Published Date

June 1, 1944

Resource Type

GI Roundtable Series, Primary Source

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

We have not yet given direct consideration to the question whether France can rise again in the future, but we have from time to time seen hints of how the past is likely to mold the future. Nations, like people, do not change their nature overnight. Just like people they do change, but it is a process of development out of previous experience.

French civilization with its rich cultural heritage and its proud traditions will not wither and die just because France lost the battle of 1940. General de Gaulle proclaimed at the time that the battle might be lost but not the war. As a matter of fact, nations with thousands of years of history behind them and millions of citizens in their populations usually survive even a lost war.

But a regime cannot withstand the impact of such a disaster without suffering serious consequences. It will be surprising, therefore, if far-reaching constitutional changes do not appear in the government of a restored France. But underneath the superstructure of a government of one kind or another, the spirit of the people will probably remain about the same. It may be worth while to illustrate this with two quotations from the editorial columns of the New York Times at the moment France fell:

“The end of the Third Republic is not the end of France. The reporters of the exodus of the French pay tribute to the courage, the patience, the dauntless spirit of the people on the roads. They all agree that the peasant refugee preserves under a terrible ordeal his characteristic faith in himself and his country. The peasant is France, steady, tough, independent and brave. … Nobody who knows the grass roots of France can doubt that even under Nazi occupation the Republic will survive, will be reincarnated, may in the long run be the force which will help to fashion the Fourth Reich.”

“Within the framework of the Third Republic … there lived and flourished a civilization so brilliant, so human, so gracious and beautiful, that mankind will be in its debt forever. … When free men look back upon this Republic, they will remember … the artists and thinkers, the poets, musicians, and scientists who made France during those years a temple of the Western spirit.”

If this interpretation of the undying spirit of France is correct, the answer to our original question must be: “Yes, France will live again.” But France has undergone not only a demoralizing defeat. Since June 19410 it has been submerged in a degrading Nazi occupation in which certain prominent Frenchmen have collaborated. In the course of the occupation has the spirit of France suffered damage beyond repair, or has it been redoubled in strength through Nazi suppression and torture?


Factors for the Future: Four Sure Things

Absolute predictions are, of course, impossible because men cannot foresee the future. But some of the factors that will undoubtedly operate to shape the future can be foreseen, perhaps enough of them to paint a rather definite picture of what is likely to come. Let’s see what they are.

It seems relatively safe to suppose that the downward trend of the French population will continue. The drop may very well become sharper because of the war. In any case—despite German losses that before the end of the war will number many times those of France—there will probably be no great change in the relative size of France with respect to Germany. If anything, Germany will probably gain in comparative numbers.

Natural limitations on the development of French industry provide a second fairly certain factor. The French prefer the small specialty and luxury type of production, and in it they show to best advantage. But quite aside from preference or tradition, the sheer fact that France lacks essential resources for the support of much modern industry in iron and steel or light metals and aluminum alloys means that such industry will remain under a handicap.

A third aspect of French life that seems unlikely to change very much is the system of owning and cultivating farm land. By American standards, it may be a poor way of doing; under the circumstances that exist in France, it may be the best way. Good or bad, it will not readily be abandoned by the stubbornly conservative peasant farmers.

However, if the young people of France continue as they did between the wars to stream from the farms to the cities, the consequences may be serious for a food production system that demands a high quantity and quality of human labor. Already in 1930 whole villages in some areas of France were deserted and the fields were returning to an uncultivated state. In other regions the process was well along and efforts to check the population flow by favorable farm legislation probably had little real success.

Fourth, the legal and administrative systems are likely to remain pretty much as before. They proved themselves adequate and acceptable to France under the Third Republic and under its monarchical and imperial predecessors as well. They seem to answer French needs and temperament, so only minor changes, if any, may be expected here.

The Big Issues

In other matters the probable lines of development are much more hidden. There are long-term factors to be considered; there are factors that will emerge during or out of the transition from occupied to free nation; and there are factors that lie primarily within the decision not of France, but of the principal United Nations governments.

Some Frenchmen advocate the restoration of the monarchy as the best form of government for France. But their numbers are not large; and the monarchist cause, too, has been discredited because some of its foremost advocates allied themselves with Vichy.

One of the most perplexing, most unpredictable, and at the same time most important questions as to the future of France involves the potential strength of the Communist movement. Before the war Communist influence was growing in France; the elections of 1932 gave the Communist party ten seats in the Chamber of Deputies, those of 1936, seventy-two seats. By 1940, however, there were signs that the French electorate was finding the quick-change artistry of the Communists too much to stomach and was swinging back toward a more conservative outlook.

These circumstances must now be put in the class of items interesting if true, for the war and the occupation have considerably changed the situation. The prestige of the Soviet Union has risen throughout the world because of its victories over the Nazi armies, and part of that admiration may have spilled over onto the Soviet theory of government. The people of France no less than those of England and the United States have felt admiration for Russia’s achievements in the war. Perhaps the French have also been influenced by the fact that the Communists have taken a leading part in organizing the underground resistance movement. There are several Communists among the various elements represented in General de Gaulle’s National Liberation regime, and no analysis of the future of France would be complete that left them out of consideration.

However, the great body of Frenchmen can probably be counted on to remain faithful to the principles and practices of popular government through republican forms.

This makes it likely though not certain that the new France will adopt, with some modifications, the system of the Third Republic. And there is something to be said for it as well as against it. In the first place the constitutional framework of the Republic was very flexible. That may not sound like a desirable quality, but it means that considerable changes can take place in a revised government without doing violence to the fundamental charter.

Furthermore, it should be said in favor of the Third Republic that its basic constitution corresponds to the pattern of government that France has been learning to operate ever since 1815. If the system left something to be desired in successful operation, the more plausible reform would seem to be to build on the long experience of the past rather than to throw the whole scheme overboard.

It has been widely felt by thoughtful Frenchmen that some strengthening of the executive branch of government is not only desirable but absolutely necessary. Proposals to accomplish this range from an authoritarian solution that would reduce the legislative branch to a mere chorus of “yes men”—like the German Reichstag after 1933—to slight reforms that would merely give the premier greater authority over his cabinet and somewhat more prestige in the Chamber.

The Silent People

Another factor, however, probably will be decisive in the final determination of the future form of government. This is the fact that, because of the German occupation and the help the Germans receive from Vichy, only those Frenchmen fortunate enough to escape from France have any chance to express opinions now.

But when German power is broken and France is again free, it is likely that the now silent voice of the repressed French at home will dominate the discussion and the decision over the nation’s political future. No government which does not have the support of the French people can long rule France—except by the use of machine guns. The traditions of popular government are too strong to allow disregard of the people’s will.

Popular government means party government of one sort or another. And in any free election in the future, it is probable that the political picture will resemble that of 1939, with the same general line-up of parties and in much’ the same proportionate strength. Shifts may be visible, particularly toward the Left, but it is unlikely that any parties but the openly pro-Nazi will disappear entirely.

Next section: Unscrambling the Economic Eggs