80. Intelligence Memorandum1
THE FRENCH CRISIS
De Gaulle’s Challenge
- The events of the last 24 hours have placed France on the knife edge of disaster. By refusing to resign, De Gaulle has taken on the workers [Page 154] and students frontally. He has reverted to type, the powerful, challenging autocrat. He has promised elections for the Assembly, not for the presidency. He has vowed to retain his prime minister. He has threatened the use of his emergency powers. He has asked for the revival of Gaullist “civic action” committees—his private security system. He has raised the spectre of a Communist takeover. In short, he has come out of his corner swinging defiantly at opponents who thought that they had him on the ropes.
- In his speech he made a simplistic division of France into those threatening dictatorship-his opponents, all lumped together as Communists or their dupes—and those in favor of “progress, independence, and peace”—the people. De Gaulle is attempting to achieve by words what his regime has failed to do politically, i.e., divide the country into two clear-cut camps: the Gaullists and their supporters on the one hand and the Communists and theirs on the other. This attempt poses basic problems of strategy and tactics for the leftist opposition and its electoral ally, the Communist Party.
- The immediate reaction has been both angry, and enthusiastic. On the one hand, more workers have left their jobs, including some public service employees; on the other hand, thousands of Gaullists are jubilantly taking to the streets. When, how, and if a head-on collision between right and left will occur is not yet clear, but a spark could set it off.
The Opposition’s Response
- De Gaulle’s challenge could evoke a wide range of responses from French workers, students, and the political parties of the left. Among the workers, a small but militant and youthful minority has led both the mass of workers and the opposition political parties in fomenting strikes and forcing the French economy to a standstill. These militants are unlikely to change their tactics now.
- In an effort to force De Gaulle’s resignation, workers could carry their activities to new levels by cutting off all electricity and gas service (they have done so for short periods already), and they could attempt large-scale industrial sabotage in installations that they now either occupy or have struck. In such circumstances De Gaulle would be obliged to restore the operation of these installations by force.
- De Gaulle obviously hopes that the great majority of the ten million striking workers who follow but do not lead will get back on the job now that they are threatened with the full power of the government. If the labor force does begin returning to work in significant numbers, De Gaulle will have broken the back of the dissidence. If it does not, civil conflict of major proportions will almost certainly ensue.
- If De Gaulle gets more workers back on the job and the economy moving again, he will have largely isolated the students. He can then deal with them at greater leisure and from a much stronger position. The students who instigated the early demonstrations and who are still in the revolutionary forefront must realize this, and probably see only one course open to them: to continue the resistance by all means and to persuade the workers over the heads of their own leaders that De Gaulle can be defeated. De Gaulle’s arrogant speech could lead to a hardening of the student position and to more dramatic attempts to challenge authority.
- For the political parties of the left—the Communist and Francois Mitterrand’s Left Federation—De Gaulle’s speech poses more starkly than ever the dilemma they have faced since the crisis began. Will they gain (or lose) more by trying to assume leadership of the revolution against De Gaulle, or by strengthening their own moderate image through support of order and peaceful change? The immediate reaction of both Mitterrand and the Communist leadership to De Gaulle’s speech was to label it a call to civil war. They may have second thoughts, but apparently now believe that they would lose more by knuckling under to De Gaulle than by fully associating themselves with the dissidents. The left’s political leaders themselves are dependent on the workers. If substantial numbers of workers respond to De Gaulle and begin returning to work in the next few days, the politicians of the left will also probably pull in their horns, seek to cut their losses, and begin again to espouse order and parliamentary processes.
De Gaulle’s Assets
- At this juncture De Gaulle has one asset that he almost certainly can count on—the army; one asset that he probably can rely on—the internal security forces; and one potential asset—the nonstriking, nonstudent French public which would like to avoid bloodshed and possible civil war. The position of the army is particularly critical if De Gaulle assumes emergency powers under Article 16 of the constitution, a move that he alone—and with only a pro forma parliamentary and judicial sanction—can initiate.
