Laurent Fabius
Laurent Fabius; drawing by David Levine


François Mitterrand has been president of France for three years now. Early in June, journalists asked him for his opinion about the almost unbroken series of electoral defeats the Union of the Left, which he had carried to power, had suffered in local elections during the previous year. He answered that the French were voting against the storm, but would not necessarily vote against the captain of the ship.

Just a few days later, the elections of June 17 dealt a new, crushing blow to the left. Their ostensible purpose was the choice of eighty-one French deputies to the rather powerless Parliament of the European Communities, but they really tested the popularity of the Union of the Left. Almost 43 percent of the electorate refrained from voting—despite an extremely bitter campaign. Among those who voted, only about one third supported the Communist and Socialist slates of candidates (about 11 percent and 21 percent respectively). What might be called the legitimate opposition—from the parties led by Giscard d’Estaing and Jacques Chirac—received 43 percent, Jean-Marie Le Pen’s extreme right party, 11 percent, and the rest went to ten other slates.

It so happens that under the constitution of the Fifth Republic, the president’s term of office does not expire until the spring of 1988—nearly four years from now. Mitterrand has tried to regain the offensive by calling for a constitutional reform enlarging the scope of popular referendums and a referendum on the reform itself—one way of asking for a vote of confidence from the French. In July he also appointed a new prime minister, Laurent Fabius, to replace Pierre Mauroy, a decision that forced the Communists, probably sooner than they would have liked, to abandon their awkward earlier strategy of “participation without support” and to leave the government rather than endorse its economic policies.

We have seen a spectacular display of Mitterrand’s ability to maneuver and to manipulate. But the questions that he did not raise, either before or after June 17, and that any observer of the French scene must ask himself, are whether the captain and his present crew will be able to weather the storm between now and the legislative elections in the spring of 1986; whether he will keep his post if his crew gets thrown out by the voters in 1986; and whether the ship is still heading for any recognizable destination. In the spring and summer of French discontent, din and drift, doubts and divisions are the main realities.1


General de Gaulle once contrasted the superficial agitation of French politicians with the latent French consensus he believed existed. More recently, Jacques Delors—the energetic former finance minister who, having been passed over by Mitterrand for the post of prime minister chose to become president of the Commission of the European Community—mentioned several “areas of broad assent.” Some of them can be found even among the opposing politicians, and they are not negligible. But the consensus is, so to speak, soft rather than hard, for reasons that vary from case to case.

The first case is that of foreign policy and defense. A consensus exists around the basic principles of Gaullist diplomacy, which include nuclear autonomy and political independence, activism in world affairs, and West European cooperation (especially with West Germany). But Mitterrand has modified these principles in several ways. He has accomplished a rapprochement with the United States, caused by French concern about the Soviet military build-up and the balance of forces in Europe; and he has tried to intensify Franco-German collaboration as well as to revive the sluggish European Community, because of French anxiety about the growth of pacifism and nationalism in West Germany and about the capacity of the separate nations of Western Europe to meet the challenge of Japan and the US in the “third industrial revolution.”

These shifts have been generally accepted, even by Jacques Chirac’s neo-Gaullist party, and the president’s political adversaries have not been able to criticize either his behavior during his journey to Moscow in June, where he talked publicly about Sakharov, or the way in which he untied the various knots that had kept the European Community immobilized for months. However, there are deep, unresolved contradictions between the desire for national independence and the drive toward closer integration in Western Europe, both in the political and in the military spheres; and the Franco-American honeymoon is at the mercy of President Reagan’s policies during his second term. Difficult choices will have to be made, especially about defense; and they might strain the consensus.2

The second case is that of the constitution drafted by De Gaulle in 1958. At present, only the far right, led by old enemies of De Gaulle (Le Pen, a former paratrooper, never forgave him for the “loss” of French Algeria), dares attack the institutions of the Fifth Republic. The fiercest critic of presidential predominance as long as he was in opposition, Mitterrand would have been unable to obtain the Socialist party’s support for his current economic policies (and even for the bill on private schools that has caused so much trouble with the opposition) without the formidable powers which the executive enjoys under the constitution, and which Mitterrand is now attempting to increase further. Nevertheless, as I shall try to explain, France may well enter a period of institutional storms.


There is a third consensus, among the intelligentsia—the higher ranks of French, especially Parisian, academics and writers. Since the middle 1970s they have continued to move away from the Marxist or leftist dogmas that were dominant since the liberation in 1944 and had at first seemed strengthened by May 1968. In retrospect May 1968 now appears as one of the main factors in the liquidation of the old orthodoxy. Many of the non-communist leftists of 1968 became bitter anticommunists, rediscovered liberal values, and rallied to the defense of human rights. They were joined by former communist intellectuals and by moderate ex-leftist writers and artists who have moved gradually to the right. Conservative liberals close to Raymond Aron, as well as the (briefly fashionable) anti-egalitarian doctrinaires of the new right, became more respected.

