The French presidential elections of April and May 1981 offered the voters, on the surface, a choice between two men who were extremely well-known, and who had already competed for the presidency in 1974. But it really amounted to a choice between the utterly familiar and the uncertain. To the dismay of many—in France and abroad—and to the surprise and joy of many—mainly in France—a clear majority of over 52 percent (in metropolitan France) preferred hope and change.
The campaign was a triple test. It was a test of the economic and social policies pursued, under President Giscard d’Estaing, by Prime Minister Raymond Barre since the late summer of 1976. Barre’s policy tried to cope with both inflation and unemployment by preserving, in the midst of a world economic crisis, the external balance of French payments and a healthy rate of growth. The end of state support to lame industries would, he hoped, force French business to modernize and to become more competitive, especially in foreign markets. The end of price controls would allow business to reap higher profits, and to invest more. In the short run, prices might rise, and layoffs (in dying industries) might multiply. But a social explosion would be avoided by state measures increasing the wages and social security benefits of the poorest workers and of large families, and providing unemployment compensation for the jobless; in the long run, a more competitive industry would hire more workers and cut prices.
The results were mixed. Barre succeeded in filling French monetary reserves, in making it possible for the franc to be part of the new European Monetary System, in reducing certain inequalities in incomes, in expanding French exports, and in preserving—indeed, in raising—the French standard of living on the average. But the second oil shock, in 1979, hurt France’s trade balance; partly because of the price of imported oil, but for many reasons related to the structure of French trade and industry, inflation remained high; and while the rate of growth was better than in many other OECD countries, the expected high profits and investments failed to materialize: entrepreneurs—especially small ones—complained about the burdens imposed on them by social security dues and by credit restrictions, and unemployment kept rising, to more than a million and a half.
Barre assured the French that his medicine was far superior to any other—in the long run. He, as well as the president, stressed, for instance, the importance of France’s ambitious program of nuclear energy, which would reduce dependence on imported oil. But people live in the short run. And during the campaign, Barre’s policy was attacked both from the right and from the left. On the right, the neo-Gaullist Jacques Chirac offered a French translation of Ronald Reagan’s economic program complete with attacks on the excessive weight of the state, commitments to reduce state expenditures and the number of civil servants, promises of drastic tax cuts, and calls for increased production, partly through state incentives, partly through the release of entrepreneurial energy which would result from the removal of such burdens as excessive social security costs.
On the left, François Mitterrand proposed a mixture of rather orthodox Keynesian “demand-side” economics and an increase in state ownership (which was already considerable under Giscard). He promised an immediate increase in the minimum wage and in social security benefits, a program of public works and the hiring of 180,000 civil servants in order to reduce unemployment, a negotiated reduction in the length of work for the same purpose, the nationalization of the remaining private banks and of nine major industrial companies, and a tax reform entailing lower income, and lower indirect and inheritance taxes for the less privileged, as well as a new tax on the wealth of the rich.
Both Chirac and Mitterrand blamed the government and the president for being insensitive to unemployment, and too willing to accept sluggish growth. While their methods for lifting France out of (relative) recession were antithetical, they promised more jobs and appealed both to the jobless and to small and medium-size enterprises, which often saw themselves as the victims of Barre’s policy of industrial bloodletting, return to competition and tight credit. During the campaign, Giscard kept pointing out that France had “absorbed” the second oil shock better than West Germany. He promised essentially more of the same policies, and, discreetly alluding to the other industrial powers, suggested that while France had problems—of external origin—things could be worse.
His three chief competitors, Chirac, Mitterrand, and Georges Marchais agreed that things ought to be better. Giscard almost never mentioned Barre by name, and Barre was kept out of his campaign. Economic arguments, in this election, replaced all previous discussions of social change and projets de société: there was no room for utopia. But the self-satisfaction of officialdom was too much for many.
The second test was that of Giscard himself. In this respect, the contrast between 1974 and 1981 was complete. In 1974, he had offered “change without risk”; his opponent, Mitterrand, was allied to a powerful Communist party; he, Giscard, would preserve France’s institutions from Communist domination, yet rid the nation of Gaullist control—after sixteen years—and reform obsolete practices and structures. There would be a better balance between the executive and the parliament, and political life would stop resembling a contest between two enemy camps. Giscard was the candidate of l’ouverture—an opening to the anti-Gaullist center, and later, it was hinted, to the socialists—and la décrispation—domestic détente.
