Year One

The Heights of Power: An Essay on the Power Elite in France

by Pierre Birnbaum, translated by Arthur Goldhammer
University of Chicago Press, 172 pp., $17.00

The Wheat and the Chaff

by François Mitterrand, translated by Richard S. Woodward, translated by Concilia Hayter, translated by Helen R. Lane, With an introduction by William Styron
Seaver Books, 304 pp., $16.95

Problems of Contemporary French Politics

by Dorothy Pickles
Methuen, 160 pp., $20.00; $8.95 (paper)

Fran̤ois Mitterrand
Fran̤ois Mitterrand; drawing by David Levine

François Mitterrand has been president of France since May 10, 1981. Just over a year ago, having dissolved the National Assembly, he won the legislative elections of June 14 and 21, 1981. In discussing the presidential election, I concluded that turning his victory into a program of action entailed three problems.1 One was political—obtaining a working majority and a strong government. The second was economic—reducing unemployment without provoking acute inflation and troubles for the franc. The third was personal: how would this enigmatic and complex man, emerging from twenty-three years in the wilderness, perform as a leader?

Some of the answers are in: the political problem did not arise; the economic program, however, failed—it has been a fiasco marked by two devaluations in nine months. But the uncertain economic future may well awaken the dormant political problem, and the Mitterrand mystery has not been resolved. One prediction that turned out to be accurate concerned the brevity of the “state of grace” that he counted on for success.

Observers of France cannot fail to be struck by several facts. Two concern the domestic French scene. Rarely has so much been undertaken in so short a time—and yet most people complain either because bad things have only gotten worse, or because all the reforms have failed to “change life,” as the Socialists had promised to do.

Moreover, the absence of genuine enthusiasm a year ago (there were hope and sympathy, but no euphoria or influx of new members into the left-wing parties or the labor unions) works both in favor of and against the government. It works for it in so far as it limits disillusionment and makes it easier for the Executive to scrap much of its original program. But the lack of élan among Mitterrand’s followers also deprives his policies of firm support, and encourages his adversaries to regain lost ground.

The other striking points are comparative. As in the case of the Reagan administration—which also came to power less because the voters had converted to its philosophy than because they were fed up with the incumbent’s—the difficulties result only in part from divergences among the rulers. The main cause is the gap between the program and the hard facts, between ideology and reality. In both countries, it has taken very long for the rulers to discover that contrast, and the discovery leaves them more with a tendency to seek scapegoats than with ready alternatives.

Finally, the “Socialist way,” which prided itself on being radically different from the approaches to the world economic crisis of Reagan, Thatcher, Giscard d’Estaing (or Raymond Barre), and even Schmidt, has no chance of succeeding unless the foreign leaders themselves begin to succeed, or unless France drops out of the Western economic and political community, something which Mitterrand and most other Frenchmen neither want nor deem possible.


In May 1981, it seemed unlikely that…

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