General Charles de Gaulle, who quit the French government in disgust at the birth of the Fourth Republic, took back the helm of the nation Sunday at a time when many felt the Republic was headed for its death. Pressured by the fear of imminent civil war and threats of resignation by President Coty, a reluctant Chamber of Deputies voted him into office by a sizable majority.
De Gaulle is no doubt a difficult man--stubborn, conceited, obsessed by a sense of his personal mission to restore France to greatness. His concept of political leadership smacks suspiciously of authoritarianism to many Frenchmen who hold zealous devotion to the ideals of individual liberty and the inherent virtue of la Republique as it stands. Such devotion, laudable as it may be in the abstract, is, however, sometimes blind to the practical requirements of government. France's present national crisis seems to be one of these occasions. De Gaulle, offering resolution to a country that has been plagued by political pusillanimity for the past twelve years, represents France's best, and probably only, chance to pour life back into a Fourth Republic which has been slowly dying and weakening the stature of the whole nation with its disease.
In order to combat the instability and weakness of French politics, de Gaulle proposes to strengthen executive powers in the government by means of a constitutional reform measure submitted to the people for general approval. Such a change has been necessitated by the failure of the present parliamentary system, under which no strong legislation can win a majority because the Assembly is fragmented into numerous antagonistic political factions and is recurrently hamstrung by the obstructive tactics of 142 Communists. General de Gaulle, moreover, is probably one of the few leaders who would stand a chance of getting such a reform bill passed, because his support cuts widely across party lines, due to the myth of national military leadership that surrounds his name.
Similarly, in Algeria, the general is the only force holding the rebellious French generals back from an active revolt against the central government. Unlike the career politicians, he commands the support of the military, and will hopefully heal the breaches between Paris and Algiers and Corsica. More important in the long run, his statements and those of his spokesmen have indicated that de Gaulle will attempt to work for a settlement in the long-standing Algerian war, rather than give in to right-wing demands for an even stronger military effort, as many have feared. Here, of course, he will have to play a delicate game in avoiding alienating the generals, whose support is now so important for French unity.
The prospect for a solution under de Gaulle to these two pressing French dilemmas is partially offset in many minds by apprehension as to the future of French democracy under the Cross of Lorraine. De Gaulle's demand for six months of decree powers, some claim, is only a foretaste of a stern dictatorship backed up by the brute force of the military. The general's past political record, however, has been one of strict adherence to constitutional forms, even in the face of bitter frustration. In 1946, when it became clear that the Constitution would make the Presidency meaningless, de Gaulle resigned the post voluntarily, even though he had the power to force his way on the Assembly by a military coup. In the present crisis sparked by the Algerian generals' revolt, he has insisted that his return to the government be purely constitutional, and the complexion of his cabinet is strikingly moderate.
Drastic though the demand for decree powers may be, the record of past years has shown that it is practically inconceivable that the Assembly, as now constituted, would be able to pass any strong constitutional reform or legislate some form of independence for Algeria. Working through the Cabinet, with only watchdog legislative committees in session, there is a chance that de Gaulle may be able to make these vital changes. President Coty and the French Assembly have taken a calculated risk that de Gaulle will be a deliverer rather than a dictator. They have much to gain and, in the present critical condition of France, little to lose.