For a while, he seemed to deliver; his accomplice among the Gaullists, Chirac, became prime minister and seized control of the Gaullist party, dislodging its barons and previous bosses. Giscard changed the legislation on contraception and abortion, lowered the voting age, gave to the opposition easier access to the Constitutional Council, granted selfgovernment to Paris, liberalized the state radio and television, imposed a capital gains tax, and tried to make the presidency less monarchical by dropping in for dinner on “average Frenchmen” or by inviting immigrant workers for breakfast. But the socialists remained unimpressed, while the conservative electorate that had voted for him was shocked by his apparent disregard for traditional mores or for concerns of “law and order.”
In the second half of his presidency, and especially after the unexpected defeat of the no-longer-united left in the legislative elections of March 1978, regression, repression, and rigidity replaced reform and relaxation. This was particularly the case in the state’s relations with magistrates and academics. The limited autonomy granted to universities in 1968 was gradually destroyed; state control over the judiciary was extended, a new emergency tribunal (Cour de Sûreté) was set up, a new law increasing the powers of the police and imposing higher and quasi-automatic penalties for various crimes was passed; legislation on immigrant workers turned more restrictive, and the state tightened its grip over information and part of the press. The new political team Giscard brought to power with him in 1974 did not perform well, and was not unspattered by scandals.
All of this was accompanied by what must be called a degradation of Giscard’s personal performance and image. Increasingly, he gave the impression of being concerned only with two things—France’s technological and economic position in the very long run (“the third millenary”), and the systematic appointment of personal protégés in all important public service and public or semipublic enterprise positions. Efforts at popularity were replaced by a tightening of protocol; he gave fewer press conferences and more interviews on television, where the questioners—employees of the state—tended to be more deferential.
Finally, in the last year, a number of incidents resulted in a kind of divorce between a sizable part of the public and himself, in a kind of breakdown of his old charisma: his behavior in practically everything concerned with Emperor Bokassa of Central Africa—from the famous gift of diamonds, to the forcible removal of a brutal head of state he had patronized for so long; his vindictive treatment of newspapers (like Le Monde) which had challenged him and his more recent, blatant assertion that no one had ever questioned him about those diamonds before; his visit to Brezhnev in Warsaw last May, and his unconvincing attempts to justify it; his protracted silence after the bomb explosion at the synagogue on the rue Copernic.
By the time he announced his candidacy, he had become the champion of the status quo—a bit like the hapless Jacques Chaban-Delmas in 1974. Mitterrand, no longer allied with the Communists, and looking less aged by his seven-year wait than did Giscard by his term in office, was able to try to turn the campaign into a trial of the incumbent.
The third test was the test of France’s political institutions. A seven-year presidential term is long; two seven-year terms seem, to many, far too long (de Gaulle resigned in his eleventh year, Pompidou died in his fifth)—especially if the man in power belongs to the same camp as his predecessors. The majority that had ruled the country since de Gaulle’s return to power in 1958 stressed the virtue of stability, and the efficiency of the regime, by contrast with the squabbling parties of the Fourth Republic. But it also linked stability and efficiency to the perpetuation of its own rule. Under the constitution of the Fifth Republic, the president has vast powers, but a hostile Assembly could greatly reduce them, and either embarrass or cripple him, either by rejecting bills (thus obliging the cabinet to stake its life on their adoption) or by refusing to accept or keep the premier or the cabinet named by the president.
The majority, composed of Gaullists and Giscardians, always insisted that divided government—a president from one side and an Assembly dominated by the other—would be dangerous. This argument had prevailed, despite the gradual increase in the strength of the left in the legislative elections of 1967, 1968, 1973, and 1978. Majority politicians also insisted that the election of a leftist president would be dangerous, either because he would inherit a rightwing Assembly, and thus have to choose between the certainty of divided government and the high risk and tribulations of dissolving the National Assembly in the hope of winning control of the new one, or because, should his gamble succeed, he would then depend on Communist support.
Thus, the solidity of the constitution seemed to be dependent on the absence of any alternance—unless one envisaged what might be called partial alternance, the replacement of the current rightwing majority with a new one composed of one of its two elements, plus the Socialists. But events had demonstrated that under a right-wing president such a partial alternance was impossible, since the Socialists refused to become once more the allies, or dupes, of dominant conservatives. And yet it was clear that the constitution, whose main provisions had gradually been accepted by all factions, would become fully legitimate only if it could be demonstrated that the institutions of the Fifth Republic are able to survive either divided government or a left-wing president, and to provide for the alternance which is the very essence of democracy.
