Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER XXI: cabinet ministers and local party organizations - Modern Democracies, vol. 1.
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CHAPTER XXI: cabinet ministers and local party organizations - Viscount James Bryce, Modern Democracies, vol. 1. 
Modern Democracies, (New York: Macmillan, 1921). 2 vols. Vol. 1
Part of: Modern Democracies, 2 vols.
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cabinet ministers and local party organizations
Three powers rule France: the Deputies, the Ministers, and the local Party Committees. We may now pass to the second of these three forces that are incessantly contending or bargaining.
The Cabinet ministers are in practice, though not by law, either deputies or senators, and all expect, when their brief span of office has ended, to return to their functions as private members and resume the rôle of critics till the time comes for them to succeed their successors. Herein France resembles the British self-governing Dominions, in which every minister sits in Parliament.1 and is unlike the United States, where a minister not only cannot sit in Congress but has, more frequently than not, never sat there. Thus the minister is by temperament, ideas, and habits first and always a member of the legislature. He knows his Chamber's ways, and has an intimacy, in which there may be little enough of friendship, with most of its members.
The person who has been summoned to form a Cabinet as President of the Council, selects his colleagues, choosing most of them from his own particular group, but generally adding one or two or more from other Republican groups by which he expects to be supported. The differences in their views and affiliations do not prevent the persons thus selected from getting on together and presenting a united front to the opposing faction. Self-interest prescribes this, and the political cleavages between the Republican groups are not very deep. Consistency is one of the lesser virtues in politics. A recent French Prime Minister observed, “Les necessités font éclater les dogmes.”
The qualities which bring a deputy into the class of “Ministrables”1 do not much differ from those which lead to Cabinet office in every democratic country and popular assembly. In France they may be summed up as —Ready eloquence, alertness of mind, Parliamentary tact, personal popularity, general adaptability. In the allotment of posts knowledge counts for something, and most so in the departments of finance and of the naval and military services. But adaptability counts for more.2 Dignity of character and a spotless reputation are a valuable asset, especially in a Prime Minister, yet their absence does not prevent a man from rising high.
The Cabinet offices vary in number —in 1913 there were twelve —all of the same rank and carrying the same salary, but there may be (and in war time were) ministers without a portfolio, so the deliberative Cabinet might be of any size, though it had never, up to 1914, exceeded seventeen.
French ministers cannot well be compared with those of the United States, for the latter do not sit in the legislature, and are often selected less for their capacity than because they belong to States which the President wishes to gratify by giving them representation in his Cabinet. An American minister usually disappears from Washington after his four years' term of office, and may be no more heard of in the world of politics, while in France the ex-Minister holds on; and the wealth of the nation in former occupants of high office grows so fast by frequent Cabinet changes that there are plenty of tried men from whom a Prime Minister may make his selections. Talent is never lacking, though it is more frequently of the showy than of the solid order.
The dignity of a Minister is, next to the Presidency of the Republic and the Presidencies of one or other Chamber, the goal of a politician's ambitions. It carries the title of Excellency, and its possessor is received with every mark of honour when he visits a provincial city to perform some public function. The power which belongs to it is more extensive than a like office enjoys in any other free country, for nowhere else are the functions of the Executive so far-reaching. But this power is greater in semblance than in reality. The machinery of French administration is so complicated that the permanent official hierarchy, deferential as they are to their chief, can impede his action when they think that he is breaking through their settled practice, for want of expert knowledge may make him helpless in their hands, not to add that he is generally deposed, or transferred to some other post, before he has had time to learn to “know the ropes.” If he tries to understand everything he is asked to sign, work accumulates, and the machine stops. While he is struggling to master his duties, he has not only to face his critics in the Chamber but to endure the daily plague of requests from deputies to do this or that job for the benefit of their constituents. High-minded and courageous as he may be, he is obliged to think of the fortunes of the ministry, and must yield to many an unwelcome demand in order to secure the vote of the deputy who himself seeks to secure the vote of his constituent. Nor are the deputies the only people to be feared. The financiers and heads of big business enterprises, partly by the power of their wealth, partly through the newspapers or the deputies, whom they can use as tools, may bring to bear a formidable pressure.
