France: The Big Change?

Fran̤ois Mitterrand
Fran̤ois Mitterrand; drawing by David Levine


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,…

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