was aimed at the influence of the United States. Abstract art was said to be tainted with American culture. It was ‘American imperialism’ which controlled ‘abstract art like all the rottenness in the world’. This gave Louis Aragon, Picasso’s great supporter, the opportunity to deflect the attacks. With a chauvinist twist, he described American modern art as ‘the production line imitation of an avant-garde which was born in Paris’. *
French Communism, following the Congress of Intellectuals at Wrocław in 1948, returned towards a stronger support for socialist realism. Certain distinctions were made clear: Pablo Picasso and Fernand Léger were not Communist painters, but painters who were Communists. At the Salon d’Automne of 1949, the socialist-realist painters were all grouped together in the first room; André Fougeron was hailed by Communist critics as the Jacques Louis David of the modern proletariat. For Stalin’s seventieth birthday that December, the party chose as their main gift Fougeron’s Hommage à André Houllier, a portrait of the Houllier family grieving at the spot where their son had been shot by a policeman as he pasted up a Communist poster. Picasso, on the other hand, offered as his present a rapid sketch of a face-like hand holding up a glass with the legend ‘Staline à ta santé’. The compromise solution between the two camps was to declare Fougeron to be the official painter of the party and Picasso the official painter of the peace movement.
The following year, Auguste Lecoeur, whose power base lay in the coalfields of the north, commissioned a series of paintings by Fougeron on miners’ lives, known as ‘Au Pays des mines’. In January 1951, without checking dates with anybody else, he announced in L’Humanité the opening date of this exhibition. It clashed with the new Picasso exhibition. This was probably a genuine mistake, but, intended or not, it brought the battle between the socialist-realist school and the supporters of Picasso out into the open. The vastly greater success of the Picasso exhibition constituted a humiliation for Lecoeur. He had to wait just over two years for his revenge.
When Stalin’s death was announced on Friday, 7 March 1953, Aragon called in Pierre Daix and rattled off a shopping list of features to honour Stalin in a special issue of Les Lettres françaises – ‘an article by Joliot, one by me, an article by Courtade, another by Sadoul, one by you. We must have something by Picasso.’
Since Picasso had always refused to do a portrait of Stalin from a photograph, Daix sent a telegram to himat Vallauris saying, ‘Do whatever you want’, and signed it ‘Aragon’. Picasso’s drawing of Stalin, which depicted him as a curiously open-eyed young man, arrived at the very moment Les Lettres françaises went to press. Daix took the picture in to Aragon. He admired it and said that the party would appreciate the gesture. While it was being set into the front page, office boys and typists crowded round the picture. Everyone thought it ‘worthy of Stalin’. Daix was overjoyed to be the one who had commissioned Picasso’s first portrait of the Soviet leader and rushed it down to the printers. But a few hours later, when the edition had been run off, the mood in the building had completely changed to one of fear. Journalists from L’Humanité, passing by, spotted the drawing and cried out that it was unthinkable that any Communist publication should consider printing such a representation of ‘le Grand Staline’.
Pierre Daix promptly rang Aragon at his apartment; Elsa Triolet answered. She told him angrily that he was mad to have even thought of asking Picasso for such a drawing.
‘But really, Elsa,’ Daix broke in, ‘Stalin isn’t God the Father!’
‘Yes, he is, Pierre. Nobody’s going to reflect much about what this drawing of Picasso signifies. He hasn’t even deformed Stalin’s face. He’s even respected it. But he has dared to touch it. He has actually dared, Pierre, do you understand?’
Aragon rose to the occasion and took full responsibility upon himself. It was almost as if somebody had to face a court martial for treason. But for the staff of Les Lettres françaises, the worst was still to come. Daix found secretaries in tears from the insults screamed down the telephone at them by loyal Communists protesting at the sacrilege. Some even said that it portrayed Stalin as cruel and Asiatic, which was what his enemies wanted.
Those who wished to revenge themselves on Aragon did not waste time. Chief among them was Auguste Lecoeur. He wanted Les Lettres françaises publicly condemned. Aragon prepared a suitably grovelling apology.
Communists who found themselves excluded from the party during the frenzy over the Titoist heresy were like lost souls. They had automatically been deprived of the vast majority of their friends, not having made or kept many outside the party. And they had lost all sense of purpose in their lives, along with the sense of comradeship which an embattled community provided. A true Communist used to say that he intended to die with his party membership card in his pocket – ‘mourir la carte dans la poche’.
