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France Self-Destructs

1.

Writers on France are used to stressing French distinctiveness. Indeed, the two features that the French and American political traditions have been alleged to share are a belief in each country’s being an “exception,” and the claim that each is a blend of races and peoples, a melting pot. What the regional and local elections in late March have shown, in the French case, is that the melting pot is not melting smoothly, while France seems less of an exception to European trends than ever.

If one compares the French results to those of the recent elections in Germany, Italy, Great Britain, and the US, one finds that England was the exceptional case—the only country in which the incumbents won and the shifts from right to left, or vice-versa, were very limited (the Conservative percentage was the same as in 1989, and Labour gained mainly at the expense of the Liberal Democrats). In France, in Germany, in Italy, and in the US, most of the voters are in a mood of protest, annoyed both with the politicians in office and with what could be called the usual opposition. Those who have habitually managed or are managing public affairs are increasingly unpopular. In the German states of Baden-Württemberg and Schleswig-Holstein, the new extreme right and, to a lesser extent, the ecological parties benefited from this mood. In Italy, the neo-Fascists made some progress, but the triumph was the regionalist Lombard League’s, which won more than a third of the votes in northern Italy.

In France, the parties that have governed since 1984—the Socialists and the coalition of the two moderate right parties, Chirac’s RPR (Rally for the Republic) and Giscard d’Estaing’s UDF (Union for French Democracy)—won only 52 percent of the votes; the rest went mainly to the Communists (9 percent), the ecologists, divided into two factions (14 percent), and Jean-Marie Le Pen’s National Front (14 percent). In Germany, France, and Italy, the issue of immigration had a large part in whipping up public discontent, although the Lombard League was original in calling for a halt of Italian “immigration” from the poor South to the wealthier North. In Germany and France, the protest parties benefited from growing public anxiety about the pace and direction of European integration.

One result was common to France, Germany, Italy, and England: the plight of the Socialists. In England they fell far short of their goal—a return to power. In Italy, Benito Craxi’s Socialist Party failed to gain from the decline of both the Christian Democrats and the divided and largely discredited Communists. In Germany, the Social Democrats did no better in Schleswig-Holstein, where the extreme right-wing Republican Party made gains, than the Christian Democrats in Baden-Württemberg, where the Republicans also gained.

The decline of the French Socialists was the most spectacular. In the elections to regional councils, the Socialist Party’s vote was cut nearly in half, from about 34 percent in the legislative elections of June 1988, to a little over 18 percent. Many of the defectors, especially among the young and among wage-earners (workers and employees), appear to have voted for the ecological parties, particularly for the movement called Génération Ecologie, headed by Brice Lalonde, who was a member of the government of Edith Cresson. However, if one guesses, from past evidence, that two thirds of the ecologist voters came from the left and one third from the right, one is faced with a ratio between left and right of about 40 to 60 percent—the worst, for the left, in many years.

The past eleven years, since they first took power, have been turbulent and strangely self-defeating for the Socialists. In both 1981 and 1988, the party had a popular success. François Mitterrand was elected president, dissolved the National Assembly, and helped the party get an absolute majority in 1981, and a plurality in 1988. But each victory was followed three years later by a steep decline in popularity. In 1986, this decline led to a conservative victory in the legislative elections, despite Mitterrand’s manipulation of the electoral system, by substituting proportional representation for the longstanding system in which voters elect, on two successive ballots, a single deputy in each constituency, in an arrangement that amplified the winner’s margin in the Assembly. The Chirac government of 1986 went back to a single deputy system.

Between 1981 and 1983, Prime Minister Pierre Mauroy, the mayor of Lille, presided over ambitious reforms that embodied old-fashioned socialist ideology, including nationalization of large industries and attempts to stimulate economic demand. In 1983, as inflation rose and the French balance of payments deteriorated, he made an abrupt shift toward fiscal austerity and a market economy, and then was replaced. Between 1984 and 1986 the government of Laurent Fabius aimed at moving the Socialists out of the abyss of unpopularity into which they had fallen by the end of Mauroy’s term. He too encouraged competition and free enterprise. He did well in the opinion polls between 1984 and 1986 but not well enough in the election to prevent the victory of the right in 1986.1

When the Socialists returned to power in 1988, Mitterrand first appointed as prime minister his former rival Michel Rocard, whose government was mildly popular, and then in 1991 Edith Cresson, who struck many people as strident in manner and far from competent. Now Pierre Bérégovoy, who was finance minister under both Rocard and Cresson, has been appointed prime minister with the difficult task of rescuing the Socialists. He stands relatively high in the polls at the moment, but in the legislative elections that will take place in 1993, his fate could well resemble that of Fabius.

Part of the cause of the French Socialists’ steep decline lies with Mitterrand; but part lies in France’s own version of the general crisis of social democracy that has taken place throughout Europe. François Mitterrand was reelected, in 1988, on a misunderstanding. The Olympian style of his campaign and his “Letter to the French,” published just before the vote, seemed to promise a broad ouverture—an opening to other parties, and a willingness to replace the Union of the Left (Communists and Socialists) with an alliance between Socialists and centrists. After his reelection, instead of negotiating, or letting Rocard negotiate, a formal deal with the centrist parties of Simone Veil and Raymond Barre, Mitterrand preferred to limit the ouverture to the appointment of a few centrists and representatives of so-called civil society (for example, Dr. Bernard Kouchner, the organizer of the international medical aid group, Médecins Sans Frontières).

