In today’s political climate where bipartisanship is increasingly rare, I found this relatively obscure story about the French Resistance to be particularly hopeful. In 1943, under the iron grip of German occupation, an improbable group of 19 Frenchmen met in secret to design a plan of retaliation as well as a program of governance to be adopted when the war was over. Calling themselves the Conseil National de la Résistance (CNR), the participants in this effort came from a variety of backgrounds and political leanings. Yet, they managed to develop a model for a new France that would benefit workers and business executives alike—a plan that was largely adopted after the war, many portions of which continue to benefit the French people to this day.
An Isolated General
Today, Charles de Gaulle is known as the pivotal general who led French forces in their fight against Germany during World War II. In the immediate aftermath of Germany’s invasion, de Gaulle fled to England where he delivered a speech on June 18, 1940, exhorting French citizens to resist their Nazi occupiers. The words of the conservative general, however, had little effect. A month later, only 2,000 young men, most under the age of 20, had answered his call. Meanwhile, Germany successfully installed a puppet government led by Marshal Pétain in the southern part of France and sent more German troops to occupy the north and France’s Atlantic coastline.
By the end of 1940, a number of independent militias had sprung up around the country. Each with its own leaders, retaliation plans, and manifesto. The majority of these groups were headed by left and far-left ideologues who had no intention of uniting with autocratic military leaders like de Gaulle. One such Resister, however, a veteran of World War I and civil servant named Jean Moulin, recognized the impossibility of victory without a unified mission. In the fall of 1941, he decided to risk a dangerous trip to England to speak with de Gaulle. The journey took more than a month, passing through Spain and Portugal. Once in London, it took another 5 days for Moulin to win de Gaulle’s ear.
De Gaulle was already aware of the fact that he needed a strong ally inside France who would be able to galvanize the people to his side. Moulin summarized the state of the fragmented French Resistance to de Gaulle and convinced the general that with funding, he would be able to create a united, trans-partisan resistance force with a centralized military command. He asked for 3 million francs per month (roughly $750,000), to be doubled at the end of the year. De Gaulle was impressed with Moulin’s knowledge and skills. He agreed to provide the funding and formally assigned Moulin the difficult task of unifying the diverse and disparate resistance organizations of France. In January 1942, Moulin parachuted back into France carrying 1.5 million francs.
Many of Moulin’s fellow freedom fighters regarded his unification plan as unrealistic. Existing communication networks between various groups were fragile and susceptible to discovery by the enemy. Over the next year, however, de Gaulle’s payments were smuggled into France, sometimes in the luggage of a courier, other times dropped via parachute. The needed shipments financed the printing of propaganda, salaries and training for workers who joined the French Resistance, and equipment to support the Maquis—guerrilla bands of French Resistance fighters. Increasingly, young men were heading to the hills and forests of France to join the mounting insurrection and avoid the compulsory work service imposed by Germany.
Meanwhile, Moulin was working diligently to form an overarching council, comprised of representatives from a variety of political parties, militias, and labor unions. The northern half of France was crawling with SS officers and Nazi collaborators. The southern half was controlled by Pétain’s authoritarian police force, which would check the shoes of anyone they stopped to make sure they weren’t carrying a secret message in their socks.
Yet, in May of 1943, the first meeting of Moulin’s visionary council, le Conseil National de la Résistance (CNR), was held in an indistinct and cramped apartment in Paris. Arriving separately and dressed as inconspicuously as possible were representatives from France’s 8 leading resistance movements, 6 major political parties, and 2 leaders of the country’s largest pre-war trade unions. Also squeezed into their seats around a crowded dining table were Moulin and his 2 assistants.
A month later, Moulin was arrested by the Gestapo outside of Lyon. Interrogated and tortured by Klaus Barbie, known as the “Butcher of Lyon”, Moulin remained silent. He allegedly tried to commit suicide rather than betray his countrymen and died on July 8, 1943, while being transferred to a German camp. His comrades never saw him again. Leadership of the CNR now passed to Georges Bidault, head of France’s Christian democratic political party. Plenary sessions were deemed to be too risky. Instead, only 5 delegates, each representing 3 groups, would attend future meetings.
A Two-Part Plan
The growing strength of the French Resistance was beginning to take a toll on Pétain’s regime as well as pushing back the Germans in parts of France. As the Vichy government began to crumble, more and more French people joined insurrectionist forces directed by the CNR. Running and coordinating counter-offensive attacks, however, was only one part of the CNR’s mission. If they were willing to sacrifice their lives for France, they also wanted a say in the country’s future. And so they simultaneously developed a plan of governance to be adopted in the days following France’s liberation.
It’s hard to imagine accomplishing so much in so little time. Now consider that the CNR was committed to unanimous approval of all elements of their governing plan. Over the next four months, a whirlwind of secret messages blew across France as delegates throughout the country submitted and approved modifications to the evolving document. In order to maintain secrecy, no two delegates were allowed to contact each other directly. Each member would pass a message to an intermediary who in turn would pass the message to a second intermediary who would deliver it to the intended recipient.