Today, the intelligentsia unites around a common theme: antitotalitarianism, the denunciation of the evils of the Soviet Union in particular and of communism in general (many add: of Marxism altogether). The belated discovery of “the Gulag,” of Hannah Arendt, and of Orwell, and the shock produced by the events in Poland in 1981 have contributed to this new militancy, which, in turn, has reinforced French “anti-pacifism,” French attachment to nuclear deterrence, and pro-Americanism in foreign policy.

The intelligentsia has abandoned its old ideological positions not in favor of social science, as the sociologist Michel Crozier called for and predicted twenty years ago, but for new ideological positions, albeit vaguer and less coherent ones.

Moreover, this new consensus has not produced any harmony between the intelligentsia and the government. Typically, the intellectuals denounced the presence of Communists in the previous cabinet and the Marxist aspects of Mitterrand’s policies and the Socialists’ creed.3 Even those intellectuals who still support the Mitterrand government—a rather small contingent—are critical of the “Jacobin” or statist elements in the left, and share the anticommunist, antitotalitarian, libertarian mood; as a result, they sometimes sound closer to the government’s critics than to its political defenders.4

Finally, the rather self-congratulatory “anti” stance of the intelligentsia, while sharpening the distinction between the new consensus and the small, dwindling battalion of pro-Soviet or “progressiste” thinkers, blurs the line that separates, on the right, real liberals from aggressive or reactionary “neoconservatives” and from the new right. The line is also blurred that separates people who would accept a French socialism that did what West German social democracy accomplished in 1959 at Bad Godesberg—a clear-cut repudiation of Marxism—from those who proclaim that equality is evil, and that socialism always leads to fascism and to the Gulag. An obnoxious left-wing orthodoxy risks being replaced by dangerous confusion.

Jacques Delors also mentioned a consensus around the economic concepts and policies of the government. This is true, insofar as the government, since the spring of 1982, has had to follow a course of increasing austerity. There are fewer differences between the bitter medicine Delors and his successor Pierre Bérégovoy have prescribed in recent months and that which Prime Minister Raymond Barre inflicted between 1978 and 1981 than between the current policies and the exuberantly Keynesian ones the Socialists enforced in 1981. Still, the government’s loose economic policies of 1981 are the main source of its troubles now: it ran up the deficit while increasing wages and welfare payments, spent heavily to nationalize banks and industries, yet cut back the work week.

Mitterrand in the spring of 1984 has frankly redefined the Socialist “projet de société” as a mixed economy (which is what France has had ever since 1944). He has asserted the priority of production over distribution, excommunicated national protectionism as a means of economic recovery, declared that industrial modernization and competitiveness (even at the cost of rising unemployment) must be France’s objectives, and explained that profits had to be restored. He has given to unfettered private enterprise a leading role in the return of growth.5

Austerity has come in two stages, first June 1982, then March 1983. It has meant higher as well as new taxes to reduce consumption; a drastic reduction in public and social security expenditures, in order to fight inflation; a third devaluation of the franc in March 1983, to allow France to remain in the European Monetary System and to export more; strict controls on prices and pressures to keep wages from rising faster than, or even as fast as, prices. Above all, austerity has meant the end of the very old and honored policy of state support for “lame ducks” (obsolete industries or inefficient ones) as a protection against unemployment.


On balance, the measures taken in the past year have hit the public sector—which Socialists in 1981 had wanted to be the very motor of their economic policy—harder than the private one, despite the business community’s complaints about the excessive burden of taxation and social security charges on private businesses. For the attempt to cut the budget deficit has meant sacrificing investments in the public sector. Mitterrand’s decision to reduce, in 1985, the weight of state taxes and other charges without increasing the deficit will mean a further reduction in state support for nationalized industries, particularly through cuts in subsidies for their own deficits.

The conservative governments in power before 1981 did not try to take—or could not enforce—such measures as the “disindexing” of wages, the reform of social security and reduction of hospital costs, the closing down of coal mines and steel mills, and cutting back milk production. In the case of coal, steel, and milk, Mitterrand’s cabinet was able to present unpopular moves as the necessary result of decisions reached by the European Community.

So far, the balance sheet is mixed. France’s foreign debt is very high (about 500 billion francs) and repayment will be a heavy, lasting burden. Unemployment has risen—to about 10 percent of the active population—and will continue to rise. The average purchasing power of households has almost stopped increasing (that of the poorest wage earners having progressed, that of most other groups, and especially the unemployed, having shrunk). Inflation is slowing down, while remaining higher than in West Germany and the US (6.5 percent). The balance of trade is improving, thanks to exports. For the first time in many years, private investment will increase, although not enough to cause a big surge in imports. Private enterprises have become profitable again and productivity is rising.

