Politics and Letters

In the lead-up to the referendum on 5 May 1946, all was fair in war and politics. Right-wing rumour-mongers claimed, without producing evidence, that the Kremlin was financing the French Communist Party. The Parti Républicain de la Liberté spread the word that the Communist leader, Maurice Thorez, was having an affair with Marie Bell of the Comédie-Française and sending her vast bouquets of orchids costing 50,000 francs. Galtier-Boissière was unconvinced. He did not see ‘the nation’s perfect baby, so carefully watched by the party, paying court while escorted by six bodyguards toting sub-machine guns’.

The draft of the Constitution of the Fourth Republic proposed that most power should rest in the hands of the Assembly, while the Senate should be abolished. The Assembly would also have the power to appoint both the prime minister and the president, whose powers would be purely ceremonial. Cardinal Suhard called upon the faithful to ‘vote and vote well’ against a left-wing and anti-clerical Constitution. Suhard’s message was repeated from pulpits in cathedrals and churches across France. The Archbishop of Bordeaux stated outright that Catholics must refuse to ratify the Constitution. This produced fears in the centre that intervention from the Church would play into Communist hands.

The most ingenious piece of black propaganda was mounted by the Communists just over two weeks before the elections. They arranged for one of their prominent union leaders to be arrested on the basis of charges originally laid against him by the Vichy government. The Ministry of the Interior had nothing to do with the arrest. According to a ‘competent source’, it was carried out by officers from the Communist-infiltrated Prefecture of Police.

The outcry in the party’s press was predictable, claiming that Vichy reactionaries were still in control and that the Pétain regime was working frombeyond the grave. The whole operation was a great success, to the frustration of Édouard Depreux, the Socialist Minister of the Interior, whom the Communists loathed. Henaff, the union leader, was released amid triumphant demonstrations, while Depreux was left subtly tainted with Vichyism. But it would not be long before Depreux began to organize an effective revenge.

The Communists demanded a ‘Oui’ in favour of the draft Constitution, but they allowed, and then even encouraged, the May referendum to be turned into a ‘plebiscite for or against Communism’. Some rich ‘paniquards’ planned to leave France if they won. The American ambassador was scathing about the fatalistic assumption that ‘the Cossacks would soon be arriving on the Place de la Concorde’.

De Gaulle was one of the very few to predict that the Communists would lose, whatever the opinion polls said. He told his secretary Claude Mauriac, the son of François, that the Communists had made a major mistake. Out of sheer over-confidence, they had allowed the tables to be turned at last. Until then, the left had managed to manipulate and define issues in terms of fascism and anti-fascism. Now, for the first time, the issue was Communism and anti-Communism. ‘And that’s a development of capital importance for the future,’ said the General. He had the hugely satisfied air of a man who had put together a clever plan. ‘I managed to tie a good-sized saucepan to their leg with the referendum,’ he said. It was one of the very few electoral measures he had been able to achieve in the face of the Constituent Assembly.

In the week before the referendum, the walls of Paris were scrawled with ‘Oui’ or ‘Non’ in chalk, often crossed out by the other side. In the 16th arrondissement well-dressed little girls with buckets and brushes were seen scrubbing out the Ouis. In a less elegant part of the city, a green metal vespasienne urinal bore the more anarchic slogan:

Voter OUI, voter NON
Vous serez toujours les CONS!

No May Day in Paris was complete without the scent of lily-of-the-valley. Traders came into Paris that morning with great baskets of the flowers on their arms tied into little bunches, and everyone wore sprigs of it in their buttonholes. After the May Day parade from the Place de la République to the Place de la Nation, there was a Communist Party rally at six o’clock in the Place de la Concorde. As Thorez addressed the great crowd in the evening sunlight, he was watched from above. Baron Élie de Rothschild and other friends had brought field-glasses for this purpose to a drinks party on the roof garden of Donald Bloomingdale’s penthouse at the Crillon Hotel only a few yards away.

‘I have little doubt that there will be a majority of Ouis,’ wrote Duff Cooper in his diary on Sunday, 5 May, the day of the election. ‘All my friends of the right say it will be the end of France, which of course is nonsense.’