Two other complaints are heard in France. One is that the minister brings with him, or is soon surrounded by, a swarm of personal dependents, private secretaries, and various hangers-on. These constitute what may be called his private political and patronage staff, who help in his parliamentary work, deal with the press, keep an eye on places to be disposed of, and are what physicians call a nidus for intrigue as well as an annoyance to the permanent officials of the department. The other charge is that the tendency of local officials to refer everything to Paris continues to grow, delaying business and increasing the risks of jobbery, because the Minister, who cannot know the facts as well as the Prefect on the spot, is at the mercy of interested representations.
The “expectation of life,” as insurance agents say, of a French Ministry is short. Between 1875 and 1914 there were 48 administrations with an average duration of nine months and twenty-two days. Only one ministry since 1896, that of M. “Waldeck Rousseau, had lasted for more than two years. A change of Ministry makes little difference to the country, and cannot —as it often can in England —be deemed to indicate any change of popular opinion. When a Ministry falls it does not lose a public confidence which it may never have possessed. This is a phenomenon which Frenchmen deplore as harmful to the nation, because it prevents ministers from acquiring a grasp of their departmental duties, delays legislative progress, and creates a general sense of instability, defects which have done much to discredit Parliamentarism in the eyes of the people. Yet they are less serious evils than they would be in other countries, and that for two reasons. They do not disorganize, though they disturb, the general course of administration, because the great machine goes steadily on its way, being worked by a strong and competent bureaucracy which is as little affected by changes at the top as the equally strong and competent bureaucracy of the Roman Empire was disturbed in the provinces by the frequent accession to supreme power of one military adventurer after another. They affect but slightly the foreign policy of France, for its general lines have been prescribed by the necessity of maintaining unity in the face of a threatening enemy. They are an evil less serious than the inner malady of which they are the visible symptom. What then are the causes which make ministries so unstable and changes so frequent? Those which appear on the surface have been already stated, viz. the number of groups in the Chamber, the want of discipline in these groups and shifting of deputies from one to another, the suddenness with which political crises arise, the tendency of extreme groups to unite for the momentary aim of defeating a ministry which they dislike for opposite reasons, the impatience which makes deputies desire a change for the sake of a change. But behind these there are other causes of wider scope, due to permanent conditions. Some of these may be enumerated.
(1) Regional divisions of opinion in the country, making the political tendencies of the West, of the North and East, of the South, and (still more markedly) of the South-east differ so much from one another as to prevent a general consensus of view on fundamental questions.
(2) The antagonism between the strongly Roman Catholic proclivities of certain sections of the population and the anti-religious, or at least anti-clerical, vehemence of other sections.
(3) The hostility of the industrial masses, especially in the manufacturing and mining areas, to the employers and to the richer sort of people generally. But for the outside pleasure, enforcing national cohesion, a class war might have broken out in many places, as indeed it has done at intervals in Paris, and to a less extent in other industrial centres.
(4) The indifference to politics of a large part of the agricultural population. This has its good side in so far as it has prevented party passion from seizing on the bulk of the nation and making the struggles of the Chamber provoke outbursts of violence over the country. But it has been also unfortunate in having failed to keep the deputies in order, to condemn intrigues, to discourage the creation of small groups, to make the parties feel their responsibility to the nation. If Parliamentary parties were formed on well-defined and permanent lines, the policy approved by a majority at a general election might be steadily pursued (as in England or Holland or Canada) until the country changes its mind, or some conspicuous error brings about the collapse of a ministry.
(5) To these causes one may perhaps add the fact that since the death of Gambetta no single leader of dominating personality has arisen. Democracies need men who by their genius, or by the strength and worth of their characters, can become not merely leaders but inspirers of a party.1 The foremost men of the last forty years have been parliamentary rather than popular chiefs. Some of them (I speak of course only of those who have passed from the scene) have shown brilliant talent and great force. But none have had that sort of hold on the country which enabled Pitt or Peel or Gladstone in England, Calhoun, Clay, Webster, and Lincoln (not to mention later statesmen) in America, to become national figures, who were as necessary to their parties as their parties were to them. To the causes which prevent the development of leadership in France we must presently return.
