Seldom if ever has the National Assembly of the Fourth French Republic given to a candidate aspiring to the office of Premier the kind of enthusiastic ovation accorded to Pierre Mendes-France when he re fused what then seemed the necessary support of the French Communist Party. It was this refusal—dearly and firmly stated—that more than anything else he said won for him what practically no one (except himself) in French political life had expected him to get; and he won by the largest majority in the history of the Fourth Republic. His energy in arranging a meeting with Chinese Premier Chou En-lai at Bern, and his announcement of their agreement to seek a cease-fire as rapidly as possible immediately won him an even more impressive vote of confidence.
Yet it was clear then—and it is even clearer now— that if Mendes-France is to be Monsieur Peace (as the non-Communist French Left calls him) or even Monsieur Hope (as he is hailed in England) he must look for and get something like support from Communist leaders far more important than Maurice Thorez and Jacques Duclos. The top Reds of the world—Malenkov and Mao Tse-tung—must give him the green light. The results of the meeting at Bern give France cause to hope that they may.
A truce in Indo-China must be not only acceptable to a terribly war weary France but also dependably fool- proof to France's major partners in the free world if the brilliant, relatively young (for France) Premier is to y extend the limit of the four Thursdays given to him by the Assembly. For the French, it may be enough for Mendes-France to say that he will faire la paix, as Georges Clemenceau once said that he would faire la guerre. Nevertheless the French themselves know that they have not made war as it could or should have been made; and that the making of the peace must concern the US and Britain as least as much as it does them.
The essential problem of France can be over-simplified into a formula that should be familiar—though not necessarily reassuring—to Americans. France is undoubtedly loyal to the Atlantic Alliance and to the free world. What remains to be seen is whether the deeds —as well as the words—of her new Premier can change the mood and conduct that have made the country appear to be a security risk.
The French must undertake new sacrifices at home and abroad; or they must reduce their commitments and let others assume more in places and in situations that France has up to now jealously guarded against encroachment. If a Frenchman thinks that he can keep freedom—almost to the point of license—on the banks of the Seine no matter what happens or fails to happen along the Mekong, the same is not true for men in America, Britain, Australia and New Zealand.
It is certainly true that the very fact of the advent of the new Premier to office has changed the political climate in France, and also, to a lesser extent, in all of Western Europe. Yet his chances of success depend primarily on whether the political pressure from Moscow is low or high, or whether the winds are favorable or stormy from Peking. The Mendes-France experiment is the most important—indeed, in some ways, the first—real gamble on the suppositions or hopes of those Western Europeans who count on a change for the better in the climate in Russia and Red China. Miracles are out of the question; a change in air is at least conceivable.
In France itself, Mendes-France—whether he likes it or not-—speaks for, or in the language of, those real or near-neutralists who have wanted to bring the country closer to the center of the wide distance between Washington' and Moscow. He himself denies—^he has done so publicly in a letter to the Paris edition of the New York Herald Tribune—that he is a neutralist; or that he wants the help of the neutralists. There is every reason to believe that he is honest. No one has ever been able to impugn the honesty which made him refuse office in a series of governments or made him repeat but never contradict his basic ideas. Nor can there be doubt of his courage, ability and brilliance. To a certain extent he is a species of French equivalent of Adlai Stevenson.
The leading neutralist newspaper in France, the Monde of Paris, supports him warmly, on the assumption that he agrees that:
The war in Indo-China was folly; that the Atlantic Alliance could not be healthy and strong unless we spoke to the Americans in the frank language of friend ship and not in that of hired servants; that Germany should be progressively reintegrated into Europe^ with all the rights of a free people, without however be coming a spearhead pointed toward the East; that the application of the same methods, the stubborn repetition of the same mistakes, would fatally bring us in Africa to the same plight as in Asia; and that it was vain to hope or to try anything whatsoever so long as pressure groups and interests [les feodalites] of all kinds made their own purposes and interests prevail in parliament over those of the nation. .
A man belonging to a party of the moderate Right, AA representing primarily the Left of Center, and speaking quite often for the non-Communist Left, Mendes-France depends nevertheless for support on the Right of Center and the far Right. The non-Communist
Left, through such newspapers as Franc-Tireur and Combat, welcome his new ideas. The Figaro, speaking for the classical non-Gaullist Right, has warned that he must be new only in methods, not in ideas or policies; and to these new methods he must bring the shock treatment of energy, clarity and a break with the confusions of the immediate past.
The Socialists voted for him as the man who could end the war in Indo-China; the Gaullists (or at least the majority group now called, oddly, the Social Republicans) as the man who could give them their version of EDC and Europeanism in general. This makes a fundamental contradiction. The two supports cannot for long be fused into one. The Gaullists want to save the French "presence" in the Far East and North Africa; they go much farther in this direction than the "world vocation" of Georges Bidault. The Socialists are concerned with French support of a full-bodied European ism; and here they too go much farther than Bidault and the men of the MRP (the Popular Republicans). EDC will be a stumbling block, the Socialists wanting it in its present form, the Gaullists insisting on another kind of German rearmament. And even if the "confrontation" of theses on EDC, which Mendes-France has promised, should produce some workable compromise, it remains true that on major issues of French policy, the parties are divided both between themselves and within themselves.
For the first time since the Liberation (except for a very brief period in 1946), the MRP is not in the government. This is the party of Robert Schuman and of Bidault, of the closest possible links with the Atlantic Alliance and the US. Its leaders have refused participation and support to Mendes-France. The MRP insists on the continuation of its all-out Atlantic policy and its man at the Quai d'Orsay. It firmly believes that—regardless of what the Assembly may say or do about foreign policy—-the people of France are moving steadily toward the EDC and the MRP line. This opinion seems to be confirmed by a number of recent local elections and polls. It can only, be tested on the large scale, however, by a general election; and the MRP has come out vigorously in favor of them. There is also a third reason for MRP non-support of Mendes-France. If he fails the effect will be to damage seriously, perhaps even irreparably, progressive, non-Communist forces in French domestic policy. The MRP is close to the non-Communist Left on domestic reforms. A failure of the "Peace Premier of the four Thursdays" might set up a wave of domestic reaction. The anti progressive Right might take over and adopt a policy based on domestic anti-New Dealism. In this event, the MRP, having kept its independence, would be in a position to resist the wave of reaction. It might then again step forward as a conserver of moderate government— the one most observers expected to come from a long crisis after the fall of Joseph Laniel—extending from the Left of Center members of the Radical Socialist Party through the independents and MRP to a large bloc of the Gaullists. And the Premier probably would be Antoine Pinay.
The crisis which led to the Mendes-France experiment was in any event different from the previous ones. Qises have tended to serve, the London Times points out, as a means of escape from the problems of political reality, like the flight into illness of a man who finds life too much for him. There is no trace of any thing resembling flight in the temperament, intentions or methods of Mendes-France. A very large proportion of the non-Communist population of France supports him. It was time for a change. Above all it was time for either increasing sacrifices or reducing commitments. There had to be a break moreover in the vicious circle by which a series of previous French governments had first refused to give small concessions to real representatives of the people—in France, in North Africa and in Indo-China, and then ended up giving big concessions to persons and interests not representing the people.
Crises still exist; they are present practically everywhere under the French flag—in Indo-China, Tunisia, Morocco, even in the French possessions in India. France is still sick. But Mendes-France will surely do" his best to prevent any further fleeing into political neurosis—or, we believe personally, into neutralism.
This article originally ran in the July 5th, 1954, issue of the magazine.