The following morning, 6 May, the date on which American troops were ready to move into France, the narrow victory of the Nons was confirmed. After the Communists’ great efforts, it was seen as a significant setback for them. ‘De Gaulle was right,’ Claude Mauriac wrote in his diary.

The American delegation to the Paris Peace Conference, then under way, did not hide its jubilation during a dinner at the Quai d’Orsay. Jacques Dumaine, although also relieved by the outcome, felt they were seeing things only in black and white. ‘They imagine that France is divided into two camps of which one will overcome the other’, and thus they deliberately ignored ‘the heterogeneous free-for-all which is the essence of French politics’. But politics in France, as in most countries of the world, were doomed to be polarized by the Cold War.

Simone de Beauvoir had lunch that day with Merleau-Ponty at the Petit Saint-Benoît to discuss the referendum. But in the evening, the famille Sartre forgot politics and rallied round Jean Genet, who had just been through an author’s worst nightmare: Gallimard had apparently lost his only manuscript of Funeral Rites. This resulted in a series of furious rows between Genet and Gaston Gallimard’s son Claude.

The other news which people had to digest that day was of a scandal in intelligence circles. The previous evening, just before voting finished, Agence France-Presse announced that Colonel Passy had been arrested. The motives for making the announcement at such a moment are unclear. Félix Gouin’s government, alarmed by the upset in the elections, may have leaked the news either as a belated attempt to alter the outcome or as a warning shot to de Gaulle, whose prestige would be enhanced by the results. The Passy scandal was a murky affair from which the government emerged with little credit.

On 4 May, Passy was summoned to the offices of the organization which he had originally built up in London, now called the SDECE.* ‘We have discovered some irregularities,’ the new chief told him. ‘Where are the secret funds?’ Although no formal charges were made, Passy was accused of embezzling intelligence service funds and was held incommunicado. His wife, not knowing what had happened to him, became frantic. One of the reasons for the sudden announcement of his arrest on the night of 5 May was the difficulty of keeping it a secret for much longer.

American intelligence, which may have been misled by representatives of the government, reported that the financial irregularities had been known about for some time. The real reason for Passy’s arrest, it said, was that he had been trying to sabotage Léon Blum’s efforts to seek an urgently needed loan from the United States. The Socialists and their coalition partners were both outraged and alarmed.

There was never any question of Passy embezzling funds for personal use. The main charge of irregularities in London was ridiculous. The BCRA had been so afraid of Vichyist infiltration that very few written records were kept. What Passy had almost certainly been trying to do was to build up a fighting fund. He shared with General de Gaulle a conviction that a third world war, this time against Communism, was inevitable; and, as the General had said to Passy only a few months before, ‘I hope we won’t set off as ill-prepared as we were the last time.’ Passy wanted to ensure that the Gaullist resistance would never again have to go cap in hand to the British or the Americans.

Passy was locked up without any form of trial or access to lawyers. Conditions were very bad, and he feared that his gaolers were drugging him. He went on hunger strike, lost twenty-three kilos, and his blood pressure fell alarmingly. When his wife finally managed to have him removed to the Val-de-Grâce hospital, the doctor told him, ‘You’ve been poisoned.’ When he asked what the poison was, the doctor replied laconically, ‘We’ll know after the autopsy.’

During his imprisonment, Passy passed a message to the Americans claiming that Gouin’s government was blackmailing him to hand over any written instructions from de Gaulle to do with the money. Such evidence would have enabled Gouin and his government to tarnish the General’s reputation and destroy his political hopes. This Passy refused to do. One thing was certain. The government did not want a public trial. ‘It appears that the more the affair is investigated,’ Caffery reported to Washington, ‘the more it becomes apparent that a number of important politicians belonging to different parties have either had their palms greased or have received money from secret funds.’

At the end of August, on an order from the Council of Ministers, Colonel Passy was stripped of his rank, the Legion of Honour and the Order of the Liberation, and suffered the confiscation of personal property to the value of the sum exported. (Most of his honours, including the Legion of Honour, were later restored.) Passy, with justification, protested angrily that the Council of Ministers was not a court of justice: if he was to be tried, it should be in front of a properly constituted tribunal. Even Teitgen, the Minister of Justice, was privately uneasy about the way the affair had been handled.

