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France: The Big Change?


The French presidential elections of April and May 1981 offered the voters, on the surface, a choice between two men who were extremely well-known, and who had already competed for the presidency in 1974. But it really amounted to a choice between the utterly familiar and the uncertain. To the dismay of many—in France and abroad—and to the surprise and joy of many—mainly in France—a clear majority of over 52 percent (in metropolitan France) preferred hope and change.

The campaign was a triple test. It was a test of the economic and social policies pursued, under President Giscard d’Estaing, by Prime Minister Raymond Barre since the late summer of 1976. Barre’s policy tried to cope with both inflation and unemployment by preserving, in the midst of a world economic crisis, the external balance of French payments and a healthy rate of growth. The end of state support to lame industries would, he hoped, force French business to modernize and to become more competitive, especially in foreign markets. The end of price controls would allow business to reap higher profits, and to invest more. In the short run, prices might rise, and layoffs (in dying industries) might multiply. But a social explosion would be avoided by state measures increasing the wages and social security benefits of the poorest workers and of large families, and providing unemployment compensation for the jobless; in the long run, a more competitive industry would hire more workers and cut prices.

The results were mixed. Barre succeeded in filling French monetary reserves, in making it possible for the franc to be part of the new European Monetary System, in reducing certain inequalities in incomes, in expanding French exports, and in preserving—indeed, in raising—the French standard of living on the average. But the second oil shock, in 1979, hurt France’s trade balance; partly because of the price of imported oil, but for many reasons related to the structure of French trade and industry, inflation remained high; and while the rate of growth was better than in many other OECD countries, the expected high profits and investments failed to materialize: entrepreneurs—especially small ones—complained about the burdens imposed on them by social security dues and by credit restrictions, and unemployment kept rising, to more than a million and a half.

Barre assured the French that his medicine was far superior to any other—in the long run. He, as well as the president, stressed, for instance, the importance of France’s ambitious program of nuclear energy, which would reduce dependence on imported oil. But people live in the short run. And during the campaign, Barre’s policy was attacked both from the right and from the left. On the right, the neo-Gaullist Jacques Chirac offered a French translation of Ronald Reagan’s economic program complete with attacks on the excessive weight of the state, commitments to reduce state expenditures and the number of civil servants, promises of drastic tax cuts, and calls for increased production, partly through state incentives, partly through the release of entrepreneurial energy which would result from the removal of such burdens as excessive social security costs.

On the left, François Mitterrand proposed a mixture of rather orthodox Keynesian “demand-side” economics and an increase in state ownership (which was already considerable under Giscard). He promised an immediate increase in the minimum wage and in social security benefits, a program of public works and the hiring of 180,000 civil servants in order to reduce unemployment, a negotiated reduction in the length of work for the same purpose, the nationalization of the remaining private banks and of nine major industrial companies, and a tax reform entailing lower income, and lower indirect and inheritance taxes for the less privileged, as well as a new tax on the wealth of the rich.

Both Chirac and Mitterrand blamed the government and the president for being insensitive to unemployment, and too willing to accept sluggish growth. While their methods for lifting France out of (relative) recession were antithetical, they promised more jobs and appealed both to the jobless and to small and medium-size enterprises, which often saw themselves as the victims of Barre’s policy of industrial bloodletting, return to competition and tight credit. During the campaign, Giscard kept pointing out that France had “absorbed” the second oil shock better than West Germany. He promised essentially more of the same policies, and, discreetly alluding to the other industrial powers, suggested that while France had problems—of external origin—things could be worse.

His three chief competitors, Chirac, Mitterrand, and Georges Marchais agreed that things ought to be better. Giscard almost never mentioned Barre by name, and Barre was kept out of his campaign. Economic arguments, in this election, replaced all previous discussions of social change and projets de société: there was no room for utopia. But the self-satisfaction of officialdom was too much for many.

The second test was that of Giscard himself. In this respect, the contrast between 1974 and 1981 was complete. In 1974, he had offered “change without risk”; his opponent, Mitterrand, was allied to a powerful Communist party; he, Giscard, would preserve France’s institutions from Communist domination, yet rid the nation of Gaullist control—after sixteen years—and reform obsolete practices and structures. There would be a better balance between the executive and the parliament, and political life would stop resembling a contest between two enemy camps. Giscard was the candidate of l’ouverture—an opening to the anti-Gaullist center, and later, it was hinted, to the socialists—and la décrispation—domestic détente.

