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The New France?

Between the elections to the European Parliament in June 1994 and the election of Jacques Chirac to the Presidency of the Fifth Republic on May 7, 1995, the French appeared to be living both in memory and in a mood of evasion. The painful end of François Mitterrand’s second presidential mandate produced a series of uneasy confrontations, both with the recent past—the two seven-year terms of Mitterrand—and with the more distant one—the period when Mitterrand collaborated with the Vichy government. The French press and television have made the most of two fascinating but also rather depressing spectacles: the increasingly bitter duel for the presidency between two former allies, Prime Minister Balladur and former Prime Minister Chirac, and the apparent disintegration of the Socialists after the fall of Michel Rocard, overthrown as leader of the party after his fiasco in the European election.

Then, on April 23 and May 7, the presidential elections brought to power not only Chirac but a new set of leaders who will have to deal with a host of tough issues that have consistently been ignored, and must be addressed if the discontent of a vast part of the citizenry is not to turn into an unmanageable social and political crisis.


The attempts to sum up the Mitterrand era have concentrated at least as much on the man as on his record. Both are full of contradictions. Much of the fascination of Mitterrand for French writers, journalists, and politicians comes from his deliberately cultivated resemblance to many ambitious and complex provincial characters in French novels, from Balzac to Mauriac, and including Barrès and Montherlant. The sinuous course that led him from his early monarchist and reactionary sympathies to a position in the Vichy regime, then into the Resistance, and later to a political career that began on the right and ended on the Socialist left, seems to have been driven, at all times, by a quest for power.

Since 1944 he was also driven by a hostility to General de Gaulle so deep and so constant that he could not even bring himself to mention De Gaulle’s name when he celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of the end of World War II in Berlin. Much about Mitterrand remains mysterious. The stoic dignity with which he has fought prostate cancer contrasts with his slippery defense of corrupt subordinates and associates and with his sympathy for people as diversely shady as Bernard Tapie, the failed businessman and soccer-club owner turned corrupt politician, and René Bousquet, the Third Republic prefect who, as Vichy’s police chief, ordered the deportation of Jews. Strange behavior for a president whose contempt for money reflects both far right and Socialist anti-capitalism, and who claims many Jewish friends. To one of them, Elie Wiesel, in a book full of banal pieties, Mitterrand confessed that he sees himself as “the graveyard of remembrance.”1 He has, he says, a duty to think about the dead, a noble-sounding thought but one that contrasts with his own lack of vision about the future of his country. He also mentions his desire for “reconciliation,” when it is clear that many of his maneuvers as head of the Socialist Party have had a divisive effect, including his attempts to undermine such rivals as Rocard, and to divide the right by indirectly promoting the National Front of Le Pen.

Some of his policies have been positive and important. At home, he cleverly and peacefully demolished the power of the Communist Party through his strategy of “union of the Left,” which had originally made many democratic progressives uneasy. Paradoxically, in view of his early opposition to De Gaulle’s “authoritarian” Constitution for the Fifth Republic, he did much to consolidate the Fifth Republic’s main institutions. Beginning in 1981, he showed that, after twenty-three years of right-wing rule, “alternation” could be smooth; he then negotiated a prickly but workable “cohabitation” with right-wing cabinets after the right won the legislative elections of 1986 and 1993. (Indeed, the institutions of the Fifth Republic allow for a far more effective cooperation between the president and a hostile parliamentary majority than those of the US whenever, say, a Democratic president confronts a Republican Congress.) Mitterrand can also take credit for some historic reforms: the deregulation of radio stations, the abolition of the death penalty, and the 1982 law decentralizing state power more effectively than any other French leader has done since the Revolution.

Abroad, Mitterrand made two major contributions. The first—squarely in the Gaullist tradition—was to give high priority to Franco-German cooperation. This became clear with his famous Bundestag speech of 1983 advocating the acceptance by the German Parliament of NATO’s new missile deployments (“the pacifists are in the West, the missiles in the East”). The second achievement, breaking with the Gaullist heritage, was his persistent effort, from 1984 on, with the help of Jacques Delors in Brussels, to turn the Common Market into a genuine European Union. He removed many of the obstacles to a single free market, accepted a considerable expansion of majority rule within the European Union, and pushed for a single currency. French cooperation with the UN and with NATO also increased under him, as became apparent during the Gulf War and in Bosnia.

