French election will be influenced by the fact that women will have first vote (April 1945)

Manchester Evening News, 16 April 1945
French suffragette poster

France extended right to vote to women in April 1944

No date has yet been fixed for the General Election, but it has been officially stated that the municipal elections will take place at the end of this month provided that the date fixed does not coincide with some great external event, such as the ending of the war. In France the voting at municipal and cantonal elections usually follows party lines, and the forthcoming elections should, therefore, give, for the first time since 1936, a reliable picture of the balance of political forces in France.

Now, six months after the liberation, it is realised that until elections have been held certain urgently necessary decisions cannot be taken. Unavoidably, and very unfortunately, some three million men, prisoners or deportees in Germany, will be missing from the electoral roll. The absence of these men, who are mostly youngish, and include many who were deported for their political activities during the occupation, will tell chiefly against the parties of the Left. This is generally agreed, but there are several unknown factors about which there is much speculation.

It has not yet been decided what method of voting will be followed, i.e., whether proportional representation will be adopted. Nor have the Socialists and Communists yet decided in what manner, if at all, they will pool their candidatures in order to avoid splitting one another’s votes. By far the most important unknown factor is the attitude of the women. In the forthcoming elections women will vote for the first time in French history, and, moreover, they will outnumber the men by ten or fifteen per cent. Since this is their first venture into political life, it has been laid down that women will be allowed to vote even if they have not registered beforehand: very large numbers of women, however, have already registered themselves as voters, especially in strongly Catholic or Communist areas.

Another unknown factor is the attitude of the Church. The old struggle between clericals and anti-clericals cooled down as a result of the occupation, but it has shown signs of flaring up again, the immediate cause of dispute being the continuance by the Provisional Government of State subsidies to Catholic schools. It is possible that the Church may, as in the past, make an authoritative pronouncement against certain political doctrines, especially Communism: in which case the large female vote might be a very serious handicap for the parties of the Left.

There is good reason for thinking that the forces of Conservatism are much stronger in France than they appeared in the first few months after the liberation. At the last general election, that of 1936, the Left-wing parties grouped together in the Popular Front polled something over five and a half million votes, while the parties of the Right polled nearly four and a quarter millions. Thereafter, up till the war, the Left probably lost ground as against the Right.

The follies of the Daladier Government,1 and the discredit brought on the old regime by the defeat and the occupation, changed the picture, but it is admitted that the Petain Government had popular support in some areas, especially among the peasants. Even now there are parts of the South of France where pro-Petain literature is circulating illegally.

The Radical-Socialist party is also rapidly reviving, and other moderate parties are reappearing. These parties have at present no very clear-cut policy, but they can make an appeal to the peasants and other middling people who are not strongly opposed to the nationalisation of major industry but are frightened of Communism.

During recent months all the surviving political parties have increased their membership: it is considered that most of them now have more members than they had in 1939. The Communist party is still probably the biggest, and certainly the most cohesive and best organised party in France. Its greatest strength is in the Paris area, but of late, for the first time in its history, it has managed to get a foothold in some rural areas. The Communists are aware that even if they came to power they could hardly govern France single-handed, and they have tried very hard, and not absolutely without success, to come to terms with the Socialists on the one hand and the Catholics on the other. The Socialist party has a large and faithful following in various areas, particularly the industrial districts of Lille and Toulouse in the South. Finally there is the large and vital Resistance Movement, which has not yet crystallised into a definite party but is bound to play an important role in the elections, both through its own candidates and by its tendency to push the Socialist party further to the Left.

With so many unknown factors, even Dr. Gallup himself could hardly make an accurate forecast, but at least it seems clear that the impression which prevailed a few months ago, that France was on the edge of revolution, was exaggerated. There is no widespread opposition to certain measures of a semi-Socialistic kind, and all forms of Fascism are discredited: but the tone of the Press and of most public utterances since the liberation have made ordinary Conservatism seem deader than it is. Experienced observers point out that the four million people who voted for the parties of the Right in 1936 have not ceased to exist, and that when the elections come off, an overwhelming victory for the Left is not to be expected.2

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Notes:

  1. Edouard Daladier (1884-1970) was three times Premier of France: 1933, 1934, and 1938-40; it is to his last term of office that Orwell refers. He signed the Munich pact in 1938 and fell from office after the defeat of Finland by the Soviet Union, being replaced on 21 March 1940 by Paul Reynaud (in whose cabinet he served). He was interned when France fell and released in 1945, when he returned to politics.
  2. Elections to the National Assembly were held in October 1945. The Left won three-quarters of the seats: Communists 142; Socialists 140; Mouvement Republicain Populaire (the Catholic Left) 133.

Source: CW17-2658

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