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Pierre Frank

The Election Defeat of the French SP and CP

(Winter 1959)

From Fourth International (Amsterdam), No. 5, Winter 1959, pp. 33–36.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.

The elections of November 23rd and 30th were the logical consequence of the referendum of September 28th, which itself was the inevitable result of the coup of May 13th that caused the fall of the democratic parliamentary regime and installed a new regime aspiring to establish a “strong state.”

The 4,500,000 “no”-votes of the referendum appeared again, 3,800,000 in the vote for the candidates of the French Communist Party, and the rest divided among various left candidates (Mendès-France Radicals, UGS, Autonomous SP, and also a few candidates of the Guy Mollet SP).

By comparison with the preceding elections the proportion of abstentions was 4 to 5% higher, i.e., 800,000 to 1,000,000 votes. It is very probable it is here that a big part of the 1,600,000 votes lost by the CP are to be found. It could also be granted without risk of error that there was a shift in the percentage of usual abstentions. In other words, contrary to preceding elections, it was on the left and not on the right that the mass of the abstentions was to be found.

The UNR and the Other Bourgeois Parties

The big winner was the UNR, a new formation set up less than two months before the elections, which was considered by the electors as the eminently “Gaullist” organization, the so-called “Left Gaullists” not having found any audience.

We must in the first place stress the debacle of the traditional bourgeois-democratic parties and of the most outstanding among them, the Radical Party. It had already emerged from the Second World War in a crippled state; its proverbial dexterity had permitted it to find once more an appreciable place in the Fourth Republic. But the contradictions of that republic had deeply divided it. At the elections which inaugurated the Fifth Republic, all its tendencies – the left of Mendès-France, the professionals of the French South (Daladier, Baylet, Bourgès-Maunoury), the split-off right (Morice, Martineau-Déplat) – bit the dust. We are witnessing the probably definitive liquidation of that party which boasted of being the “infantry” of the Republic.

Two bourgeois parties have resisted the drive of the UNR: the Mouvement Republicain Populaire and the Independents.

The MRP was not exactly a traditional party of democracy. It had emerged at the end of the Second World War, gathering former left Christian Democrats, Christian trade-unionists, and all kinds of politicians blessed by the high clergy. At that moment it claimed to be the “party of fidelity” to de Gaulle. It later broke with him to maintain its unity and to play a role in the Fourth Republic. It was under the presidency of one of its members, Pflimlin, that it was rapidly able to rediscover that “fidelity” on the morrow of May 13th.

The case of the Independents is different. There we are in the presence of the classic right, of the well-placed bourgeoisie, of the well-provided-for, the satiated, the “notables.” Normally they are the most desirous of a “strong power” of the Gaullist type. Yet it is to be noted that in Paris, where political currents are expressed more clearly, they had trouble in standing up to the wave of the UNR – which held a grudge against them for the break-up of the Gaullist RPF in 1952 – and even lost positions.

What then is this UNR that picked up a large number of bourgeois and petty-bourgeois votes of which the latter in 1956 had been cast in favor of the Poujadists or the Mendesists), and even a certain number of votes of backward and ex-Communist workers?

Formally, this organization claims it should be seated in the “centre” of the parliamentary hemicycle. That makes no sense. We find here a certain number of bourgeois, well installed in society, and a whole series of people who aspire to obtain a good place in the new regime. Politically, the UNR is a mixture of Bonapartists and fascists. The division is by no means traced out beforehand, it will in the first place depend on the course of events and also on the role played by certain persons. The principal leader, Soustelle, an intellectual without political ideas, is a specialist of the police and espionage networks. He is proceeding to cell-building inside the administrations and thus is playing two cards: the regime such as de Gaulle desires it, and the fascist regime in case of need.

De Gaulle and the New Parliament

The Assembly elected does not correspond perhaps with the desires of de Gaulle, who wanted a “balanced” parliament, permitting him to play more easily the role of “arbiter.” But it would be erroneous to think that there will soon be a crisis in his relations with that parliament or that a crisis will soon be provoked in the UNR to make the parliament more tractable. Some people are making the comparison with the former RPF, with its 1951 parliamentary fraction which was not long in breaking away, to the

greater profit of the classic right. They forget that we are no longer in a regime of parliamentary democracy, but in a regime arising out of an intervention by the army. The Assembly has the role, not of choosing the government, but, in de Gaulle’s own terms, of giving it support. The “new men,” whether elected from France or from Algeria, are asked only to be “beni-oui-ouis” (North African equivalents of “Uncle Toms”). Besides, parliamentary sessions are reduced to the minimum. Those who lead, moreover, whether de Gaulle or Soustelle or some others, are all provided with a strong dose of cynicism toward men in general, and it is well-justified toward these “new men,” who will be seen to rush for the spoils-jobs, stipends, and other advantages that their election can obtain for them.

