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The Fifth French Republic, the creation of General de Gaulle, is 50 years old. Of the many regimes since the Revolution of 1789 only the Third Republic (1871–1940) enjoyed a longer life. Nicolas Sarkozy is its sixth President, only four years older than the Republic itself, the first of its leaders to be free of the divisive wartime memories and the crisis that led to the collapse of the Fourth Republic and gave birth to the Fifth. This freedom represents Sarkozy’s opportunity.

The Fifth Republic was born in anxiety and fear. De Gaulle was recalled to power as “the most illustrious of Frenchmen” because the Fourth Republic (1946–58) – the “regime of the parties” – was on the point of collapse, threatened by insurrection in Algeria and the prospect of a military coup.

When, in the troubled days before de Gaulle resumed office, the President of the National Assembly, André Le Troquer, spoke of his fear that the General would establish a dictatorship, de Gaulle replied: “Well, if parliament follows you, I shall have no alternative but to let you have it out with the paratroops, while I go back into retirement and shut myself up with my grief.” Parliament knuckled under. De Gaulle became the last Prime Minister of the Fourth Republic and was granted the authority to devise a new constitution.

In 1940 de Gaulle had been a rebel. Now he was a ruler, with greater authority than he had been granted in 1944–46. Yet there were resemblances between the manner in which the Vichy state against which he had rebelled, and which had condemned him to death, had come into being and that in which he now returned to power. And there were also resemblances between Vichy itself and his Fifth Republic, closer resemblances than he cared to recognise. In 1940 as in 1958, the Republic in crisis turned to a strong man as the saviour of France.

There was a case for Vichy, though de Gaulle never admitted it. The Battle of France had been lost. The generals had failed, but so had the politicians. The Prime Minister, Paul Reynaud, resigned, and in his place the President of the Republic invited Marshal Pétain to form a government. Pétain, believing, like the commander-in-chief, General Wey­gand, that the defeat was irreversible, had already called for an armistice. This was granted and France was divided into a zone occupied by the German army and an unoccupied zone in which the French government would retain full authority.

The National Assembly removed to Vichy in the unoccupied zone and, prompted by Pierre Laval, voted by a huge majority (569 to 80) to accord “all powers to the Government of the Republic under the authority and the signature of Marshal Pétain, for the purpose of promulgating, by one or several decrees, a new Constitution of the French State”.

This was very similar to the authority granted de Gaulle in 1958, although in his case the majority in favour was smaller.

In 1940 Pétain was what President Coty of the Fourth Republic called de Gaulle: “the most illustrious of Frenchmen”. He was the “Hero of Verdun”, the commander who cared for the ordinary soldiers and was reluctant to engage in bloody offensives. Both Left and Right admired him and, although he despised politicians and “the regime of the parties”, he served in several of the fleeting governments of the 1930s. Always inclined to pessimism, distrustful of the British, he had been very quick to decide that the war was lost and an armistice necessary, in order to maintain the French Army in being and to prevent the German occupation of the whole of France. Urged to leave France and continue the war from north Africa, he said: “I consider it my duty to remain with the French people. Whatever happens, I won’t leave.” He was to keep this promise, disastrously for himself.

Like de Gaulle, Pétain was a man of the north, in his case Picardy. “To understand the Marshal,” his Interior Minister, Marcel Peyrouton, said, “it was necessary to know the French peasant”. Pétain had the peasant’s strength, his sense of the concrete and his intensely conservative instinct. In 1940 he felt himself to be France – just as de Gaulle believed that he embodied the nation.

The two men had long been associated. Pétain advanced de Gaulle’s career against conservative army opposition, even though their views on the conduct of war were diametrically opposed. He employed de Gaulle to write books and articles for him. The intimacy faded, ending in disagreement, well before 1940. More than once de Gaulle later said that the Marshal “was an exceptional man. He was an exceptional leader. I have not changed my mind. Unfortunately for France and for himself he died in 1925 and he did not know it.”

There was no single Vichy. It was not a Fascist regime. There were indeed French Fascists who were ready to work for a German conquest of Europe, but they were mostly based in Paris and regarded Vichy with impatience and contempt. The Marshal’s government was rightwing and authoritarian – pre-Fascist. The veteran royalist ideologue Charles Maurras hailed Pétain’s coming to power as “a divine surprise”, but Maurras was as anti-German as he was anti-­British. Those around the Marshal planned a “National Revolution”. The Republican slogan, “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity”, was replaced by a new triad: “Work, Family, Fatherland”.

At one level the National Revolution was backward-looking: a revulsion from modernity, stressing the virtues of rural life. Church leaders were mostly pro-Vichy, though Pétain himself was scarcely a model Catholic. It was hostile to capitalism, in favour of artisan workshops and small businesses; anti-communist and ready to equate Socialism with Bolshevism; anti-semitic – there was no need for the Nazis to prompt Vichy to enact anti-Jewish laws. On another level some officials at Vichy were modernising technocrats. Much of their work would be carried on after the war by governments of the Fourth Republic.