After the deputies and the ministers comes the third and largest set of the actual though unconspicuous rulers of France, those who all over the country keep the machine of party government running, managing the elections by which deputies are chosen and ministers are installed in power. To understand the part played by the local committees we must recur to the political parties as already enumerated.
These parties, though more or less organized in the Chamber of Deputies, do not extend over the country at large, or, to speak more exactly, they exist in the country as tendencies or nuances of opinion rather than as political organisms. For the purposes of France as a whole one must think of those four parties, or rather four schools of opinion already noted —the Right or Clerical Monarchist, the Centre or Moderate Republicans, the Radicals or Advanced Republicans, and the Socialists. Of these four only one, the Socialists, constitute a cohesive party in the English or American sense, for they alone have created and maintain a well-knit organization extending over a large part of the country and gripping its members tightly together outside as well as inside the Chamber. Of the other three, the Clericals or Monarchists hold well together, but the number of those among them who profess Legitimist principles has been much reduced, and their organization is confined to certain areas. The other two, Moderate and Advanced Republicans, are divided into the sections already described. Some of these sections have a central party committee as well as a certain number of local committees which carry on a propaganda, publish literature, and look after elections. No party group or section has, however, an organization ramified through all the constituencies like the three parties (Tory, Liberal, and Labour) which divide Great Britain or the still better drilled and more constantly active two great historic parties of the United States. There would be no use in trying to work a Socialist organization in the agricultural parts of Brittany, nor a Monarchist party in Marseilles. Accordingly no section dreams of running in every electoral district candidates of its own particular colour, but confines itself to those in which it has a reasonable chance of success.
If you ask an average French citizen about his political views, he is as likely as not to say that he takes nothing to do with politics; “Monsieur, je ne m'oceupe pas de la politique.” If, however, he has views and is willing to express them, he will probably prove to be, in the rural parts or small towns of the west and north, either a Conservative of Clerical leanings or a Moderate anti-Clerical Republican; in the south-east, the central, and the eastern regions or small towns, either an Advanced or a Moderate Republican; in the mining districts and the great industrial centres, either an Advanced Republican or a Socialist. There are of course nearly everywhere some men of Socialist views, and everywhere some few Clericals or Monarchists, usually of a Legitimist colour. Candidates, therefore, whatever group in the Chamber they mean to join, belong to one or other of these four types of opinion, and do not —always excepting the Socialists —usually announce themselves to a constituency as adherents of any one Republican group in particular. It is between the four types that the electoral battle rages. The candidate may be sent down, or be financially aided, by the central committee of a group, but he does not necessarily appear as their man, nor (unless he be a Socialist) as selected by a local committee of a particular stripe. He stands on his own account, just as candidates did in Britain in the middle of last century, before parties had begun to be locally organized. When he issues his address, it is accompanied by a list of his chief local supporters, who constitute a sort of general committee, but it is only a few of the more active among them who form, along with the candidate and his agents, the working committee. Other candidates may come forward belonging to the same or a nearly allied section of the Republican party, each recommending himself less by the particular character of his views than by his personal merits and by the fervour of his promises to serve the material interests of the constituency. Candidatures are numerous because not generally costly. There used to be three, four, or five (or possibly more) aspirants to the single seat, perhaps a Monarchist and a Socialist, and three Republicans of slightly different shades, but now under the new system of election by departments with proportional representation, the number is larger. All went to the poll; and when, as frequently happened, none secured an absolute majority, it was usual for the one among the Republicans who had received the fewest votes to retire, so that the Republican party might have the best chance against a Monarchist or a Socialist. There is, however, no established practice in these matters, and an Advanced Radical may feel himself nearer to a Socialist than to a Republican of a less vivid hue, while some moderate Republicans differ but slightly from Conservatives.
Acute French observers distinguish two types of election. In one there is a more or less avowed coalition on the platform of anti-clericalism by the various groups of the Centre and the Left against the groups of the Right. The other type shows a sort of combination or co-operation of the Centre, or Moderate Republicans, with the Right on the platform of anti-Socialism and “social order “against the Socialists and more advanced Radicals. The election of 1906 belonged to the former type, the election of 1919 to the latter. In it the Socialist party suffered a set-back, owing to the uneasiness created by the language and policy of their most extreme men. In France, even more than elsewhere, extremists produce by their activity and vehemence the impression that they speak for the whole party, and thereby damage its cause.