The wrench was almost as hard for those who took the decision to leave because they could no longer swallow the lies and ‘serrer les dents’. For some this came with the show trials in Eastern Europe, for many more it came in 1956. Khrushchev denounced Stalin’s crimes on 26 February at the Twentieth Congress, yet the French Communist Party, still irredeemably Stalinist, tried to pretend that nothing had happened. The news was entirely suppressed in L’Humanité, while every other newspaper was full of the story.
Jacqueline Ventadour-Hélion, who had read Khrushchev’s speech in Le Monde, raised the issue at the next party meeting she attended. There was an embarrassed silence, then the subject was rapidly changed. Afterwards, a cadre told her firmly that ‘not all truths should be spoken aloud’. This, for her, was the time to leave. She was already under suspicion for having visited friends in the United States. Communists were not allowed visas – she had in fact obtained one through a friend in the American Embassy who took a more relaxed view of the regulation – so in the party’s logic she was therefore a supporter of John Foster Dulles. Unlike those who hated the idea of losing their party card, she felt an immense sense of liberation when it was torn up.
That autumn, during the Suez crisis, Soviet tanks crushed the rising in Hungary. Furious demonstrators attacked the Soviet Embassy. In the crowd, General de Bénouville encountered Colonel Marcel Degliame, the Communist who had come to him on that night in 1948 to warn him to be prepared against an attack.
Crowds also surrounded Communist Party headquarters, where the security guards were ready. A more serious attack was mounted against the offices of L’Humanité. Groups climbed over the roofs and threw Molotov cocktails. Inside, staff and other Communist volunteers, who had come in to help defend the place, put out fires and ejected any attackers who managed to break in. They hurled what missiles came to hand: bottles from the canteen, chairs, even a bust of Karl Marx, which was said to have flattened one assailant. The most effective were hunks of metal newspaper type. Three Communists were killed in the disorders and the days of the Resistance were recalled once again. L’Humanité claimed afterwards, in an effort to dignify the events, that workers loyal to the party had rushed into Paris from the ‘ceinture rouge’ to defend ‘their party, their newspaper… just as one throws oneself into a fire to save one’s wife and children’.
The events of 1956 led to a dramatic decline in the Communist Party’s influence on intellectual life in Paris. This did not mean that the left-wing intelligentsia’s fascination with revolutionary violence slackened. Over the next decade, new idols and theorists – including Mao, Marcuse and Che Guevara – were raised up to take the place of Stalin.
Paris continued to be a cultural and literary Mecca for the rest of the world. The patronnes of cheap hotels in the Quartier Latin still grumbled and failed to prosper. Gabriel García Márquez, who had arranged for his employer, the Colombian newspaper El Espectador, to send him to Paris, moved into a maid’s attic room on the top floor of the Hotel de Flandre in the rue Cujas. There he lived off cold spaghetti, smoked three packets of Gauloises during the course of a working night, and squeezed sideways against the radiator as he tried to summon up the tropical heat of Colombia’s Caribbean coast. The result was La Mala Hora, hammered out on an old typewriter. A photograph of his fiancée, Mercédes, back in Barranquilla pinned to the wall was the only decoration.
He had no radio, or the money to buy newspapers, and his source of information on Castro’s revolt against Batista was the poet Nicolas Guillen, who used to yell the latest news from his window. The only luxury was a drink behind the steamed-up windows of La Chope Parisienne amid silent chess players. On Christmas Night 1957, he saw snow for the first time in his life. He ran out and danced wildly among the large soft flakes.
Madame Lacroix, the patronne of the Flandre, was indeed tolerant. Not only did she allow García Mÿrquez credit for a whole year, she permitted the then unknown Peruvian writer Mario Vargas Llosa to stay for two years without paying. At one point García Märquez was reduced to begging in the streets when El Espectador went bankrupt. But one day he was encouraged by a curious incident. On the Boulevard Saint-Michel he spotted Hemingway, still his literary idol, across the street. Without thinking, he called out his name: ‘Emming-way!’ Ernest Hemingway did not look round, he just raised his hand. Yet the optimistic young South American sensed this gesture as a benediction.
Coincidentally, a new wave of writers from the United States had reached the Latin Quarter at the same time. Several members of the Beat generation, including William Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg, established themselves in what became known as the Beat Hotel at 9 rue Gît-le-Coeur. Their ambition was to meet Louis-Ferdinand Céline, whose novel Voyage au bout de la nuit had excited and influenced them. Ginsberg and Burroughs, having arranged an introduction through his editor, went to pay a call on him in the run-down suburb of Meudon. It was to be a visit of homage rather than a literary discussion.