Divergences will not be lacking in the leading spheres. But it will be less than ever in parliament that questions will be settled. Yet at a later stage, in case of an exceptional aggravation of the situation, of a crisis of the de Gaulle regime, a parliament like the one the elections produced could considerably facilitate the “legal” manoeuvres of aspiring fascists.

Toward the End of Molletism in the SP

After the May crisis, Guy Mollet believed he had played everybody off against everybody: de Gaulle against the colonels and the ultras; Duchet and the Independents against Soustelle; Defferre against the minority who left his party; above all he envisioned that the working class’s “unpoisoning” from the CP would work out to his own advantage. On September 28th all his desires seemed to be fulfilled and he got up on a table in the town hall of Arras to announce the results of the referendum. It did not need two months to prove that he had worked for the King of Prussia, i.e., for Soustelle. The candidates of the SP got a sound beating, whether they were Lacoste, Moch, Defferre, or Tanguy-Prigent. Mollet himself got by only with the loudly trumpeted support of the UNR.

Forty deputies elected for the party that was the pivot of the Fourth Republic! It is necessary to go back to before 1900 to find so weak a Socialist parliamentary group.

Mollet, who, right after the May crisis, had manoeuvred to postpone sine die the congress of the party, in order to have time to rediscover a majority in the parliamentary group and in the party itself, this time hurried things: four days after the elections the congress was held. It was necessary to leave no time to the militants to reflect on the causes of the defeat. Mollet gave them as fodder the promise of a “constructive opposition” preparing a victory – for 1963. At that congress Mollet put forward the argument which can justify his presence once more in the government: he fears that the pendulum may swing too much to the right, which would later have as a consequence a counter-swing too much to the left.

However this may be, the November elections will be the point of departure for a rebound of the crisis in the SP, which will lead to the end of the leadership of Mollet. For these defeated deputies – and with them quite a number of cadres of this party – are also mayors, general councillors, etc. And the elections for those posts will take place soon. They can pardon Mollet for having held the stirrup for de Gaulle, but not for making them lose their electoral positions.

Let us say a few words on the autonomous SP and the UGS . Their association with the Mendesists in the Union des Forces Démocratiques has served only to emasculate their programme. In general the candidates of the autonomous SP obtained less bad results than those of the UGS. It is desirable that the autonomous SP draws as a lesson from these elections the necessity of engaging in a relentless offensive against the Mollet leadership, instead of apologizing, as it has done up to now, for having left his party.

The Immobilism of the Thorez Leadership

The CP lost 1,600,000 votes compared with 1956. It found itself back to a percentage of votes equal to that of 1936 (see table below).


















1945 [1]



June 1946



November 1946












The leadership, to minimize this profound defeat of the CP, insists that the CP remains the strongest party in France, it denounces the iniquity of the electoral law and does not fail to pick up everything that was written on this subject in the international press, it insists upon the gains (of less than 2%) of the Communist candidates between the first and the second ballots.

Above all, not the slightest political self-criticism should be counted on. On the contrary, the Political Bureau declaration of December 2nd stressed that “numerous Frenchmen, justly anxious about national greatness and the future,” entered the wrong house by voting UNR instead of voting PCF.

They Missed the Bus

The Thorez leadership will try to make the Communist militants believe that – as has been the case more than once before – it is just a bad moment to get through, but that afterwards the party will come back stronger than ever. This argument, we may be sure, will not go down easily. The leadership of the CP will beware of reproducing the table of Communist votes since 1924. For it clearly appears from it that in 1936, with the first big drive of the masses, the party had taken the road to the conquest of the working class; that in 1945 it had obtained the majority in the working class; that at that period there were committees in the plants, and armed militias; and that the leadership at that moment simply missed the bus. From 1952 up to the moment of the expulsion of Marty, this essential idea has manifested itself on several occasions.

The Idea of Democratically Revising the Gaullist Constitution

Thorez has reaffirmed that he is more than ever a partisan of “the broadening” of democracy. He is even for “the democratic revision of the Constitution,” the one of September 28th (see his answers to the five questions of the periodical Regards). If, with all the strength it had at its disposal in 1945, the PCF did not succeed in “broadening” democracy and peacefully passing over to socialism, how can it be imagined at present, with so minute a parliamentary group in a rump parliament, that a “democratic revision” of the Constitution can be obtained? And what would this revision give? A slightly re-cooked-up Fourth Republic? But nobody can be mobilized for that!