But the dark side of the record is no less important. French policy in Africa remained a preserve of presidential discretion, and Mitterrand chose to support African despots, whether in Chad, Gabon, or Rwanda. His preference for reacting cautiously even in periods of momentous change kept the former Soviet satellites outside the European Community’s door and contributed to the West’s lamentable policy in Bosnia; the once promising idea of a Franco-German “Euro Corps” remains largely symbolic. His greatest failings, however, were at home. He went much further than De Gaulle had in bringing a “monarchical” style to the French presidency and transforming his own party into a tool of the president. In 1983, he had the French government shift from the old Socialist doctrine of state-controlled economic and social change to a new policy emphasizing financial “rigor” and industrial competitiveness. But Mitterrand never bothered to try to get the Socialist Party to adjust its ideas to that change and to give up its old Socialist commitments to the expansion of state agencies and to nationalization. The party thus displayed a depressing split between its archaic and verbal radicalism and its resignation to the new status quo emphasizing the importance of efficient management and competitiveness abroad. The Socialist Party bosses became enmeshed in financial scandals and the party itself became little more than a tangled web of personal factions manipulated from the Elysée palace.

The party was also more and more out of touch with the so-called “forces vives“—voluntary associations, unions, the women and the young—which Michel Rocard’s “second left” had hoped would regenerate the old centralized and Jacobin party. Except for a disastrous attempt, in 1984, to diminish support for subsidized Catholic schools, no serious effort was made to reform the deteriorating French educational system, particularly its overcrowded universities. The Socialists resisted right-wing xenophobic pressures to treat immigrants harshly, but they failed to educate the public about the realities of immigration. They could have shown that immigration was not responsible for high unemployment and that the integration of many of the Muslim immigrants was quietly proceeding; instead they adopted much of the vocabulary of the right in emphasizing the fight against illegal immigration.

Above all, Mitterrand failed to deal with rising unemployment. At the end of his second term, 12 percent of France’s labor force was without jobs, 1.2 million people had been out of work for more than a year. Many blamed the policy of the “franc fort” (a pun on Frankfurt, the seat of the Bundesbank) that ties the franc to the Deutschmark within the European Monetary System. After German unification, this link made French economic policy dependent on the German Central Bank, whose high-interest-rate policy was dictated by the purely German need to prevent any inflationary effects that the costly rehabilitation of East Germany might have. While this policy of linkage was accepted both by the Socialist and conservative governments that alternated in power between 1983 and 1995, it was initiated by Mitterrand, and was challenged far less among Socialists than among the Gaullists, especially by Philippe Séguin, the president of the National Assembly—and, occasionally, Chirac. One great irony of Mitterrand’s Socialist presidency was that the power of French labor declined while he was in office, both in employment and in the effectiveness of the unions. A second irony was that employment and general prosperity were replaced as the chief goals of French economic policy by a commitment to keep prices and exchange rates stable.2


For a while, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, some French writers celebrated the emergence of a “Republic of the Center”3 in which, thanks to the decline of communism and to the modernization of French conservatism, the sharp old cleavage between the forces of the right and left had lost most of its ideological force. Both right and left now acknowledged the limits on the freedom of choice available to a middle-size nation-state whose exports and imports had risen to more than one fifth of the gross domestic product (doubling since 1962), and which had to submit to the pressures of competition in a global capitalist economy as well as to those of the European Community. The smoothness of the “cohabitation” of Mitterrand and Balladur seemed to vindicate this analysis.

But the European elections of 1994, in which the Socialist list of Michel Rocard and the conservative list led by Dominique Baudis, the mayor of Toulouse, obtained, together, only 40 percent of the vote, was a rude shock. It led a sociologist, Emmanuel Todd, to offer a new analysis, suggesting that France was still divided along class lines—between a middle class with a variety of political allegiances and a more homogeneous “popular class” consisting of blue- and white-collar workers with low incomes. The 1994 vote expressed the distress of the popular class, which had felt neglected by the more well-to-do citizens and especially by the French professional and business elites.4 Moreover, Todd suggested, the popular class, feeling betrayed by the Socialist Party, had now deserted it; and it had also largely turned against the policy of European unification, which the French, in the referendum on the Maastricht Treaty setting up the European Union had, in September 1992, approved by a margin of only 1 percent.

This meant that, in the coming presidential elections, the members of the popular class were likely to be decisive. Todd described Balladur as well as Jacques Delors (seen at the time he was writing as the likely Socialist candidate) as the favorites of the middle classes. It was therefore in Chirac’s interest to look for voters not in the center (which Balladur had anyhow been cultivating) but among the broad mass of poorer citizens. Chirac, the leader of the neo-Gaullist RPR, was, he said, “closer to the popular and democratic ideal type.”

  1. 1

    françois Mitterrand and Elie Wiesel, Mémoire à deux voix (Paris: Editions Odile Jacob, 1995), p. 45.

  2. 2

    For another evaluation of Mitterrand, see George Ross, “Machiavelli meddling through,” French Politics and Society, Spring 1995.

  3. 3

    See François Furet, Jacques Julliard, and Pierre Rosanvallon, La République du centre (Paris: Calmann-Lévy, 1988).

  4. 4

    Aux origines du malaise politique français,” Notes de la Fondation Saint Simon, November 1994 (another version can be found in Le débat, January—February 1995, pp. 98-120).

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