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29th of May

Page history last edited by Daniel Carrie 2 years, 5 months ago

Baden -Baden: What happened? 

On the 29th May 1968 General Charles de Gaulle momentarily disappeared. For a few hours, his ministers and even the Prime Minister, Georges Pompidou, were unaware of the the president's whereabouts. They were led to believe that he had taken the helicopter to go to his country home, in preparation for his address to the public and to rest after his trip to Romania. However, it wasn’t long before people discovered that General de Gaulle was not at Colombey. Upon his return, it was no secret that he in fact went to Baden-Baden, the French military headquarters in Germany, to pay a visit to General Jacques Massu. Though many experts have proposed possible explanations for his departure, there is not a clear reason as to why he would leave France during such a historical crisis(Reader 1993, Reynolds 2011).

 

There are 3 possible reasons which analysts commonly use to explain his trip to Baden-Baden, however after Massu's death in 2002, there has been no way to verify these hypotheses. 

 

One of the theories as to why General de Gaulle flew to Baden-Baden was that he indeed feared a coup d’état (Reader 1993, Reynolds 2011) After his disastrous speech on 24th May and his clear inability to handle the current situation, it would not be surprising if he feared for his well-being. Equally he had his immediate family follow him to Baden-Baden, further suggesting that he was genuinely worried about what could happen to him and his family. This is supported by Massu’s declaration concerning the situation. Massu is reported to have said that when de Gaulle arrived he was extremely worried and believed that it was the fault of the communists who had caused the state to be at a stand still, and was strongly considering stepping down from his presidency (Reader 1993). Thanks to the reassurance of General Massu, de Gaulle changed his mind and returned to Colombey. It is difficult to say if Massu is telling the whole truth behind the Generals visit, even with the supporting statement made by Pompidou, which claimed that de Gaulle had said that he had never felt like this before and felt as though he had failed(Reader 1993). We can suspect that there was a bit of ‘parti pris’, as to avoid plunging the state into further disarray. It is difficult to say if this was the reason behind the Generals visit to Baden-Baden. Although it seems unlikely based on de Gaulle’s ability to handle difficult situations in the past, it is worth noting that there are accounts of him feeling physically and mentally drained after his visit to Romania, which further highlights the gap between Charles de Gaulle and the students who were protesting(Reader 1993). 

 

 Author: French Fourth Republic. CC-BY https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Jacques_Massu1958.jpg

 

Another theory suggests that General de Gaulle went to guarantee the militaries support(Reynolds 2011, Singer 1970). It is reported that before he flew to Baden-Baden he went to St. Dizier to meet with his fellow army generals. This would suggest that he was ensuring that he had the army’s backing should he require their support and need them to mobilise. However, Singer argues that it is debatable if the army would have been all that useful at that time. In 1968 part of the French army was made up of conscripts and although there had been little unrest in the armed forces, and no propaganda in favour of the revolution, it would still be a rather risky move to use conscripted forces as a means for civil war. Not to mention that after the era of the Algerian Crisis most of the modernisation within the army was towards nuclear weapons and although regular troops were also modernised, they were nothing more than satisfactory. It is however possible that Charles de Gaulle didn’t want the militaries backing for a civil war but because he hoped to scare the communists enough so that they fell back into order. Essentially using the army as a terror tactic(Singer 1970).

 

The third theory that is often used to explain de Gaulle’s ‘disappearance’ on the 29th May is that it was a coup de théâtre (Reader 1993, Reynolds 2011).  After showing that he couldn’t contain the situation, and that there was a general lack of solidarity in the Gaulliust camp, his disappearance created a sense of political crisis in the country, as for a few hours France was without their president.  This would have then allowed de Gaulle to do what he had always excelled at; deal with a political crisis. After his disappearance the supporters of the Gaullist party then took to the streets. Other politicians and army Generals, such as Michel Jobert and Alain de Boissieu, had said that they believed that it was a brilliant strategy. Creating a political crisis allowed the roles to be reversed and to show the people of France that they still needed the almost ‘mythical’ Charles de Gaulle (Reader 1993).

 

 

What else happened on 29th May?