It is true that most of those who are active politically believe that there is no alternative policy. The new prime minister has called it the only road to modernization. However, problems abound. First, in the short run, inflationary pressures (dangerous for a policy geared to exports) are still very strong. Many factors could still derail the French recovery: the high interest on the state’s debt; a deficit only partly covered by savings; vast increases in the rates and prices charged by nationalized companies once they stop receiving state subsidies; higher prices for goods and services if Fabius’s promise to end controls gradually is carried out; the danger of union campaigns for higher wages following the restoration of profits, not to mention the peril of a new rise in oil prices if the Gulf war should affect the world oil market.

Secondly, there is not only a difference but a contradiction between austerity (a prelude to economic recovery), and actual strong recovery or growth. Reagan’s recovery has had three sources: the brutal efforts to renovate industry through recession, tax cuts, and—paradoxically—huge public investments, especially in the military. Just as paradoxically socialist France is now undergoing a painful classical industrial overhaul and will try limited tax cuts; but the third element is stunted. Several of the government’s policies continue to act as a brake on investment and innovation: the reduction of public investments, the efforts to keep demand down (in order not to revive inflation and to avoid a balance of payments deficit comparable to that of 1981–1982), the competition for funds between private enterprises and nationalized ones that need to borrow money to cover their deficits, and the burdens entailed both for the state and for private businesses by what is called the “social treatment of unemployment,” i.e., a variety of schemes aimed at compensating or retraining the unemployed. These schemes have been moderately successful in cushioning hardships, quite unsuccessful as attempts at creating new jobs, and have taken funds away from more productive endeavors. Union pressure for a thirty-five-hour work week could also damage French competitiveness, without doing much against unemployment.

Thirdly, the rigors of austerity and the sluggishness of recovery explain why the policy is not popular, even among people who understand its necessity—as long as they are not personally hit—and why, in political circles, the consensus is far from solid. The right, while endorsing the current efforts, blames the left for its economic “follies” of 1981–1982 and for having persisted in such “errors” as price controls and various other burdens on business.

On the left, the Communists and a small group of Socialists around Jean-Pierre Chevénement (who resigned as minister of industry early in 1983 and has become minister of education in the Fabius cabinet) criticize current policies and ask for an injection of public funds aimed at promoting growth and containing unemployment. As one gets closer to the election of 1986, if industrial “redeployment,” contrary to the president’s hopes, continues to cost jobs, and especially if even the moderate recovery planned by the government falters (for instance because of an American slowdown that would affect French exports), the current consensus could disintegrate, and the policy itself might be changed for electoral purposes. Mitterrand imprudently called austerity a mere “parenthesis.” If it lasts, the costs it imposes on the left’s voters—the workers because of layoffs, the middle class because of taxes—may bring forth calls for relief, or for imposing further costs on hostile groups.6


An optimistic way of looking at the French scene would stress the “broad assent” of the French to their institutions, their attachment to their liberties, their rejection—noted by Mitterrand—of the two extremes of “savage” free enterprise and collectivism, their sympathy for European unity and Franco-German reconciliation, their resignation to austerity, their toleration of an unprecedented level of unemployment—in other words the signs of a stable situation. An optimist would also emphasize that the politically active French have, in stages, converted to reality. The right was forced, by De Gaulle and necessity, to accept decolonization and the death of the old stalemate society, to endorse at last industrialization, competitiveness, and growth. The left, which during its long opposition nurtured old myths and new illusions, has been forced, by Mitterrand and necessity, to endorse Realpolitik abroad, austerity at home, and to subordinate its dreams of social justice to the imperatives of economic growth and private profits.

But a strong case can be made for a more pessimistic view, one emphasizing persistent blocages and contradictions. The most obvious blocage is an old one: the maze of well-organized interest groups ready either to blackmail or to milk the state on behalf of their members or constituents. “Neo-corporatism,” by which organized economic interests of all sorts expect to be protected by the state and the state in turn relies on them to reach the economic objectives it has set for the nation, is a necessary feature of modern industrial nations. Nowhere does the old liberal model of political representation suffice to handle and to resolve all the conflicts of pluralistic societies. In postwar France, the very paralysis of the fragmented National Assembly under the Fourth Republic, and then the loss of power and autonomy of the legislature under the Fifth, have given the interest groups a strong incentive to organize and agitate—first in order to manipulate Parliament, later in order to influence the mighty executive. Periods of economic stagnation or regression always foster greater turbulence in this respect.

France’s kind of neo-corporatism has changed greatly since 1981; it has become more ridden with conflicts. Before 1981 the state had established a quasi partnership with the leading farmers’ union (FNSEA) and close cooperation with the business association (CNPF). The desire to avoid a general confrontation with the workers and state employees (predominantly on the left) after May 1968 had led the conservative governments in power to practice a contractual policy of collaboration with the unions—including the largest French labor organization, the Confédération Générale du Travail (CGT), dominated by the Communists. The most troublesome relation, therefore, always was that of the state with small shopkeepers. After 1981, relationships between the state and the private business sector became far more antagonistic. The first minister of agriculture declared war on the FNSEA, and while her successor, Michel Rocard, has called it off, the old intimacy is gone, and recent European decisions about milk and subsidies for German farmers have produced strains again.

