France’s Long Reconstruction: In Search of the Modern Republic 
by Herrick Chapman.
Harvard, 405 pp., £37.95, January 2018, 978 0 674 97641 2
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‘There is​ a France only thanks to the state,’ Charles de Gaulle declared in 1960, ‘and only by the state can France be maintained.’ He spoke these words during the ‘week of the barricades’ in Algiers, when a pied-noir uprising gained significant support in local units of the French army. De Gaulle appeared on television in full military uniform, and reminded the soldiers that he was their commander-in-chief. He was the archetype of the modern French Jacobin, whose political philosophy was defined by a commitment to the power of the state. He had put his doctrine into practice by creating the Fifth Republic, in which supreme authority was vested in the president. Yet he had been a serial dissident for most of his career, first as a robust critic of the strategic doctrine of the French army in the 1930s, then as the symbol of French resistance during the war; after his resignation from government in 1946, he resumed his rebel posture and gave his blessing to the conspiracy that brought down the Fourth Republic in 1958.

De Gaulle features prominently in Herrick Chapman’s absorbing study of France’s state-led economic and social regeneration in the decades following the Second World War. Reconstruction was of course taking place in different forms across Europe, but the French version was exceptional in its duration, in the range of policy areas embraced by the resurgent state, and in its consequences: it gave rise to two new constitutions (in 1946 and 1958), and two major colonial wars (in Indochina and Algeria). Chapman argues that the French process was singular, too, in the privileged role it gave to technocratic elites as part of its experiment with new kinds of democratic governance. France’s Long Reconstruction challenges the myth (successfully propagated by the Gaullists) that these transformations enabled France to break away from the chaos of government by political parties – ‘le régime des partis’ – which characterised the Fourth Republic, and achieve stability under de Gaulle’s Fifth Republic. Instead, Chapman finds Tocquevillian elements of continuity across the whole period, and argues provocatively that the events of 1958 were much less consequential when seen in terms of their effect on state power.

The restoration of the authority of the republican state came about when de Gaulle’s provisional government assumed power in the wake of the Allied-led liberation in mid-1944. Keen to rekindle French pride after the humiliation of military defeat and occupation, the general relied heavily on ritual: his famous parade down the Champs-Elysées that August, just after the liberation of Paris itself, conveyed the transcendent image of a people united behind its leader, and his tours of provincial towns were bold assertions of his authority over local resistance leaders. The reconstitution of the state was also achieved by integrating the maquis militias into French army units, and reorganising the senior levels of the bureaucracy. The most visible collaborators were purged, but most administrative personnel remained in place – notably those in the prestigious grands corps such as the finance inspectorate and the Conseil d’Etat. The authorities were forced to expand the domain of state action in response to local pressures, regulating the food market and nationalising the coalmines in the north, whose operators had collaborated with the Nazis.

In southern France, where communist-dominated resistance networks remained active, the state came under pressure to carry out significant purges of the police force, many of whose members had compromised themselves under Vichy. Similarly, the creation of the mobile police battalions known as Compagnies Républicaines de Sécurité (CRS) in late 1944 followed regional initiatives in which communist militias were integrated into the security forces. The leader of the French Communist Party (PCF), Maurice Thorez, was in favour of the incorporation of party members into the security apparatus, and for the first few years of its existence the CRS was widely seen as a ‘police force in the service of the people’. This image did not survive for long (the force was purged of communist members after 1947), but illustrated the party’s dedication to the reconstruction of the state.

The emblem of state resurgence in the postwar years was the policy of nationalisation, pursued by governments between 1944 and 1948. Many other European countries adopted public ownership, or created works committees involving the state, management and labour, or sought to develop institutions to advise on long-term planning. France was the only country, however, that combined all three measures, and opinion polls showed that these policies enjoyed overwhelming public support. But Chapman cautions against an excessively heroic narrative. Even though public ownership had featured prominently in the charter of the Conseil National de la Résistance (CNR), agreed in 1944, as well as in the thinking of communists, socialists and Gaullists, its contours remained fluid. The takeovers in the banking, energy and transport sectors reflected a range of political and industrial concerns, and management structures varied considerably.

The balance of power also shifted over time: initially, workers’ representatives, led by members of the powerful Confédération Générale du Travail (CGT), had strong positions in governance arrangements, but these were eroded as the Fourth Republic took a conservative turn. By the early 1950s, the state had asserted its power over nationalised industries, and managerial control passed into the hands of senior civil servants. But the progressive legacy of the CNR lived on in a body of statutes on workers’ rights, adopted in 1946 by the government at the instigation of the communist minister of industrial production, Marcel Paul: they provided for pension and holiday entitlements, equal treatment of female employees, protection against arbitrary dismissal, and advancement on the basis of merit. These measures marked a major departure from traditional corporate culture. The CGT remained the country’s most powerful union for decades, and its strength was rooted in the nationalised industries.

