Resistance: The Political Autobiography of Georges Bidault
This is a dreadful and sad book. It was written in exile by a man whose career deserves a place among France’s many “defeated leaders”—to use the title of Professor Binion’s excellent book. Bidault, a professor of history at the lycée and a Christian Democratic journalist before World War II, with an excellent record of opposition to Fascism and appeasement, became one of the leaders of the French Resistance. He was elected to succeed Jean Moulin, the first President of the National Council of the Resistance, after Moulin’s tragic death, and remained the political head of the Resistance for a long and harrowing year—from the summer of 1943 to the Liberation. He cooperated with and was accepted by the Communists in France as well as by De Gaulle in Algiers. The General after his triumphant return to Paris made Bidault his Foreign Minister. Bidault founded the MRP, France’s first nationwide Christian Democratic party, was twice Premier, in 1946 and 1949, and held the post of Foreign Minister or of Vice-Premier almost without interruption until Dien-Bien-Phu.
Opposed to any concession to the nationalisms that were destroying the French Empire, especially to Algerian nationalism, Bidault called on De Gaulle to return to power when, in May 1958, the French settlers and soldiers in Algeria rebelled against the Fourth Republic. He soon discovered, however, that De Gaulle’s new colonial policy was the opposite of what he had hoped for: he was one of the countless dupes of De Gaulle’s cunning and deliberate ambiguity. Bidault now became one of the leaders of the opposition to De Gaulle: he supported the generals and colonels who tried to apply to the Fifth Republic the treatment that had worked against the Fourth, and he even founded a shadowy second National Council of the Resistance, which gave its blessing to the famous and sinister OAS—the French terrorist organization that went on a rampage in Algeria and in metropolitan France in 1961-62. During the collapse of the generals in the spring of 1962, he left France, and in July of that year lost his parliamentary immunity. After trying in vain to find asylum in Europe, he went to Brazil, where he wrote this book. He has recently resettled in Belgium, waiting for vindication and the right to return to France. He is now sixty-eight. He may not have too long to wait for his return; but as for vindication….
No pamphlet by a malicious enemy could be more devastating than the self-portrait Bidault has here given us. One does not hope for serenity from an exile, and one fully expects bitterness. But what has the reader done to deserve the deluge of resentment that Bidault has poured over these bloated pages? Can it all be explained by a passionate devotion to a cause which may have been the wrong one, but which he deemed sufficiently noble to justify acts that denied his past? This is part of the story, but only part. First, there is nothing in Bidault’s book that makes the cause even begin to look attractive. Surely, colonialism could find a better defense. All that Bidault seems to care about is the preservation of the French national heritage, of which he believed the colonies and protectorates formed a major part. This man who fought for France’s independence from Germany does not at all understand the grievances and demands of colonized people. The French are at home in their possessions; that the natives could have some claims on their homeland Bidault never acknowledges. Just as the Nazis denounced in the Resistance movement a small gang of self-seekers and Communists, Bidault sees in the nationalists overseas nothing but Reds and trouble-makers. His nationalism is of the narrow and rigid kind, which not only has no sympathy for the revolts of others, but cannot even imagine them. He accepts no other nations than those with a long independent past.
There is another key to Bidault’s behavior: vanity. He shares the incurable egomania of many French politicians. What sets him somewhat apart is that his vanity and self-esteem were so often damaged by other leaders, or colleagues, who failed to take him seriously and mocked his rasping voice, or his tiny stature, or his mystifying speeches, or his lack of resistance to alcohol. His book shows the wounds—it is a display of petulant conceit. Bidault feels that his great services to France and the West were not appreciated by his compatriots. He discusses other statesmen almost entirely according to their behavior toward him. He is resentful of De Gaulle for having failed, in 1945-46, to inform his Foreign Minister of his plans (De Gaulle had chosen Bidault for the post in spite of, or perhaps because of, Bidault’s lack of experience, but Bidault did not enjoy their unequal collaboration). His colleagues (including the other Christian Democratic Foreign Minister, Robert Schuman) he treats with condescension. He accuses the Fourth Republic of having made effective government impossible (yet he played a major role in setting it up and never tried to reform it). He charges Parliament with hounding him, adversaries with plotting with France’s foreign enemies against him, colleagues with lacking character and principles. He compares his exile with that of Victor Hugo during the Second Empire. He speaks with venom of the two men who ruined his political career—Mendès-France in 1954 and De Gaulle after 1958. Bidault is a Christian for whom charity does not exist.
