Paris Letter: With Each New Crisis

Paris Letter: With Each New Crisis

We have survived yet another crisis in France. I use the passive form feelingly. It shows how far we have come since May 13, 1958 [the date of the Gaullist coup] and indeed since long before then. To some of us it had not been clear for a good many years how France could again become a working democracy. I say, again, as one might speak of restoring the Golden Age, for to me French democracy was like a childhood legend.

The Fall had taken place, to my reflective sense, in 1914 when the French Socialist Party decided to share responsibility for the war against Germany—I need hardly add that the corresponding decision of the German Social Democrats was equally fatal with regard to German democracy. At that moment the language of our socialists became a lie. The tenor of all propaganda was summed up for the average Frenchman in one fatal phrase: bourrage de crdne, brain stuffing, the true predecessor of brain washing. Each country had its share of the phenomenon, but in France it seemed worse than elsewhere, perhaps because here self-awareness is particularly keen.

The loss of values was terrific, yet less than proportional to the loss of blood. French military leadership was criminally inefficient, and a country with less than forty million inhabitants lost a million and a half dead. I have sometimes thought that the sheer spilling of blood must have induced a collective trauma from which, in the absence of a great new imaginative purpose, the nation could not hope to recover. There followed, in any case, a sharpening of the critical sense and an awareness of the duplicity that pervaded all statements of values.

Integration of the individual into the community has never been a strong trait among the French, and what there was of it I have seen dwindle in my time. Repeatedly Frenchmen found that between the two wars they voted into office left wing governments and that in a few months these governments were perceptibly altered by reshufflings, after which they would be replaced without any new election by a center-right coalition. As long as the left was in office, the Stock Exchange registered vivid, irrestible slumps; as soon as the left was removed, astonishing recoveries took place. Obviously, another “will” was at work, unconnected with the naive game of universal suffrage. Nor did this hidden will regulate only matters of finance. It made sure that all the important permanent civil servants belonged to the upper bourgeoisie and were of a rightist complexion. It made sure that the army officer corps was overwhelmingly reactionary.

Frustrations accumulated. The Communist Party rose and thrived on them, becoming the dominant force within the working class. Trying as it did to serve Moscow and win the people, this party represented a frustrating double intent and structure. The Socialists, if anything, were worse; they spoke a firm Marxist language, yet all their actions were colored by the fact tha...