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Will France Abandon Democracy?

ISSUE:  Autumn 1939

The words “France” and “democracy” cannot be divorced. They will always be irrevocably united as long as Frenchmen remain true to their own nature. That great ambassador, Jules Cambon, who in 1898 represented France in Washington, used to say: “Each country has its part to play on earth, if the earth is to remain livable.” He would add that history proves that when countries shun their own parts and seek other destinies, they always take the wrong road and are forced to turn back, paying dearly for the bad judgment of their governors.

Jules Cambon thought that England’s role was to maintain throughout the world the theory of the benevolent force of law, the same part that the old Romans played. Italy’s role, if she were not Fascist, would be to serve as mediator between the Latin and Slavic worlds, and to give each of them a feeling of harmony and beauty of proportions. Germany’s role, if she were not National Socialist, would be to demonstrate the power that lies in methodical work, science, and daily fervor. Russia’s role was to maintain a balance in Europe in order to make it possible for every European country to play its own part.

France’s role, thought the Ambassador, was to support the freedom and liberties of small countries wherever they happen to be. As M. Herriot once said: “France, the home of liberal ideas, of equality and fraternity, will keep its radiance and will continue to become more brilliant as long as the living symbol of democracy exists.” Therefore, every time that France has failed in her task of supporting democracies throughout the world, as was the case first in Spain, and then at Munich, she has seen her international position decline, even to the point where certain foreigners wonder if democracy is not, or will not, be hurt in its traditional homeland.

In reality, democracy in France can be menaced only from without. In normal times in France, no political party will ever become strong enough to attract a sufficient number of Frenchmen to the support of an autocratic policy. To speak of a change now is premature. Every Frenchman is too well educated, too wealthy, too happy, too intelligent to wish to surrender even a small part of his privileges or his personal liberty to make an autocratic government possible in France.

Since the Versailles Treaty, every attempt to establish an autocratic government in France has miscarried miserably. The Doriot movement and the Croix de Feu movement are examples of only the more important failures. They have miscarried because they all assumed that the French, regardless of social class, would adhere strictly to the tenets of their organizations. But strict adherence is not a conspicuous characteristic of the French, and particularly not of French bankers, who made up the main body of the Croix de Feu movement. They objected to the authority of the butchers and concierges who very often formed the governing bodies of that vast organization.

On even the slightest provocation a Frenchman defiantly reveals his individualism. He will never take the first taxi parked in a line, but will choose the last or the next to the last. Everywhere he enters through an exit. He is horrified with community life. The situation in Lyon demonstrated this recently. There a canteen was established to furnish to needy persons a liter of bouillon which has been obtained at a ridiculously low price, thanks to the waste from Lyon’s famous abattoires, modeled on those of Chicago. The bouillon is given away free, and yet the canteen will have to be closed soon because the residents will no longer come for bouillon. When asked why, they reply, “I take bouillon only with onion,” “I like it only with garlic,” or “I must have celery in it.” This culinary individualism is simply a faithful reproduction of French individualism. The Frenchman never can find enough liberty for his satisfaction. That is why democracy, unless there are serious foreign developments, will live or die with France. No one in France ever questions the fact.

The development of French politics has followed a regular course, moving always toward a more pronounced democracy. The Popular Front proved this, and now that it exists only as a memory in history books, it is permissible to judge the value of its works. Among other reforms for which the Popular Front should be thanked are the two weeks of paid vacation granted to every worker. From the point of view of morale this is especially important. Now there is no worker in France, no matter how unpretentious, who cannot dream of what he will do during his two weeks of liberty, two weeks during which he will rediscover himself, during which he can live according to his own fancy. This will remain as one of the greatest accomplishments of the Popular Front. It has also laid the first stone of a French social contract for the future by establishing collective contracts. It has established as an essential principle that the law alone, with force excluded, must be the foundation and the guarantee of social peace. Certain men in politics, like M. Blum and M. Guernut, already foresee the time when the word “strike” will be as obsolete as certain words used during the period of King Louis-Philippe.