The Passy scandal may have been the talk of Paris, but it seems to have made little impact in Saint-Germain-des-Prés. Simone de Beauvoir’s life was busier than ever, as the record of her afternoon on Friday, 10 May, shows. After lunch at the Brasserie Lipp, she went to the offices of Les Temps modernes, which Gaston Gallimard had lent them. Vittorini of the Italian Communist Party paid a visit. He was very put out to hear that Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir were to be the guests of ‘un éditeur réactionnaire’ on their forthcoming visit to his country.

Gaston Gallimard arrived. Simone de Beauvoir went into his office, but found André Malraux and Roger Martin du Gard there too. Embarrassed at encountering a political enemy, she found herself obliged to shake Malraux’s hand. Then she had to listen to Gallimard’s explanation of Genet’s lost manuscript before she could escape. Back in her own office, she was buttonholed by an aspiring young novelist who had brought her his typescript to read. He naïvely asked if Sartre would vote for him on the jury of the Prix de la Pléiade. She then had a brief chat with Michel Leiris, and took the novelist Nathalie Sarraute’s manuscript to Jean Paulhan. He showed her a little painting by Wols – a painter whom Sartre greatly admired also – which he had just bought. Finally, at seven o’clock she left the office and went to meet Raymond Queneau at the bar of the Hotel Pont-Royal.

This day was easy in comparison to some, and no doubt Castor rather welcomed the manic activity around her. It must have helped her forget her fears at this time that Nathalie Sarraute was trying to take her place as Sartre’s intellectual companion.

On 12 May there was a ceremony at the Arc de Triomphe to commemorate the victory of the year before. Félix Gouin ‘made a good speech,’ Duff Cooper recorded, ‘but he looks terribly insignificant on such occasions. His generous reference to de Gaulle was loudly cheered.’ De Gaulle, however, had refused Gouin’s invitation to attend. Instead he had gone to the Vendée to pay homage at Clemenceau’s tomb on the same day, the day commemorating Joan of Arc.

A few days before, Claude Mauriac had asked the General if he would make a speech during this visit. ‘I will perhaps say a few words, yes,’ he had said, ‘but we must not tell anyone.’ This was disingenuous. Claude Guy, his ADC, was already organizing a reception for journalists.

The speech over Clemenceau’s grave was to be the forerunner of several which, although ostensibly commemorating a particular event or anniversary, had a definite political purpose. De Gaulle had seen that his prestige was rising again and was preparing the ground for the foundation of a full Gaullist political movement. André Malraux told Louise de Vilmorin that the General ‘will be President of the Republic in September and that he, Malraux, will be Minister of the Interior’.

The crowd awaiting de Gaulle at Clemenceau’s tomb was large. Claude Mauriac felt uneasy at the cries of ‘De Gaulle au pouvoir!’ and was embarrassed by the event’s faintly fascist aspect. The supposedly modest visit was well attended by the French and international press, who were briefed by one of de Gaulle’s staff.

There is no doubt that the Communists were chastened by the results of the May referendum. The setback had been doubly embarrassing for the party leadership, since Molotov was in Paris at the time for a meeting of foreign ministers.

In 1946, most Western intelligence agencies had very little information on Communist objectives. In Paris, a number of attempts were made to penetrate the inner circles of the French Communist Party. The only successful operation at the time seems to have been that of the former Resistance leader Marie-Madeleine Fourcade. Although Kim Philby had rejected her material, it would appear that she had better luck in placing it with the Americans.

The first summary from US military intelligence covered a politburo meeting on 16 May, chaired by Marcel Cachin. They discussed Molotov’s setback at the Big Four conference in Paris with dismay. James Byrnes, the American Secretary of State, and Ernest Bevin, the British Foreign Secretary, had surprised the Soviet delegation with their firmness.