In November of 1943, de Gaulle, who had moved his headquarters to Algiers, ratified the essential elements of what would become the CNR’s ultimate governmental program, titled Les Jours Heureux, French for “Happy Days”. De Gaulle’s support of the nascent plan, which envisioned a social democracy with government control over a planned economy, would have been unthinkable prior to the war. The CNR bolstered their far-left leaning measures with reminders of the profiteering and the economic crisis of the 1930s that had brought about the rise of the Nazis and plunged the globe into a second world war.
After the War
Les Jours Heureux, was finalized in March of 1944 and widely distributed throughout France. Many of its proposed measures were adopted between 1945 and 1947. The CNR’s program called for universal suffrage, the nationalization of France’s largest industrial and financial companies, the re-establishment of independent trade unions, a comprehensive social security program, worker participation in management, education reform, and social and economic rights for colonial citizens.
After the war, De Gaulle remained faithful to the communist and socialist party members who had supported him from within France. The traitorous Pétain was sentenced to life in prison. Many of his cohorts were executed by firing squad. Instead of replacing the Vichy government’s administration with American officials, as Roosevelt had initially desired, these roles were filled by members of the CNR. The new government was dominated by three political parties—Communist, Socialist, and Christian Democrat—all of which agreed upon the necessity of constraining capitalism via a series of social and economic reforms.
The new tri-partisan government worked to satisfy many of the CNR’s demands, including nationalizing France’s coal industry, gas and electric companies, 5 of the leading French banks, 3 leading insurance institutions, Renault’s factories, and the aircraft industry. Nearly all other proposed measures were put into place, including an extensive social security program but excluding the CNR’s proposal for education reform.
A Lasting Impact
In December of 1964, 20 years after the liberation of France, Jean Moulin’s ashes were enshrined in the Panthéon next to the remains of other great figures from French history. De Gaulle attended the ceremony, hailing Moulin as a national hero. For more than 30 years, many of the CNR’s reforms held fast. Although, throughout the 1980s and ’90s, the government ceded its control over the financial market and private industry.
Today, parties on all sides of the political spectrum remain proud defenders of France’s social programs, especially its Social Security system and the benefits afforded to working-class citizens. As the gap between rich and poor widens, however, some wonder if free-market competition and globalization are chipping away at the standard of living once enjoyed by non-salaried workers.
The story of the CNR gives me hope that multi-partisan programs to right societal and economic wrongs are still a possibility, both in France and here in the United States. What do you think? Are such alliances only formed under extreme duress, as was the case under the German occupation? Or, do you think it’s possible for political opponents in times of peace to work together, placing the good of the country ahead of their own survival?
- France Inter, Podcast, Le C.N.R – Les jours heureux et le programme merveilleux
- YouTube, Documentary, Les jours heureux par Gilles Perret
- Musée de la Résistance en ligne, CRÉATION DU CNR
- CAIRN.INFO, Le programme du CNR dans la dynamique de construction de la nation résistante
- France Inter, Résistance, mais où sont passés les “jours heureux” ?
- The French History Podcast, The Prefect’s Purse-String: Jean Moulin and the Rex Mission
- Wikipedia, Appeal of 18 June
- Gouvernement.fr, Entrée de Jean Moulin au Panthéon
- Find A Grave, Jean Moulin
Merci, Carol, je vais le lire des que j’ai terminé mes revisions…
Merci bcp !
Looking for hope today may be clutching at straws. Today’s partisanship is largely driven by social media, which many people use to write their unconsidered opinions, while others use disinformation to move their agendas. But the case described may give a ray of hope, something very much needed. Putting all that aside, this is one of those wonderfully written articles that I have come to expect from this blog, and a fascinating history lesson. Keep up the good work.
Thanks for stopping by Jonathan. I appreciate you sharing your insights about social media which certainly seems to be contaminating our discourse. On the other hand, there is much to be admired chez today’s young people.
Thanks God for France to have a Jean Moulin I have follow his life since childhood a real hero not the other desk guy….
It’s too bad his name isn’t known at all here in the US. I guess that after WWII, our government did its best to drown out voices of left-minded leaders. I’d seen his name before but didn’t know who he was until recently. He certainly was a hero and not only because he held out under Nazi questioning. We need more like him in this world.
An interesting analogy. Unity is always easier to achieve in the face of a common threat, and it’s hard to imagine a more immediate and menacing common threat than being occupied by the Nazis. It’s more impressive that the CNR’s influence lasted so long after the war in the form of a broad political consensus.
With respect to the situation in the US today, I’ve seen evidence that the broad mass of people are not as polarized as the dominant narrative would have us believe. The loudest voices are on the political extremes, those on each side maintaining a continuous hysterical demonization of everything associated with the other side. Go to any political blog, and you’ll largely see a stream of hyperbolic rants about “look how awful [the political side opposite to mine] is!” This is wearisome and exhausting, and I don’t think it’s what most people want.