In most constituencies, or at any rate in those dominated by the Advanced Republicans, political committees are kept alive during the interval between one election and another in order to look after the interests both of the party and of the candidate, and work if necessary in local elections, whenever these are fought on political lines, as well as in Senatorial elections for the Department. Such committees are not, as in America, Great Britain, and Australia, elected by the local members of the party, and though often in touch with the Central Committee in Paris of the group with which they are in sympathy, they do not take their orders from it. It may excite surprise that in a country where democratic principles are so ardently professed and where the disposition to work out every principle with consistent logic is so strong, the local committee which conducts the business of the party should not be officially created, and from time to time1 renewed, as is done in the United States, by a vote of all the local members of the party. The reason is that the bulk of the citizens are less definitely committed to any one party than they are in the English-speaking countries, and that the groupings in the Chamber are not generally represented by like groupings over the country at large. The local committees are rather what used to be called in Scotland “cliques”? — small camarillas of persons whose political activity is due either to the fervour of their attachment to a certain set of doctrines or to a desire to secure local influence and obtain the best of what is going in the way of honours and benefits for themselves and their kinsfolk or friends. Such good things are obtainable (as already observed) from the Administration through the deputy, who is the Fountain of Honour. The clique goes to him. He presses the ministry, or tries to overawe the Prefect. Sometimes there is in the clique a strong man who fills the place of the American Boss, but more frequently the deputy is himself a sort of Boss, being in constant and confidential relations with the chiefs of the committee and dependent upon their support, just as they are dependent on him, for without him they could not get those favours the dispensation whereof is the basis of their local power. The men who compose these local cliques —minor officials or ex-officials, shopkeepers, lawyers, doctors, teachers, journalists —constitute, along with the deputies and a few rich men, financiers, chiefs of industry and owners of great newspapers, what are called the classes dirigeantes of France, the practical rulers of the country, though of course more or less controlled by that public opinion which they bear a large part in making.
From this description, however, I must not omit two other political forces, the one clerical, the other aggressively anticlerical. In many places, especially in the Catholic West, the cure (the priest's house, or what is called in England the parsonage) is the natural centre for ecclesiastical and pro-ecclesiastical action, and there are also some Catholic unions and associations, with numerous branches, which exert power, though probably less power than their antagonists credit them with. Over against these clerical organizations stand the secret Republican societies, and especially the [Freemasons. This ancient order, which in America is non-partisan, and in England rather Conservative than Liberal in its proclivities (so far as it has any), is in France, as in Italy and Spain, Republican and anti-religious, and as such is condemned in those countries, as well as in Ireland, by the Roman Church. Its Lodges are in France rallying-grounds for the Advanced Republicans, and are believed to possess immense influence, which (as always happens with secret societies) is sometimes perverted to personal ends. These underground organizations, ecclesiastical and anti-ecclesiastical, create an atmosphere of mystery and suspicion in local politics not favourable to the free expression of opinion, and tending to keep sensitive men out of local politics, just as the intrigues of the Chamber deter such men from entering Parliamentary life.
In England, the custom which requires a Minister to be a member of one or other House of Parliament has been sometimes departed fiom, though only for a time, since the prolonged absence of a person responsible for the management of a department would be highly inconvenient I take no account of the cases which occurred during the war of 1914-19, for the conditions were then quite exceptional.
A word probably suggested by the Italian adjective Pcc=papibile (of a man fit to be chosen Pope); and an equivalent of the American phrase, “Cabinet timber”
True of England also, where a Minister is (in normal times) very rarely selected with any regard to his special knowledge.
Jules Ferry seemed for a time to be coming near to this position, and Waldeck Rousseau, a finer character, came still nearer.
Local political party committees in France are a creation of the Third Republic. When universal suffrage had been established and the party system had “got into its stride,” some kind of organization became necessary; but the conditions of the country have prevented it from developing to the extent attained in the United States, or even in England and Australia.