Then Thorez, chastened by the failure of the referendum vote on 5 May, expressed his pessimism about the outcome of the 2 June elections. The French Communist Party might have to decide whether to go into opposition or stay in the government. He feared ‘intensive anti-Communist activity in France’. He was furious with Blum for opposing the Communist plan to ‘liquidate the French Socialist Party through fusion or other means’. If the chance of taking over the Socialists definitely disappeared, Thorez told the politburo, then they should ‘seriously reflect before taking any violent action’. Soviet diplomacy needed peace and was not willing to take undue chances.

Another piece of intelligence passed on to the Americans said that Molotov was ‘deeply chagrined’ by the outcome of the referendum and had strongly warned the leadership of the French Communist Party against attacking Léon Blumand the Socialists. Such actions could only force them into an alliance with other parties of the centre-left and ‘push them closer to the British Labour Government. This in turn might result in a Franco-British pact which would form the basis of a Western bloc.’

At a further politburo meeting on 20 May, the arguments about seizing power intensified. Laurent Casanova said that armed action must be considered in the near future. If the Communists failed at the forthcoming elections, the new government would purge every part of the administration. This would be ‘the worst catastrophe that could befall the Communist Party in France’. If they were obliged to attempt an armed uprising, he warned that they could not count on any support from Moscow for ‘at least thirty days’. On balance, he felt that ‘it would be a grave error to withdraw from government and pass to opposition’.

These reports certainly sound plausible on the basis of other evidence, particularly contemporary documents of the International Section in the Kremlin. The French Communist Party was not receiving detailed instructions at that time.

For the elections at the beginning of June, the Communists adopted a low-key approach, relying more on whispering campaigns in cafés and queues than on strident propaganda. This did not, however, stop the French Communist Party from claiming that 340,000 tons of Russian grain had left Black Sea ports en route to France, with a balance of 160,000 tons to come. The United States Embassy was furious: no mention had been made of the 7 million tons of supplies delivered by the Americans since March 1945.

When the results were announced on 3 June, the Communists found that they had not done nearly as badly as they had feared. It was the turn of the Socialists to be disappointed, mainly as a result of their unwise policy over the referendum. They lost most of those non-Socialists who had voted for them to keep the Communists out. These tactical voters switched their support to the Christian Democrat MRP, which, to the Communists’ irritation, now replaced them as the ‘premier parti de France’. The Communists at first strongly opposed the idea of serving in a government led by Georges Bidault, and attempted to resurrect another Gouin administration, but the Socialists preferred to leave the responsibility of dealing with a virtually bankrupt economy to others. The Communists, finding that their refusal to serve with Bidault would bring tripartisme to an end, rapidly compromised, and de Gaulle’s oft-humiliated Foreign Minister finally achieved his ambition of becoming head of government.


The most important development following the elections was General de Gaulle’s return to the political stage. De Gaulle’s prestige had greatly increased in the last two months of uncertainty; and the news that he had refused Gouin’s invitation to celebrate the anniversary of his own 18 June appeal from London, coupled with his plan to speak at Bayeux two days earlier, caused great interest.

The speech at Bayeux, the American ambassador reported, ‘struck a more responsive chord throughout the country than its reception by the phlegmatic Norman audience indicated’. The meeting took place in heavy rain, with General de Gaulle bareheaded and in a uniform without decorations. He warned the French against their unfortunate inclination to divide into parties; but the event gave a strong impression of a military movement with the uniformed presence in de Gaulle’s entourage of Admiral Thierry d’Argenlieu, General Juin and General Koenig, as well as Malraux, Palewski and Soustelle.

The speech was important. De Gaulle put forward his idea of what the Constitution of the French Republic should be. It was, in many ways, the blueprint for the Fifth Republic, which he finally established after his return to power in 1958.

De Gaulle remained suspect in the eyes of many potential followers, particularly those who had supported Marshal Pétain, because he had made deals with the Communist devil during the war and had gone to Moscow to sign a pact with Stalin. These suspicions were soothed a year later, when the General took up an openly anti-Communist position. De Gaulle, despite his dislike of two superpower blocs, helped to bring French politics into the frame of the Cold War.

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