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The Betrayal of France

ISSUE:  Summer 1942

They Called Me Cassandra. By Genevieve Tabouis. Charles Scribner’s Sons. $3.00. Deadline. By Pierre Lazareff. Random House. $3.00. France of Tomorrow. By Albert Gue>ard. Harvard University Press. $3.50.

Three books have recently come out on the fall of French democracy. These books, though not covering this vast field completely, are useful in helping us to understand what happened in June 1940 and after the Armistice; they allow us to measure the responsibility of the conservative middle class in permitting Hitler to impose his will upon France.

Genevieve Tabouis, in “They Called Me Cassandra,” and Pierre Lazareff, in “Deadline,” have written their memoirs. Both are journalists of great talent, who report what they observed; they are not sociologists or historians. By birth, education and by their profession, they have belonged to the Parisian middle class and their testimony is precious for the study of the class to which they belonged. Their main mistake is not to have warned the reader that this class was no more France than New York’s Fifth Avenue is America; the France of professors, workers, scientists and peasants was better than the France of the Parisian salons or of the editorial rooms. With this kept well in mind, the revelations of Genevieve Tabouis and Pierre Lazareff on the corruption and decadence of the Parisian upper middle class are very interesting.

Albert Guerard’s book, “The France of Tomorrow,” is on a different plane. The author is an American scholar of French origin. He not only exposes the facts, he judges them. He warns us that his study is not “mechanically objective” and that “having thoughts and feelings, he desires to express them, not to suppress them.” He explains the French defeat almost completely in terms of the treason of the upper middle class: the middle class used the defeat to crush the Republic, which it hated, and to destroy democracy, which it feared. Mr. Guerard connects this treason with the political history of the last one hundred and fifty years. He shows that France has always been two rival countries; the liberal and democratic France—the France of the declaration of the Rights of Man, that believes in Liberty, Equality and Fraternity; and the reactionary, nationalist and militarist France, the one of the Dreyfus Case and of the “moral order,” the France which never accepted the “new deal” of the French Revolution of 1789, and which still has hopes of bringing back the French people to the “Ancien Regime.” It is this reactionary France which is represented in different ways by Petain and by Pierre Laval, as the spirit of the French Revolution was represented by the Popular Front. Reactionary France preferred “collaboration” with the Axis powers to friendship with the democracies and the alliance with Soviet Russia; it furnished Hitler his 5th and 6th columns before the war, and his “puppet governments” after the war.

The degree of responsibility of the upper middle class in the defeat of France is made clear. This responsibility is not exclusively theirs; the causes of the weaknesses and of the defeat of France are numerous. Guerard underlines the responsibility of the military chiefs, including Petain and Weygand, who prepared a warfare for 1919 instead of 1939. In the same manner, the foreign policy practiced not only by France but by all the democracies provided the aggressive states the occasions and pretexts which they needed: the abandonment of China, of Republican Spain and of Czechoslovakia, the lack of confidence in the Soviet Union—all these helped to destroy collective security and were much more important causes of the French defeat than the 40-hour week or the policy of the Popular Front. But these causes themselves were based on the attitude of the French bourgeoisie towards Fascism. This attitude can be summarized by saying that the French conservatives preferred the risks of an understanding with Hitler rather than the risks of an understanding with Stalin. The French upper middle class betrayed France the day they subordinated everything, including the national interest, to their fear of a transformation of the actual social order; that is to say, to the defense of their material interests. They betrayed France the day they saw in Hitler, not the man who wanted to dominate the world, but the man who could defend them against the peril of revolution. The rallying of the French bourgeoisie to Fascism is then the true common denominator of all the mistakes committed by France during the last decade. This problem is very important and I should like, in examining it, to use not only the arguments that Mr. Guerard uses but also the testimonies of Genevieve Tabouis and Pierre Lazareff.

The rallying to Fascism of a great section of the French middle class is not an isolated phenomenon; it has been a general phenomenon of which all the democracies have been more or less victims at the same time, and against which they have more or less efficaciously defended themselves. This illness of the democratic middle class (that is to say, of democracy in a strictly political sense) comes evidently from the evolution of the capitalist r6gime. Capitalism, in its change from free market to monopoly, has created the necessary favorable conditions for the expansion of this illness. It is not necessary to be a Marxist in order to observe the following facts: first, the concentration of business has had the result of altering the social composition of the middle class; thus the small businessmen and artisans are more and more being transformed into “technicians” and “employees”; as result of this, the middle class is composed less of independent workers having, because of their professional habits, the desire for liberty, and more of individuals subservient to the hierarchy and discipline of capitalist organizations. Second, the concentration of business leads towards economic “corporative” organization, and Fascism is the most appropriate political expression for corporatism. Third, the concentration of business, by increasing the ill feeling between employers and workers and thus adding to the intensity of class struggle, arouses the middle class to the danger of revolution. These three factors combine to divorce the middle class from liberalism, making it lean towards corporatism and subjecting it to the fear of social revolution. The evolution of capitalism determines thus psychological and political reactions which a clever demagogue can use to destroy democracy, by promising the middle classes to liberate them at the same time from Judeo-Masonic exploitation and from the danger of Communism. This, in broad outline, is the cause of the political illness of which all democracies have been sick.

