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Mitterrand vs. France?


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.1


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 is, so to speak, soft rather than hard, for reasons that vary from case to case.

The first case is that of foreign policy and defense. A consensus exists around the basic principles of Gaullist diplomacy, which include nuclear autonomy and political independence, activism in world affairs, and West European cooperation (especially with West Germany). But Mitterrand has modified these principles in several ways. He has accomplished a rapprochement with the United States, caused by French concern about the Soviet military build-up and the balance of forces in Europe; and he has tried to intensify Franco-German collaboration as well as to revive the sluggish European Community, because of French anxiety about the growth of pacifism and nationalism in West Germany and about the capacity of the separate nations of Western Europe to meet the challenge of Japan and the US in the “third industrial revolution.”

These shifts have been generally accepted, even by Jacques Chirac’s neo-Gaullist party, and the president’s political adversaries have not been able to criticize either his behavior during his journey to Moscow in June, where he talked publicly about Sakharov, or the way in which he untied the various knots that had kept the European Community immobilized for months. However, there are deep, unresolved contradictions between the desire for national independence and the drive toward closer integration in Western Europe, both in the political and in the military spheres; and the Franco-American honeymoon is at the mercy of President Reagan’s policies during his second term. Difficult choices will have to be made, especially about defense; and they might strain the consensus.2

The second case is that of the constitution drafted by De Gaulle in 1958. At present, only the far right, led by old enemies of De Gaulle (Le Pen, a former paratrooper, never forgave him for the “loss” of French Algeria), dares attack the institutions of the Fifth Republic. The fiercest critic of presidential predominance as long as he was in opposition, Mitterrand would have been unable to obtain the Socialist party’s support for his current economic policies (and even for the bill on private schools that has caused so much trouble with the opposition) without the formidable powers which the executive enjoys under the constitution, and which Mitterrand is now attempting to increase further. Nevertheless, as I shall try to explain, France may well enter a period of institutional storms.

There is a third consensus, among the intelligentsia—the higher ranks of French, especially Parisian, academics and writers. Since the middle 1970s they have continued to move away from the Marxist or leftist dogmas that were dominant since the liberation in 1944 and had at first seemed strengthened by May 1968. In retrospect May 1968 now appears as one of the main factors in the liquidation of the old orthodoxy. Many of the non-communist leftists of 1968 became bitter anticommunists, rediscovered liberal values, and rallied to the defense of human rights. They were joined by former communist intellectuals and by moderate ex-leftist writers and artists who have moved gradually to the right. Conservative liberals close to Raymond Aron, as well as the (briefly fashionable) anti-egalitarian doctrinaires of the new right, became more respected.

Today, the intelligentsia unites around a common theme: antitotalitarianism, the denunciation of the evils of the Soviet Union in particular and of communism in general (many add: of Marxism altogether). The belated discovery of “the Gulag,” of Hannah Arendt, and of Orwell, and the shock produced by the events in Poland in 1981 have contributed to this new militancy, which, in turn, has reinforced French “anti-pacifism,” French attachment to nuclear deterrence, and pro-Americanism in foreign policy.

The intelligentsia has abandoned its old ideological positions not in favor of social science, as the sociologist Michel Crozier called for and predicted twenty years ago, but for new ideological positions, albeit vaguer and less coherent ones.

Moreover, this new consensus has not produced any harmony between the intelligentsia and the government. Typically, the intellectuals denounced the presence of Communists in the previous cabinet and the Marxist aspects of Mitterrand’s policies and the Socialists’ creed.3 Even those intellectuals who still support the Mitterrand government—a rather small contingent—are critical of the “Jacobin” or statist elements in the left, and share the anticommunist, antitotalitarian, libertarian mood; as a result, they sometimes sound closer to the government’s critics than to its political defenders.4

Finally, the rather self-congratulatory “anti” stance of the intelligentsia, while sharpening the distinction between the new consensus and the small, dwindling battalion of pro-Soviet or “progressiste” thinkers, blurs the line that separates, on the right, real liberals from aggressive or reactionary “neoconservatives” and from the new right. The line is also blurred that separates people who would accept a French socialism that did what West German social democracy accomplished in 1959 at Bad Godesberg—a clear-cut repudiation of Marxism—from those who proclaim that equality is evil, and that socialism always leads to fascism and to the Gulag. An obnoxious left-wing orthodoxy risks being replaced by dangerous confusion.

Jacques Delors also mentioned a consensus around the economic concepts and policies of the government. This is true, insofar as the government, since the spring of 1982, has had to follow a course of increasing austerity. There are fewer differences between the bitter medicine Delors and his successor Pierre Bérégovoy have prescribed in recent months and that which Prime Minister Raymond Barre inflicted between 1978 and 1981 than between the current policies and the exuberantly Keynesian ones the Socialists enforced in 1981. Still, the government’s loose economic policies of 1981 are the main source of its troubles now: it ran up the deficit while increasing wages and welfare payments, spent heavily to nationalize banks and industries, yet cut back the work week.

Mitterrand in the spring of 1984 has frankly redefined the Socialist “projet de société” as a mixed economy (which is what France has had ever since 1944). He has asserted the priority of production over distribution, excommunicated national protectionism as a means of economic recovery, declared that industrial modernization and competitiveness (even at the cost of rising unemployment) must be France’s objectives, and explained that profits had to be restored. He has given to unfettered private enterprise a leading role in the return of growth.5

Austerity has come in two stages, first June 1982, then March 1983. It has meant higher as well as new taxes to reduce consumption; a drastic reduction in public and social security expenditures, in order to fight inflation; a third devaluation of the franc in March 1983, to allow France to remain in the European Monetary System and to export more; strict controls on prices and pressures to keep wages from rising faster than, or even as fast as, prices. Above all, austerity has meant the end of the very old and honored policy of state support for “lame ducks” (obsolete industries or inefficient ones) as a protection against unemployment.

On balance, the measures taken in the past year have hit the public sector—which Socialists in 1981 had wanted to be the very motor of their economic policy—harder than the private one, despite the business community’s complaints about the excessive burden of taxation and social security charges on private businesses. For the attempt to cut the budget deficit has meant sacrificing investments in the public sector. Mitterrand’s decision to reduce, in 1985, the weight of state taxes and other charges without increasing the deficit will mean a further reduction in state support for nationalized industries, particularly through cuts in subsidies for their own deficits.

The conservative governments in power before 1981 did not try to take—or could not enforce—such measures as the “disindexing” of wages, the reform of social security and reduction of hospital costs, the closing down of coal mines and steel mills, and cutting back milk production. In the case of coal, steel, and milk, Mitterrand’s cabinet was able to present unpopular moves as the necessary result of decisions reached by the European Community.

  1. 1

    See my essays in The New York Review of Books, “Year One,” August 12, 1982, pp. 37–43; and “France: The Big Change?” June 25, 1981, pp. 47–53.

  2. 2

    See my essay, “L’avenir de la défense européenne,” Intervention, no. 8, February-April 1984, pp. 80–84.

  3. 3

    Most typical in this respect is the book Lettre ouverte à mes ennemis de classe, by Jean-Marie Domenach, the former editor of Esprit (Paris: Seuil, 1984).

  4. 4

    See for instance Alain Touraine, “L’avant 86,” Intervention, no. 8, February-April 1984, pp. 11–17.

  5. 5

    The key texts are his press conference of April 4 (Le Monde, April 6, 1984) and his interview in Libération, May 10, 1984.

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