Among the unions, it is Force Ouvrière, the least ideological but also the least pro-left, the one which is both most anti-Marxist and quite unconcerned about lofty projets de société, that has made most headway in professional elections. The CGT has suffered from its links with the Communist party, the non-Communist Confédération Française Democratique du Travail. (CFDT) from its own contradictions. Its sophisticated leader, Edmond Maire, was an early (or premature) critic of the profligacy of 1981–1982, but it has, in various struggles, proved more uncompromising than the CGT.

Obviously, the bitter rivalry between the unions feeds turbulence, which is one reason why the government of the left has consulted unions less and dictated more, another reason being, of course, the nature of the policy itself since mid-1982—a policy that the new rhetoric of economic liberalism has made even more unpopular with the unions. A third reason is the conviction of many of the politicians in power that they themselves know and care for the workers’ interests. With the Communists out of the cabinet, the antigovernment militancy of the CGT will probably increase. The only close link with labor that now exists is that between the left in power and the unions of schoolteachers.7

That, of course, is part of another blocage: the one that resists innovation and initiative. Rigidities abound, despite many changes in the 1960s and 1970s. It is still difficult to launch a new industrial or commercial enterprise. The intellectual scene is, for the moment, rather sterile. The responsibility of the system of education for these rigidities is very high. (Chevènement now talks of making it more responsive to economic needs but so have all his predecessors since the 1960s.) Innumerable reforms have overhauled curriculums and the school system, but the essentials remain intact. The formidable centralization of the whole public education system stifles initiative and experimentation. The students still feel they must cram rather than assert their originality if they are to survive the successive hurdles of exams aimed at eliminating the weakest or those who come from the least well-educated milieus.8

In higher education, the divorce between research and teaching continues, in many fields, to sterilize both, and the separation is as strong as ever between the famed grandes écoles that provide the happy few survivors with advantages for life and the masses that crowd universities that are like islands or parking lots cut off from the rest of society.

The formidable corporatism of the various teachers’ unions makes any drastic change inconceivable. Today, as before, students learn things they need to know for their exams. They do not learn to do things. And while the opening of French borders to competition has forced improvements in the management of businesses, the more one gets into the noncompetitive sectors—such as the bureaucracy—the more the old mold survives. Here, as in the universities, the left has added to the rigidities.

The state, with its passion for regulation and controls, is of course one of the key causes of rigidities. Thus we find what is perhaps the most interesting contradiction today—between the French state and the society it is supposed to serve. There is in French society a profound desire for emancipation. It takes many forms: the proliferation of associations of various kinds, especially for travel, leisure, and sports, but also groups of parents of school-age children; the mushrooming of private radio stations; the success of programs of adult education; the rise of consumer protection groups; the revival of the performing arts in provincial cities; etc…. All of this still strikes Americans as meager by comparison with the US but compared with France’s past, the extent of voluntary activity is striking. For a long time, several forces repressed or thwarted pluralistic drives: the Catholic church, the Communist party (that other church), the state. Today, the Catholic church has lost most of its authority,9 and the Communists are in serious trouble. Only the state is left.

The state’s grip, however, remains strong. Take decentralization—the transfer of power from Paris to the provinces—one of the reforms the Socialists are proudest of. This transfer is real, and the stakes of local government have become more important. However, the regions—such as Brittany or Provence—are the only territorial units whose size would allow them to have real autonomy, and they have benefited least from the reforms. The jurisdiction of the regions is much more vaguely defined than that of departments and municipalities. Above all, the popular election of regional assemblies, which had been announced as forthcoming, has been postponed again—perhaps because the opposition would gain from it. Most of the considerable financial resources the local governments need to carry out the new functions still come from the state in the form of grants and subsidies. The local governments still lack adequate power to levy their own taxes. The provincial politicians still see in local government a way station on the road to Paris—where power still resides.10 State functions have been reshuffled, they have not been reduced.

In other matters, the state’s grip has actually tightened. Several categories of doctors have been ordered to give up private practice. Nationalized enterprises are supposed to manage their affairs autonomously, but the state appoints their presidents for three years only, and has just replaced some whose only fault seems to have been a stiff backbone; the state also strictly controls their prices and the wages they pay, sometimes also their industrial and commercial decisions. Private entrepreneurs complain about the need to obtain the consent of the state before laying off workers. The fact that the banking system has been nationalized means that companies in trouble that call for state help fear becoming in effect nationalized, or at least passing under state control.