The election campaign took place at several levels. The public itself remained remarkably quiet. It was obviously not indifferent: participation in the vote was barely below the high point of 1974; but even between the two ballots of April 26 and May 10, there was little of the passion that had marked the close race of the same two candidates then, or of the sense of history hesitating between past and future that had marked the contest between Alain Poher, a symbol of the Fourth Republic, and Georges Pompidou, after de Gaulle’s resignation. And there was no frisson comparable to that of 1965, when de Gaulle was forced into a runoff by Mitterrand and the centrist Jean Lecanuet, and astonished the French by changing his style from regal haughtiness to sardonic populism.
The two contenders waged very different campaigns, but neither one provoked any excitement. Giscard relied on his usual virtues: a strong pedagogical gift, the art of appearing both as a detached, superior observer, and as an unpolitical leader “guiding” the nation along obvious paths, a kind of haughty serenity that made it unnecessary for him either to reply to criticism or to attack others too heatedly.
His opponent, usually a master of sarcasm, purple (or pink) rhetoric, and virtuous indignation, decided that his best chance of winning lay in his waging as smooth and unprovocative a campaign as possible. To be the champion of “the people of the left” would not bring him those votes from the center or right he needed to defeat Giscard. But to court such votes too assiduously risked alienating Communist electors. And so he chose as his slogan “la force tranquille,” quiet strength: a clever stroke, for quiet is precisely the virtue Giscard had always assigned to himself—Mitterrand, in 1974, was, in Giscard’s eyes, the candidate of turmoil and risk, and some years later, alluding to Chirac, now his foe, he had asked the French how France would have fared if she had had “an agitated president.” And the word “strength” suggested to the French that Mitterrand was not a somewhat frayed politician trying to reach the presidency for the third time, but a patient, consistent, resilient statesman who had built a new and powerful Socialist party.
The televised debate between the two men reminded one of the Carter Reagan debate, not in length (two hours) or intellectual substance (much higher in France), but because of the contenders’ tactics. Giscard presented himself as the man of experience, the statesman who knows the other world leaders and understands complex issues; he warned his audience against dangerous illusions and experiments, and presented himself as tougher and wiser than seven years ago. The challenger avoided getting too specific or controversial, reassured his listeners, and ended with a lyrical appeal. Reagan’s tactic of saying “there you go again” to brush off Carter’s attempt to describe him as a warmonger was echoed by Mitterrand’s “I am not your pupil,” when Giscard tried to prove his opponent’s ignorance by asking him the rate of the Deutschmark. In both instances, the incumbent was factually superior; the challenger benefited from not having crumbled.
Here the comparison ceases, since Giscard was always a superb television performer, by contrast with Carter, and Mitterrand was always awkward and ill at ease on the screen, unlike Reagan. But this time, Giscard’s old magic did not work, or not well enough; and the next day he began to launch a series of shrill attacks which made Mitterrand himself look the champion of décrispation, and suggested that Giscard had lost his cool.
What was decisive were the changes in political forces. This time, by contrast with 1974, both the majority and the opposition were badly cracked. In 1974, the two parties of the left were united; Giscard, with a very small party behind him, had soundly trounced the Gaullist candidate Chaban-Delmas on the first ballot, and the Gaullist machine, left leaderless by Pompidou’s death and Chaban’s elimination, had swung to Giscard. In 1978, on the eve of the legislative elections, Giscard’s party had federated with two other center parties which had rallied to him in 1974, and established the UDF, as a rival to the neo-Gaullist RPR reorganized by Chirac. Between 1978 and 1981 that rivalry had turned into enmity at every level except Parliament (where RPR deputies refrained from overthrowing Barre, so as to avoid a dissolution of the National Assembly which could have cost them many seats). And Chirac did more than wage the most dynamic and skillful campaign—thus winning 18 percent of the vote on the first ballot despite competition from two other Gaullist candidates. He also was more outspokenly anti-Giscard than anyone else.
