General de Gaulle and the political parties

General de Gaulle preferred to communicate with the people directly rather than from behind the screen of political party. The parties were, in his view, an evil; an evil of which he was often the victim but nonetheless a necessary evil, a concomitant of democracy. At times, he was adept in making use of them.  

A – When de Gaulle began in 1942 to turn his attention to organising a structure for the Resistance at home, Jean Moulin convinced him, against the advice of Pierre Brossolette, to include representatives of Third Republic political parties in the Conseil National de la Résistance (National Council of the Resistance). It would be a demonstration to the world that the democratic nature of his authority was recognised. 

Party representatives therefore sat alongside delegates from the Resistance movement on the Provision Consultative Assembly.

The Provisional Government was a government of national unity.

B – The government set up a system of proportional representation by department for the election of members to the first Constituent Assembly. The General took no part in the elections, which sent elected party representatives to the Assembly.

The Assembly elected the General President of the Provisional Government virtually unanimously (1), but soon found itself in opposition to him, in particular on its refusal to countenance any government involvement in the drawing up of the constitution. The General stood down on 20 January 1946.

The Assembly soon fell back into the old ways that had brought the Third Republic to disaster in 1940. A coalition government was formed, initially of three parties (PC, SFIO, MRP). A second Constituent Assembly drew up a cobbled text, adopted by a only narrow margin in a referendum, despite the repeated warnings of General de Gaulle.

De Gaulle sought to convince the country of the need to reform inappropriate institutions. Now, for the first time, on 7 April 1947 in Strasbourg he launched the Rassemblement du Peuple Français, a movement which immediately enjoyed great success in the municipal elections of that year. The Assembly refused to dissolve. Its majority claimed to constitute a "third force", against the Communists who had been excluded from government, and against the General's RPF.  For the general election of 1951, the Assembly introduced a system of "affiliations". The General refused to adopt it. The RPF represented the largest group, but lacked sufficient strength to take power.  The parties did their utmost to win RPF members away from their allegiance. De Gaulle, disgusted by the "exclusive party regime", withdrew to Colombey.

C – The powerlessness of the parties to settle the question of Algeria made the recall of the General inevitable. In the Constitution of 4 October 1958, he confronted the problem of political parties head on. He recognised their right to campaign in elections and guaranteed them freedom to form and to develop their activity, as long as they respected the principles of national sovereignty and democracy (a. 4). But government now derived from the President of the Republic and not from the Assembly, i.e. not from the parties. The excesses of the assemblies were now contained by rationalised parliamentarianism.  The role of the parties was made more stable, to a certain extent, by the return to election of individuals rather than of lists.

The RPF had not been without its uses. It provided the framework for a political group, known originally as the Union pour la Nouvelle République (UNR). The General was not personally involved and did not allow the UNR to make use of his patronage or his name. He nonetheless found the group very useful.

While the issue of Algeria remained unsolved, the parties supported the authority of General de Gaulle. No sooner did Algeria gain its independence, however, then the parties wanted to send de Gaulle back to Colombey(2). They believed they had found the pretext when the General called a referendum on election of the President by direct universal suffrage. A motion of no confidence was passed by the government, to which de Gaulle responded by dissolving the Assembly. All the parties with the exception of the UNR campaigned for a "no" vote in the referendum. They were defeated, and the subsequent general election only further confirmed their defeat.

The government of 1962 to 1967 followed a smooth course. The majority, a considerable one, remained loyal to the President of the Republic. Recognising that it had been elected in the General's name, its gratitude remained unshaken. It was made up of Gaullists and a handful of moderates.

The situation was very different in the Assembly elected in 1967. The government's majority was tiny, almost non-existent. The opposition parties declared war on the President through his government. At the end of May 1968, they felt victory was in their grasp. Once again, however, the General won and the elections of June 1968 were a disaster for the parties.

Despite their differences, they joined forces to recommend a "no" vote in the referendum of 27 April 1969 and this time they won. 

(1) But invited him to form a tripartite government.
(2) Less than a month after Pompidou formed his cabinet of concentration, the MRP ministers resigned.