Family policy was another area in which the state enacted significant legislation during the postwar years, chiefly a comprehensive system of family allowances. There was a clear element of continuity here between the Fourth Republic and Vichy (for which the family was one of the foundations of French identity), and every mainstream political party was committed to population growth: de Gaulle called for 12 million ‘beaux bébés’, and even the PCF leadership opposed birth control, much to the consternation of its feminist members. The new family policies were steered by figures such as Pierre Laroque, a member of the Conseil d’Etat who was strongly committed to the social reformist tradition of Louis Blanc and Proudhon, and Robert Prigent, a progressive Catholic who had been a member of the Resistance and served as minister of public health and population in the early years of the Fourth Republic.

In some areas the grand technocratic schemes fell well short of their initial ambitions. The most obvious example is the attempt to regulate immigration and control the supply of foreign labour. Faced with acute manpower shortages, the government established the Office National d’Immigration (ONI) in 1945 with the aim of centralising the recruitment of foreign workers. This was a major departure from the interwar years, when such efforts were largely left to the private sector. The original plan, drafted by Jean Monnet, set a huge annual target of 200,000 workers. But despite having a considerable staff, and opening offices in Italy, Britain, Denmark and Germany, the ONI’s efforts were a failure. Among the main reasons were the reluctance of foreign governments to co-operate, the inevitable conflicts between different elements of the French bureaucracy, the absence of decent housing provision in France, and union hostility (the CGT believed, not unreasonably, that an influx of foreign workers would drive down wage levels). The ONI also failed to encourage workers from Algeria, where there was a potential supply of willing migrants. Despite the pleas of the governor of Algeria and the French Ministry of Urban Reconstruction, the recruitment of North African labour was blocked, mainly on grounds of ethnic prejudice.

The tension between state power and democratic control permeated the French elite, and Chapman explores its ramifications in the contrasting trajectories of the era’s two leading technocrats, Michel Debré and Pierre Mendès-France. Both were staunch Jacobins, who saw themselves as part of a long tradition of progressive reform and believed in the enabling role of the state. Both were graduates of Sciences-Po, one of the grandes écoles, and worked closely with de Gaulle in the years just after the war. Both were innovators: Mendès-France brought the futile colonial war in Indochina to an end, championed transparency and efficiency (which he contrasted with the murky machinations of the Fourth Republic’s elites), and tried to forge a direct link with the public through the regular use of Saturday radio chats. In 1945 Debré set up the Ecole Nationale d’Administration (ENA), a new grande école which centralised the recruitment of the French administrative elite. The ENA sought to transcend petty rivalries among the different grands corps of high-ranking civil servants by giving its recruits ‘le sens de l’Etat’ (which Chapman translates, rather weakly, as the ‘sense of the state’: it was a much more robust concept, denoting a binding allegiance which transcended sectional, territorial or ideological interests).

Mendès-France’s technocratic vision was tempered by his faith in civic education and political participation, and he later advocated a decisive role for civil society in determining the shape and modalities of government in France; to this extent, he remained loyal to the older republican spirit of civic associationism. Debré’s republicanism was more dirigiste, and overtly nationalist. Like all Gaullists, he was scarred by France’s political and military humiliation in 1940, and obsessed with the decline of the country’s birthrate; unlike the general, he was also passionately committed to the preservation of the empire. Debré’s conception of human nature was sombre: progressive reform could be achieved only by the decapitation of existing elites, the imposition of constitutional changes, and salvation through the providential leadership of de Gaulle. It was not unlike an enlightened form of Bonapartism.

Even before its position at the apex of the French state had been consolidated, the new technocracy was vigorously challenged. The most spectacular expression of dissent came in the mid-1950s with a revolt led by the populist Pierre Poujade, owner of a stationery store in the small southern town of Saint-Céré. Poujade came from impeccable conservative stock: his father was a supporter of the royalist Action Française, and in the 1930s Poujade fils had been a local activist for the proto-fascist movement of Jacques Doriot before joining Vichy’s youth arm, the Compagnons de France. Backed by shopkeepers, artisans and small farmers, Poujadism grew out of local protests against the government’s introduction of VAT in 1954; it culminated in the movement’s winning two and half million votes and 52 seats in the 1956 parliamentary elections. Poujade railed against the charognards (‘vultures’) who had corrupted the republic: parliamentarians, Jews, European supranationalists, big businesses, critics of empire, cosmopolitan intellectuals and economic modernisers; Parisian technocrats such as Mendès-France, who combined most of these characteristics, became one of the Poujadists’ fiercest targets at the national level, while tax auditors bore the brunt of their fury locally.