- The army probably will obey any orders it receives from the legally constituted government. If an insurrection breaks out and the army is ordered to crush it, it probably will do so. Purges that have occurred since the Algerian imbroglio and the anti-Communist sentiment among army leaders should ensure the loyalty of the officer corps. The reaction of the conscripts if massive violence breaks out is less predictable, although most officers do not seem concerned about the loyalty of the draftees. Various reports indicate that on his way back to Colombey on the 29th, De Gaulle met in eastern France with General Jacques Massu, [Page 156] commanding general of the French forces in West Germany, and with a number of other army leaders, presumably to inquire about the loyalty of the troops. De Gaulle’s implicit threat to use force to restore order indicates the generals probably reaffirmed their support for the regime in case of a showdown. There are numerous reports that additional troops are now moving toward the Paris area, but there has been no confirmation of this.
- As of 29 May, two airborne regiments had been moved closer to Paris and three armored units near Paris had been placed on a six-hour alert. In addition, five gendarmerie companies from the French forces in Germany had been moved to Strasbourg and Paris and all major units of the First Military Region, which has its headquarters in Paris, were ordered to have 75 percent of their personnel present at all times.
- The police, aided by the 60,000-man gendarmerie and the Republic Security Companies (CRS), have up to this point obeyed all orders issued by their superiors. Discontent among the Paris police has been growing, however, in part over the regime’s handling of the crisis and in part because the government has not yet responded to demands for pay raises. Police unions have publicly proclaimed their sympathy with striking workers and might balk if ordered to oust strikers from occupied factories. De Gaulle thus might be forced to rely on the CRS and the army. He has studiously avoided calling on the army up to this point, possibly in part because few units have been trained to deal with civic disorder.
- The public thus far has been highly critical of the “establishment” and surprisingly tolerant of lawbreakers, strikes, and massive inconveniences. Now that the possibility exists of an insurrection on the part of the protesters and the wholesale use of force by the government to restore order, that sector of the public which wants to avoid a civil war might rally to the legitimate government. De Gaulle’s raising of the spectre of a Communist take-over probably was intended to arouse this up-to-now passive group. Some indications that he has considerable strength within this group in the Paris area have already been shown by the 300,000-400,000 demonstrators who gathered in Paris late today in support of De Gaulle.
- Developments over the next few hours and days will tell whether the momentum of the dissidents is sustained—or whether De Gaulle’s opening for a return to order is seized by a tired and frightened public. Movement to chaos could be very fast indeed, particularly if some of the restraints observed so far by organized labor are abandoned. The critical areas are the public utilities, communications, and the police.
- The leaders of the left may upon reflection recoil from attempting to come to power the same way De Gaulle did in 1958: through subversion and paralysis of the state. The events of the past three weeks, however, demonstrate that the titular leaders of both workers and students have only imperfect control over the rank and file in their organizations. It is highly questionable now whether they have the will or indeed the desire to rally their followers for a legal assault on the Gaullist regime at the ballot box.
- Whether elections will be held, whether the results will be meaningful, and whether the losers will accept the results of the vote probably will not be apparent for a week or more. The immediate reaction of the leaders of the leftist opposition, the striking unions, and the demonstrating students indicates that they have chosen to regard De Gaulle’s speech as a “call to civil war” rather than as an opportunity to prove that a majority of the French people desires the end of the Gaullist regime.
- The immediate outlook for a return to some measure of calm is very poor. The government already has begun organizing counterdemonstrations and mobilizing the Committee for the Defense of the Republic (CDR) a group of World War II resistance veterans unconditionally faithful to De Gaulle. If students continue to demonstrate and workers to occupy plants, or if the Communist Party activates its own “action committees,” then bloody clashes are likely with the CDR, other Gaullist supporters, the police, and the army. Over the short run, we believe that the government probably would succeed in restoring order and essential services, but only at the cost of poisoning political life for the indefinite future.
- The longer term political outlook is therefore ominous. The Gaullists have repeatedly violated and perverted their own constitution. They have treated even the moderate opposition with disdain and indifference. In today’s declaration, De Gaulle has reasserted his determination to maintain the dominance of the right in France. The opposition, in turn, has reacted in its political frustration with revolutionary language and calls for extraparliamentary means to redress its grievances. Long-term political stability in France probably has been undermined. Thus the stage has been set for a polarization of political forces in France, with neither extreme willing to accept the role of a “loyal” opposition. Whatever the short-term outcome, France faces a period of unrest and, eventually, even civil war.
- Source: Johnson Library, National Security File, Country File, France, Vol. 13. Secret. A typewritten note on the memorandum reads: “This memorandum was prepared jointly by the Office of Current Intelligence and the Office of National Estimates [less than 1 line of source text not declassified].”↩