Published Date

June 1, 1944

Resource Type

GI Roundtable Series, Primary Source

From GI Roundtable 40: Will the French Republic Live Again? (1944)

The traditions of the democratic Revolution of 1789 and the pressures of the economic and social revolution have created the two chief lines of division in French political life. These run through the entire electorate of France but are best described in terms of party groupings in the Chamber of Deputies.

Looking over the floor of the Chamber from the speaker’s rostrum—before 1940—one would have seen the deputies arranged according to the political position of their parties. To the extreme left of the speaker were the men of most radical political views; to the extreme right those of most reactionary political outlook; and in between a whole range of intermediate positions.

It has been traditional in French politics that parties of protest or reform arise at the extreme Left and gradually, as their programs are put into effect, become conservative and move around toward the Right. But they have usually kept their original names. Thus the Republican groups, representing the banking, business, and professional people, were very conservative and sat far to the right before the war. But a century and more ago, when France was a constitutional monarchy, they were political radicals and occupied the extreme left, where the Communists now sit. The Radical Socialists, to give a favorite example, were neither socialist nor radical, but moderately liberal. Thus, too much significance cannot be attached to the names of French parties.

Of real significance, however, is—or was—the attitude taken by the various parties toward the two revolutions. On the left the Communists and the Socialists advocated the social revolution and accepted the democratic revolution—though the Communist acceptance was probably more a matter of tactics than of conviction. In the center the Radical Socialist and Republican elements rejected the social revolution but were, of course, dedicated to democracy. On the right was the third group, whose members accepted neither revolution but desired either a return to monarchy or a fascist “new order.” Very few of the last were ever elected.

Within these broad political divisions there were subdivisions and factions to a number surprising to anyone not familiar with European domestic politics. There are many reasons for this luxuriant growth of parties. Since 1789 France has had three constitutions providing for a limited monarchy, three providing for a republic, two for an empire, and several transient regimes such as the Directory and its Napoleonic successor, the Consulate. One should not be surprised that these different traditions left their marks on the party structure.


Every Man His Own Party

More important than these diverse political traditions, however, is the fact that French electoral practice thus far has not encouraged party organizations. Elections to the Chamber of Deputies have been more like municipal than national elections in America. In a municipal election in the United States people frequently vote for their friends and neighbors, for the men rather than the party. And that has been the case in France.

In fact, one might say that most French politicians have considered an organization composed of the candidate and enough voters to elect him to be an ideal party.

The result is that political alliances in the Chamber have not ordinarily been worked out until after the election was over, and deputies have sometimes shifted from party to party without in any way hurting their chances for reelection. However, the three parties on the Left have had considerable unity and discipline. The Communists, of course, have been held strictly to the party line; the Socialists have had a somewhat less closely knit organization, though they have generally stuck together quite firmly as a party. And the Radical Socialists, the party of the lower middle classes and the small farmers, also have had a regular though loose organization that has not always kept its member deputies in line.

This kind of system, in which every shade of political opinion was represented by a separate party, had the advantage of assuring that any reasonable political proposal would receive a voice in the Chamber and a chance to be translated into law. But on the other hand it also had serious practical weaknesses. In a two-party system it is almost inevitable that one party will have a clear majority in the legislature, that it can carry out its program and be held to account therefor.

But in France, since no single party ordinarily controlled a majority of votes in the Chamber, cabinets had to be made up out of combinations of party leaders, each of whom demanded not only a cabinet ministry for himself but acceptance of his party’s program in the cabinet’s policy. None of the cabinet ministers would accept responsibility for the acts of a colleague, however, and any member party could wreck the government by requiring its ministers to resign—and frequently did. The premier’s authority over the cabinet he managed to assemble was limited to persuasion, and the French president was a figurehead who stood above parties and whose powers were slight.

During the decade of the 1930’s cabinets appeared and disappeared with more than ordinary rapidity. One government lasted but a single day; another only two days. At the other end of the scale, a record life of just over a year stood to the credit of the first Blum cabinet. Not until Daladier became premier in April 1938 was this mark challenged. Daladier’s so-called “national government”—supposed to be a government standing above party divisions and speaking for the nation as a whole—came into being soon after the Nazi annexation of Austria, survived the Munich crisis, the final rape of Czechoslovakia, and the outbreak of war, and fell in March 1940, nearly two years after its formation.

In the last twenty years of the Third Republic this governmental instability was particularly distressing, for there were critical problems to be solved. Yet, no general agreement on the best measures of solution could be permanently reached. The result was a political deadlock that opened the gates to revolutionary agitation from both the Right and the Left.

The Other Branches of Government

Both the French administrative system and judicial structure were creations of the Revolutionary and Napoleonic era of 1789 to 1814, and both are deeply rooted in French life. They have outlasted two empires, two monarchies, and two republics—and they will probably outlast the present Vichy-Nazi monstrosity. They seem to be well suited to French civilization and to French ways of thinking and doing.

The legal system is based upon the great codes of law established under Napoleon’s direction. They regulate: (1) criminal law, (2) commercial law, (3) civil law, and (4) court procedure. Unlike the Anglo-American legal system that has developed through an accumulation of common law and court decisions, the French codes, based fundamentally on Roman law, are fixed and prescribed.

The court system, too, is unified and direct. The design is like a pyramid: above the lower courts are courts of appeal, and at the top is the so-called “court of cassation.” This is the supreme court of the French judicial system, but it does not have the power possessed by the United States Supreme Court to rule on the constitutionality of laws.

Next section: The Bureaucracy