Given the aspiration to pluralism and emancipation, “civil society” often revolts. Two kinds of rebellion helped provoke Mitterrand’s dramatic decisions of July. In early June, the head of France’s biggest private engineering company, Creusot-Loire, preferred bank-ruptcy to state control; his angry gesture underscored the similar plight of many other businesses. On Sunday, June 24, a million and a half people came to Paris from all over France to demonstrate peacefully and with superb organization—provided by the parents’ associations rather than the Catholic church—against the school bill prepared by the government, even though that bill recognized the state’s commitment to financing private schools and the right of these schools to their own “projects of education.” The demonstrators, insofar as they had read the bill at all, said they were worried because a tiny part of the funds to be provided by the municipalities was tied to the acceptance, by more than half of the private school teachers, of civil service status and because the bill foresaw a reopening of the issue within about ten years.

But the real significance of the demonstration was far greater. The government had, earlier, more or less reached an agreement with the representatives (clerical and lay) of the private school system, and resorted to the provisions of the constitution that would have allowed it to force the majority of the Assembly to accept the deal; but at the very last minute Mitterrand’s cabinet acceded to amendments requested by Socialist deputies. Several parliamentarians and ministers, including Mauroy, mistakenly interpreted the whole battle in archaic terms: the Enlightenment vs. Catholic dogma, or the state’s mission to liberate young minds from the hold of parents and the fetters of prejudices vs. an elitist and reactionary private system. But on June 24, the demonstrators did not rally to the political opposition: it was the other way around. The Socialists had needlessly walked into a confrontation between the traditional republican or Jacobin conception of the state and a powerful grassroots demand for pluralism, for the right to diversity and to a private sphere.

This still unsettled series of tests proves two things. One is the Mauroy government’s infinite clumsiness in drafting a bill that could not fail to cause trouble either with the Assembly majority, or with the public at large, or (as happened) with both—to such an extent that the president, on July 12, decided to withdraw the school bill, at least for the time being, thus provoking the resignation of Mauroy’s exhausted and discouraged minister of education. By then, the government had turned its tendency to exasperate opponents while disappointing supporters into a fine art.

The other thing is the Socialists’ own deep ambivalence. Within their amorphous party, the Jacobin-cum-Marxist centralizing and statist tradition still does battle with the Proudhonian auto-gestionnaire and anti-statist tradition.11 The moderate party members, good social democrats who dislike the label because of the sad fate of the earlier Socialist party (SFIO) in the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s, come from both traditions and move in both directions. One current sees in the state the only motor of progress, the only embodiment of the national interest, either in public education, public information, or public enterprise. The other one wants civil society to take its fate into its hands. Mitterrand himself defined the Socialist program as the creation of “areas of liberty” and the extension of the public sector!

In fact, after the original wave of nationalizations and the early verbiage about state dirigisme, it is—paradoxically, if one remembers the Communist alliance—in the other direction that the government has mostly moved: state control over television has been relaxed, private radio stations were allowed to open (within limits) and, recently, to accept advertising, social security boards have been elected, the lois Auroux giving workers new rights of expression in enterprises have begun to be put into effect along with decentralization.

And yet, the Socialists have let their opponents wrap themselves in the banner of freedom, because of the Socialists’ real talent for drawing attention to their blemishes and their failure to adapt their rhetoric to practice. Thus they passed a law lowering the retirement age of high civil servants and judges which looks like a victory of the spoils system. They drafted a press bill that had the arguably legitimate aim of preventing private monopolies, yet by excluding political newspapers (in order to protect the Communists) and regional concentrations of ownership (of which they themselves had some) they ended up with a war machine pointed at a single target—M. Hersant, the vehemently anti-Mitterrand owner of Le Figaro and many other papers. Thus they made it possible for Hersant’s friends to pose as the defenders of liberty of the press.

The same mishap occurred again with the school bill. The bill proclaimed the triumph of pluralism in education and thus marked a complete break with the left’s 1981 threat, or promise, of a “single, unified public service of education”: at least as remarkable a change as the shift in economic policy. This is precisely why the mighty public-school teachers’ federation (FEN) and the militant “lay” pressure groups well represented among the Socialist deputies (almost half of whom are public school teachers) had been incensed by the government’s deal and draft. The statist elements of the Socialist party had been obliged, month after month, to perform an astonishing striptease, to shed all their ideological clothes. By early May 1984, all they had left was a fig leaf, on which Mitterrand had written “mixed economy.” When Prime Minister Mauroy, an archetypal social democrat, decided to allow them to add last-minute amendments to his very un-Jacobin school bill, this turned into a hair shirt for the left, and for himself.

The same ambivalence about state vs. society is to be found on the right. The Socialists in power have turned out less statist than many had feared, although they have received little credit for it. The right in opposition has become intensely libertarian and anti-statist. Some of its members or affiliated clubs want the state to get out of radio and television, and to turn over control of public education to local bodies. A Reaganesque rhetoric now prevails in the centrist and conservative UDF, among the partisans of Raymond Barre and of former president Giscard d’Estaing (whose latest book has chapters about “self-regulated democracy,” liberty as the organizing principle of modern society, and the liberation of creative forces),12 and in the RPR of Chirac, who has exuberantly joined the battle against the all-powerful state. But when Giscard and Chirac were in power, they did not exactly attempt to dismantle the state or the system of Parisian elites that Giscard now denounces. Under Giscard, the rule of énarques (products of the Ecole Nationale d’Administration) and polytechniciens was more potent than ever.