Rocard’s attempts to reach broad agreements on controversial issues succeeded in defusing what could have been explosive demands for independence in New Caledonia and in dealing with other conflicts, including a strike by nurses. Still, this was only a temporary substitute for a genuine ouverture. And the sudden firing of Rocard in May 1991 seemed simply to be a whim of the president, the latest manifestation of that “quiet hatred” between the two rivals which had kept Rocard in the wings since his entry into Mitterrand’s Socialist Party in 1974.2 Mme. Cresson turned out to be a clumsy administrator, with little ability to control the bureaucracy, and she used shrill, socialist rhetoric that appealed to left-wing nostalgia for economic dirigisme and ignored the center’s desire for a consensus.

The impression grew that Mitterrand’s second term was going nowhere. During his first term he could claim two historical achievements. One was the gentle strangulation of the Communist Party, whose decline had other causes as well, but whose participation as a very minor partner in the Union of the Left caused it to lose ground in subsequent elections and to engage in damaging internal disputes. Mitterrand’s second achievement was the advances toward European integration that were later marked by the Single European Act of 1987 and the acceptance of the plan for a single European market in 1992. During his second term, one could argue that Mitterrand appeared to be a confident leader both during the Gulf War and in the negotiations on European Monetary and Political Union at Maastricht in Holland last December. But, as in the US, the “Gulf War effect” proved to be ephemeral; the Maastricht agreements have made many French fear the increasing power of a German-dominated European bureaucracy run from Brussels; and Mitterrand’s foreign policy has, since the fateful events in Europe in 1989, had its share of blunders, for example his impulsive willingness to deal with leaders of the August 19 Putsch in Russia.3 The president was thus seen as caring only, as one wit put it, for “les grands projets et les petits emplois” (big projects and small jobs); that is, he spent much of his time protecting and promoting his political friends, and indulging in such extravaganzas as the costly and controversial Très Grande Bibliothèque that will replace the Bibliothèque Nationale.

Above all, Mitterrand seems to have become the victim of his own increasing aloofness and his sometimes ostentatious display of being outside and above the Socialist Party, whose popularity was visibly declining along with Mitterrand’s ability to control its different factions. The presidency, in France, has an important pedagogic function—one that General de Gaulle had enjoyed performing. Under the Fifth Republic the president is in charge of France’s long-term interests and must explain to the electorate the policies that the government presents to Parliament. He must try to show that there is some large purpose or vision behind them. Except during the Gulf crisis, Mitterrand has failed to do this. His speeches and TV interviews have been perfunctory, cryptic, or too clever-sounding. A poster showing De Gaulle in a French crowd, which was displayed in the Paris subway during the commemoration of the centennial of his birth, quoted the general as saying: “Rien n’est si grand qu’un peuple gouverné.” (“Nothing is as great as a people who are governed.”) The French public often resents the state—remember May 1968—but it resents just as much the feeling that it is not “gouverné“; and successful government, in France, has long required not merely the use of power but a display of rational and rationalized Authority.

With Mitterrand’s ambitious protégé Laurent Fabius now, after trying for six years, in charge of the Socialist Party, and his close associate Pierre Bérégovoy in charge of the government, the president cannot convincingly claim (as he tried to in a long television interview on April 12) that he has nothing to do with the difficulties facing the two men. He has been hurt by the party’s troubles, which can be described as very similar to the difficulties of Social Democrats in, say, England, Germany, and Sweden.4 The trend of the 1980s away from the Keynesian welfare state and toward a deregulated European market has deprived the Socialists of their traditional program, and they have not found a new one. In now opposing nationalization and celebrating private investment, private enterprise, and profits, they offer little more than an echo of their conservative opponents, and not much of choice, at a time when conservatives (even under Mrs. Thatcher) for the most part oppose dismantling the welfare system. In France as elsewhere, the Socialists have been unable to stop or roll back unemployment, and all they can promise the jobless is somewhat more humane treatment than they might expect from conservatives. The Socialists therefore have become resented by their own disappointed followers and distrusted by more well-to-do voters who suspect the Socialist Party of being the party of more bureaucracy and higher taxes. And the conversion of the French Socialists to the market has been accompanied by financial scandals and highly publicized instances of corruption that only reinforce the existing resentment and distrust.

  1. 1

    See my essays “Mitterrand vs. France?” The New York Review, September 27, 1984, pp. 51–58; “The Odd Couple in France,” The New York Review, September 25, 1986, pp. 66–72; “The Big Muddle in France,” The New York Review, August 18, 1988, pp. 52–56.

  2. 2

    See the gossipy but informative book of Robert Schneider, La Haine tranquille (Paris: Editions du Seuil, 1992).

  3. 3

    I have examined them in French Dilemmas and Strategies in the New Europe (Harvard University, Center for European Studies Working Papers, 1992).

  4. 4

    See Peter Jenkins, “Goodbye to All That,” The New York Review, May 14, 1992.

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