How Socialist France Embraced the Bomb

By John Bacher | 1986-06-01 12:00:00

'Why bother working to elect a peace party? As soon as they're in office, they turn into hawks. Look at the French Socialists, for example. Out of office, they fought against nuclear weapons, but once elected, it wasn't long before they were bombing the Rainbow Warrior."

--burned-out disarmament organizer.

Although it's not a pretty history, peace-makers would do well to analyze the story of the French Socialists. We need to understand how a peace-loving political patty can turn chauvinistic, and come to prize its country's nuclear capability. This, then, is the sad tale of the late, formerly admirable, Socialist Party government of French President François Mitterand.

It is a study in irony: In 1985 the Mitterand government was behind the bombing of the Greenpeace flagship. In 1972 those same politicians had (along with the Communist Party) called for French unilateral nuclear disarmament and the suppression of the notorious intelligence service that was later to carry out the bombing. The 13 year history of this transformation illustrates the difficulties of carrying out a political program against the determined opposition of the military and civil service.

Power Corrupts

Although president Charles De Gaulle shouted "Vive la France" on February 13, 1960, when the first French nuclear bomb was exploded, the entire French left denounced their nation's acquisition of the nuclear weapons at that time. And in 1965, Mitterand ran for President on a platform of opposition to nuclear' weapons.

By 1977, however, the 1972 program of the united French left parties fell apart on the issues of peace and disarmament. The first move toward acceptance of nuclear weapons was, surprisingly, taken by the French Communist party', which in May of 1977 reversed seventeen years of op-position to French nuclear weapons. The C.P. concluded that "the only means of deterrence available. meet a threat of aggression, to neutralize any possible imperialist nuclear blackmail" were nuclear weapons. It called for French nuclear weapons as the basis for independence from both super-powers. This was to be effected by giving intermediate-range French nuclear missiles on the Albion Plateau a "multi-directional capacity of 360 degrees," so that they could be fired at both superpowers. As a counter to President Valery Giscard d'Estaing's moves toward a strategy of integration into NATO, the French Communist Party leadership revived De Gaulle's idea of independent French nuclear weapons. Many rank and file Communists accepted the new course as a ;sign of growing "Euro-Communism" in defiance of Moscow.

The French Socialist Party followed the French Communist Pasty several months later on its nuclear course. The key role in its transformation was played by the party's left wing, the Centre for Socialist Studies (CERES) group. The group developed a justification for nuclear weapons, maintaining that the French left could not win the battle for a transition to socialism "under the American nuclear protection." The party's convention in 1978 accepted nuclear armed submarines as a means of transition to a period in which land based missiles and strategic bombers would be abolished, while a socialist government searched for alternative policies of defence. In 1980 this policy collapsed with the Socialists' adoption of the CERES position, which fully accepted the French nuclear force as a "factor of stability"' in a Europe polarized between two blocs. Not only would the socialist government maintain the nuclear force, but it would "modernize" it.

Beauvoir and Gorz Speak Out

The changing positions of the French Socialist Patty and Communist Party on nuclear weapons was criticized by respected French left intellectuals who were not members of these parties. In May 1977, Simone de Beauvoir, André' Gorz, René' Dumont, Jean Paul Sartre, and others drew up a statement which argued that "the atomic weapon is not socializable." Such weapons, they maintained, foster inherently anti-democratic technologies that prevent the achievement of worker-controlled socialism. Writing in the July 1984 New 14 Review, Diana Johnstone explained that the Socialist and Communist Parties' policy changes had been shaped largely by the left's twenty years in opposition, by its desire to secure the support of moderate elements in the army officer corps; and by the lack of debate on strategic issues within French political parties.

Although many French socialists remained skeptical of nuclear weapons, pro-nuclear tendencies received an enormous boost with the party's election to office. The new Socialist and Communist party ministers, Johnstone said, "found themselves a thin layer poured over the unalterable, impenetrable, and for the most part invincibly hostile corps of civil servants" who, according to French law, could not be removed. Indeed, the new government leaders depended on the bureaucrats for access to files and to implement directives. They could have forced such cooperation by public disclosure, but forbore out of a fear of being shown to be inept managers. Moreover, there are in France no independent left research institutes, as in Germany and northern Europe, to provide alternative direction. In these circumstances, Mitterand's role became reduced to giving socialist color to the decisions of existing policy-making establishments.