It is not only those involved in politics who are ambivalent. It is French society itself. French citizens want from the state both freedom and economic protection. Indeed, all polls show the depth of public attachment to the welfare system set up after the liberation. Every group, while rejecting state controls, wants state help. Those who denounce state influence in information and communication nevertheless accept state favors in the form of lower postal and tax rates.13 The demonstrators of June 24 wanted unconstrained private schools but also state financing of their teachers and buildings. The business community wants deregulation (especially concerning employment) but also state assistance against bankruptcy. Businessmen and especially CGT union leaders protest when the state stops pumping money into lost industrial causes. The unions demand more public investments to provide for more jobs. Nor is there any groundswell for thorough decentralization.

One also sometimes gets the impression that what the French really want from their government is not reform, social change, or even less projets de société, but physical protection and security. It is crime in the streets, the “menace” of the immigrants (or rather, of the North Africans and the blacks) that have driven many voters away from a Socialist government that abolished the death penalty. It is the sense of insecurity that has made the minister of justice, because of his concern for the rights of the accused, a target of savage attacks, and has provided Le Pen—after years in the wilderness—with an opportunity to capitalize on fear. At a moment when the parties in power represent, in the eyes of many, either the all-encompassing state or the almost equally evil state that affords less protection than before, and when the conservative opposition seems to rally around anti-state themes that echo Reagan’s “conservative revolution,”14 Le Pen grasped the very deep French “Bonapartist” instinct, which wants a strong populist state—not in order to impose bureaucratic controls or fascist institutions, but in order to wipe out threats to law and order and provide protection to les petits.

Le Pen got most of his votes in cities, and two thirds of his voters were not habitués of the far right: many had come from Chirac’s RPR; many, in 1981, had voted for Mitterrand, either on both ballots or after having supported Chirac against Giscard on the first ballot. In exit polls on June 17, those who voted for Le Pen mentioned insecurity, immigrants, and the defense of liberty as their chief concerns. Here is ambivalence at its most extreme.


The blocages that result from interest-group conflicts are not disastrous for a nation, as long as its political institutions are able to function. The vote of June 17 raised the question of whether the translation of group dissatisfactions into antileftist votes will allow these institutions to work as effectively as in the past.

At present, even movements that are not caused by the political right—for private schools, or against immigrants—end up being either exploited by or drawn toward it. Of course, the left may hope, between now and the spring of 1986, to mobilize those of its supporters who abstained on June 17; abstentions were particularly high in districts where the left lost most ground. But it faces formidable obstacles.

Until 1984, Communist losses served the Socialists’ purposes because they benefited directly from the CP’s decline. In 1984, Communists and Socialists both lost ground. This is one of the reasons why the CP decided not to tie its fate any longer to that of the Socialist cabinet and its austerity policies, which the Communist electorate and the Communist militants had found increasingly hard to defend. Should the CP continue to decline, not only would the left as a whole find it much more difficult to regain a majority in Parliament, but in any centrist coalition the Socialists would be at the mercy of partners to their right (as in the Fourth Republic); and the weakening or desiccation of the powerful machine of the CP would make it far more arduous to mobilize workers and other voters for the left. Moreover, in recent years (not only since 1981), the CP and the CGT, because of their eagerness to get out of the political ghetto, have been more often forces of domestic moderation than of disruption. How will desperate workers behave if unemployment rises, austerity persists, and the CP becomes a force for protest instead of a straitjacket containing it?

Between now and 1986, the Communist party (which no longer attracts the young, despite unemployment) faces a most difficult choice, which its decision to leave the government without formally repudiating the Union of the Left does not fully settle. Ultimately, it must either return to a ghetto its own voters don’t want, or repudiate its entire past and risk becoming a second social democratic party beside the stronger Socialists. It would then have to turn at last to the “Italian model” its leaders had always dismissed. But a return to the ghetto, even in stages, would probably thwart internal reform of its structure and ideology. Avoiding an agonizing reform of the party may well have been a major reason for leaving the cabinet.

During these two years, the “legitimate” opposition of the center and right will be eager to recapture the votes that went to Jean-Marie Le Pen.15 They are aware of the feeling among voters that the leaders of the UDF and the RPR have not been militant enough. They are therefore likely to become increasingly obstructive and to inflate their rhetoric even more.