As for the Communists, Marchais pursued, before the first ballot, his strategy initiated in 1977: even though he declared that his goal was to defeat Giscard, his main target was his former ally, Mitterrand. His first objective was the destruction, or at least the cutting down to size, of the new Socialist party, which under Mitterrand, and ever since the mid-1970s, attracted more voters than the Communist party. Objective number two was preserving the worker base and bastions of the Communist party from Socialist inroads—even at the cost of neglecting the salaried strata of employees, cadres, executive and whitecollar professionals. Clearly, there was a tension between the two goals. Marchais even pressured the CGT—the largest union, dominated but not entirely controlled by Communists—to support him despite strong resistance.
The first ballot turned out to be disastrous for Giscard, not mainly because of his own loss of votes (32.9 percent in 1974, 27.8 percent in 1981), but because of the success of Chirac and the fiasco of Marchais. Chirac had failed to become the final challenger of Giscard, as some of his most enthusiastic managers had publicly hoped—a hope that may have driven, especially in and around Paris, Chirac’s stronghold, many Communist voters to vote for Mitterrand on the first ballot already, so as to guarantee that the last round would not be fought between two men of the right. But Chirac did well enough to hope to become the leader of the opposition, should Giscard lose to Mitterrand: the UDF, a party of notables, was far less well organized than the RPR, and had no leader of stature other than Giscard, whose defeat would discredit him for a while. Should Mitterrand be elected and fail as president, or be forced to resign and run again by a hostile new Assembly following the legislative elections Mitterrand had promised to call if he got elected, Chirac might even become president. Moreover, his campaign had underlined every difference between him and Giscard. Thus, he had no incentive to bring all his voters to Giscard—nor did he ask them to; he merely (and belatedly) asked them not to vote for Mitterrand.
Even more important was Marchais’s bad showing on April 26. With 15.5 percent of the vote, the Communists’ score was the worst since 1936! A sizable fraction of the Communist voters had, if not abandoned the Party, at least repudiated Marchais’s strategy which had already cost the left a generally expected victory at the legislative elections of 1978. Clearly, he had failed to convince his followers that the Socialists were to blame for the breakup of the left alliance in 1977, and that Communist isolation and a right-wing government were better than a left-wing victory, even one shared with dominant Socialists. After almost a quarter-century of right-wing rule, many Communist voters, even if they lacked enthusiasm for Mitterrand and his party, wanted at least a brief fling of left-wing power. The myths of 1936 and of the liberation were still strong. Significantly, it was in the old working-class strongholds of the Communist party—around Paris and in northern France—that Marchais did worst; as a result, the gap between the Socialist and the Communist candidates was now larger than ever: 10.5 percent! Marchais’s demagogic attempt to capitalize on worker racism (e.g., his support for the bulldozing of a house of immigrant workers by a Communist mayor) and on the workers’ moral traditionalism (e.g., the campaign against drugs) has backfired completely.
Marchais’s poor showing had two important effects. First, it obliged him to reverse his strategy on the spot; had he refused to support Mitterrand on the second ballot, he would have been deserted by his constituents. Thus, he dropped all previous threats, or conditions, and, on the whole (except in the Marseille area, where the Communist and Socialist machines have been in bitter competition for many years) the Communists, on May 10, did vote for Mitterrand—allowing Marchais to celebrate Mitterrand’s victory as a triumph for the Communist party!
This brusque switch imposed by the voters saved Mitterrand from having, in order to court Communist votes, to become any more specific about Communist participation between the two ballots (which would have alienated voters from the right). Secondly, a phenomenon as important as the end of Giscard’s charisma now occurred: the argument from fear—don’t vote for Mitterrand because he’ll be the prisoner of the Communists lost its potency. Not only had Mitterrand this time (unlike 1965 and 1974) been his own man, and not the candidate of the whole left, but he was clearly in a dominant position.
This explains why a considerable proportion of the Chirac voters put open dislike of Giscard ahead of their distaste for the old anti-Gaullist, “collectivist” Mitterrand. Law-and-order. Chirac voters punished Giscard for his “liberal” period of 1974-1975; others, for his apparent indifference to the plight of small entrepreneurs, for his lack of that popular and nationalist touch which has been the hallmark of Gaullism, and of all Gaullist leaders, including Pompidou—a self-made man—and of Chirac himself. Some 15 percent of Chirac’s voters are estimated to have abstained on May 10, and 15 percent to have switched to Mitterrand. This provided him with his margin of victory. Giscard’s failure to collect right-wing votes was particularly spectacular in regions of Chirac’s strength: Paris, Chirac’s Corrèze and its neighboring départements, the northern half of Corsica. Hence Giscard’s bitterness, expressed in his statement on May 11, accusing Chirac of “premeditated treason.” The right had a majority in forty départements, the left in only thirty-two, on April 26. On May 10, Mitterrand won in sixty-five, Giscard in only thirty-one.
