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