Without going into details, I should like to outline rapidly the two main circumstances which have facilitated the corruption of the French bourgeoisie by Fascism. I have already pointed out the first of these circumstances; it is the very existence, among the French bourgeoisie, of an antidemocratic tradition, of a permanent nucleus of the adversaries of democracy. For one hundred and fifty years, French conservatives have not only been the enemies of social progress, but the enemies of the republican regime; they have supported one after the other, the King, the Emperor, MacMahon, Boulanger—no matter who seemed to them able to do away with the menace which a political democracy represents to social privileges. For the last forty years, Charles Maurras, monarchist leader and now political inspirer of Marshal Petain, did his best to sow in the minds of the bourgeois the hate of democratic ideas. No other European or American country has known anything similar. An Anglo-Saxon big businessman has his children brought up in the respect of democratic law; but the French “grand bourgeois” taught his children contempt for this same law. Genevieve Tabouis’ book includes, on this subject, very interesting recollections from her youth. Let us add to Genevieve Tabouis’ recollections, an important statement made by Pierre Lazareff: after the success of the Popular Front, French royalists wished not only for war, but defeat, so as to be able to do away with the republican regime. Thus, while the majority of the French people manifested their attachment to democracy and their hate for Fascism, some men holding the highest offices in the Army, like Petain, or in the economic hierarchy, like Louis Renault or the leaders of the comite des Forges, were the supporters of Fascist organizations. The famous “200 families” were not only dictators of the French economy, they were actively anti-republican and anti-democratic. It has not been evinced that these men organized defeat, but it has been proved that some wanted defeat and that others accepted a defeat which allowed them at last to realize their aims. The anti-democratic tradition of French reactionaries has been, for the development of Fascism, an exceptionally favorable circumstance.

The second favorable circumstance for the development of Fascism in France was the weakness of democratic institutions. The American public, even among college and university people, does not realize to what degree these institutions had become anti-democratic. Personally, I think, as does Harold Laski, that a certain development of capitalism is an obstacle to the functioning of political democracy, and that there is no true democracy in the countries where big industrial organizations control eighty per cent of the press. But this point may be controversial, and I prefer to concentrate a few minutes on the French governmental institutions.

These institutions were not democratic enough. They have never been very democratic; Clemenceau once pointed to the Constitution of 1875 as “a war machine against the Republic.” During the period from 1920 to 1940 the French governmental system became more and more unable to translate the will of the people into governmental decisions. This incapacity came from the French Senate, which, owing to the system by which its members were elected, was not truly representative of the people as a whole, but was rather the political expression of the middle-classes, principally of the “rural bourgeoisie.” Only the Chamber of Deputies was representative of all classes of the nation. On the other hand, the Senate had more extensive legislative and governmental powers, than, for instance, the British House of Lords: it could dismiss the Cabinet, and hence nothing could be achieved in the governmental or legislative spheres without its consent. These extensive powers did not come from the written law but from a progressive extension of the common law by usage. This constitutional organization led to legislative paralysis and ministerial instability; if the attitude of the Cabinet was in accord with that of the Chamber it was out of accord with that of the Senate and vice versa, because the Senate and the Chamber expressed the will of different and sometimes rival social groups. A thorough examination of the ministerial crises, during the period from 1920 to 1940 evinces that eighty per cent of these crises came directly or indirectly from disagreements on financial problems between the Chamber and the Senate. Mr. Guerard is right when he speaks about “the dictatorship of the middle-class” ; he only forgets that the Senate was the main instrument of it. An important consequence of this dictatorship was the progressive disaffection of the popular masses and of organized labor toward the regime of the Third Republic. The workers had the impression that the will of the majority of the people was not a “sovereign will,” and that it could never prevail, principally in social matters, against the will of the wealthy minority of which the Senate was representative. After the fall of the Popular Front government, the workers lost their confidence in the reformatory ability of a political democracy obliged to bow before the economic power of big business.

It was not because it was too democratic, it was because it had never been democratic enough and because it had become less and less democratic that the Third Republic ended in a failure. The constitutional weakness of the Third Republic and the increasing contradiction between the principle of social hierarchy of monopoly-capitalism and the principle of political equality of democracy were about to reach a breaking point. If, in spite of these social and political circumstances, French democracy so long resisted the assaults of Fascism, if it has required the “collaboration” of German soldiers and French Fascists to crush its institutions, this is because the spirit of democracy has strong roots in the French people. French democratic institutions were never so good as the French democratic spirit.

Since June 1940 many books have been written on the fall of France. But up to now, nobody has written a book on the resistance of the French popular masses to Fascism, from 1920 to 1940—maybe because the battle is still going on. This battle is a mere phase of the historic fight between the partisans of the “Ancien Regime” and the heirs of the French Revolution. Almost defeated on February 6, 1934, victorious in May 1936 with the Popular Front, now defeated by the “collaboration” of Petain and Laval with Hitler, the French people, the French democratic people, are still fighting, in their underground organizations. The upper middle-classes have betrayed the nation, as did the aristocrats at the end of the 18th century; the workers and the peasants are the bulk of the resistance to Hitlerism, as they were the bulk of the French Revolution a century and a half ago. A new Revolution, social and political, seems to be in process. As Tocqueville said, it is always the same Revolution, because it is always unfinished; it has to move from the political order to the social order. From this Revolution a new French democracy is arising. New formulas and new methods must be found for this democracy; but its essential motto will remain: Liberty, Equality, Fraternity.


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