In the final analysis, the election of May 10 was a rejection of Giscard more than an endorsement of Mitterrand—another parallel with the earlier American election. It is true, as political scientists have pointed out,1 that the sociological bases of the left have been getting stronger. France today is a country of cities, not peasants; wage-earners, not indépendants; many more women are working. But as late as 1978, a majority of the French were voting for the right. And on the first ballot on April 26, all the candidates of the left only got 47 percent—a little more than before, but still less than the right (49 percent). Between 1978 and 1981, the main change has been the passage from an electorate cut in three parts—a sociologically rather homogeneous center-right majority, a left fractured into two parts—to an electorate cut in four, with increasing ideological differentiation between the two components of the right. In 1978, a majority told the pollsters that it expected the left to win but preferred the right; in 1981, a majority, before the final ballot, told them it expected Giscard to win but wanted Mitterrand.2
Giscard can be said to be the victim both of what he did and of what he did not do. It was he who, by lowering the voting age, helped Mitterrand, since polls show that in the age group of eighteen to twenty-one, the ratio of left to right is much higher than in any other (but the ratio of Communists to Socialists is lower), and Chirac is stronger than Giscard. But by neither “appeasing” the neo-Gaullists nor trouncing them, by maintaining his alliance with them (instead of reacting to their challenges by dissolving the Assembly and working for an overwhelming UDF victory) yet without taking their advice into account, and while purging many of them, Giscard made himself both immobile and vulnerable.
Mitterrand’s problem now is how to transform a composite majority against the outgoing president into a working majority for a program of action. It is a triple headache. In the first place, he faces an acute political problem. Mitterrand will form a temporary cabinet and dissolve the present National Assembly. The new Assembly, to be elected in June, will be a product of the electoral law imposed by de Gaulle in 1958—the two-ballot, single-member district law which tends to “polarize” France into a left and a right. On the second ballot, the candidate of the left who was ahead on the first ballot usually receives the support of the other candidate of the left, and the same thing happens on the right. As a result, to get elected, Communist deputies need the votes of Socialists, and Socialist deputies need the votes of Communists; UDF deputies need the votes of Gaullists, and Gaullists the votes of UDF voters.
This explains why, despite Giscard’s and Barre’s attacks on Chirac on May 11, UDF and RPR parliamentarians immediately buried the hatchet, and Giscard was advised to withdraw from the scene. On the right, Chirac is the man of the hour, since he has the only real political machine.
On the left, Mitterrand has announced that the political parties of the left would get together to discuss the possibilities of a common program for governing after the election. But we are no longer in the era of the Programme commun of 1972-1977: not only has the economic situation changed, but Socialist eagerness to govern with the Communists has greatly diminished. What makes most sense for the Socialists is—precisely what Marchais had always wanted to avoid—an offer to the Communists of a firm set of conditions which they would either accept or reject.
If they accept them, they would share power, but on the Socialists’ terms; if they reject them, they would be kept out of the Cabinet, but the Socialists would nevertheless be able probably to count on Communist support for the legislative election itself. For—given the current relative strength of Mitterrand and Marchais—the Communists need the support of Socialist voters to get many of their deputies reelected, and the Communist party risks not only losing most of its parliamentary group but also not being obeyed by its own voters if it asked them not to vote for Socialist parliamentarians (thus insuring the revenge of the right) wherever Socialists are ahead on the first ballot.
The Communist party thus has a tough choice to make: if it wants to keep Mitterrand from seeking an opening to his right, it might become what it always said it didn’t want to be, a force d’appoint, a mere supplementary force used by the Socialists. But if it stays out of the Cabinet, and offers only flickering legislative support to Mitterrand’s government, it encourages him to look for allies on the center and on the right. Ultimately this may well be in the Communists’ interest—it would help prove their point that Mitterrand is a willing hostage of the eternal right, and revive their chance of “plucking the Socialist chicken.” But in the short run, they can hardly return to a strategy that has cost them so much, within the party and among their constituents. Moreover, what if Mitterrand, with some support from the right, did succeed in reforming France?
