Commentary Magazine


Les 13 Complots du 13 Mai, by Merry and Serge Bromberger

How de Gaulle Came to Power
Les 13 Complots du 13 Mai.
by Merry and Serge Bromberger.
Fayard (Paris). 439 pp. $4.60.

 

The Bromberger brothers’ approach to anyone in power is cloyingly sycophantic; and they value their contacts too highly to venture more than a toe or two beyond the orthodoxy of the Defense Ministry and Jacques Soustelle. Occasionally, by a wry tongue-in-cheek aside, they allow the reader to guess that they are not quite as politically naive as they seem; and once or twice they even refer to sedition, mutiny, and rabble-rousing as such. But their book is very much the Version according to Saint Jacques. The villainous diehards of the story are not the European ultras of Algeria, whose political myopia made the FLN uprising possible and then brought France to the brink of civil war, but “les ultras de la défense républicaine” who wished to uphold republican legality.

A typical example of the brothers’ propagandist commitment is their insistence, repeated three or four times, that Toulouse was ardent in its support of the May 13 riot, whereas it was in fact one of the towns most hostile to the Algiers hotheads. The clandestine Public Safety Committee set up by an eccentric professor and an abbé of the Institut Catholique was a laughing-stock; its bill-stickers ventured onto the streets only after midnight, accompanied by armed escorts (sometimes supplied by the army). With the approval of the mayor and prefect, however, republican defense committees of Socialists, Communists, Radicals, Protestants, and Spanish Republicans sprang up in every quarter; and if, on orders from Algiers, the army and gendarmerie had tried to repeat the Corsican coup in Toulouse, the town might well have become the point de départ of a new Popular Front.

Yet this is a revealing book—so revealing that the Dépêche du Midi, the only non-Communist daily in France to campaign against de Gaulle last fall, has recently serialized it. The bias and the sycophancy are too crude really to get in the way; and because of them the Brombergers’ book is all the more valuable a guide to the political ethics of the founders of the Fifth Republic. It is also a convincing reminder that if the Gaullists had been content to await a spontaneous summons from the French people they would still be in the wilderness. General Paul Ely, chief of the French general staff, asked Charles de Gaulle soon after the collapse of the Fourth Republic: “When did you know that you would be returning to power?” De Gaulle replied: “I have always known!” But his faith in his indispensability was shared by only a small minority of his compatriots, and to engineer his return the activists among that minority were obliged to collaborate with the same kind of men—including some of the selfsame men—who had brought the Third Republic to its knees; they were obliged to subvert the armed forces and, in the last resort, threaten Parliament and the legitimate government of the country with a direct military assault. The Gaullists’ task “seemed impossible and would have proved impossible,” the Brombergers admit, “sans un travail de sape”—without a determined effort of subversion, sabotage, and demoralization.

The Brombergers describe this effort in terms of thirteen plots and subplots. Some were only three-men-and-a-dog enterprises, and de Gaulle was the intended beneficiary of only a minority of them. Some of the plotters were avowedly fascist, revered Mussolini, Franco, and Salazar, and despised the Gaullists as too heterogeneous and vague. But all drew sustenance from a broadly similar political hinterland—that ultra-nationalist, ultra-Catholic, képi-worshiping right which believes its values to be menaced somewhat distantly by Communism and more intimately by a vicious “Anglo-Saxon” hydra whose heads bear such labels as parliamentarism, freemasonry, “Judeocracy,” Protestantism, and Darwinism. Even the Gaullists drew their main “mass” strength in the Paris region from the steel-helmeted CRS and police whose favorite slogans (shouted in a police demonstration outside Parliament a year ago) were “Les députés à la Seine” and “Mort aux Juifs.”

There were seven main categories of conspirators: the Gaullists proper; the rabble-rousing lawyer Biaggi and his followers, who organized the famous Algiers tomato bombardment of February 6, 1956, which “forced Guy Mollet to abandon his policy”; the right-wing activists of Algiers, spearheaded by Lagaillarde’s neo-fascist students, Martel’s Catholic “secret army,” and the Poujadists; the complex-ridden, Mao-reading parachutist officers of Algeria, tortuously evolving what some of them tentatively call a “national communist” ideology; the Grand O secret society, organized by Dr. Martin, founder of the prewar Cagoulards and one of the ideological architects of the Vichy régime; the Colonels’ Club (ya Gamal!) of the Ecole militaire and their friends in the armed forces and police throughout the country; and a ragtag and bobtail of surplus generals (300 at the beginning of 1958), retired generals, and ex-servicemen’s organizations. Some of these categories overlapped. The Gaullists attracted Biaggi to their service (though his followers remained ignorant of the link) and were well connected with the colonels and surplus generals. The Grand O possessed considerable influence in the army, got control of Martel’s movement, and infected Massu and several other well-placed parachutist officers with its views on “counter-revolution” (without the officers knowing the source of their infection).

The more active Gaullists were working for a military coup in the early summer that would enable de Gaulle to step forward as the arbiter and guardian of national unity. In Algeria they were weak (Algeria’s largely Pétainist Europeans had little taste for de Gaulle) and were obliged to conclude an alliance with the neofascist and Poujadist activists. The activists had no intention of bringing down the parliamentary “system” merely for the Gaullists’ benefit and stormed the Gouvernement général building on May 13 without informing them. The Gaullists gained the initiative only after the activists’ failure to bar Pierre Pflimlin from the premiership had provided an opening and the senior officers in Algiers had begun to fear for their careers.