For a while, he seemed to deliver; his accomplice among the Gaullists, Chirac, became prime minister and seized control of the Gaullist party, dislodging its barons and previous bosses. Giscard changed the legislation on contraception and abortion, lowered the voting age, gave to the opposition easier access to the Constitutional Council, granted selfgovernment to Paris, liberalized the state radio and television, imposed a capital gains tax, and tried to make the presidency less monarchical by dropping in for dinner on “average Frenchmen” or by inviting immigrant workers for breakfast. But the socialists remained unimpressed, while the conservative electorate that had voted for him was shocked by his apparent disregard for traditional mores or for concerns of “law and order.”

In the second half of his presidency, and especially after the unexpected defeat of the no-longer-united left in the legislative elections of March 1978, regression, repression, and rigidity replaced reform and relaxation. This was particularly the case in the state’s relations with magistrates and academics. The limited autonomy granted to universities in 1968 was gradually destroyed; state control over the judiciary was extended, a new emergency tribunal (Cour de Sûreté) was set up, a new law increasing the powers of the police and imposing higher and quasi-automatic penalties for various crimes was passed; legislation on immigrant workers turned more restrictive, and the state tightened its grip over information and part of the press. The new political team Giscard brought to power with him in 1974 did not perform well, and was not unspattered by scandals.

All of this was accompanied by what must be called a degradation of Giscard’s personal performance and image. Increasingly, he gave the impression of being concerned only with two things—France’s technological and economic position in the very long run (“the third millenary”), and the systematic appointment of personal protégés in all important public service and public or semipublic enterprise positions. Efforts at popularity were replaced by a tightening of protocol; he gave fewer press conferences and more interviews on television, where the questioners—employees of the state—tended to be more deferential.

Finally, in the last year, a number of incidents resulted in a kind of divorce between a sizable part of the public and himself, in a kind of breakdown of his old charisma: his behavior in practically everything concerned with Emperor Bokassa of Central Africa—from the famous gift of diamonds, to the forcible removal of a brutal head of state he had patronized for so long; his vindictive treatment of newspapers (like Le Monde) which had challenged him and his more recent, blatant assertion that no one had ever questioned him about those diamonds before; his visit to Brezhnev in Warsaw last May, and his unconvincing attempts to justify it; his protracted silence after the bomb explosion at the synagogue on the rue Copernic.

By the time he announced his candidacy, he had become the champion of the status quo—a bit like the hapless Jacques Chaban-Delmas in 1974. Mitterrand, no longer allied with the Communists, and looking less aged by his seven-year wait than did Giscard by his term in office, was able to try to turn the campaign into a trial of the incumbent.

The third test was the test of France’s political institutions. A seven-year presidential term is long; two seven-year terms seem, to many, far too long (de Gaulle resigned in his eleventh year, Pompidou died in his fifth)—especially if the man in power belongs to the same camp as his predecessors. The majority that had ruled the country since de Gaulle’s return to power in 1958 stressed the virtue of stability, and the efficiency of the regime, by contrast with the squabbling parties of the Fourth Republic. But it also linked stability and efficiency to the perpetuation of its own rule. Under the constitution of the Fifth Republic, the president has vast powers, but a hostile Assembly could greatly reduce them, and either embarrass or cripple him, either by rejecting bills (thus obliging the cabinet to stake its life on their adoption) or by refusing to accept or keep the premier or the cabinet named by the president.

The majority, composed of Gaullists and Giscardians, always insisted that divided government—a president from one side and an Assembly dominated by the other—would be dangerous. This argument had prevailed, despite the gradual increase in the strength of the left in the legislative elections of 1967, 1968, 1973, and 1978. Majority politicians also insisted that the election of a leftist president would be dangerous, either because he would inherit a rightwing Assembly, and thus have to choose between the certainty of divided government and the high risk and tribulations of dissolving the National Assembly in the hope of winning control of the new one, or because, should his gamble succeed, he would then depend on Communist support.

Thus, the solidity of the constitution seemed to be dependent on the absence of any alternance—unless one envisaged what might be called partial alternance, the replacement of the current rightwing majority with a new one composed of one of its two elements, plus the Socialists. But events had demonstrated that under a right-wing president such a partial alternance was impossible, since the Socialists refused to become once more the allies, or dupes, of dominant conservatives. And yet it was clear that the constitution, whose main provisions had gradually been accepted by all factions, would become fully legitimate only if it could be demonstrated that the institutions of the Fifth Republic are able to survive either divided government or a left-wing president, and to provide for the alternance which is the very essence of democracy.

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