De Gaulle and social reforms

While General de Gaulle's economic thinking was inspired by the monetary and financial practices of the time, his ideas on social conditions reflected his own original ideas. From the wartime period through to his two presidencies, de Gaulle was to remain true to his central objective for society: participation.

At the outset, this meant involving workers in the life of the company and giving them a share in  its results. In time, workers would share with employers in the management and profits of the company.

This objective offered a particular advantage in de Gaulle's eyes: it would soften the perverse effects of doctrinaire capitalism and socialism by defusing the class struggle. De Gaulle's plan, in the final analysis, was to open up a third way between capitalism (where employers held the power and the capital) and socialism (where the state gathered the real decision-making power and resources into its own hands).

A variety of influences led de Gaulle to adopt the principle of participation: the social Catholicism of his youth, the pancapitalism of the 1930s – a theory which was supposed to go beyond capitalism by giving workers a greater place in society – and the ideas developed in Resistance circles. The implementation of participation proved no easy matter, however.

- at the time of the Liberation, de Gaulle issued two orders to give shape to his determination to strengthen social solidarity. The first of these established the works committees which gave workers a say in what went on in their companies and the power to manage a certain number of social activities and welfare measures; the second set up the Social Security system on 4 October 1945.

- in opposition, the Gaullists within the RPF continued to support the idea of participation, under the name of capital-labour association. All the bills they introduced in the National Assembly on the subject were rejected in 1951 and 1952.

- under the Fifth Republic, de Gaulle opened the first "breach in the wall separating the classes" with an order of 7 January 1959, introducing optional participation. The measure was not widely applied. In 1963, de Gaulle returned once again to the need to develop "co-operation" between capital and labour. It was not until July 1965 that the concept was reinforced legally with the passing of a text : the Vallon amendment recognised and guaranteed the distribution of capital gains to workers. In 1967, a number of other orders concerning participation were also issued, but their scope remained limited.

The crisis of May 68 only strengthened the President's determination to promote participation: in his view, the anonymity that reigned in the modern world, in "a civilisation dominated by the material", was one of the main causes of the May crisis. By introducing participation into companies, but also into the rest of society, could not that society be made more human?

On 27 April 1969, de Gaulle therefore invited the French to vote in a referendum on reforms to the Senate and the regions which he believed would make it possible to integrate the "vital force of the nation" into the political life of the country. The French, however, rejected the General's proposals, at which point he chose to step down: "By voting against me, France (…) has rejected all that participation symbolised," he confided to André Malraux on 11 December of that same year.

There was therefore "a discrepancy between the intentions and achievements" of de Gaulle on the social front (J. Touchard). The idea of creating a third way between capitalism and socialism was a bold concept, but was never fully achieved. Hostility to the proposal from both employers and trade unions, coupled with a general lack of understanding by the public, are to blame for this relative failure. Another major contribution to the failure of participation was a split among the Gaullists; one section of the government, close to Pompidou, was lukewarm, while left-wing Gaullists like Louis Vallon and René Capitant supported the plan. Even so, there were still a number of major innovations – Social Security, works committees – that today's society has retained and developed.