François Mitterrand has been president of France for three years now. Early in June, journalists asked him for his opinion about the almost unbroken series of electoral defeats the Union of the Left, which he had carried to power, had suffered in local elections during the previous year. He answered that the French were voting against the storm, but would not necessarily vote against the captain of the ship.
Just a few days later, the elections of June 17 dealt a new, crushing blow to the left. Their ostensible purpose was the choice of eighty-one French deputies to the rather powerless Parliament of the European Communities, but they really tested the popularity of the Union of the Left. Almost 43 percent of the electorate refrained from voting—despite an extremely bitter campaign. Among those who voted, only about one third supported the Communist and Socialist slates of candidates (about 11 percent and 21 percent respectively). What might be called the legitimate opposition—from the parties led by Giscard d’Estaing and Jacques Chirac—received 43 percent, Jean-Marie Le Pen’s extreme right party, 11 percent, and the rest went to ten other slates.
It so happens that under the constitution of the Fifth Republic, the president’s term of office does not expire until the spring of 1988—nearly four years from now. Mitterrand has tried to regain the offensive by calling for a constitutional reform enlarging the scope of popular referendums and a referendum on the reform itself—one way of asking for a vote of confidence from the French. In July he also appointed a new prime minister, Laurent Fabius, to replace Pierre Mauroy, a decision that forced the Communists, probably sooner than they would have liked, to abandon their awkward earlier strategy of “participation without support” and to leave the government rather than endorse its economic policies.
We have seen a spectacular display of Mitterrand’s ability to maneuver and to manipulate. But the questions that he did not raise, either before or after June 17, and that any observer of the French scene must ask himself, are whether the captain and his present crew will be able to weather the storm between now and the legislative elections in the spring of 1986; whether he will keep his post if his crew gets thrown out by the voters in 1986; and whether the ship is still heading for any recognizable destination. In the spring and summer of French discontent, din and drift, doubts and divisions are the main realities.
General de Gaulle once contrasted the superficial agitation of French politicians with the latent French consensus he believed existed. More recently, Jacques Delors—the energetic former finance minister who, having been passed over by Mitterrand for the post of prime minister chose to become president of the Commission of the European Community—mentioned several “areas of broad assent.” Some of them can be found even among the opposing politicians, and they are not negligible. But the consensus …