Mitterrand has tried both to regain the initiative and to wrest the issue of the defense of freedom back from the right. On July 12 he asked Parliament to revise Article 11 of the constitution, which gives the president a limited right to call for referendums, and he announced that he would ask in September for a referendum on the new constitutional provision that would grant the president the power to call for referendums on public liberties in the future. He also suggested that he might call afterward for such a referendum on the school issue. The reply of the right (with the notable but not unusual exception of Raymond Barre) has been to try to kill the constitutional revision by having it rejected by the Senate, which the opposition controls—even though it was the Senate which first called for a referendum on the now defunct school bill and even though during the Fifth Republic it had always been the right that wanted broad powers for the president, unlike the left. In fact it had always been the Gaullists who were most enthusiastic about referendums and least enthusiastic about the powers of the Senate.

If the Senate, as seems probable, succeeds in blocking the reform, Mitterrand will be able to claim that the opposition was not serious when it suggested that the people be the final judge in matters like the school issue. But his basic predicament will not change, and it would not have changed even if he had obtained a new power to circumvent or pressure an eventually hostile parliament by calling on the people directly. His political fortunes depend on the ability of the new prime minister to restore the morale of the Socialist party without compromising economic recovery. He will also have to discover a miraculous electoral system that minimizes the wreckage in 1986.

Before the June 17 election, Mitterrand seemed to prepare a move toward the center by cryptic remarks aimed at attracting the ex-Radical and ex-Christian Democratic elements now allied with Giscard’s Republican party in the heterogeneous UDF. His appeal for a mixed economy and for a revival of European unity were certainly aimed in their direction. The withdrawal of the private school bill, the tax reduction for 1985, and the replacement of Mauroy, a traditional, populist reformer, by the young, cool, calculating, and pragmatic énarque Laurent Fabius are obviously important elements of this strategy, which the Communist decision to leave the government should help, in theory.16 Mitterrand has also given hints about a new electoral law that would entail some proportional representation. This would be a way of loosening the left-against-right confrontation which the present two-ballot, single-member district system ensures. Thus, although the left might no longer have an absolute majority in the National Assembly after the elections of 1986, Mitterrand might still try to form a cabinet with Communists (if they choose to return), Socialists, and centrists.

But things look much bleaker since the June 17 elections. A centrist slate encouraged by Mitterrand received only 3.5 percent of the vote. The Socialist party is now besieged. The presence in the Fabius cabinet of men like Chèvement who have been passionate defenders of the alliance with the Communists cannot conceal the fact that the CP obviously counts on the Socialists’ ultimate failure in order to regain votes and perhaps even preponderance within the left. Nor does the departure of the Communists make the rather mythical center more friendly to the Socialists. The right, with the exception of a few politicians, is eager to push them out, not to help them to stay in power.

Changing the electoral law has become more risky. With the present system, the “legitimate” right would probably keep most of Le Pen’s candidates out of the future assembly, but its own candidates would have to make deals with them in order to obtain the support of his followers on the second ballot. The “legitimate” right would probably obtain an absolute majority of the seats. With proportional representation, its candidates would not need to make deals with Le Pen in order to get elected, but Le Pen’s men would get into the Assembly and the “legitimate” right would probably be short of an absolute majority. The two rights might well, then, make a deal to govern jointly: the “moderate” right is more likely to prefer an alliance with Le Pen to a coalition with the waning Socialists.

Thus, whatever the electoral system, the right-wing parties may want to force Mitterrand to make a hard choice. He could submit to them (by accepting a cabinet of the right); or he could resign at once, or after losing the parliamentary battle, or after losing a referendum; or he could dissolve the Assembly, resigning if he loses the next legislative election.

Paradoxically, Mitterrand’s own fate could be different from that of the parties of the left. He is a seasoned professional, and the opposition has too many presidential hopefuls—Giscard, Chirac, Barre—who dislike one another. But political and constitutional trouble seems likely anyhow—before 1986, over Mitterrand’s referendum, the unresolved school issue, the electoral system, and on the labor front. After 1986, France risks, at worst, facing the very battle—between the president and an Assembly dominated by his opposition—that professors of constitutional law have expectantly dreaded for more than twenty-five years. At best, there would be a coalition government of Socialists and “legitimate” conservatives (should the latter, for some reason, accept one after all). This would severely limit the president’s freedom to maneuver and bring France closer to the practices of the Third and Fourth Republics.

This darkening of the political scene would not be serious if it reflected only a national tendency to overdramatize, or the frustration of the hopes that helped bring the left to power three years ago. All of this exists (many commentators have compared the huge demonstration of June 24 with those of May 1968). But there are two deeper realities. One is the persistence, among the public as well as the intelligentsia, of an ideological mode of thinking, feeling, and acting, long after the cohesion of old ideologies has collapsed and their substance evaporated.

Take the school issue again: for most of the demonstrators, the issue was not simply an occasion for reenacting the old Church-and-State drama; it was, however confused, the expression of a malaise about the present public school system, where the increase in the student population, the flood of immigrants’ children, and attempts at reform have led to lower standards, ever-extending curricula, misguided egalitarianism, and rigid early selection.