The result of avoiding public confrontation with the civil service is most apparent in the involvement of the French intelligence service. Pasty policy called for the "demilitarisation of the Intelligence and Counterespionage Service" (SDECE). In an attempt to carry this out, Mitterand's appointed director, socialist Pierre Marion, fired agents considered to be reactionary. In response, as Jane Kramer wrote in The New Yorker (21 October 1985), some of these agents "broke into his flat one night and carried nim off, and the next morning he woke up, adrift in a dinghy in the Mediterranean." But, rather than prosecute the agents, Mitterand sacked Marion. Later, the SDECE attempted to embarrass Mitterand by leaking the alleged plans of secretaries of four of his Communist ministers to visit the agency on a "fact-finding" mission. In April 1982 the government transformed SDECE into the General Directorate of Foreign Security (DGSE), stripping it of its domestic spying role, which remained with the French police. In response, the now DGSE leaked false information purporting to link one of its pro-government members to various European terrorist organizations. This official was later exonerated.

Wielding the Ready-Made State

Mitterand was drawn to the right in a current created by the absence of a strong French peace movement. The French Communist-influenced Movement de Paix and Appel des 100, although opposing cruise and Pershing missiles, have not challenged French nuclear weapons. Their campaigns tend to be based on simplistic slogans such as "I love peace." The alternative CODENE organization, according to an article sympathetic to it in the January 1985 END Journal, tends to be a "loose and weak coalition" of "mutually suspicious minority' groups and splinter factions." Al-though decentralist and ecology movements in Brittany, Corsica, and elsewhere had been a growing anti-nuclear force, these were largely demobilized by the 1981 Socialist electoral success, their members caught up in the responsibilities of forming a government.

Regarding the Mitterand government's hasty' embrace of cruise and Pershing deployment of missiles, Veronique Neiertz, head of international relations for the French Socialist Party, explained that "Since coming to power, the Socialists have access to information they didn't have when they were in opposition and which confirms the existence of an imbalance of forces to the detriment of the Western camp.

Later in 1981, Neiertz was replaced by Jacques Huntzinger, one of the few Socialist Party members familiar with nuclear weapons strategy and arms control. Huntzinger had defended the French nuclear force in an article written three years before Mitterand's election. He moved the Socialist Party doctrine toward concern with "restoring deterrence."

Huntzinger's argument has been reinforced by the tendency of many left intellectuals to blame the Soviet Union for the lack of revolutionary change in Europe since the

protests of 1968. The invasion of Czechoslovakia in August of 1968 is held in many sectors of the French left to be the greatest single recent blow to social progress, on the ground that it crushed Europe's best hope for a genuine socialist democracy. The "new philosophers" revived the Cold War ideology which maintains that, being totalitarian, the Soviet Union is by nature aggressive and expansionist. Such sentiments peaked with the crushing by martial law of

Poland's Solidarity Union, which was widely championed by the French left as a model of democratic socialism and workers' control. This atmosphere has contributed to making the most moderate protests of the French Communist Pasty against the deployment of cruise and Pershing missiles appear as Moscow-directed propaganda.

In the Socialist International, Huntzinger used "anti-super-power" themes to denounce disarmament. He said that disarmament would be of no help to oppressed peoples fighting for their liberation, adding that France was proud to send arms to Nicaragua. This example continued to be cited long after the flow of French arms to Nicaragua stopped.

The confrontation between the French left and the rest of Europe emerged in the debate between former East German dissident and later West German Green leader, Rudolf Bahro, and former nuclear weapons critic André' Gorz, who later supported Mitterand. Gorz attacked the West German peace movement for an alleged "indifference to freedom" and argued that "an ecological peace movement should reject the whole ideology of détente." Gorz defended the French nuclear force as part of a future "integrated European defence, which in the long term would make it possible to liberate Europe completely from American protection." Bahro replied that such an anti-Soviet policy would encourage the dominance of the military in the USSR.

Gorz's writings provided a nationalistic excuse for French socialists to turn their backs on their West German counterparts, in order to build closer military ties to West Germany through negotiations with the Christian Democratic government.

Mitterand and West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl signed an agreement to revive defunct clauses of the 1965 Elyseé treaty for regular security' talks. They also established a direct "hot line" between Paris and Bonn. This move toward greater military cooperation between two powers is being fuelled by enormous expenditures on the French nuclear force. The alliance would involve West German financial support in exchange for an extension of the French "nuclear sanctuary" to West Germany.