Since his return from Denmark, Céline had not had many visitors, except Arletty, who had corresponded with him during his exile and had remained a faithful friend. She understood his cafards; besides, the two had more in common than their origins in Courbevoie. Arletty made a recording of his Death on the Instalment Plan and he wrote a scenario for her called Arletty, jeune fille dauphinoise, a sort of picaresque adventure in the eighteenth-century manner, rather reminiscent of Candide. But Céline did not have long to live: he died on 1 July 1961, the same day as Hemingway.
France’s tortuous relationship with the United States was not improved in 1954, when the unwinnable war in Indo-China ended in ignominious defeat at Dien Bien Phu. French dominion over North Africa was also doomed. A fatal combination of bigotry, weakness, wilful shortsightedness, political inconsistency and bad faith was leading to a series of humiliations which together were tantamount to the defeat of 1940. Once again, de Gaulle appeared as the only candidate able to rescue France from the consequences of national pride and then proceed to rebuild it.
The bitter turmoil in Algiers allowed him to return to power in the virtually unopposed coup d’état of May 1958. Colonel Passy immediately flew to his old wartime haunt of London as the General’s envoy to the intelligence community. Passy arranged a discreet lunch with the former SIS chief of station in Paris, who was now in charge of the European department. He chose the Savoy, where, to remind himself of the gastronomic curiosities of London, he ordered kippers and a bottle of Bass beer. The purpose of his visit, however, was to ask his old colleagues to spread the message that de Gaulle had come to power only to solve the Algerian crisis. He had absolutely no intention of staying on.
The General, however, had every intention of staying on. His return allowed him to end the Fourth Republic, which he had despised from its conception. This time he was able to insist on the Constitution he wanted, with almost all the power concentrated in the hands of the President. The Fifth Republic, with politicians reduced to rude mechanicals, was patently his creation.
His distrust of the British and the Americans had continued to burn strongly over the years. In 1961, President Kennedy sent a highly secret message for de Gaulle’s eyes only to Paris by special courier. The missive informed the French President that the CIA had just started to debrief a Russian defector, and he had produced the names of Soviet moles high in the French administration. If President de Gaulle would like to select a senior English-speaking officer with intelligence experience, his nominee could come to the United States and sit in on the relevant debriefing sessions. De Gaulle promptly summoned General Jean-Louis de Rougemont, who was then head of the army’s intelligence staff, to the Élysée Palace. He emphasized to Rougement the great secrecy of the whole affair and explained in detail what he should do. ‘In any case,’ said de Gaulle, ‘you must see whether this isn’t a trap.’
‘The Russians?’ asked Rougemont.
‘No, the Americans!’ replied de Gaulle in exasperation.
Because de Gaulle’s attitude to the Americans had not changed, neither had the Kremlin’s strategy towards France. As mentioned earlier, the Soviet politburo allotted the task of persuading France to leave NATO to Boris Ponomarev.
Ponomarev worked in close liaison with Andrei Gromyko, the Soviet Minister of Foreign Affairs. In 1965 and 1966, Gromyko launched a diplomatic campaign to encourage France to sign as many treaties and agreements as possible on a range of issues. These included a deal by which Russia would take the French colour television system and a Soviet offer to launch French satellites on Soviet rockets. Couve de Murville visited the Soviet Union at the end of October 1965; the subjects to be discussed included the improvement of relations between the two countries, European questions and the German problem. In June 1966, de Gaulle accepted an invitation to visit Moscow not long after an agreement on sharing nuclear research was reached. At the end of September, a Franco-Soviet Chamber of Commerce was established in Paris, and eleven days later a technical collaboration deal was reached between Soviet industry and Renault-Peugeot. All these moves were accompanied by a Franco-Soviet friendship offensive launched in the Soviet and French Communist press.
‘A second clandestine channel,’ wrote the KGB defector Aleksei Myagkov (a source considered reliable by British intelligence), ‘was KGB activity. Using its agents among journalists and officials of the various agencies in France’, as well as among members of the Association France-URSS, ‘it propagated actively among politicians the theme that the country’s political independence suffered from the fact that it was a member of NATO and that foreign troops were stationed on its territory, especially American troops. The same line of thought was canvassed among French citizens recruited in political circles.’
When de Gaulle withdrew France from NATO’s military structure on 1 July 1967, the decision was ‘received with great satisfaction in Moscow’. The leaders of the KGB ‘did not hide their satisfaction at this recognition of the fact that they too had played their part in these events’. It is still impossible to assess how effective that part might have been, but the KGB clearly regarded it as a major success: from 1968 the operation was used as ‘an instructive example in KGB officer courses’.