Mitterrand has announced that he will ask the new Assembly to abolish the present electoral law and to return to proportional representation—the system of the Weimar and of the Fourth Republic. This would have (for Mitterrand) the great advantage of freeing Socialist deputies from Communist voters (and vice versa), UDF deputies from Gaullist voters (and vice versa). Since Communists, Socialists, and various components of the UDF favor proportional representation, Mitterrand should be able to get it, and thus to give himself the maximum of flexibility.
Clearly, his primordial concern must be to get into the new National Assembly so many Socialists as to make of the Socialist faction the largest (it is, currently, the third-largest). The worst outcome for him would be an Assembly dominated by the right (i.e., through the return of the RPR voters who deserted Giscard to Chirac’s deputies), with a minority left in which the Communists would have recovered their own stray sheep of April 26—i.e., a replica of the present Assembly. Should this happen, Mitterrand could not dissolve the Assembly again until the summer of 1982, and whatever formula or coalition he tried out in his Cabinet, he could not carry out any important part of his program. But this is unlikely: many of the deputies of the majority elected in 1978 hold very unsafe seats. Conversely, by the end of June 1981, the Communist party is not likely to have fully recovered from several years of mistakes. And the electorate has often shown its awareness of the risks of divided government.
What is more likely is an Assembly dominated by the left, with a stronger Socialist component, providing Mitterrand with a choice between three possibilities. The first is a government of the whole left, on his terms—an unprecedented event, since there were no Communists in the Blum Cabinet of 1936, and the Tripartite governments of 1945-1947 included Communists, Socialists, and Christian Democrats. This is not a very likely or, should it happen immediately after a victory of the left next month, a very lasting solution, given the Socialists’ distrust of Communist manipulation, and given the Communists’ fear of losing their identity, a fear that has been overcome in the past only when there were brilliant prospects of infiltration and power grabs, which Mitterrand is unlikely to give them.
A second possibility is a coalition between Socialists and fragments of the right—perhaps the neo-Gaullists would engage in such a coalition, should Chirac calculate that his influence would be greater thereby than if he remained in opposition (there is a precedent for such a bizarre grouping: the Mendès-France Cabinet of 1954). Much more probable would be a coalition with those elements of the center that joined the right majority only in 1969 and 1974—right-wing radicals, Christian Democrats: the elements of the UDF which are not Giscard’s own faction (although some part of his faction may even prove detachable).
This would mark a return to the kind of coalition the Socialist and strongly anti-Communist mayor of Marseille, Gaston Defferre, had tried to put together in 1964 and 1965. Should it work, then paradoxically Giscard’s dream of a government “at the center” would have been realized not by him but by Mitterrand, and not around a brittle UDF, but around the Socialist party. Building such a coalition may take time.
Meanwhile there is a third option: a minority Socialist cabinet (with an assortment of left-wing radicals and Gaullists) that would try to govern sometimes with the help of the Communists, sometimes with that of one or another party of the right, sometimes merely by relying on constitutional provisions aimed at allowing cabinets to last, and laws to pass, as long as the various oppositions are unable to gang up against it and to agree on a single motion of censure.
This brief and dry sketch suggests two remarks. First, either a period of divided government, or a fragile Socialist-Communist coalition, or a return to a center-left coalition, or a minority cabinet dependent on fluctuating majorities means that the Fifth Republic under Mitterrand may become a Fifth-and-a-half, or rather (especially with proportional representation), a Fourth-and-a-half Republic. The Parliament may again become a center (if not, as in the Third and Fourth Republics, the center) of political life, and the Cabinet, instead of being, as it has been since 1958, the executor of the president’s will under the premier’s leadership, may begin again to reflect balances and deals among party oligarchies and parliamentary groups, and to be at least as tied to parliamentary and party trends as to the whims and wishes of the president.
In other words, under this hybrid constitution, the parliamentary element would become more important, the presidential one less so; under a Socialist president, the original intention of the chief drafter of the constitution, the Gaullist Michel Debré—thwarted by de Gaulle’s antiparliamentary interpretation, and by the existence of a Gaullist majority in Parliament—would finally be realized.3 Unless, of course, the Socialists in 1981 (like the Gaullists in 1962 and 1968) obtain an absolute majority in the National Assembly. This might be the best solution for France; but it remains an unlikely event.