Aside from that, though, there is a fringe-beyond-the-fringe which openly and explicitly despises democracy and sides with Putin. I don’t think anyone can or should strive for unity with them. They’re more analogous to the Pétainists, whom (for obvious reasons) not even Moulin tried to bring into the big tent.
“those on each side maintaining a continuous hysterical demonization of everything associated with the other side.” Well said, Infidel. This is not serving our society well.
I’d love to see the climate change such that we begin electing officials that are willing to listen to and work with their political opponents.
It already happens to some extent. Some of the votes on aid to Ukraine have been near-unanimous in Congress, though more recently there has been a growing number of Republican isolationists. Again, the analogy with the French resistance is noticeable — it’s easiest to achieve consensus against a common military threat, but on other issues the consensus quickly breaks down.
Excellent research, Carol. Thank you! I think our common threat is climate change. We’re much in need of leadership that pulls us all together!
Interesting observation Rita. It makes me wonder how bad things have to get climate-wise before we see a united front combatting this massively consequential threat to human life.
There is a lot more being done to fight climate change than most Americans realize — being done in, for example, India, Europe, and the Arab world. The US does lag behind, but we seem to be the only advanced country that still has a substantial political party claiming the problem is not real. Always remember that the US is only 4% of the world. The solution to global warming will mostly depend on Asia — that’s where the greatest future growth in energy demand will come.
Thankfully, many major corporations are taking steps to attenuate the problem, despite the government’s lack of oversight. There is a lot the average citizen could do without much effort, however, like reduce their use of AC. Without a unified message from our leaders, many people do nothing to conserve. In Europe, nearly everyone is convinced that Global Warming is a serious threat. Even wealthier households use AC sparingly, hang their clothes to dry, choose energy-efficient vehicles, and so on. The days of “ask what you can do for your country” seem long gone.
Hi, Carol. Odd thing: I could “like” this post, but I couldn’t enter a comment. This has happened to me before on your blog and a couple of others. I don’t think it’s the kind of thing the WP Happiness Engineers could help me with.
But voila! I copied the above URL, pasted it into Firefox, and here I am.
This is a fine essay about an aspect of French history that was new to me. It was, of course, tragic that Moulin suffered greatly–and didn’t live to see the fruits of his efforts. Charles de Gaulle emerges taller in this rendering.
As for whether such a coalition would be possible in the US, it certainly wouldn’t be with the current Republicans, who have ceased to show any interest in governing and want only power. I worry a great deal about what will happen if they regain control of the House and/or Senate in November–and win state/local positions with people who advocate the Big Lie. (I’ll stop myself from ranting more on this matter.)
The Democrats did succeed in forging a consensus among their moderate and progressive wings over the infrastructure bill and a Build Back Better bill that had been scaled back to woo Manchin and Sinema–only to see those two Senators scuttle the latter. I believe we can get substantive legislation that a majority of Americans favor if we can expand the Democratic majorities in the Senate and House in the forthcoming elections.
One glimmer of hope lies in Utah, where Evan McMullin, a moderate anti-Trump conservative (there are few of them left, it seems) is running as an Independent against the incumbent Senator Mike Lee, who has been implicated in plans to overturn the 2020 election. Interestingly, the Utah Democratic Party has endorsed McMullin instead of running its own candidate. I saw McMullin interviewed and when he was asked if he would caucus with the Democrats, he responded that in order to keep the coalition intact, he would act independently. I thought that response was both candid and reasonable. It will be interesting to see the results there.
Thanks for your comment Annie. As you know, my values align more with the left but I’d love to see a Republican party that again practices fiscal conservatism and that speaks mindfully and honestly. The country needs sane representation on the right. You’re justified in emphasizing the importance of this fall’s elections. We need to move past this extraordinarily divisive era.
Thanks for taking the time to work through the WP commenting hassles. I’ve been talking with the Happiness Engineers but they’re a bit like chicken soup. I’m not sure they’re actually doing anything to make me feel better.
A very good post Carol. Quite complete. Pétain was actually condemned to the Death penalty. De Gaulle converted the sentence to life, considering Pétain’s actuation in WWI.
I didn’t know Roosevelt wanted to place US administrators. Not surprised. After D-Day he wanted de Gaulle to “proclaim the Republic”. De Gaulle refused, saying that despite Pétain the Republic had never been abolished.
Now about your question? I am afraid this type of agreement can only be achieved under extreme duress. War. Even then, everybody pushes their own interest. One of the reasons for sending Leclerc to liberate Paris was precisely the Communist résistance, very strong in Paris. Rol-Tanguy a member of the PCF launched the insurrection in Paris. If the communists were to liberate Paris on their own, de Gaulle’s provisional government would be facing a strong force on his left. So Leclerc was sent, against Bradley’s initial opposition…
Tricky business, installing new governments. There’s always more to every true story than meets the eye (or in my case ear since I listened to much of my source material).
I think it was in the France Culture podcast that I heard this citation: « Tant que les lapins n’auront pas d’historiens, l’histoire sera raconter par les chasseurs. »
Thanks for adding your two cents Brieuc.
Haha. Pov’ Lapins… (Pov’ est un doiminutifs de pauvres)