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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.1

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 of the voters—they were full of vague high-minded statements about improving productivity, organizing technical training, fostering investment, and the need for both economic competition and social security. True, this meant that the debate of recent years between Socialist dirigisme and Reagan-inspired claims for the free market was now over—if it ever had been genuine.

The speeches and writings of the big three presented France’s future as dominated by the code word 1992. That is the year when the economic and monetary union of Europe is to be completed and when, if all goes according to plan, France, Germany, and the other Common Market countries will have a common currency and the existing barriers to the movement of money, trade, and workers among them will be abolished. To bring this about will mean a huge and complex effort to deregulate national industries and services and to coordinate the various national fiscal policies. It will be immensely difficult for many French to accept that Greeks, Italians, and Germans, among others, will be free to work and settle wherever they want to in France. The French government will have to allow foreign companies to bid on state procurement contracts. Many voters—peasants, workers, businessmen, members of professions that will have to be opened to foreigners—see “1992” as extremely threatening. The idea that France has to be “adapted” to a vaguely defined “Europe,” in which many decisions about people’s lives are to be made by distant, mainly foreign, technocrats, provoked anxieties the three politicians did not address.

Thus to many Frenchmen the presidential campaign seemed largely show, a television event in which three men were trying to conceal how little they had to offer.2 For instance, Mitterrand did not mention the word socialism or appeal to working-class memories and pride until forty-eight hours before the vote; he simply talked in broad phrases about his greater concern for social justice and the poor.

The disaffection of the electorate was not limited to the presidential candidates. On the first ballot of the legislative election that took place in June, after Mitterrand won the presidency on the second round, more than 34 percent of the voters abstained—a record figure for legislative elections in the Fifth Republic. Together the number of abstainers and of voters who supported Communist candidates and Le Pen’s National Front’s candidates is just over 50 percent of the registered voters. If not disaffection, certainly derision was expressed in the hilarious and popular Bebête show preceding the evening news on TV. After years of stuffy conformity on all TV channels, the political leaders now appeared in caricature as animal puppets. Mitterrand himself was seen as a portentous frog called “Dieu.”

The second point that emerges from the series of elections was that those voters who came to the polls and did not support extremist or protest candidates voted for “moderation.” This was undeniably the meaning of Mitterrand’s reelection. During the seven weeks of his campaign he presented himself as the father of the nation, a president who wanted neither to be omnipotent (a reference to De Gaulle) nor impotent (a reference to earlier Republics) and who wanted reconciliation and “civil peace,” the end of “exclusions,” solidarity, respect for “family values” and “Christian virtues.” His language seemed partly borrowed from Raymond Barre. He thus created expectations of an opening (ouverture has become the key word of the French political vocabulary) to centrist political forces, particularly to centrists associated with Raymond Barre.

But he also borrowed another theme from Barre’s campaign: an attack, which he was obviously more capable of making explicitly, against the “Etat-RPR”—the takeover of the state apparatus, including the police forces, by Chirac’s party. This was a clever way of driving a wedge between the two parties of the right, Chirac’s RPR and the much more heterogeneous UDF, which Giscard created in 1978 as a coalition of conservatives (mainly from his own Republican party) and Christian Democrats who wanted to preserve their independence from the RPR’s neo-Gaullist organization.

As he had done before,3 Mitterand took the risk of helping Le Pen at Chirac’s expense. He mentioned the possibility of allowing immigrant workers to vote in local elections, while deploring the popular prejudice against their doing so. This was just the kind of suggestion that would enlarge Le Pen’s vote. Until May 8, when Mitterrand was reelected with 54 percent of the vote, the tactic succeeded; the campaign before the first ballot became a battle between Mitterrand and Chirac. Barre, with no effective political organization behind him, had trouble even making himself heard. And Chirac became increasingly shrill, and seemed ill-at-ease, as he tried both to repudiate racism and to appease the followers of Le Pen.