Secondly, Mitterrand’s choices may be constrained not only by the correlation of forces in the Assembly, but also by that within the Socialist party. Today it may appear as a happy family; and it behaved as a united one in support of Mitterrand. But appearances can be deceptive. Mitterrand’s control of the party rests on a rather unholy alliance between two very different elements against a third. It is the alliance of rather orthodox social democrats in the tradition of Jean Jaurès and Leon Blum (let us not mention the name of Guy Mollet, champion of the Algerian war and the Suez expedition), with the CERES group—Marxists whose dogmatic class analysis of French society, Leninist interpretation of international affairs, and attachment to the strategy of alliance with the Communists, often contrasts with the political origins of some of its key members.
This alliance is held together by a group of loyal aides of Mitterrand, who took over the party under his direction in the early 1970s. The third element (or the fourth, if one wants to consider Mitterrand’s men as the third) is the large faction headed by Michel Rocard, the man who challenged Mitterrand’s candidacy last year. Rocard’s ideas are both more “left” and more “right” than those of the Socialist majority. He was the champion of radical decentralization and autogestion, the spokesman of the “new forces”: the young, women, environmentalists, the trade unionists of the CFDT. But he is also aware of the need for financial and economic soundness, skeptical of inflationary promises and of bureaucratic nationalizations; thus Rocard is both more “utopian” or imaginative, and more prudent (like the Mendès-France of 1954), more attentive to the changes that have occurred in French society and more insistent on efficient management than the majority. Rocard was not given a prominent role in Mitterrand’s campaign—except at the very end when, in reply to Giscard’s attacks on the party’s “Socialist Project” drafted largely by CERES and adopted by the Socialists in 1979 despite the reservations of most of them, he was called upon to explain that Mitterrand was not running on that dogmatic and laborious platform!
It will be interesting to see whether Mitterrand will now include Rocard in the high command of the party, from which he has been largely kept out, or whether he will keep him on the fringes of the party. Much will depend on how the allocation of seats in the Cabinet and candidacies for the legislative election will be made. The choice as prime minister of Pierre Mauroy, the mayor of Lille, a popular social democrat who was, at times, closer to Rocard than to Mitterrand, is a good sign for party unity. But it will also be interesting to see if, from the Elysée Palace, Mitterrand can control the party as well as he could when he was its first secretary.
The second problem is raised by Mitterrand’s economic and social program. He advocates a drastic expansion of demand to revive the economy, and thereby to reduce unemployment. To do this without provoking acute inflation, it is necessary, in the first place, that the huge increase in public expenditures (resulting from public works, indemnities for shareholders of nationalized enterprises, increases of social security benefits, etc.) be covered by bigger state revenues. Mitterrand counts on economic growth for this. But such growth requires that supply expand to meet demand. Is this a reasonable expectation, if enterprises have to bear the cost of higher wages and social security payments, a reduction of the length of work, and an earlier retirement age? Moreover, won’t the expansion of demand lead to higher imports, the exhaustion of France’s financial reserves, a flight of capital, a fall of the franc—and therefore France’s exit from the European Monetary System, and the return to exchange controls and tariff restrictions?
The party’s experts recognize that inflation can be contained only if important structural reforms are undertaken. But what these will consist of remains vague—except for nationalization, which Mitterrand deems essential for his goal of transferring control of the economy from private groups to public authority, but which may result in even greater bureaucratization and less competition. Two pitfalls threaten Mitterrand’s policy. One is the kind of economic fiasco that destroyed the Popular Front policy (despite its progressive social legislation)—a joint product of flawed economic assumptions and fierce opposition from private capitalists determined to get rid of their enemies in power. At the other extreme is the kind of accommodation to grim realities that would lead to the quick disenchantment of his followers and to a gradual return to the stop-and-go policies characteristic of England and the US in the 1970s. At present, labor unions (including the battered CGT) explain that they know that not all changes and gains can be made at once. But will such sobriety last, if not much follows the first distribution of rewards?
The third problem has to do with the new president himself. He has been in politics since 1944; he has written many books; he was a member of eleven cabinets in the Fourth Republic; he was a vocal and visible opponent of de Gaulle during the Fifth, and a candidate for the presidency three and a half times (the half being in late May 1968, when he thought that de Gaulle would resign). Nevertheless, he remains something of a mystery man. His enemies denounce his ambition, shiftiness, and opportunism; and yet he resigned twice over colonial issues (in 1955 and 1957). There are unexplained incidents in his past; and yet, after briefly working for Vichy, he was a courageous member of the Resistance and uncompromising in his opposition to de Gaulle. A lone wolf, he rebuilt a huge Socialist party practically from scratch; a fervent defender of democracy, public freedom, and human rights, he also has as authoritarian and secretive a streak as his Gaullist predecessors or Giscard. He was—from 1965 until the Communists left him with no illusions—the man of the Union of the Left; but he is also an outspoken critic of the Soviet Union.