The real dangers threatening French democracy are not internal. At present I see only two serious dangers: a new Munich enabling Germany to win a peaceful victory in Europe, or a continued misinterpretation of national defense measures by ministers who do not have sufficient respect for republican laws. A French foreign policy that would be prepared to resist German invasion, even at the price of war, would not endanger French democracy. As M. Herriot has often reiterated, “The French make easy tasks difficult, but difficult tasks easy.” In time of war they always know how to unite to make a strong front against an invader.

The greatest danger that menaces French democracy is represented not by Hitler’s arms, but by his secret agents. Certain directors of foreign agencies, as well as important diplomats living in Berlin who came to Paris a short time before the recent Fourteenth of July celebration, declared that according to their way of thinking, Hitler’s real plan was to force France to change its internal government from day to day. The idea seems to be to force France, little by little, to acquiesce in those things in foreign affairs that would eventually result in a change in the home government.


An exact parallel can be drawn between the situation of our predecessors of the Revolution, the French of 1791 and 1793, and the situation in which we find the Daladier Cabinet. Indeed there is morally, if not materially, a great resemblance between the fundamental reasons which led the five Austrian and German allied armies to invade France in 1793 and the reasons which incite the German Fiihrer to turn against France today. In 1939 France still represents the ideal of liberty which draws to itself every human being who is weighed clown by the law of oppressors. It is this ideal of democracy and of liberty which dictators today, as they did 150 years ago, believe to be so dangerous, and which they wish to crush at all costs.

On August 26, 1789, France made to the entire world “a declaration of the rights of man and the citizen.” This declaration had a universal value. It was the first time since the Christian era that a voice had been raised to teach all men in every country that they are free and equal. In the thirteenth century England had proclaimed the Magna Carta, but this bill of rights for personal freedom and equality applied only to the English.

Later, in December, 1791, Condorcet brought into the scope of French foreign politics this declaration of the rights of man and the citizen. In magnificent terms France declared peace with all nations, adding that she would always oppose any policy of conquest or of annexation.

Nobles who had lost their privileges moved to foreign lands. The King of Prussia and the Emperor of Austria welcomed them. Louis XVI betrayed France by attempting to flee, hoping to establish himself with the King of Prussia or the Emperor of Austria at the head of an army of French emigrants who hoped to reconquer France and quash at once the ideas of liberty that the Revolution had sown.

The Legislative Assembly in Paris then realized that all the work of the Revolution was not only in the balance, but in danger. On April 20, 1792, the Assembly declared war on Prussia and Austria, although France then had only 82,000 men to put under arms, whereas Prussia alone had 210,000.

The King of Prussia and the Emperor of Austria were aware that the new ideas, philosophy, and morale which poured from France would undermine all their institutions and privileges, because these doctrines were capable of inflaming the people of every nation in the world. They decided to invade France with five armies, at the very moment the monarchist revolt was raging in the Vendee, when Toulon was submitting to the English, and when Lyon was in full revolt against the Convention. France was then forced to face the most difficult period in her history. In February, 1793, 300,000 men were requisitioned, and in August, 1793, the Barere decree, which inaugurated mass conscription, was passed. From the defensive France passed to the offensive.

In 1795, at the treaties of Bale and The Hague, France reclaimed the integrity of her territory, with its natural frontiers up to the Rhine. (It is too bad we didn’t know as much in 1918! That error threatens to cost us a great deal!)

Today we face a situation which seems exactly like that of 1791 and 1793. In reality it is not so much French territory, or even the integrity of the French empire, that Hitler wishes especially to attack: actually it is French democracy, our freedom of the press and opinion, which threaten to evoke in Germany an intense nostalgia for liberty, for human pity, and for the sweetness of life—in a word, hatred of the Hitler regime.

Our ancestors in 1791, in order to safeguard their liberty and all the treasures which it conveys to humanity, did not hesitate to proclaim to the world that they would defend it until death. Today, in spite of the tragedy of the hour, the roles of Daladier and Bonnet are simpler. Daladier does not have to declare war, but only, for the moment at least, to unite Frenchmen without allowing the least injury to the republican prerogatives which are the foundation of French power. Otherwise, French democracy runs the risk of being injured by the improved methods of propaganda used by its enemies. “We are attending a rapid and peaceful Germani-zation of Europe,” is a significant statement made recently by an important French minister.