Chapman finds intriguing evidence of the roots of these protests in the archives of the Ministry of Justice, which in 1947 documented a wave of agitation against state-imposed price controls in small towns across impoverished regions of the west, the south-west and the Massif Central – areas which subsequently became the heartlands of Poujadism. The movement drew on older traditions of popular protest: in one case, a tax inspector was paraded across town on a pig cart, echoing the humiliating ritual of the charivari. But Chapman also underscores the use of more modern forms of direct action against tax collectors (in 1955, the Finance Ministry admitted that only 60 per cent of the hundred thousand scheduled tax inspections had taken place). Recognising the strength of the Poujadist challenge, the government prudently backtracked, and in the long run the state became more responsive to public pressure over tax. Chapman regards Poujadism as a force for ‘political innovation’ and underplays its irrational character, admirably summarised at the time by Roland Barthes, who derided its claim to a ‘mythological truth’ and its tendency to see ‘culture as a disease’. Poujade appealed to petit bourgeois common sense rather than the expertise of the nation’s elites. ‘France,’ he said, ‘suffers from an overproduction of university graduates: polytechniciens [graduates of the Ecole Polytechnique, one of the grandes écoles], economists, philosophers, and other similar dreamers who have lost all contact with the real world.’

De Gaulle’s followers, of course, had very different objections to the Fourth Republic, believing that it was hostage to the political parties of the day and weakened by frequent changes of government. The quasi-insurrectionary tone of Debré’s pamphlet, Ces princes qui nous gouvernent, published in 1957, caught the strength of Gaullist opposition to the French political establishment as Poujadism went into decline. Deploring the landscape from which de Gaulle had withdrawn in 1946, Debré anticipated his own crucial role in drafting the ‘presidentialist’ constitution of the Fifth Republic when de Gaulle returned 12 years later. As the first prime minister of the new regime, and de Gaulle’s ultra-loyal deputy, he oversaw the institutionalisation of technocratic rule, choosing government ministers who would remain obedient to the directives of the Elysée from outside the magic circle of career politicians, while promoting a powerful caste of civil servants recruited from the ENA. Yet this, too, was a story of continuity: most of the elite technocrats brought in by the Fifth Republic had occupied senior administrative positions under the previous regime. The only casualty was Debré himself: de Gaulle, with his characteristically imperious lack of gratitude, dumped him in 1962.

Chapman’s case for continuity holds good even in the dramatic case of Algeria, a colonial conflict that escalated into a full-blown civil war in the closing years of the Fourth Republic and allowed de Gaulle to emerge from the wilderness in 1958 as national saviour. The Gaullist state replaced the chaotic parliamentary system with a presidential executive and a model of stable governance. Crucially, it recognised the inevitability of Algerian self-determination. In these fundamental respects, the Fifth Republic did indeed appear to be a break with the past. But, as Chapman explains, Algeria also enabled the state to refine the art of population management. The Algerian migrant population in France shot up from around 50,000 in 1945 to 260,000 in 1954, when the Front de Libération Nationale (FLN) launched its insurrection; by 1962 the numbers had increased to more than 400,000. Living mostly in shantytowns and hostels on the outskirts of Paris, Lyon and Marseille, these Algerians sympathised with the FLN, and came to be seen as a security threat, especially after the appointment of Maurice Papon as the prefect of police for the Paris region in 1958.

Papon, who had played a key role in the deportation of Jews from Bordeaux during the Nazi occupation, was now assigned to oversee the militarisation of the French police. With the support of the new technocracy, the methods used by the French army in Algeria were brought to the metropole: the registration and surveillance of Algerians, interrogation, beatings and torture. More than 15,000 suspected Algerian militants were held in camps at Larzac in the Massif Central. In October 1961, a peaceful march by Algerians in Paris was violently suppressed by Papon’s police, resulting in hundreds of deaths. The Algerian war provided a pretext to broaden the scope of executive special powers: in 1955 and 1956 the Fourth Republic had voted in favour of emergency provisions granting the government the right to impose curfews, close public spaces, seize newspapers and books, censor the press, and move people out of their homes both in France and Algeria. These measures paved the way for the ‘exceptional powers’ contained in article 16 of de Gaulle’s constitution. Authoritarianism was an integral feature of Gaullism, and it contributed to a widespread wariness of the state on the part of the left – anti-war protests brought together intellectuals, trade unionists and Algerian nationalists – and the colonialist ultras of the extreme right, who sought to hang on to Algeria. In early 1962, another peaceful protest in Paris was set upon by Papon’s police: eight demonstrators were crushed to death at the Charonne metro station.