De Gaulle’s supporters may have acclaimed him as the Liberator of France, but the General preferred to see himself in the monarchical role as unifier of the country and healer of national wounds. He never forgot that the role of Vichy was potentially more traumatic than the defeat of 1940 or the German occupation, because Vichy was the creation of France itself.
The trials and purges after the Liberation had failed either to satisfy the aggrieved or to convince the population of their fairness. But uneasy consciences about both the Occupation and the épuration helped de Gaulle create a myth of national unity – a version of events which took root because it expressed what the majority of the population needed to believe.
The transfer of Jean Moulin’s remains to the Panthéon in December 1964 was the apotheosis of the myth that France had liberated herself and thus wiped out the shame of 1940. Once again, de Gaulle managed to manipulate the Resistance into looking like a tolerably well-drilled military unit under his command. The ceremonies took place over two days. On the first, the remains of Jean Moulin lay in state at the Martyrs’ Memorial, guarded by relays of Compagnons de la Libération. At ten o’clock in the evening the casket was taken in procession through the heart of Paris to the steps of the Panthéon, where it was guarded all night by veterans of the Resistance.
On the following day, André Malraux, with de Gaulle and Georges Pompidou beside him, delivered a eulogy from a tribune facing the casket. His speech focused more on General de Gaulle, le premier résistant, than on Jean Moulin, his commander in the field. The notion of the Resistance as an army of the state fighting a foreign enemy was the great myth’s way of diverting attention away from the aspect of civil war. A march-past followed, with units from the Garde Républicaine and the three services. For this part of the ceremony, de Gaulle, Pompidou and Malraux moved from their tribune to the steps of the Panthéon, beside the casket – so that the parade could ‘salute in one single motion both the mortal remains of Jean Moulin and the President of the Republic’.
The myth was not really challenged until after the events of May 1968, when a new generation began to ask uncomfortable questions. Some of them were slanted, some of them made no allowance for the realities of the Occupation, but the process had to be gone through. Marcel Ophuls’s documentary Le Chagrin et la pitié, released in 1969, was one of the first films to confront the less heroic aspects of the Occupation. This provoked much anger among the older generation. The film was banned from French television. Whatever its flaws, Le Chagrin et la pitié was such a powerful piece of documentary cinema that it helped launch a younger generation of researchers into digging, sifting and re-examining material – not an easy task with the archives still firmly closed. Despite the obstacles, it soon became clear that the real shame of the Vichy years was the regime’s treatment of Jews.
In 1978, an interview in L’Express with the octogenarian Darquier de Pellepoix, the Vichy Commissioner for Jewish Affairs, caused an outcry. Although he had been condemned to death in absentia in 1947, the French authorities had never requested his extradition from Spain. Darquier, who was still violently anti-Semitic, spoke of his surprise at the hatred against him in France, while the man responsible for the infamous round-up of Jews in Paris – René Bousquet, the former head of the Vichy police – was pursuing a very successful career as a banker.
In 1980, three former SS officers testified that the deportation of Jews from France had received enthusiastic assistance from Vichy officials. Many people still refused to believe it; but the Germans’ testimony was proved true by the most determined and successful sleuth of war crimes in France, Serge Klarsfeld. After meticulous research in German archives, Klarsfeld found that the Occupation authorities had kept minutes of meetings with senior Vichy officials helping with the deportation of Jews. The most devastating concerned Adolf Eichmann’s visit to Paris at the beginning of July 1942. René Bousquet not only agreed that his police should undertake the arrests but proposed that the deportations should cover non-French Jews throughout the country. Klarsfeld also revealed the telegrams Bousquet had sent to the prefects of départements in the unoccupied zone, ordering them to deport not only Jewish adults but children whose deportation had not even been requested by the Nazis.
Bousquet was an administrator, not an anti-Semitic ideologue. He claimed that he acted as he did in order to save French Jews, and it is true that the number sent to Auschwitz was lower than the Germans expected. But the fact remains that he and his men were responsible for the infamous round-up which took nearly 13,000 Jews to the Vélodrome d’Hiver on 16 and 17 July 1942, including 4,000 children.
Bousquet’s untroubled and prosperous existence was disturbed by the Darquier interview. He was forced to resign from his various positions and Jewish demonstrations took place outside his apartment building in the Avenue Raphaël. He was not committed for trial, however, until 1989, when he was charged with crimes against humanity. The inquiry was still in progress when, on 8 June 1993, a fifty-year-old mental patient called Christian Didier gained entry to Bousquet’s flat and shot him dead.