Last year, when on two occasions the German government was on the verge of negotiating with England or France, the first condition that it made was the conclusion of a press agreement designed to restrict liberty of opinion in the democracies. What Hitler wants today is the capitulation of the democracies either from within or from without. From within he hopes to gain his ends by applying to French democracy a torture invented long ago by some tyrant: the prisoner was awakened at dawn, read his death sentence, led in front of an execution squad, and tied up there; but the rifles were charged with blank cartridges, and after a harmless volley he was taken back to his cell. . . . Is it not the same kind of test of nerves that Hitler tries to inflict on us? Ostensibly all preparations had been made for mobilization, aggression, and successive violences, but the final decision may be withheld.

Hitler no longer believes that he can renew his victory of last September, which was won through the faintheartedness of several men in power. He is now trying to weaken the democracies from within, to terrorize the people, to impose constant military measures on them, to compel them to call up their reserves at least twice a year, to fling them headlong into a more and more exhausting armaments race, to stop all business by discouraging capital investments, and to break down all budgets. In short, Hitler is working to make indispensable, in the name of national defense, rigorous restrictions on private and public liberties in order to realize gradually a sort of Gleichsclwltung, in the hope that after some time of this demoralizing treatment the democracies will say, “Gentlemen, let’s stop this. We were ready to fight to defend our liberties and our civilization. They are both so nearly destroyed today that if it is necessary to pay you to have peace, say so.” That is why it is likely that histories of the future will attach special importance to what is known as the Abetz affair. On that occasion the French government took punitive steps with a minimum of publicity, but it frightened several people into refraining from the dissemination of German propaganda at precisely the time it might have been effective.


The men who were responsible for the acceptance of the Munich surrender in France now seem to be hoping for a second Munich in connection with Danzig. They have tried to convince the French public that without the help of Russia and the United States there was nothing to do but to submit to Hitler’s will, to abandon Poland in order to oblige Poland to negotiate with the Reich. Everything seemed ready; the articles of defeat, already written, were waiting publication. French democracy was then in great danger because the time has passed when a country could pay for a defeat with several million dollars and some territory. Today, the slightest defeat, diplomatic or economic, and particularly military, means that the hand of the autocratic government will be placed on the institutions and traditions of the conquered country.

According to the official functionaries of the Wilhelm-strasse, who do not put themselves out to inform French correspondents at Berlin, Hitler’s dream is not so much to recapture Alsace-Lorraine or the colonies entrusted to France by the Treaty of Versailles, but rather the acceptance by Paris of an all-inclusive economic treaty like the German-Rumanian agreement, which would open wide the doors of French democracy to Nazi-ism. All republican laws would have to be radically modified to permit the application of such a Franco-German commercial treaty. With German machines, German technicians would arrive. With German improvements imposed on certain regions of France, German engineers would arrive and German labor laws would be applied. Censorship of the press would be imperative in order to prevent the good Frenchman from becoming indignant. In a few months the civil liberties of republican Frenchmen would no longer exist.

Such is the dream that Germany even now flatters herself she can still hope to realize. Consequently, if a defeatist French foreign policy were in effect today, as it was at the time of Munich, it could ring the death knell of French democracy. A defeatist policy would abandon the road on which France and England have been traveling since last March 15, a road leading to the formation of a “coalition for peace,” which has allowed France and England to win the first round of the last match played between autocracy and democracy, a match which Hitler and Mussolini engaged in during the month of June of this year, and which they had to abandon after the failure of their attempt to seize Danzig on July 2. On the previous day, Hitler had given orders to the Danzig Senate to sit on July 2 at five o’clock in the afternoon. The president was to have read successively the three little texts of the law which would have reunited Danzig to the Reich. But several hours before this plan was to have been executed, the president was advised that the Fiihrer had changed his plans. Hitler had been informed by his ambassadors in Paris and in London that the two democracies would come to the aid of Poland, even without Russian help, and without the assurance of indirect help from America. He had learned also that the Poles would immediately begin an appalling attack on East Prussia. The Fiihrer had lost the first match.