This strategy further involves turning the European Economic Community into a military bloc. Gisèle Chazart, a close associate of Mitterand, made a confidential submission to European socialist international party MPs outlining how this would work. This document, which came into the possession of the END Journal, argued that with the USSR's and USA's nuclear deterrents being undermined by technological advance, it would be in the interest of the EEC to develop a "common defence project in space." This implied that France's civilian Eureka project would provide the basis for a European Star Wars program.

Shaping Consent

Mitterand's moves to create a Western European military bloc have been rejected by European socialist international parties. But inside France these proposals have been warmly praised by conservative parties. Only the French Communist Party remains attached to the old Gaullist notion that France could avoid a European war and that its military forces should only be used for the defence of France itself.

The most apparent threat to the new French nuclear' consensus is the possibility of a military coup, should French ecologists again become a significant political force. Al-thought it subsequently fell into decline, the anti-nuclear French Green candidates polled a respectable 12 percent of the popular vote in 1977. Socialist parties to the left of Mitterand's Socialist Party maintain a similar anti-nuclear stance. But these parties face repression which resembles that exerted on the left organizations that supported Algerian independence in the 1950s. The transmission tower of a small radio station of the Greens in 1977 was jammed by a helicopter. They had urged "people to do something else, to walk off the beaten path." A socialist candidate running against Mitterand for the presidency had her election broadcast blocked from the airwaves because she was proposing the independence of France's Pacific and West Indian colonies.

The danger to democracy inherent in the French military's and state elite's allegiance to nuclear weapons is similar to that posed to the Fourth Republic by the attitude of these same forces toward Algerian independence. Jane Ralston Saul, a Canadian writer best known for a novel based on the assassination of a Gaullist general, reported that the most significant aspect of the Greenpeace affair was a radio speech by a French general warning that if French military men were fired for their involvement in the bombing "there would be malaise in the army." Saul points out that this would mean a withdrawal of army support for the government, and a possible coup d'état.

After the Greenpeace fiasco, Mitterand's response was a spate of firings that actually strengthened the most reactionary elements in the ruling French military and intelligence circles. As a sop to these groups he revived the Eleventh Shock Regiment, infamous for its extreme right-wing sympathies and history of dirty tricks, and appointed to head it the key person responsible for planning the Rainbow Warrior sinking, Colonel Jean-Claude Lesquer.

The Greenpeace bombing exemplifies the extreme means French authorities employ to maintain both the nuclear force and the remnants of Empire. A Maori New Zealand political leader was expelled from Tahiti after she had been invited to speak against the test by the Polynesian Liberation Front. The attacks on anti-nuclear protesters began in 1966 by French secret police, who sugared the gas tanks of a protesting sailing ship, the Trident. In No Immediate Danger, Rosalie Bertell points out that in 1966 when the French first began testing in Polynesia, public health statistics no longer were published for this area. Anyone requesting these figures was reported to the secret police. Only army doctors were allowed to practice in local hospitals. In 1982, France refused to cooperate with a World Health Organization study of cancers among Pacific Islanders. Polynesian opponents of nuclear testing are often jailed and residents are prohibited from communicating with other nuclear victims elsewhere.

In its striking combination of conspiratorial enveloping secrecy and indifference to human suffering, France's maintenance of its nuclear force and its sinking of the Rainbow Warrior bring out clearly the extent of the mission facing the international peace movement. Developments in France also show the success that vested interests can have in isolating critics of the establishment from their natural constituencies, and the astounding degree to which reformers can end up as apologists for nuclear weapons.

The recent French elections also reveal the bankruptcy of traditional conservative pro-business parties in developing innovative programs to promote peace and disarmament. Surprising as it may seem to Canadian peace activists, the coalition of right wing parties that were successful in the 1986 parliamentary elections actually called for increased military spending and condemned the Socialist Party, not for the Green eace bombing, but for their alleged incompetence in having the French government's connection to the plot revealed. Conservative support for this terrorist act was revealed by the new governments refusal to meet with New Zealand Prime Minister David Lange, until the secret agents responsible for it were released from prison.

In attempting to modify their antimilitaristic policies to make their government acceptable to powerful élites, the French left succeeded only in promoting the growth of their more chauvinistic right wing opponents.

Fortunately, however, not all anti-nuclear political efforts come to such a sad end as did the French Socialist Party. Peace activists can take courage from such counter-examples as the Greek Socialist Party government's refusal to deploy the cruise and the turning back of nuclear ships by the New Zealand Labour Party government to show that the ballot box can still work effectively for peace.

Peace Magazine Jun-Jul 1986

Peace Magazine Jun-Jul 1986, page 13. Some rights reserved.

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