However, the public debate has been neither about these problems nor about the bill itself. It took off into the outer space of emotional symbolism—“don’t touch our children” vs. “the state’s right to promote fairness in the exercise of liberty.” Rarely have so many people been so aroused, when so little objectively was at stake, yet so much subjectively and mystically. In that sense, the comparison with 1968 is valid. Legal and rational authority simply does not have the field to itself in France—and this isn’t because traditional authority survives or charismatic authority abounds; nor is it, as some (non-French) historians sometimes suggest, because the happy average Frenchmen are infected by politicians and intellectuals. Indeed, the deterioration of the old, integrating (as well as divisive) ideologies has produced free-floating masses of citizens, drifters who move from one political choice (not allegiance) to another, and make room for sudden bursts of passion. Those grandiose insaisissable passions give French political life a dangerous zest that the mere interplay of interests and ideas does not provide.

The other reality is a crisis of France’s image of itself as a modern society. De Gaulle’s Fifth Republic had succeeded in restoring French self-esteem and in building an image of France as an advanced industrial society capable both of transcending its traditional social and economic structures and values and of remaining in the race with the other, bigger or earlier, industrial nations. But just at the time the French were becoming confident, the oil crisis of 1973 marked the end of the “Thirty Glorious Years” of growth. The successive economic shocks and recessions of the 1970s and 1980s mercilessly revealed all the soft spots on France’s industrial society, all the chinks in the modernization: its tendency to inflation, the artificiality of many of its industrial mergers, the fragility of many of its overly protected business or farming enterprises.

Recurrently, French leaders have thought they had a way out or at least the image of a way out, through technological innovation. High-tech socialism, advocated by Mitterrand even before his pilgrimage to Silicon Valley, is but the latest form of it. But it is not really a new vision, capable of replacing or rejuvenating that of the 1960s, or of creating a consensus around it. France by itself does not have the resources needed to compete with those abroad, who are already ahead. Even if the possibilities offered by the sectors in which French technology does well are fully exploited these sectors still depend largely on state programs and procurement, and the state often makes wrong bets or is short of funds. Moreover, the development of these sectors may not provide enough jobs for those who will enter the labor market or are unemployed today.

In the meantime, every day brings bad news about industrial decline, especially in traditionally strong industries—steel, coal, textiles, shipbuilding, even automobiles and machine tools. Some nationalized enterprises are in trouble. Electricité de France overinvested in nuclear energy and has a huge debt,17 Renault and Aerospatiale have large deficits and declining sales. The number of bankruptcies is rising.18 Citroën and Michelin want to lay off thousands of workers, the new steel plan will cost twenty thousand to twenty-five thousand jobs, and the disaster of Creusot-Loire could cost thirty thousand more.

There exists neither vision nor consensus about where to proceed from here: no one knows what to do about providing work in a society where new units may be capital- rather than labor-intensive, where services can’t absorb all the surplus, and work-sharing projects provide neither enough new jobs nor enough income for all. Nor does any political group have convincing ideas about changing secondary and higher education, about what happens when neither private business nor the state has much of a sense of direction, and when the burdens of protection outweigh available resources. A few economists write about these issues. The political professionals think about politics. De Gaulle had offered greatness abroad, modernization at home. Most of the French are dubious about the possibility of the former, discouraged about the fate of the latter. Despite Mitterrand’s success on the world stage, France’s self-image as a nation “in the race” risks being broken. And the French go through their worst agonies when a threat to that image coincides with economic and political crises at home.

What strikes the visitor is the visible signs of a deeper, well-hidden crisis: exhaustion of faith in the state as the agent of change and preservation—yesterday’s republican state,19 more recently the managerial state. With socialism dispirited and confused, with liberalism reduced to clichés, a rising far right plays the same role of collector of discontents that the Communist party used to play and will try to play again. The decay of the CP itself, which richly deserves its fate as an organization, still leaves a dangerous vacuum. If the CP should recover it would be once again at the Socialists’ expense. Everywhere there are growing doubts about the return to growth and prosperity.

The institutions of the Fifth Republic, the resilient moderation of citizens who like to fight verbally but shun violence, the persistence of a strong desire almost everywhere for national unity and reasonable solutions, the president’s own concern with his historical position are major assets that can still be used. Mitterrand wants, he says, to preserve national unity and to heed legitimate grievances, even from the right. Still, he proclaims fidelity to the left, which annoys the right. His tendency to leave all choices open and his desire to smooth over all differences puzzles the left. With all his remoteness, elusiveness, and impenetrability, will he be able to provide the kind of leadership that requires more inspiration than calculation and more vision than maneuvering skill? If, after all, the salvaging of the considerable gains as well as the rescue from the many disappointments of the socialist experiment depend on the capacity of one enigmatic man to set the country’s direction, it is hard to be optimistic about the future of the left in France.

This Issue

September 27, 1984