The French left in the Fourth Republic

By Serge Halimi, Le Monde diplomatique, March 1997


Bibliographical research can be quickly compiled on some subjects: sometimes it can be counted in lines, not paragraphs, and certainly not in chapters. Twenty-nine lines in a 410-page book on the subject of France's foreign policy in 1944-49 (1). Twenty-seven lines in the first of three volumes of a history of the Fourth Republic (2). Nothing elsewhere (3). According to the most verbose of these three authors, Estimates vary between 10,000 and 90,000 deaths. The big mistake of the thousands of Malagasy victims in 1947 was being killed by French troops, rather than Soviet. What is more, this took place under a government comprising both socialist and communist ministers.

The Malagasy uprising, which started with the massacre of around 100 French settlers, broke out during the night of 29 March 1947. The socialist Paul Ramadier was then the head of government and the communist Maurice Thorez deputy head of government (although not for much longer). In cabinet, he unequivocally defended the Malagasy members of parliament (who were stripped of their immunity, sentenced to death and finally reprieved). But when the tripartite government coalition (PC-SFIO-MRP) broke up five weeks later on 5 May 1947, it was because of state-owned Renault and its workers, not because of Madagascar.

In fact, nobody in France cared about Madagascar. The national press only woke up in time to hurl abuse at the accused Malagasies during their trial. The assassin Raseta, read one headline when sentence was passed. As for massacres of peoples under colonial rule, the feeling was they had happened before and would happen again. This went for the deaths in Sétif, Algeria, on 8 May 1945 on the day of the German surrender (6,000-8,000 reported by the French army; 20,000 according to Georges Bidault, the foreign minister of the day; 45,000 claimed by official Algerian figures) (4). The general indifference also extended to the shelling of Haiphong which signalled the start of the interminable Indochina war in November 1946.

So why the assassin Raseta? Albert Camus tried to explain in Combat on 10 May 1947 why the French could get so furiously worked up against people who had been oppressed by their own country. If the French calmly take on board methods sometimes used by some of their compatriots against the Algerians or the Malagasies, it is because they live, quite unconsciously, in the certainty that they are in some way superior to these peoples, and that the choice of the means used to reflect this superiority is of little importance.

On this issue as on so many others, the ruling left behaved exactly like the rest of them. From the time of the leftist coalition (1924-26), it entrusted Marshal Pétain with the task of eliminating the troops of Abdel Krim. After the second world war, its victims were the Algerians, the Malagasies, the Vietnamese. That left the Iraqis. Not so long ago the left dealt with them too.


(1) Pierre Gerbet, Le Relèvement, Imprimerie nationale, Paris, pp. 404-05.

(2) Georgette Elgey, La République des illusions, Fayard, Paris, 1965, pp.272 and 276-77.

(3) Alfred Grosser, La IVe République et sa politique extérieure, Armand Colin, Paris, 1961.

(4) Read Ali Habib, Les Massacres de Sétif, Le Monde, 14-15 May 1995.