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Year One

The Heights of Power: An Essay on the Power Elite in France

by Pierre Birnbaum, translated by Arthur Goldhammer
University of Chicago Press, 172 pp., $17.00

The Wheat and the Chaff

by François Mitterrand, translated by Richard S. Woodward, translated by Concilia Hayter, translated by Helen R. Lane, With an introduction by William Styron
Seaver Books, 304 pp., $16.95

Problems of Contemporary French Politics

by Dorothy Pickles
Methuen, 160 pp., $20.00; $8.95 (paper)

François Mitterrand has been president of France since May 10, 1981. Just over a year ago, having dissolved the National Assembly, he won the legislative elections of June 14 and 21, 1981. In discussing the presidential election, I concluded that turning his victory into a program of action entailed three problems.1 One was political—obtaining a working majority and a strong government. The second was economic—reducing unemployment without provoking acute inflation and troubles for the franc. The third was personal: how would this enigmatic and complex man, emerging from twenty-three years in the wilderness, perform as a leader?

Some of the answers are in: the political problem did not arise; the economic program, however, failed—it has been a fiasco marked by two devaluations in nine months. But the uncertain economic future may well awaken the dormant political problem, and the Mitterrand mystery has not been resolved. One prediction that turned out to be accurate concerned the brevity of the “state of grace” that he counted on for success.

Observers of France cannot fail to be struck by several facts. Two concern the domestic French scene. Rarely has so much been undertaken in so short a time—and yet most people complain either because bad things have only gotten worse, or because all the reforms have failed to “change life,” as the Socialists had promised to do.

Moreover, the absence of genuine enthusiasm a year ago (there were hope and sympathy, but no euphoria or influx of new members into the left-wing parties or the labor unions) works both in favor of and against the government. It works for it in so far as it limits disillusionment and makes it easier for the Executive to scrap much of its original program. But the lack of élan among Mitterrand’s followers also deprives his policies of firm support, and encourages his adversaries to regain lost ground.

The other striking points are comparative. As in the case of the Reagan administration—which also came to power less because the voters had converted to its philosophy than because they were fed up with the incumbent’s—the difficulties result only in part from divergences among the rulers. The main cause is the gap between the program and the hard facts, between ideology and reality. In both countries, it has taken very long for the rulers to discover that contrast, and the discovery leaves them more with a tendency to seek scapegoats than with ready alternatives.

Finally, the “Socialist way,” which prided itself on being radically different from the approaches to the world economic crisis of Reagan, Thatcher, Giscard d’Estaing (or Raymond Barre), and even Schmidt, has no chance of succeeding unless the foreign leaders themselves begin to succeed, or unless France drops out of the Western economic and political community, something which Mitterrand and most other Frenchmen neither want nor deem possible.


In May 1981, it seemed unlikely that the Socialists would obtain an absolute majority in the legislative elections. But they did: with their Radical allies, they won 38 percent of the vote and, thanks to the electoral system (which they had denounced in the past as unfair), elected 269 Socialist deputies in an Assembly of 491 members. This victory solved the problem of the government and of the parliamentary majority. Mitterrand and his prime minister, Pierre Mauroy, had no need either to seek allies on their right or to rely on different coalitions, issue by issue. They did not even need to include the Communist Party, either in the parliamentary majority or in the cabinet: it had kept only forty-four of its eighty-six seats.

But Mitterrand decided to take Communists into the cabinet. He doubtless calculated that in the short run they would be less likely to be troublesome (especially in the factories) if they were, so to speak, compromised by ministerial solidarity. More important, Mitterrand always believed that common action under Socialist leadership would either gradually transform the Communist Party (about whose organization and behavior he has no illusions at all) or, should the Party remain as rigid and sectarian as ever, result in more and more of its voters deserting the alliance.

Thus he obtained the strongest possible formula: a government of the whole left, on his terms. What had seemed, in May, shaky and temporary, has turned out—so far—to be quite stable. The four technical ministries granted to the Communists are rather unrewarding, both in actual power and in their possibilities of infiltrating Communists into important positions or sectors. But, having lost much power nationally, the Communists are eager to preserve the gains they had made in the municipalities—in 1977 especially, thanks to their alliance with the Socialists. The next municipal elections will be held in the spring of 1983. Any break of the left alliance before these elections would be a disaster for the Communist Party. Moreover, the lesson of the troubled period 1977 to 1981 is clear: when the Communists desert that alliance and treat the resurgent Socialists as their main foes, a sizable part of their electorate abandons them.

The other problem that the legislative elections solved was the constitutional one. Fears that the politics of the Fourth Republic would reemerge turned out to be unjustified. Giscard d’Estaing, during his seven years in office, had been plagued by the rivalry between the neo-Gaullist party (RPR), set up by Jacques Chirac, and his own supporters (who became, in 1978, the UDF). By contrast, Mitterrand and Mauroy have enjoyed the tremendous advantage that the constitution gives to the Executive whenever it has a solid majority in the National Assembly.

