Purge Party Politics

Caen_US Government
Caen, after its liberation. The city’s residents dropped from 50,000 to 17,000. U.S. Government

While Sétif and Guelma was hardly the best way to usher in the post war era, neither de Gaulle nor the French leadership had neither the time nor inclination to process the incident. For one, similar outbursts of violence in Tunisia had caused a diplomatic incident with the British, and French troops had fired on protestors in Damascus on May 20th.[1] Occupying a portion of the Franco-Italian border, French troops had even threatened to fire on an American unit when they protested the move. Miraculously in the midst of this de Gaulle still found time to personally ban the British ambulance unit of Mary Spears from participating in the Paris Victory-Europe celebration.

When they weren’t busy scoring an own goal on the Allies, de Gaulle had to contend with the mess his country was in. While France had not been flattened the way much of Germany and Russia had been, the physical damage was still immense. Bombings by both the Allies and the Germans had killed more than 68,000 civilians, and practically leveled portions of Normandy. The city of Caen was effectively destroyed, and reconstruction would officially continue until 1962.

Paris, der Kollaboration beschuldigte Französinnen
French Collaborators paraded through Paris. Photo Credit: Bundesarchiv Deutschland

Beyond the physical destruction de Gaulle’s homecoming meant dealing with the mental scars of the Third Reich. While many like de Gaulle had kept on fighting, others had actively collaborated for practical, personal, and in some cases ideological reasons with the Nazis.[2] In some cases over the three year occupation relationships had begun, something the French took to calling “horizontal collaboration”.[3] As the French retook their nation there was a reckoning for all of this, known as the épuration (The Purge).[4] In the first, “Wild Purge” that occurred immediately after an area’s liberation, known collaborators were hauled out, and an estimated 6,000 were executed. Others were subject to mob justice that involved beatings, brandings, or especially for women a vicious haircut.[5] Thousands more were jailed. Drancy Internment Camp in the Paris Suburbs, itself established to hold French Jews bound for extermination camps, was filled with 4,000 suspected collaborators in the aftermath of its liberation.

Drancy internment Camp French Government
Drancy internment camp. Photo Credit: Government of France.

For his part, de Gaulle tried his best to bring a sense of order to the Purge to help the French eventually put this dark chapter behind them. Starting in 1944 formal courts were established, handing down a staggering 120,000 indictments in the “Legal Purge”. Roughly 50,000 of these resulted in a sentence of “national degradation” or loss of civil rights. Though death sentences were still handed down, de Gaulle quietly commuted more than 70 percent of them, including one for his old friend and mentor, Vichy’s Marshall Petain. Yet in one of his more genuine moments of compassion, de Gaulle publicly justified this by arguing, “’France needs all its children, even if at times some of them made mistakes.”[6] Even so, the Purge had been a long time coming, and the cathartic violence it brought was seen by its proponents as absolutely necessary spring cleaning before the Republic could be reborn.

However, there was some disagreement about what shape the new Republic to take. At one of his heights of popularity, De Gaulle personally had wanted France’s new constitution to feature a strong executive president; which was a little like asking for a custom designed throne room.  Fresh off one bout of authoritarianism, the French had given the majority of their votes to leftist parties, including the Communist and Socialist parties. In no mood to hand the keys to de Gaulle, they enacted a new Parliamentary system with a weak executive. Initially making a show of unity, de Gaulle accepted governance and immediately knocked heads with everyone. One of his frustrated ministers later said he was “equally incapable of monopolizing power as of sharing it”.[7]

Resigning after a year, de Gaulle first tried and failed to launch his own party the RFF in 1947, then went off to sulk and write his memoirs. However, he was rarely idle, and tracked the struggles of the new Republic closely. Like a cross pollination of Napoleon and George Washington, de Gaulle always wanted power, but he never yearned to seize it. He was content to wait for his time to come.

To any casual observer of the Fourth Republic, it was clear that de Gaulle was not waiting in vain. By 1947 the Cold War was an overwhelming presence in the European political world. The Communist party was expelled from governance in France and Italy, kicking away one of the major supporting wings of the Republic. Not that it was particularly sound to begin with. In its brief, flickering 12 year existence, the Fourth Republic would burn through 21 Prime Ministers, and 24 governments, a rate that would leave a Roman 3rd Century Caesar feeling like he had enjoyed a healthy stint in power. The longest government, held together by Guy Mollett would last just 14 months and still somehow managed to wreak more havoc than most presidents manage in eight years.

French Indochina DOD
A French Foreign Legionnaire patrols next to a U.S model tank. Photo Credit: Department of Defense

If that wasn’t enough, the French coalition du jour could spend some time fretting about the explosive collapse of their colonial empire. In 1946, French Indochina erupted into full scale war. Under the leadership of Ho Chi Minh and Võ Nguyên Giáp, the Vietnamese launched a series of organized attacks on French positions across the region, leaving the army permanently reeling. As “la Salle Guerre” (the Dirty War) in Indochina spiraled out of control and both the United States and newly Communist China began to quietly feed in equipment, Algeria must have seemed very far from the top of the priories list. By the time the French noticed the unrest growing in their annexed backyard, it was too late.

[1] An understandably furious Truman responded to the incident by saying, “These French ought to be taken out and castrated”. From Fenby, J. 2010. Charles de Gaulle and the France he Saved.

[2] The SS 33rd Grenadiers, Known as the Charlemagne Regiment, was actually comprised entirely of French volunteers. They fought all the way to the Soviet assault on Berlin.

[3] Colton, J. 1986. The Purification of France. The New York Times. Available at: http://www.nytimes.com/1986/07/27/books/the-purification-of-france.html

[4] At no point did this involve animal and/or political masks. That’s apparently just an American thing.

[5] Picture a dozen pairs of scissors and hands ripping at the victim’s head, and the picture quickly becomes more horrific than it first sounds.

[6] Colton 1986.

[7] Manchester, W. Reid, P. 2012. The Last Lion: Winston Spencer Churchill


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