Despising the “regime of the parties”, Vichy and Gaullism were at one in agreeing that governments must govern, that the constitution of the Third Republic made this impossible, and that the executive must be strengthened.

Vichy came into being on the assumption that the war had been lost. Nevertheless not all saw defeat as irreversible. Many were anti-German and believed that the armistice had bought France time. The army remained in being, much of it stationed in north Africa, and the empire was still inviolate. The French Secret Services continued to hunt down and arrest German spies. Many saw the Marshal as a shield, protecting the French from the worst consequences of defeat. This was also how Pétain saw himself.

Edgar Morin, a Jew and a Communist, later active in the Resistance, remarked on the complexity of Vichy: “Vichy evolved over time. When the parliamentarians voted all powers to Pétain, this wasn’t a vote for collaboration, which came later .?.?. At first Vichy was a branch held out to drowning men. It was a shifting collection of people, some reformed Socialists, some pacifists, some the old reactionaries who followed Maurras. Over four years there was a very rapid evolution. It’s a mistake to try to fix Vichy in some sort of unchangeable essence. You mustn’t forget that from 1941 to the beginning of 1944 a good part of the population was ‘Pétaino-Gaullist’. Pétain was the shield, de Gaulle the sword.”

Collaboration dated from Pétain’s meeting with Hitler at Montaine in October 1940. Why did he agree to it? One reason was that the armistice was just that – a cessation of hostilities, not a peace treaty; there were still 2m French prisoners-of-war in Germany. Moreover, the occupation of more than half of France was clearly going to continue for a long time. Some collaboration with the Germans was necessary if the French state were to continue to function. But collaboration meant that the Man of Montoire would come to eclipse the Hero of Verdun.

Laval (although out of office from December 1940 until the spring of 1942) was a more enthusiastic collaborator than the Marshal. In old age François Mitterrand, a junior official in Vichy after he escaped from his PoW camp and before he set up his own Resistance group, would speak of Laval with dazzled admiration: “What an incredible type, this Laval, a peasant from the Auvergne who had been a prodigious success in Paris in the years of the Third Republic .?.?. He was rich and powerful because in his whole life he had believed in nothing.”

The case for Vichy crumbled in November 1942 when the Allies invaded north Africa and the Germans moved into the unoccupied zone, disbanding the French army there. From this time Pétain was a puppet. But he might have escaped this humiliating role. When the German intention became known, many around him urged that he should himself go to north Africa. He refused because he had promised the French people he would stay with them.

But what if he had yielded to this advice? De Gaulle himself gave an answer: “The Americans would have welcomed him with open arms, and eventually he would have returned to Paris on a white horse. And as for us? We’d have been fucked.” The USA, one should remember, had recognised Vichy and kept an ambassador there. There were frequent contacts between the Marshal and Roosevelt, who distrusted de Gaulle and thought he had Fascist tendencies.

There was little resistance in the first years of Vichy, none from the Communists until Hitler invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941, and some of the first resisters, such as Henri Frenay, who founded the “Combat” group, were Marechalistes. But, as the war turned against Germany, resistance grew in France, and to counter it Vichy formed the Milice Française in January 1943. It was now engaged in a civil war with the Resistance, in which both sides committed atrocities. Meanwhile, the regime lurched towards Fascism. Eventually the Germans transported the rump of Vichy to the little town of Sigmaringen on the Danube, where it expired in quarrels, silences and ignominy.

In France the Liberation led to the “Epuration” or purge of Vichyites. Pétain was sentenced to death, de Gaulle commuting the sentence to life imprisonment. Laval was executed after a travesty of a trial. De Gaulle, having seen off his rival, General Giraud, a Vichyite whom the Americans favoured, and having established his authority over the internal Resistance, preventing it from being taken over completely by the Communists, returned in triumph as head of a provisional government. With sublime arrogance and intransigence, he claimed to represent the authentic France and insisted that Vichy had never possessed any legitimacy. So, when Paris was liberated and, at the Hôtel de Ville, Georges Bidault, a leader of the internal Resistance,urged him “solemnly, in the name of resistant France, to proclaim the Republic before the people here assembled”, the General icily replied: “The Republic has never ceased to exist. Free France, Fighting France and the French Committee of National Liberation have each in turn embodied it. Vichy was always null and void, and it remains so. I myself am President of the Government of the Republic. Why then should I proclaim it?”

This was an enormous bluff, if a necessary one. The Republic had expired in 1940. It was necessary to recreate it. De Gaulle tried to win support for a new constitution which would strengthen the executive at the expense of the National Assembly and prevent a return to the “regime of the parties”. He failed and withdrew into private life, expecting mistakenly that he would soon be recalled. Before long he formed a new movement – the Rassemblement du Peuple Français (RPF) – as a means of returning to power and overthrowing the detested “regime of the parties”, which had resumed in much the old style. He failed again, and retired to Colombey-les-Deux-Eglises to write his memoirs and wait, like a king in exile, for the call.

