1946–58: Out of Power
After monopolizing French politics for six years, Charles de Gaulle suddenly dropped out of sight, and returned to his home at Colombey-les-Deux-Eglises to write his war memoirs.
The famous opening paragraph of Mémoires de guerre begins by declaring, "All my life, I have had a certain idea of France (une certaine idée de la France)", comparing his country to an old painting of a Madonna, and ends by declaring that, given the divisive nature of French politics, France cannot truly live up to this ideal without a policy of "grandeur" (roughly "greatness"). During this period of formal retirement, however, de Gaulle maintained regular contact with past political lieutenants from wartime and RPF days, including sympathizers involved in political developments in French Algeria, becoming "perhaps the best-informed man in France".
In April 1947 de Gaulle made a renewed attempt to transform the political scene by creating a Rassemblement du Peuple Français (Rally of the French People, or RPF), which he hoped would be able to move above the familiar party squabbles of the parliamentary system. Despite the new party's taking 40% of vote in local elections and 121 seats in 1951, lacking its own press and access to television, its support ebbed away. In May 1953, he withdrew again from active politics, though the RPF lingered until September 1955.
As with a number of other European countries during this period, France began to suffer the loss of its overseas possessions amid the surge of nationalism which came in the aftermath of WW2. Indochina (now Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia), colonised by France during the mid nineteenth century, had been lost to the Japanese after the defeat of 1940. Although de Gaulle had moved quickly to reclaim the territory during his brief tenure as president, the communist Vietminh under Ho Chi Minh began a determined campaign for independence from 1946 onwards. The French fought a bitter 7 ½ year war (the First Indochina War) to hold onto Indochina until their decisive defeat at the Battle of Dien Bien Phu in May 1954
With more than 70,000 French soldiers killed during the conflict, Pierre Mendes-France was made Prime Minister with the main objective of ending the war, and by July 1954 a ceasefire had been arranged, following which French Forces left and the country was partitioned into North Vietnam and South Vietnam. This was only a short interlude before the even more savage Second Indochina War, more widely known in the west as the Vietnam War, in which America, not France, was the main antagonist.
The defeat in Indochina had a profound influence on France’s North African empire and severely stretched the credibility of the Fourth Republic. By 1956, Morocco and Tunisia had all but won their independence, while in Algeria, some 350,000 French troops were fighting 150,000 members of the Algerian Liberation Movement (FLN), a conflict which was to become increasingly savage and bloody over the next few years, and threaten mainland France itself.
Between 1946 and 1958 there were no less than 24 separate ministries. The president retained relatively little real executive power, and manœuvrings among various radical and socialist groups in the Assembly led to the government being repeatedly overthrown. Governments were so short lived that they achieved little, and the politics of the 4th Republic began to show the same characteristics as the 3rd Republic. Endlessly frustrated by the divisiveness of the Fourth Republic, de Gaulle famously asked; how can you govern a country which has 246 varieties of cheese?
The public showed their frustration with a marked shift of support towards the extreme right, particularly the Poujadists, a far right party who championed the cause of shopkeepers, farmers and other small businesses who were concerned at increased taxes and price controls brought in to try to curb inflation. Led by Pierre Poujade, the party were anti-Semitic, anti-American and imperialist, but won 2.6 million votes in 1956, giving them 52 seats.
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