The Big Muddle in France

Between April 24 and June 12, the French voted four times—twice, on April 24 and May 8, for the election of the president of the republic, twice, on June 5 and 12, for a new National Assembly. The results confounded all advance predictions, and interpreting them has become an industry: virtually every political leader and expert in France claims that something of historical importance happened, but few agree on just what it was. I will here try both to derive some lessons from the elections, and to discuss the serious problems the French now face.

The elections showed the disaffection of a sizable part of the French electorate from what General de Gaulle used to call the “poisons, games, and delights” of French politicians. The first surprise came on April 24. This first round of the election for president was supposed to be a battle among three men: François Mitterrand, the Socialist president since 1981, Jacques Chirac, the prime minister, head of the neo-Gaullist RPR and leader of the right-wing parliamentary majority elected in March 1986, and Raymond Barre, the economist who replaced Chirac as prime minister under Valéry Giscard d’Estaing between 1976 and 1981, and who was supported by the other right-wing party, the UDF. But a fourth man, Jean-Marie Le Pen, the far-right extremist who is notorious for his openly racist attacks on immigrants, did far better than predicted, obtaining 14.4 percent of the vote. If one adds up the abstentions (which were low: 18.5 percent), the votes for Le Pen, and those for the other candidates from the marginal parties that reject conventional politics—the official Communists, the “reformist” Communists, two varieties of Trotskyites, and the ecologists—one gets a total of almost 42 percent of registered voters.

It is clear that many French voters have felt increasingly estranged from the political parties that have governed the country for the past fifteen or twenty years. For them the period that began with President Pompidou’s terminal illness and the first oil crisis of the early 1970s has been one of economic trouble and social dislocation. Neither the Socialists in the early 1980s nor the right-wing Chirac government between 1986 and 1988 have been able to stop unemployment from rising. By the time of the election there were more than two and a half million unemployed people. In 1987 the purchasing power of wage earners stagnated but taxes again increased.

For men and women worried about the future, listening to the statements of the “big three” was triply disconcerting. The three politicians said little about economic policy, and certainly offered no prospect of an early to austerity, thus acknowledging that whoever won would have very little economic flexibility. Indeed, the policy of Chirac and his finance minister Edouard Balladur had not been very different from the one Mitterrand had initiated in 1983, when he cut public expenditures and held down wages.

The programs of the three seemed remarkably remote from the daily concerns …

This article is available to Online Edition and Print Premium subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
If you already have one of these subscriptions, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account. If you subscribe to the print edition, you may also need to link your web site account to your print subscription. Click here to link your account services.