Chapman’s​ achievement lies in his deconstruction of the Gaullist behemoth: far from representing some form of transcendental immanence, or the triumph of strong-minded visionaries, the Fifth Republic under de Gaulle was a complex creation, evolving over time and grounded in French intellectual traditions. The Gaullist state was the final avatar of a Jacobin culture which had its roots in the Revolution, and subsequently incorporated elements of Bonapartism, Saint-Simonism, progressive reformism and liberalism (it’s a pity that Chapman does not address the role of figures such as the early champions of the European Union, Jean Monnet and Robert Schuman, in the 1950s). Gaullism’s most striking contribution was its consecration of the role of the grandes écoles (specifically the ENA). This institutional settlement endured long after de Gaulle and was integrated into the mainstream left’s conception of the state: the role of énarques – graduates of the ENA – under Mitterrand, Jospin and Hollande was no less significant than under Gaullist or liberal presidents. Last April, in response to the gilets jaunes, Macron announced that he would do away with the ENA: amid the tide of popular distrust for ‘experts’, it is again being accused of producing elites who are out of touch with the realities of ordinary citizens. It remains to be seen whether he will follow through with this proposal, and, even if he does, whether its institutional successor proves fundamentally different. Macron is himself a graduate of the ENA, and has comprehensively adopted the Gaullist technocratic model, surrounding himself with énarques, appointing his ministers on the basis of expertise rather than political experience, and ensuring that senior civil servants (hand-picked by him, and overwhelmingly recruited from the grandes écoles) keep them on a tight leash.

This haughty dirigiste approach, with its emphasis on reason and voluntarism, along with the cult of national self-confidence and the promotion of the general good over sectional interests, allowed France to reconstruct and modernise its economy while enjoying high growth rates during the trente glorieuses, and to develop quality social services (notably in health, transport and culture) by means of sustained, long-term investment. The contrast with Britain, which took the sterile path of economic liberalisation and market provision, is edifying. But the French system is vulnerable to serious social and political dysfunction. Its reliance on statistics means that the technocratic state can address a problem only if it is quantifiable: and so, for example, since ethnic statistics are illegal in France, it failed to confront the issues of racism and social exclusion facing postcolonial minorities in the aftermath of the Algerian war. Despite its profound and lasting political impact on the nation’s system of governance, France’s last colonial conflict has been largely erased from collective memory – a reminder of Ernest Renan’s dictum that forgetting is a crucial factor in the historical consciousness of a political community.

Alongside its amnesia, Gaullist technocracy too easily conflated the general will with the will of the general. By tipping the scales decisively in favour of a highly rationalised, centralised administration, the Gaullist state entrenched one of the most distinctive aspects of modern French political culture: its management of social conflicts by confrontation, with ill-conceived reforms hurriedly withdrawn in the face of popular protest; or alternatively, with the state’s neglect of specific territories or constituencies resulting in unforeseen explosions of dissent. May 1968 is the clearest instance of the latter, but both models have remained in evidence: examples include the rejection of Mitterrand’s attempted reform of private schools in 1984, the demonstrations against Juppé’s welfare reforms in 1995, the revolts of the banlieues in 2005, and the riots of the Breton bonnets rouges in 2013 against a pollution tax on commercial vehicles and lay-offs in the local food production sector.

Such clashes can produce fruitful outcomes in the medium term: May 1968 heralded two decades of social and cultural liberalisation, often championed by the French state. But they can be an obstacle to necessary reform (France’s university system, for instance, cannot be fixed because all governments fear a backlash of student protest). The recent conflict between Macron and the gilets jaunes is evidence that this dysfunctional tradition is alive and well. The crisis was sparked by a fuel tax imagined by ecologically minded Parisian technocrats, without consideration of its impact on less affluent citizens living outside the big cities. The movement snowballed into a more general challenge to the French system of governance – and to Macron’s neoliberal economic philosophy. At the height of the Poujadist insurgency in the mid-1950s, Edgar Faure, the finance minister, detected ‘a wind of insurrection against the state’ blowing from the provinces. In this respect, too, the French remain true to their past.

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