A latecomer to socialism, Mitterrand sounds more like a socialist of 1848 or 1936 than like a student of present French society. Rocard is both a veteran of the politics of small extremist parties and groupuscules, and an Inspecteur des Finances—an ex-radical (in the English or American sense) and (like Giscard) a state technocrat. Mitterrand is a parliamentary politician and a literary politician—a throwback to the days of Barrès, Herriot, or Blum. What he is expert at is politics and writing the kind of essays many French love, in which the experience of daily political combat, meditations on books, and the celebration of nature blend in an elegant style and a self-conscious manner. His admirers mention Chateaubriand; he was, in his youth, a protégé of François Mauriac, who, even in his ardent Gaullist years, never lost his interest in him. His knowledge of things non-French is limited; in his travels abroad, he showed little fascination with the customs and problems of others. Spontaneity is not his forte: his enthusiasms and his anger, like his sentences, are the products of calculation and effort. Gregariousness is not to his taste.
When de Gaulle, Pompidou, and Giscard came to power, they were known quantities. How Mitterrand will behave in power is an enigma because his political experience was acquired in the utterly different circumstances of the Fourth Republic, and because he has spent twenty-three years of deep social and political changes in a political wilderness, during which he ended up accepting major elements of the Gaullist regime he had at first rejected (such as the constitution and the force de frappe.)
He now inherits an institution, the presidency, with which he has no acquaintance, and a vast arsenal of means and levers he has sworn to redirect. He has, in his entourage, many advisers who belong to the same social milieu and professions—especially the civil service’s top castes—as the aides of the departing president: a fact that explains the relative serenity of many of the losers of May 10, and the misgivings of many on the far left. And yet he explains that he intends to do more than manage and marginally improve the status quo, that he wants to change society and the way people work and live. How clear is his vision of change? How soon will it fade, if parliamentary and economic constraints prove formidable? How willful and skillful will he be in reducing or even exploiting these constraints?
At present, everybody has his own scenario. On the right, the optimists are those who predict a very brief “experiment” followed by a return to the old majority—Chirac’s dream, and probably also Giscard’s and Barre’s. The pessimists fear for the constitution, foresee Communist gains and economic ruin. On the Socialist left, after so many failed attempts, there is a mix of elation and suspense, apprehension, and resolution, hope in the opportunities and worries about internal wounds and external obstacles. What is clear is that, after twenty-three years, the French decided that this was as good a moment as any—in view of the economic crisis, the Communist decline, the majority crack-up—to try l’alternance and to test de Gaulle’s constitution. Indeed, it is not healthy to have the same men, however able, in power forever, for they get used up, at best, and cynical, at worst. A second term of Giscard might have led to an explosion à la May 1968, or to divided government after a left victory at the legislative elections scheduled originally for 1983.
But what is not clear at all is how extensive, effective, and beneficial change will be. A fight against unemployment and against multiple forms of inequality is not all France needs. The kinds of changes in education and research, in territorial administration, in industrial relations, in the role and training of civil service and business elites, which men like Rocard and the sociologist Michel Crozier (who endorsed Giscard) have called for, reforms that aim at providing France with more capacity for self-government and individual or group initiative, are just as necessary. Little was heard about them during this campaign.
Mitterrand—born a Catholic and raised in Catholic schools—has said that he counted on “the state of grace.” With the help of his opponent’s mistakes, the state of grace gave him his victory of May 10. But French history knows few examples of a lasting state of grace, and French politics concedes even to winners only short moments of euphoria.
June 25, 1981
See Jacques Capdevielle et al., France de gauche, vote à droite (Paris, 1981). ↩
A French law bans the publication, but not the taking, of public-opinion polls in the week before an election. Therefore much of the electorate did not know that the polls predicted Giscard’s defeat; only insiders, informed by the pollsters, knew (hence Giscard’s sudden frenzy in the final days). As for the stock market, it was informed, but disregarded the polls, apparently because of the conviction expressed by foreign investors that Giscard would win. ↩
See Debré’s analysis in William G. Andrews and Stanley Hoffmann (eds.) The Fifth Republic at Twenty (State University of New York Press, 1980). ↩