Unscrambling the Economic Eggs
However, it is clear that the change from the status of an occupied belligerent to that of a nation liberated and at peace will breed problems. Some of the most delicate and difficult of all problems in the reconstruction of France are bound up in this matter of transition.
One of the most trying is the question of recovering from the Germans legal control over French economic institutions. The Nazi method of taking over French industry, commerce, banking, and similar institutions was arbitrary, but it was accomplished with a careful regard for the outward legality of the transactions under French law.
On the one hand the invaders required the payment in francs of enormous sums as “costs of occupation,” imposed fines on individuals, groups, and particularly on cities, and summarily devalued the franc in terms of the mark. With the funds thus acquired, they paid out with the other hand the requisite purchase price of French businesses which they “persuaded” the owners to sell. Outwardly, it was all done “according to Hoyle,” and it will be very difficult to undo for that very reason.
An added complication in the way of returning ownership to rightful hands is provided by the German use of certain “tame” French capitalists and of the facilities of neutral corporations to hide their control. In outward appearance, many enterprises remain French or belong to Swedish, Spanish, or Swiss interests through perfectly legal purchase of control on the open stock market; actually the lines of control and of profit flow from and to members of the Nazi party.
In all Europe since 1919 the tendency has been for government to assume more and more control over the national economy. In France after 1936 the tendency became marked, and it is not improbable that the future will see further development of the same trend. In the end, exact and careful return to the previous private owners of much French property, especially such things as public utilities, common carriers, and basic productive industries, may turn out to be an academic question. Rather than try to unscramble the ownership omelet cooked up by the Nazis, a future French government may conceivably take it over whole as the easiest way out of the mess and the way most in line with the tendency of the past quarter century.
A second issue involved in the transition period is that of temporary government. It should be remarked at once that the French do not contemplate either the necessity or the possibility of an occupation by Allied forces with accompanying supervision of French civil government. As far as the French are concerned, there is going to be no Allied Military Government of Occupied Territory applied in France.
There are two rival regimes offering their services or presumably available to assume the duties of midwife to the rebirth of France: the Vichy government and the French Committee of National Liberation. The former can be counted out at the start. Led by Laval, the men around Petain have compromised themselves in the eyes of the world and condemned themselves in the eyes of the French. They cannot survive the defeat of Germany.
The Committee of National Liberation, however, has several advantages. Its head, General de Gaulle, has the prestige that accrues to a man who never stopped fighting the Germans or ceased to call upon his countrymen for resolute resistance. It is the only group that has a claim to be representative of the people of France so far as they are vocal through the underground. And it has been recognized by the principal Allied powers, with certain reservations, as the only provisional French authority with which they will deal.
The Committee has gone through several reorganizations since its establishment on June 3, 1943. Originally it was a compromise combination between the Free French movement led by De Gaulle and stationed in London and the military and civil authorities that had facilitated the Anglo-American landings in North Africa. The Committee has gradually become a sort of representative cabinet buttressed with a Consultative Assembly in both of which the various elements of the French population are supposed to be represented in proportion to their strength.
The National Committee in its present form comes closer to popular representative government than did the originally self-constituted Committee, but in the nature of things the actual divisions of opinions in France cannot be found out until liberation opens the way to democratic balloting. However, the aim of giving the people of France an opportunity to rule themselves when the time comes is recognized in the Committee’s “charter,” in which it “solemnly commits itself to re-establish all French liberties, the laws of the Republic and the Republican regime.”
The same obligation to observe the popular will in setting up a future permanent government in France is stated very clearly in the terms of recognition extended the Committee by the United States and Great Britain. The United States, for instance, recognized “the French Committee of National Liberation as functioning within specific limitations during the war. Later on the people of France, in a free and untrammeled manner, will proceed in due course to select their own government and their own officials to administer it.”
It will be easily seen that the Committee has the inside track in the projected electoral race and is likewise in the best position to propose the form of government to be eventually created. Until the people of France have a free voice to say what they want, no better barometer of future political arrangements in France is available to the world than the changing composition of the French National Committee.
France in the Coming World
Thus both the Committee of National Liberation and the United Nations have pledged to the people of France an opportunity freely to choose their own future government. This double pledge, coupled with the devotion of the great body of the French people to popular government through republican forms, is perhaps the best possible assurance that the French Republic will live again.
But the choice of a future government is only one of a number of problems that will confront France when the Germans have been driven out and peace has been restored. There will be the ravages and dislocations of the war to repair. There will be questions occasioned by the impact of the war on the French colonial empire. There will be the problem of the position of France, which lacks many of the sinews of power in the machine age, among the nations of the world.
As one thinks about these problems of France’s future, it is well to remember that for many generations French ideas and French traditions have exerted an enormous influence on the civilization of the world. If civilized men are to control the world of tomorrow, surely France, the source of so much in Western culture that is of enduring beauty and value, will again find a place in the forefront of the struggle for freedom and human welfare.