Between the two ballots, after a debate in which a frozen and haughty Mitterrand dismissed the charges and boasts of a nervous Chirac, the leader of the neo-Gaullists overplayed his hand by seeming to arrange a series of spectacular events: three hostages were freed in Lebanon; one of the French agents involved in the 1984 Greenpeace affair was brought back from the Pacific; and, most dramatic of all, twenty-three French gendarmes who had been taken hostage by the Kanak independence fighters in New Caledonia were rescued (although at a cost of twenty-one lives, two members of the French commando, and nineteen Kanaks). On the second ballot, Mitterrand attracted one quarter of the voters who two weeks earlier had supported Le Pen, along with 14 percent of those who had voted for Barre. The failure of so many right-wing voters to support Chirac seemed a clear rejection of his peculiar combination of authoritarian-sounding conservative rhetoric and wishy-washiness in practice.

The voters’ desire for moderation (with a “social,” if not a “socialist,” flavor) evidently helped Mitterrand. But the same sentiment plagued him during the weeks following his reelection. His talk during the campaign of ouverture toward the center and right wing created expectations that could only be disappointed and fears that could only be damaging. He had soothingly promised to select a prime minister who would form a government capable of representing most of the French, and stated that it would be up to the National Assembly, elected in 1986, to decide whether to let him govern. If not, he said, he would dissolve the Assembly and call for a new legislative election.

Mitterrand’s appointment of Michel Rocard, the popular Socialist maverick, seemed a step in this direction. Rocard had been on the far (but non-Communist) left during the 1960s, but he has many friends among politicians of the center and even on the right. He has been one of the principal advocates of turning the Socialist party into a genuinely social democratic party that would appeal to the middle class as well as to the traditional working class. But it appeared that Mitterrand’s talk of ouverture was still mainly talk. The cabinet announced by Rocard turned out to include only a handful of second-rank politicians from the center and a number of nonpolitical technocrats such as Roger Fauroux, former businessman and director of the Ecole Nationale d’Administration. (Some prestigious centrists were said to have refused Rocard’s offer.)

When several of the more doctrinaire Socialist “ayatollahs” (including Jean-Pierre Chevènement), who reminded the French of the ideological excesses of 1981 and 1982 were given ministerial jobs, there was heard, in political circles and in the press, a groan of disappointment. It was hardly an “opening to the center.” Mitterrand then abruptly dissolved the Assembly without its ever having had the chance of hearing the government’s new program, still less of voting for or against it. Mitterrrand said that the hand of reconciliation he had proffered had not been grasped and so he had to call at once for new legislative elections. This was not what many voters had been led to expect.

Mitterrand and Rocard had a strong case for going to the country quickly. To wait until autumn, after the sacrosanct summer vacation months, meant allowing the right, still dominant in parliament, to select the moment when the new government would have sufficiently sunk in the polls (as any government grappling with a trade and budget deficit is likely to do) in order to overthrow it. But if this was Mitterrand’s fear, he showed little confidence in the ability of the centrists he had been talking about to break away from the rest of the conservative majority. Prominent centrist leaders, among them the liberal Christian Democrat Pierre Méhaignerie, pleaded in vain that they needed more time if they were to organize a group of deputies willing to collaborate with the Socialists.

  1. 1

    See my previous articles: “France: The Big Change,” The New York Review (June 25, 1981); “Year One,” The New York Review (August 12, 1982); “Mitterrand vs. France,” The New York Review (September 27, 1984); “The Odd Couple in France,” The New York Review (September 25, 1986); and my concluding chapter in George Ross, Stanley Hoffmann, and Sylvia Malzacher, eds., The Mitterrand Experiment (Polity Press, 1987).

  2. 2

    Many examples are provided by Françoise Rey, Jean-Pierre Mithois, and Denis Poncet in Mitterrand 2 (Paris: Belfond Acropole, 1988). They quote Jacques Lang, Mitterrand’s minister of culture: “The idea is to play simplicity…. No promises, everything will depend on the form. We’ll ask the voters questions in the style of a referendum; for instance, do you prefer a system that provides privileges or equal opportunity?” (p. 61).

  3. 3

    See the critical remarks of Jean Daniel in Les Religions d’un Président (Paris: Grasset, 1988), p. 276.

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