Page 6, 3rd April 1970

3rd April 1970
Page 6
Page 6, 3rd April 1970 — The rises and falls of France in her chronic search for a leader

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Organisations: French Army
Locations: Ceuta, Cairo


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The rises and falls of France in her chronic search for a leader


Louis XIV and Twenty Million Frenchmen by Pierre Goubert (Allen Lane The Penguin Press 63s.) The French Revolution by Francois Furet and Denis Richet (We idenfeld and Nicolson 70s.) The Collapse of the Third Republic by William L. Shirer (Heinemann and Seeker & Warburg 63s.) riROUGH these three books there runs one connecting theme, namely, that France must have effective leadership: other nations, Great Britain and Spain, for example, can jog along without it, but France just goes to pieces. In his memoirs, written for the Dauphin, Louis XIV said that when he came into his inheritance on the death of Mazarin "chaos reigned," and it was his supreme merit that during his reign he put an end to this state of affairs.

The ten years of the French Revolution, as interpreted by MM. Furet and Richet, found France searching for a master in place of the ancien regime, and when it found one in Napoleon Bonaparte on the 19th Brumaire the Revolution came to an end. The fall of France in 1940 was due to the weakness of the Third Republic, and she did not revive until General de Gaulle was at the helm.

There must also be taken into account the growing physical weakness of France relative to the other Powers of Europe during the period covered by these four authors. In 1700 her strength in relation to them has been estimated at 38%; in 1789 at 25%; in 1815 at 20%; and in 1939 at considerably less than 10%, Unless allowance is made for this fact, which successive rulers of France have tended to ignore, French history during the past, three hundred years becomes meaningless.

Professor Goubert sums up Le Roi Solid in the words, "He was admired, feared, hated, and secretly envied," and that seems fair enough. He rightly stresses the fact that the King was far from being all-powerful; there was "no single law for the whole country." and as often as not the inhabitants "belonged first and foremost to the familiar and effective local overlord before they were the humble subjects of the distant Bourbon": even today the average Frenchman is inclined to take more interest in the sous-prefet than in the Prime Minister.

Louis, whom Lord Acton described as "by far the ablest man who was born in modern times on the steps of a throne," knew to a nicety how far he could go in domestic matters— though unhappily not always in foreign affairs—and in striving for unity he never sought

after uniformity. If he round France in chaos he left her united.

One of the strongest of the centrifugal forces was the aristocracy as the Fronde had abundantly proved, and. Louis XIV believed that he had clipped its wings by turning its members into courtiers attendant upon himself at Versailles: he was wrong, and as the eighteenth century progressed this proved to have been merely wishful thinking.

As the joint-authors of The French Revolution well put it. "Louis XIV had used Versailles to domesticate the aristocracy; by the end of the eighteenth

century the aristocracy had been able to use Versailles to establish its supremacy over the king." Had Louis XVI possessed an atom of firmness, of course, this would not have happened, but he was one of the weakest men who ever sat on a throne, and in the last resort he always gave in to Marie-Antoinette and her aristocratic friends, who could be relied upon to oppose any reform.

A further consequence of this was that the "image" of the Court in France as a whole was extremely bad, and that at the very time when the bourgeoisie was an increasingly important factor in the national life. In outlook Louis XVI much resembled George III, and had he managed to convey this to the French people a great deal of trouble might have been avoided, but his wife and his Court created an impassable gulf between him and his subjects.

MM. Furet and Richet admirably sum the matter up in the words, "The Revolution was the result not only of economic and social trends, but of scandal, scurrilous anecdotes, and, to a certain extent, pure accident." They are indeed right, for there was many an occasion when things might have gone another way.

So the ancien regime collapsed—it can hardly be said to have been overthrown—and for ten hectic years the French attempted to find something to put in its place. In turn the Terror, the Convention. and the Directory were tried and set aside, and the leadership of

such men as Denton and Robespierre was accepted and rejected: finally the country turned to Napoleon, and weary of domestic strife it welcomed the prospect of military glory.

The ultimate consequences of this are to be seen in Mr. Shirer's The Collapse of the Third Republic. The real tragedy of the French Revolution was that no subsequent regime has really united France. The Third Republic, it is true, lasted for seventy years, and even survived the First World War, but it never really recovered from its initial weakness that the executive was at the mercy of the legislative: that was bad enough. but during its existence French politics became a byword as scandal succeeded scandal.

Mr. Shirer's book is far too long, and is really an encyclopedia; it is often none too easy to see the wood for the trees; he is often a little prone to lean to the Left in his judgments; but there is a very great deal of very valuable information in his study which is not readily available elsewhere.

In this connection it may come as a surprise to many readers to be told that when the Second World War began the Allies were bluffed into inaction by a force of no more than twenty-six divisions in the West white Poland went down to disaster. Even in May, 1940, when the Germans swept into France, Belgium, and Holland, the Allies possessed a superiority of twenty-one divisions, while Mr. Shirer tells us that "the truth is that the French Army had as many tanks as the Germans and most of them were better."

In aircraft the Allies had numerical equality with their enemy. What was really wrong with France was that she was morally dead before the first shot was fired.

When Mr. Shirer comes to discuss the pros and cons of Marshal Pt tain's request for an armistice his reasoning is not easy to follow, for the picture he paints of the state of the French Army can lead to no other conclusion than that it was incapable of further effective resistance, and yet he brings charges of defeatism against all and sundry who realised the fact.

The only alternative would have been for the Marshal to have retired to Algeria, and raised his standard there, but it was extremely fortunate for Great Britain that he had neither the will nor the energy to do so, for Hitler would assuredly have followed him which would in all probability have meant that by the end of 1940 the whole of North Africa from Ceuta to Cairo would have been in German hands.

These three books should be taken as a connected whole, and those who so read them will in the process have acquired a sound knowledge of the history of modern France.

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