During a day of increasing tension, at 3:30 pm until 8:30pm, the Parti Communiste Français led and controlled their own huge demonstration in response to the student demonstration two days prior, with 800,000 protesters flooding the streets of Paris, under the slogan "for a popular government", they gave this slogan as a way of trying to appease the very revolutionary protesters in the universities and factories. However, they maintained the fact that they were completely against a revolutionary movement as a way of gaining power, in a show of the strength of the Communists. Pompidou and de Gaulle’s failure to bring the revolts to a halt and the growing show of the communists’ strengths were both reasons for the very mysterious disappearance of the President later that day and these events all further intensified the growing tensions around the country. The police claimed that they had no prior knowledge of this demonstration taking place, the government then doubted that they had the situation under control and placed army paratroopers on standby and tanks in the suburbs of Paris in case of any chaos during these demonstrations. The police however, realised that what took place was in fact a very organised and controlled protest. Luckily, nothing extreme occurred during these event. If there were, it would have led to chaos boiling over and the riot police or army would have had to get involved and dissolve the protests by force. This is what the government had expected once they noticed the demonstration taking place.

 

On the 28th May following the rejection of the Grenelle agreements, Mitterrand declared that the French government was inadequate He subsequently called for an interim government pending presidential elections. He declared himself willing to lead his proposed government, while giving mention to his possible rival, Mendès-France. This move signalised the apparent lack of unity between the left wing, as having two political figures running for leadership would potentially split the alliances of the parties(Gilcher-Holtey, Ingrid 2008).

 

However he was vague when commenting about his thought towards running for presidency in a potential election. This move by Mitterrand was greeted with criticism and further enforced the disordered nature of the government through out May 68. Mitterrand was seen to be putting the legitimacy of the government in danger by assuming the resignation of the head of state ( Reader, Keith A 2016). The idea of forming a new government was also brought about by Mendès- France. He declared himself ready to lead over a unified left government. However, with Mitterrand and Mendès- France both vying for leadership of this potential new government the left could never be completely unified. Interestingly in an interview twenty years after the events of May 68, Daniel Cohen-Bendit said 'We ourselves should have proposed elections and put forward the name of Mendès-France'(Gilcher-Holtey, Ingrid 2008). This shows that the left wing would have been better allying themselves with Mendès-France as unity may have been achieved. However this unity never materialised and this was due to the actions of the PCF.

 

In a bid to somehow satisfy the workers after the forceful rejection of the Grenelle agreements, the PCF leader Waldeck Rochet promoted Communist involvement in any new government. Many deemed this as a sign that the PCF were trying to create a show of unity between the left wing so they could enable the implementation of their ideologies, that being their version of 'socialism with french colours'.

This show of unity was combined with a united proposal for the departure of de Gaulle on the 29th May by the left. ( Reader, Keith A 2016). However this unity was not permanent as the PCF tried to prevent a transitional government forming under Mendès-France. This was deemed one of the main reasons as to why the left wing could not be united. The PCF prevented the formation of a unified left wing opposition and ultimately denied the left wing any chance of gaining victory in the elections of June 1968 

The lack of unity by the left ultimately squandered any chances of a left government gaining power. Even though the Gaullist government was itself in disarray due to de Gaulles sudden departure to Baden-Baden, de Gaulle came back with an aura of calmness. The Gaullist government was in complete contrast to the disorganised left wing and eased to victory in the resulting June elections in 1968.

 

 

 

Bibliography

Giraud, H-C., 2008. L'Accord secret de Baden-Baden: Comment de Gaulle et les soviétiques ont mis fin à Mai 68. France: Éditions du Rocher.

Gilcher-Holtey, I., 2008. The Dynamic of Protest: May 1968 in France. Critique, 36 (2), 201-218.

Reader, K., 1993. The May 1968 Events in France: Reproductions and Interpretations. s.l.:Macmillan Press. pp16-17.

Reynolds,C., 2011. Memories of May ‘68: France’s convenient consensus. s.l.: University of Wales Press. pp 49-52.

Singer, D., 1970. Prelude to Revolution: France May 1968. Second Edition. Cambridge MA: South End Press. pp 198-203. Available at: https://books.google.co.uk/books/about/Prelude_to_Revolution.html?id=6IjRojUCS8gC [Accessed 15/03/2018].

Schwarz, P., 2008. 1968: The General Strike and Student Revolt in France [online]. International Committee of the Fourth International. Available at: https://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2008/05/may2-m29.html. (20th March 2018).

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