The Brombergers present the Gaullists as a patriotic social and intellectual elite, touchingly devoted to their hero, single-minded and altruistic in his service. Their devotion would indeed have been touching had de Gaulle been no more than a run-of-the-mill retired officer, sportsman, or pop-singer, unafflicted with political ambition. But a great many readers of Les 13 complots will surely find it difficult to admire the intelligence or the patriotism of men prepared to gamble the unity, well-being, and prestige of their nation on a single dice-throw, on behalf of a leader of whose intentions they were totally ignorant. (They could not even plead that French history was lacking in warnings of the dangers of this sort of thing.)

Soustelle and the friends of the Algerian diehards suspected that de Gaulle might not wish to go as far as they in the establishment of a permanently settler-dominated Algérie française. Liberal Gaullists, perturbed occasionally by the alliances and commitments he appeared to be allowing men like Soustelle and Michel Debré to make in his name, half-feared that his approach to Algeria might be rather more hidebound than theirs. Neither clan had the common sense or the guts to ascertain just what Gaullist policy was on any major issue; instead, each made its own declarations and half-promises and sought to present the general with as many faits accomplis and expectant allies as possible. Today, in consequence, the men who brought de Gaulle to power are as disunited as a Radical congress; the Communists are stronger numerically than at any time since the Hungarian repression; a greater proportion of France’s effective fighting forces than ever before (85 per cent) are bogged down by the Algerian imbroglio; and the democratic elements which must one day assure a smooth take-over from de Gaulle, if he is not to be succeeded by a military free-for-all, are deeply demoralized.

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On a par with the Gaullists’ political irresponsibility was their startling moral numbness. In a democracy, the only honorable course for an official in disagreement with government policy is, surely, resignation. But in France in the last year or two of the Fourth Republic, a great many Gaullist civil servants and high-ranking officers, who were pledged to serve the regime and had accepted responsible appointments under it, were devoting their most energetic efforts—and a good deal of the taxpayers’ money—to wrecking it from within. Gaullist politicians either (like Jacques Chaban-Delmas) sought cabinet rank for the same purpose or (like Soustelle) overthrew governments and created and prolonged political crises in order to demonstrate the instability of the regime.

The Brombergers describe these Gaullist tactics with admiration and enthusiasm, though they appear to disapprove of those of an ally of the men of May 13, the Organisation de Renaissance de l’Algérie française, which committed FLN-type outrages (e.g. the placing of time bombs in Algiers churches) so as to whip up European hysteria and win support for its demands for massive repression of the Moslems. One wonders why. Deliberately to set oneself the aim of sapping the confidence of the French people in their democratic institutions was, if anything, even more reprehensible than cultivating communal hatred in Algiers: the scars made by M. Soustelle and his friends on the French body politic will remain long after ORAF has been forgotten.

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The Brombergers try hard to put General de Gaulle himself beyond suspicion, and he undoubtedly took greater pains than his followers to keep within the bounds of legality and propriety. But can one say more than that? He was all things to all men. A typical day’s work was that of March 27, 1958, when “he welcomed successively Roger Stephane of France-Observateur and the action committee of a Soustellist ex-servicemen’s organization. Stephane left persuaded that de Gaulle would grant independence to Algeria, the ex-servicemen convinced that he would fight to keep Algeria French.” De Gaulle disapproved, though not too strongly, of Soustelle’s Algerian policy, but refrained from telling Soustelle so to his face and contentedly allowed Soustelle to recruit support for Gaullism on the strength of this policy, left him a free hand to discredit the Fourth Republic in the name of Gaullism, and rode to power in his wake.

The conspirators who gave de Gaulle his opportunity “acted in his name,” the Brombergers say, “without his having any say in what they did.” Technically, this may be true, but it is equally true that he was fully informed of what they were doing and, when they were threatening Pflimlin with a military occupation of Paris, of what they were planning to do. De Gaulle “is in close touch with Algiers and is fully informed as to what is being prepared,” his principal private secretary informed an envoy of General Miquel, whom General Salan had appointed to command the “March on Paris.” When the Algiers coup was petering out, de Gaulle’s declaration of May 15 gave its leaders fresh hope, and a breathing-space in which to carry out the admonitory Corsican putsch and organize a repeat performance for Paris. Only two days before the date fixed for the “March on Paris” (March 30), instead of telling General Miquel to respect his loyalty oath to the Republic, whereupon the worried Miquel would gladly have called the whole thing off, de Gaulle informed him of his intention of “taking the situation as [I] find it,” and added complacently: “Let everyone accept his responsibilities!”

While the leaders of the Algiers dissidence were wearing Premier Pflimlin down with threats of military action in France, de Gaulle was demanding “la capitulation pure et simple du régime” and the right to send parliament packing for two years. On March 28, issuing an undisguised ultimatum to the chairmen of both houses of parliament, whom President Coty was pressing to open negotiations with him, he threatened to return to his village and lay “the responsibility for the events which follow” on “those who were unwilling to hold talks” with him—not, of course, on the plotters and mutineers.

After a few more examples of this sort of thing, and after having insisted many times on de Gaulle’s respect for “legality,” even the Brombergers let slip the remark that “his conception of legality” was, admittedly, “some distance removed from that of the jurists of the National Assembly.” And in another context, quite casually, they print a piece of news known to more than one resident foreign correspondent but unreported because—well, being expelled from a country in which you’ve been settled for some time, with most of your books and chattels, is always a messy, costly business: the news that the “chef d’orchestre with the invisible baton” who coordinated the various civil and military plots which brought the general back to power was none other than Olivier Guichard, the head of de Gaulle’s personal secretariat. Guichard devoted six days a week to this duty, the Brombergers say. Surprisingly, they have omitted to add that de Gaulle had, of course, no idea of how his chef de cabinet filled in his time.

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