The Democratic Impasse; The Way Out Toward Socialism

It will not be easy to dislodge the de Gaulle regime. For the immediate future, there is above all to be organized a stubborn defense against the assaults – from the government, the bosses, and the fascists – that are going to multiply. But this defense will not get up strength unless the masses are suffused, not with hollow formulae on “democracy” and the “parliamentary ways,” but with a willingness to fight by revolutionary means for a workers’ government which will tackle the construction of socialism.

Forty years ago the Bolsheviks denounced the Mensheviks and the reformists of every kidney who were blocking the road of the socialist revolution in Europe and who were claiming that Russia was not ripe for socialism. Today we see pseudo-Bolsheviks, in fact the disciples of Stalin, the servants of the Soviet bureaucracy, claim that China is ripe for socialism, but not France, not Great Britain, not a single one of the economically developed countries of Europe !

In France, as in all countries of capitalist Europe, the workers’ movement – whether led by reformists or by Stalinists – is facing a major crisis. After the First World War the socialist revolution had miscarried, above all through the betrayal of the Socialist leaderships; its defeat ended in the victory of fascism, which covered almost the whole of Europe. After the Second World War, reformist and Stalinist

leaders got together to channel the mass movements and re-establish regimes of parliamentary democracy. These live in almost chronic crisis. France got rid of hers by Gaullism, and elsewhere they have been much weakened. To stay on the level of bourgeois democracy is to set out along the road that France has already traveled, toward the open dictatorship of capital.

Gaullism is not at all stabilized, notwithstanding the 80% of votes which it obtained. It can founder on Algeria, on economic difficulties, but in what way? There will be no real broadening of democracy for the benefit of the masses except as a result of a struggle that will overthrow the capitalist regime.

Guarantees, but to Whom and for What?

As to the question of the gains made by the CP between the first and second ballots, their numerical unimportance has great political significance. It is incontestable that, in a general way, the Socialist electors (even those of the autonomous SP or of the UGS) voted in the second round only to a very small degree for the best placed Communist candidates. Far more cases can be pointed out in which the votes were cast in favor of bourgeois candidates. In the Central Committee session which preceded the elections Thorez said that it was necessary to play on the “republican reflex.” We shall not explain at length here the confusion which this implies (the difference between classes has been replaced by a difference between “right” and “left” outside the classes); but there is no doubt that in France the “republican reflex” (no enemies to the left!) has strong traditions. If it did not operate, it was because there is not only a basic and comprehensible anti-communism in the reformist and bourgeois-democratic leaderships, but also an aversion in the Socialist masses toward the CP.

The reason is very simple. The leadership of the CP declares that it offers to the democratic and reformist leaders, to whom it proposes a political alliance, guarantees that it will be faithful to the contract and will not utilize the force of the workers to break out of the capitalist regime and set out on the road to socialism. That is not the problem for the broad working masses who distrust the leadership of the CP. It is not the coup of Prague against the bourgeoisie which they fear, but the coup of Budapest against the workers who do not share the “line” of the leadership. They acquired this distrust as a result of all their experiences in France itself, of manoeuvres, of the strangling of democracy, of slanderous and brutal methods within those workers’ organizations controlled by the Stalinists. If there were not that distrust in the ranks, all the venomous anti-communist campaigns of the reformists would fail and the CP would not be experiencing the isolation which its militants are feeling more and more.

Thorez, just like Mollet, is sustaining his party by saying that all will go well – tomorrow, or the day after tomorrow. But although he has at his disposal more possibilities of manoeuvre toward his party, he will not long be able to keep down a crisis which has been ripening for years now. For tomorrow all will not go better. The objective situation contains powerful contradictions which can permit a reversal of the situation, but it must be realized that those are not immediate and almost automatic possibilities. The momentum of Gaullism launched by the coup of May 13th is not at all exhausted; the figures of the referendum and the elections attest to its extent, but they do not at all mean that the bottom has already been reached. On the contrary, we are heading into extremely difficult periods. The worst of all aberrations would be to sow illusions and false hopes. Finally, even when the objective conditions have been transformed, we shall get out of this situation only if we get rid of the fatal policies that led to the defeat of 1958.


1. Beginning with 1945, because of votes for women, the total number of voters has more than doubled.

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