TO BE SURE, his enemies did not deal kindly with him either. But Bidault’s record after the Liberation is appalling. Only his decision in 1948, to reverse his (and De Gaulle’s) previous policy toward Germany, to switch from revenge to reconciliation, seems admirable. Of course, when De Gaulle after 1958 proposed a similar reversal of his repressive colonial policy, Bidault responded with hatred. Bidault’s West European policy, itself imaginative in 1948-50, became increasingly timid and equivocal: officially committed to the draft treaty for a European Defense Community, he delayed its presentation to the National Assembly and buried the draft for a European Political Community, without which the EDC lost much of its meaning and appeal. Yet his deepest mark was on France’s colonial policies—and what a mark! He personally insisted on, and obtained, the tightening of French rule in those provisions of the 1946 Constitution which concerned the Empire (rechristened French Union). He supported the war in Indo-China and, when the situation became desperate, he asked for American military intervention, but not on Dulles’s terms: Bidault wanted direct, armed support, not the kind of “collective action” that would have deprived France of its primary role in Indo-China and given to the “associated peoples” of the peninsula their full independence. Dulles’s anti-communism saw that French colonialism was throwing the Vietnamese nationalists into Ho Chi Minh’s lap.
For Bidault, anti-communism and colonialism were inseparable. Before he was swept out of office by the French National Assembly during his half-hearted negotiations in Geneva, he removed the nationalist Sultan of Morocco, replacing him with a puppet who was overthrown after two years and much bloodshed, which contributed to the further decline of France’s North African Empire. After 1954 Bidault’s increasingly bitter attachment to French Algeria isolated him from his party; when he left it in 1958, he was drawn to many men who were Fascists or former Vichyites. To be sure, there were former Gaullists too, like Soustelle or General Challe, who found in De Gaulle’s own grand disobedience of 1940 the inspiration for their revolt against him. There were two flaws in their reasoning: of course this time De Gaulle was in power, and not the representatives of Hitler and a senile Marshal; and their cause was neither just nor in the nation’s interest.
Bidault’s life is sad enough; what makes his book so bad is that at no point does he indicate how France could have gone on resisting forever the inevitable; at no point does this statesman discuss such elementary problems of statecraft as the balancing of the ends and means, the limits imposed by world trends or domestic opinion. Moreover, the indications he gives about his own acts are skimpy and uninteresting when he gives them at all; he barely talks about his role, expectations, or achievements at the Geneva Conference, for instance, nor does he say much about his policy in 1953-54 toward West European military and political unification. It is true that he did not have the documents with him in Brazil when he wrote the book. Still, the book seems to suffer not so much from a lack of evidence as from amnesia.
Nevertheless, Bidault—like all of De Gaulle’s former and present associates—is fascinated by the General, and behind all the ranting there are some shrewd judgments and glimpses of his former chief. What Bidault says about De Gaulle’s “constant projection of his own image,” about his startling diplomacy and personal secretiveness, about his mixture of procrastination and impulsiveness, is a valuable if minor contribution to our understanding of the General—even if Bidault’s endless indictment of De Gaulle’s changes of policy toward Germany and colonialism is familiar and tiresome. There is another, more negative virtue. The book is the involuntary record of a triple tragedy. It records the tragedy of a man who, after his hour of heroism and glory, did not possess either the intellectual or the psychological resources to play well that statesman’s role which he had the ambition and conceit to wish to perform. It records also the tragedy of a political regime that vacillated from obsolescent rigidity to short-range compromise, both of which made the final debacle inevitable. It records, finally, the tragedy of a form of nationalism which fed on nineteenth-century symbols and myths, and which showed the same inability to adapt or to transcend itself as did the man and the regime. Ironically enough, the real hero of the story is not Bidault but that other historian, De Gaulle, for it is he who saved France from the ugly pettiness of a nationalism based on resentment, irrelevance, and hatred. However much we may regret that he replaced it with another form of nationalism, should Americans today cast any stones? It is De Gaulle’s regime that got France out of the colonial quagmire, and it is De Gaulle who has repeatedly shown the capacity to face challenges without becoming the prisoner of even his own past. At a time when the failings of the Fifth Republic are in full view, one must be grateful to Bidault for reminding us of its achievements.