Paul Touvier, the head of the Vichy Milice in Lyons and a close associate of Klaus Barbie, was sentenced to death after the Liberation. He escaped, and traditionalist Catholic groups sheltered him for years. He received a pardon from President Pompidou in 1971, but went back into hiding in 1981 when it became clear that he could be prosecuted for crimes against humanity. He was finally arrested in 1989, but prevarications in the judicial system continued to delay his trial and sentence of life imprisonment in April 1994. He died in prison in 1996.
Information also emerged about Maurice Papon, who had been general secretary of the Gironde with special responsibility for Jewish Affairs from 1942 to 1944. On his orders, 1,690 Jews – including 130 children under thirteen – were sent to the detention centre of Drancy. By 1944, however, Papon realized that Vichy was doomed. He started passing information to the Resistance, which earned him a place among the Anciens Combattants de la Résistance.
Papon suffered remarkably few problems after the Liberation. He became the Prefect of the Paris police soon after de Gaulle’s return to power, and in October 1961 he was in charge when 11,000 Algerians were arrested for demonstrating in Paris. Some sixty of these prisoners were said to have been killed over the next few days, and most of the bodies were dumped in the Seine. Papon went on to become Minister of the Budget under President Giscard d’Estaing. His career came to a halt only in 1981, when Le Canard enchaîné published documents showing his responsibility for the deportation of the Jews.
Such was the reluctance of the French establishment to see this case come to court that it took sixteen years of legal wrangling before Maurice Papon, then aged eighty-seven, stood trial in Bordeaux. He was the first high-ranking French official to stand trial for complicity in crimes against humanity, and in 1998 he was found guilty of complicity in the deportation but not murder of the Jews. Papon’s lawyers appealed, but in 1999 he was sentenced to ten years in prison. He was released in 2002 on health grounds.
The civil war among historians is unlikely to end for some time. Older and more conservative writers, who have retained their respect for Marshal Pétain, refuse to accept that Vichy was a fascist regime. In the narrow sense of the term, it cannot be defined as fascist: it was too reactionary and Catholic, despite its lip service to a National Revolution. But in the broader sense, the personality cult of the Marshal, the anti-Jewish laws, the paramilitary organizations and the total lack of democratic rights could justify the label. This more forgiving school also feels that far too much has been made of the photographs of Pétain’s meeting with Hitler at Montoire in 1940. ‘Mitterrand,’ said one, ‘shook the hand of Milosevic – a war criminal – so why should Pétain not have shaken Hitler’s hand at Montoire?’ Their greatest regret is that Pétain did not protect his reputation by fleeing to North Africa in November 1942, when the Germans invaded the unoccupied zone.
Those on the other side of the fence – mainly the younger historians grouped round the Institut d’Histoire du Temps Présent, and the American historian of Vichy, Robert Paxton – are less preoccupied with the fact that Pétain continued to lend his prestige to collaboration after 1942 than with the responsibility of Vichy for deporting French and foreign Jews to their death. ‘The collaboration of the [Vichy] state was appalling,’ said Paxton in an interview the day after the assassination of Bousquet. ‘Because the orders came from the Ministry of the Interior, the prefects and all parts of the administration obeyed. Without exception. It was a formidable machine for the Nazis who as a result needed only a handful of men to carry out their plans.’
The shame of Vichy – the shame of their parents’ generation – clearly played a part in perpetuating the appeal of revolutionary chic among the young, who had only changed their role models. They despised the advanced ossification of the Soviet system and instead admired guerrilla movements in Latin America.
On the subject of politically engaged intellectuals in France – whether Drieu, Brasillach, Malraux or Sartre – Professor Judt has observed that their fascination with violence contained a ‘quasi-erotic charge’. It underlines the fact that while it has long been easy to mock Hemingway, the posturing of French intellectuals, although more sophisticated, demonstrated an arrogant irresponsibility which was far more dangerous and dishonest. Sartre tried to reconcile existentialism with his new phase of revolutionary commitment, but predictably it failed to be anything more than an exercise in verbose sophistry. By the end of his life he even began to justify terrorist action.