Even though Mitterrand’s victory, unlike that of his three predecessors, was the triumph of a party at least as much as of a personality, during the past twelve months the party has learned the hard way that in the Fifth Republic (especially when—one more paradox!—the party controls the Assembly) the president, with the help of his prime minister, controls the whole political system. The regular meetings between Mitterrand, Mauroy, and the top figures of the party mainly ensure party conformity to the Executive’s wishes. Repeatedly, the Executive has forced Socialist deputies to give up amendments to bills submitted by the government, or else (as in the case of the new austerity measure of June 1982) it has presented the party with a fait accompli.

Mitterrand’s endorsement of a constitution he had attacked as authoritarian does not mean that what the French sociologist Pierre Birnbaum calls “the heights of power”—the power elite and the degree of state autonomy—are unchanged. First, as Birnbaum notes in a postscript to his study (which reviews the evolution of France’s ruling elite from the July Monarchy to Giscard), the Socialist parliamentary group is very different from the Gaullist and Giscardian parliamentary factions: 132 out of 285 Socialist and left-Radical deputies are teachers (94 of them are secondary-school teachers). They have, on the whole, far less experience of economic life than the previous conservative majority, and less experience of local realities than the old political clan of “local notables” of the Third Republic—doctors, lawyers, veterinarians, shopkeepers.

Second, even if it is dominated by the Executive, the Socialist Party, through its parliamentarians and even more through its militants, plays a double role that is quite different from that played by the Gaullists under De Gaulle and Pompidou. Being the guardians of socialist orthodoxy, they are both a constant source of pressure for change and an obstacle to any overt return to the economic and social orthodoxy of the Gaullist and Giscardian era. At the party congress in Valence last October, Mauroy had to throw cold water on overheated ideologues calling for vigorous class warfare and for purges of civil servants.

Third, the reinjection of politics has created a certain amount of tension between the new political class and the bureaucracy. The Fifth Republic, before 1981, had become “la République des fonctionnaires.”2 Many of the political leaders of the Gaullist and Giscardian parties were products of the Ecole nationale d’administration, known as énarques (e.g., Giscard and Chirac). The top civil service dominated in the cabinets ministériels, i.e., the staffs of the ministers, which are the vital links between the minister and the bureaucracy. And many of the key decisions on economic, social, and fiscal policy were actually made by the civil service elite. There was a broad similarity of aims between its members and the Gaullist and Giscardian leaders. Modernization, efficiency, a concern to reduce extreme inequality, the growth of a competitive industry, power on the international scene—these were the objectives. Both groups shared an addiction to the technocratic method (thinking in terms of technical means toward the goals of collective wealth and power) and an aversion to letting either politicians mess with these ends and means or special interests or local pressures interfere with them.

This harmony has been disturbed. While many top civil servants moved toward socialism during Giscard’s declining years, there has been much grumbling among them about incompetence and a lack of enthusiasm for some of the new rulers’ pet ideas, especially nationalization and decentralization. Ideological differences have, as usual, been compounded by considerations of power. The proportion of énarques in the staffs of the president, the prime minister, and cabinet ministers has decreased. Journalists, union members, the party faithful have returned. Moreover, although by American standards there has been no “purge” of the bureaucratic elite by the new government (French civil servants can be moved around but not fired), more than half of the directors in the ministries were replaced.

Finally, the state-led symbiosis that had existed throughout the Fifth Republic between the ruling elite, the national organization of businessmen (CNPF), and the largest national organization of farmers (FNSEA) has been ended. The Socialists’ program ensured the break between the rulers and the CNPF. In the case of the FNSEA, which in the past has received great financial and power advantages from the state in return for its support for the ruling parties,3 the Socialist minister of agriculture, Edith Cresson, was the one who declared war. (She got it, in the form of violent demonstrations ad feminam.)

The old symbiosis had known several forms, depending on whether the state was more or less dirigiste, but even during Raymond Barre’s experiment in relative liberalization there was no doubt about who set the policies: business and farm leaders remained largely the clients of the state. Today, as before, the policies are set by the state. But one of the Socialists’ greatest disappointments has been the failure of the labor unions to establish a comparable, left-wing symbiosis with the new government. They should probably not have expected it. French unions are weak. (only one fifth of the workers are members), divided, and, for different reasons, eager to preserve their independence from “the system.” But the rivalries between the unions and their refusal to let themselves be “integrated” has deprived the government of the kind of support and transmission belts its predecessors enjoyed and exploited.

  1. 1

    France: The Big Change?” New York Review of Books, June 25, 1981.

  2. 2

    See Ezra Suleiman’s two books. Politics, Power and Bureaucracy in France: The Administrative Elite (Princeton University Press, 1974) and Elites in French Society: The Politics of Survival (Princeton University Press, 1978), as well as Pierre Birnbaum’s work under review.

  3. 3

    See the essay by John Keeler in The Fifth Republic at Twenty, edited by William G. Andrews and Stanley Hoffmann (SUNY Press, 1981), and Keeler’s PhD thesis, “The Politics of Official Unionism in French Agriculture: A Study of the Corporatist Bases of FNSEA Hegemony” (Harvard University, Department of Government, 1978).

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