Without losing time he launched a wave of propaganda in order to prepare for the second match, which was then scheduled to begin about the fifteenth of August, depending upon the conclusion of Italian-Spanish-German military treaties, as well as one with Tokyo which would result in a Japanese blockade of European concessions in the Far East. But Hitler’s propaganda in France and in England was stopped by the Abetz affair. Consequently, either one of two things will happen: either Hitler will listen to his ambassadors in France and England, to certain moderate generals of his staff, and to Dr. Goebbels, who claim that Hitler would be mad to risk a general war for Danzig, or else he will take action. But in the latter case French and English democracy will not run the slightest risk. In fact, the traditional enemies of French democracy within the country—the international financial trusts and those who live on them—will not have, after a new war, the same powers which they hold today and which allowed them to impose on France the Munich agreement last September. Future historians will be able to prove that the Frenchmen connected with international financial groups and trusts, aware that their privileges would be decreased, if not utterly destroyed, by any war however short, preferred the sacrifice of their country’s prestige to the maintenance of international pledges.

The financiers wanted to play their game again for Dan-flig, but French and English public opinion opposed a similar capitulation. That is the real background of the situation, but the problem remains the same. What will be snatched away in the next round? Will France’s democracy win, or will the international trusts win? If war breaks out, the democracies will win. In any case, democracy will continue in France.

Another danger to French democracy lies in the fact that the government has been obliged, in the name of national defense—at least so it has claimed—to put severe strains on republican laws and democratic liberties. And the method of governing of Daladier, Paul Reynaud, and Albert Sar-raut, despite the results obtained, has created in France a certain amount of resentment.

Daladier has judged, perhaps correctly, that the present French deputies are mostly mediocre and more preoccupied with their reelection than with the real danger that their country faces, possibly because they do not realize it. Believing that these deputies would not vote unpopular taxes (which nevertheless are necessary), Daladier finds it preferable to give the Minister of Finance the power to decree a rigorous financial policy which the feeble courage of his deputies would not be able to impose. But believing that he did not need to drive French politicians to the wall, instead of dismissing a number of inefficient office-holders, notably in a certain provincial city, he left them at their posts, supplementing them with men provided with powers which they held only through him. Thus M. Surleau, the proconsul whom Daladier delegated to Marseille to put an end to a number of difficulties, possesses unlimited powers which he is able to use in place of the regular city government.

This is not, of course, legally republican. There are many thoroughly republican Frenchmen who really believe that Daladier, Reynaud, and Sarraut could have obtained the same results simply by requiring strict application of republican laws and by calling on all republicans to come to the aid of endangered democracy. But Daladier believes that democracy is strong enough in France to support the rule of opportunism temporarily. The future alone will tell whether or not he is right.

If President Lebrun refuses to stay any longer at the Elysee, as is often rumored, and is replaced by Daladier, perhaps republican laws and French democracy will be endangered, the chief of state being precisely the one who by expediency has been charged with the execution of certain of these laws.

It is always difficult to foresee the future. However, it appears that if France is directed by men who are strong enough not to fail in maintaining the position that France must hold in the world, democracy will not only be retained, but will improve in peace and in war. But if the French are lax enough or shortsighted enough to make a covenant with the dictators, one then might well become pessimistic about the future of democracy in France.

A prominent man from a foreign country, visiting recently in France, said: “The unfortunate thing about your country is that men are too happy. Life is too easy, the table too well supplied, life too full of cheer. Beware that the pleasure of enjoying life too much will not someday injure the courage of the Frenchmen of 1939. They are today in a situation like that in which their ancestors were found in the Revolution of 1792. Now courage is the order of the day, because you must defend the inheritance of liberty and democracy bequeathed to you by the great French Revolution which created the strength of your country.”


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