Saint-Germain-des-Prés and the Latin Quarter continued throughout the 1950s and 1960s to be a breeding ground of isms. The nouveau roman movement, with the novels of Nathalie Sarraute, Michel Butor and Alain Robbe-Grillet, even produced chosisme or ‘thingism’: the exhaustive description of inanimate objects, to emphasize how depersonalized the modern world had become. But the materialistic enemy was already within the gates. The Deux Magots sold itself to the tourist trade as the ‘rendez-vous des intellectuels’. Cheap fashion shops and hamburger bars soon stretched the length of the Boulevard Saint-Michel, and in the newspaper kiosks along the Boulevard Saint-Germain Playboy magazine had taken over from Les Temps modernes. ‘It is thus,’ wrote Marc Doelnitz, ‘that one passes from the cult of the head to the cult of the ass.’
France, like the rest of the world, had started to lose its cultural independence after a spirited rearguard action, a battle fought by Communists and traditionalists for different motives. Yet whether the ‘American challenge’ started on 6 June 1944 in Normandy or in 1948 with the final signature on the Marshall Plan, France’s cultural purity was bound to be threatened in the long run. The left-wing ideals of the Liberation, along with the intellectual environment in which they had thrived, stood little chance. ‘Dirty money’, like the industrial warfare of heavy guns, was bound to triumph in the end.
The events of May 1968 in Paris represented the dying flicker of the guerre franco-française, along with the last great moments of the Parisian intelligentsia’s political commitment. This time, however, there was no Stalinist focus, as there had been after the Liberation. Louis Aragon was the only member of the party’s central committee to go out to address them. They greeted him with cries of ‘Shut up, you old fool!’ The party itself, the only serious organization of the left, was loath to become involved in what it saw as Trotskyist or anarchist adventures.
It now seems extraordinary that President de Gaulle and his ministers should have feared that France was again on the brink of civil war. There were also some curiously false echoes of the Liberation twenty-four years before. In an attempt to cow the students, tanks from the 2nd Armoured Division were diverted through Parisian suburbs on what was described as an ‘itinéraire psychologique’. *
Strikes and rioting eroded government confidence to such a degree over the next two weeks that on 29 May de Gaulle left Paris without even warning his closest colleagues. They arrived at the Élysée Palace just before ten o’clock for a meeting of the Council of Ministers and were aghast to hear that the President had left for an undisclosed destination. Rumours spread rapidly that he had retired to Colombeyles-deux-Églises to announce his resignation. Parisians listened to the contradictory reports on their transistor radios in a state of apprehension comparable with that of the uprising in August 1944, when they feared that the Allies would never reach the city in time. There were even rich paniquards – those who could obtain fuel for their cars – taking the road to Switzerland with all their valuables.
De Gaulle had in fact flown to Baden-Baden to meet General Massu at the headquarters of the French army in Germany. His son-in-law, General Alain de Boissieu, had arranged the meeting. The President needed a firm guarantee that he had the full support of the army, which had been discontented since his decision in 1962 to withdraw from Algeria. The price was the release from prison of General Salan, whose putsch in that year, with paratroopers emplaned at Algiers ready to seize Paris, had collapsed at the last moment.
The next morning, 30 May, President de Gaulle reappeared at the Élysée Palace after landing by helicopter at Issy-les-Moulineaux. A communiqué was issued. After a meeting of the Council of Ministers, the President would address the nation by radio. Comparisons were immediately made with his radio appeal from London on 18 June 1940. Gaullist supporters, tipped off that their leader was about to fight back, began to gather in central Paris, armed with tricolours and transistors. The General’s speech at half past four was brief. He was not resigning. He had decided to dissolve the National Assembly and to appoint prefects to take on the post-Liberation authority of Commissaires de la République. But the underlying message of his text was a challenge to the left. If they wanted civil war instead of constitutional government, they would have it. This was de Gaulle’s last dramatic intervention. The next year, following an unfavourable result in a referendum, he resigned as President of the Republic and disappeared to Ireland. The succession was assured with Georges Pompidou as his replacement. The Fifth Republic, with the dirigiste Constitution which de Gaulle had wanted in 1945, maintained its stability well beyond the death of its creator eighteen months later.
On that afternoon of his radio broadcast, 30 May 1968, the General’s supporters gathered exultantly on the Place de la Concorde and the Champs-Élysées. ‘De Gaulle is not alone!’ they cried. Fromcrowds nearly a million strong, there emerged a variety of other slogans. The favourite was the chant ‘Le communisme ne passera pas!’ No doubt there were many present who had been supporters of Marshal Pétain; but the vast majority now regarded themselves as average Frenchmen, exasperated with political strikes and chaos in the Latin Quarter. The Sartrian road to freedomwas at an end. Radical ideas had failed to overcome the bourgeoisie.