It came only 12 years later, in May 1958. After the vote of June 1, which empowered him to draw up plans for a new constitution, he was approached by an old Pétainist deputy, the barrister Tixier-Vignancourt, who told him he had voted for the “full powers” but could not approve the delegation of “constituent powers” because “I would never have thought that I would be asked to delegate my constituent power twice in my life, and that the man who was asking me to do so for the second time was he who had punished me for doing so the first”; an acid reminder of the resemblance between de Gaulle’s position now and the Marshal’s in 1940.

Nevertheless de Gaulle had his way. He gave France the institutions he believed it needed: a strong executive capable of governing and a weakened assembly. If he spoke more often of the Republic than of democracy, this was because, to his mind, democracy as practised in the Third and Fourth Republics had failed France. His constitution was built to survive, and has indeed done so. His regime withstood the terrorism provoked by what some of his erstwhile supporters regarded as his betrayal of French Algeria. It was rocked by the events of May 1968 – the student riots – but survived them too, and has subsequently given France an unaccustomed stability.

He pursued Franco-German rapprochement and, though he had spoken contemptuously of this in his years of internal exile, he made France the moving force in the creation of a new European order. The shade of Laval might have smiled sardonically to see the General achieve what had been his own ambition.

Critics accused de Gaulle of “Bonapartism”. Like the two Napoleons, he used the device of a referendum or plebiscite to bypass the parliamentary body. Yet his understanding of the idea of a clear separation of the executive, legislative and judicial powers had older roots. He was a student of Montesquieu’s De l’Esprit des Lois, where the same theory was based on the author’s interpretation of the 18th-century British constitution. And indeed the powers of the President of the Fifth Republic resemble those of the 18th-­century British Crown.

François Mitterrand was de Gaulle’s most persistent critic. A member of most of the Fourth Republic governments, he denounced the Gaullist constitution as “a permanent coup d’etat”, yet stood against de Gaulle as the candidate of the Left in the 1965 presidential election and forced the General into a second round of voting. He united the Left and became in 1981 the first (and so far only) Socialist President of the Fifth Republic, even though Guy Mollet, the Socialist Prime Minister in the Fourth, fairly remarked: “When I was in government with him, Mitterrand was never a Socialist.” He was re-elected in 1988 and, despite his previous criticism of the regime, was every bit as monarchical a President as de Gaulle himself. The permanent coup d’etat suited him very well.

His political odyssey had been strange. He was born in the Charente. His bourgeois family were Catholic with royalist leanings. (A great-uncle had been a minister during the July monarchy.) As a student in Paris before the war he was on the fringe at least of extreme rightwing groups, the notorious Cagoule and the Camelots du Roi. Several of his friends belonged to the Cagoule, a violent organisation not averse to murder and terrorism. (Later there were Cagoulards in Vichy, also with de Gaulle in London; relations between the two were never broken.)

Mitterrand was wounded and taken prisoner on June 18, 1940, the day of de Gaulle’s first broadcast from London. He escaped, made his way to Vichy, where he found patrons and employment, and wrote two articles for a magazine, France, revue de l’Etat Nouveau, both appearing after the Germans moved into the unoccupied zone. He received the Pétainist decoration, “la Francisque”, but had already moved into the Resistance, and it is generally agreed that friends obtained the Francisque for him as a cover. In the Resistance, he was a Giraudist rather than a Gaullist, a meeting with de Gaulle in Algiers being fruitless. Nevertheless he was made a junior minister in the General’s provisional government in 1944. Elected to the National Assembly, he became the leader of a small right-of-centre party. Throughout his life he maintained contact with friends from Vichy days, and in old age expressed a nostalgia for Vichy.

His movement to the Left was gradual. Some would say he never arrived there.

De Gaulle had created a necessary myth: that Free France was the true France, that Vichy was an aberration to be swept out of sight. Mitterand knew that this was a distortion of history. At the end of his life he was prepared not only to confront his own chequered history but to invite the French to confront theirs, and, in doing so, to discard the Gaullist myth and to deny de Gaulle’s 1958 claim of “the legitimacy which I have incarnated for 20 years”. “Do you think that’s a republican sentiment, a democratic one?” he asked. “Legitimacy, that’s elections, not the 18th of June.”

Now, at last, France has outlived the divisions of 1940–44. They are history. Sarkozy, whatever he may make of his presidency, is free of the legacy of the war years, able to look ahead without referring to 1940. Though the choice of the Right, he rarely mentions de Gaulle, and the constitutional reforms he is putting through will tilt, if only slightly, the balance of power away from the executive towards the parliament. After 50 years, the Fifth Republic is being reformed. Some distrust Sarkozy’s authoritarian, Bonapartist tendencies. Others, comparing him to de Gaulle, remember how Victor Hugo derided Louis Napoleon as “Napoleon le Petit”, and see the Sarkozy regime, with its inclination towards the USA and economic reform, as reminiscent of the ­Second Empire.

But who knows? If his reforms do indeed redress the balance between the executive and the legislature in favour of the parliament, he may in time appear a more democratic republican than any previous president of the Fifth Republic. If so, the “regime of the parties”, so detested by Pétain and de Gaulle, despised also, though not publicly, by Mitterrand, may even return.

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