Jacques Chirac
Jacques Chirac; drawing by David Levine


De Gaulle, in 1958, gave France a constitution that left the experts puzzled. It was a hybrid: part presidential, since the chief executive, with wide powers, is elected by universal suffrage and cannot be turned out by Parliament; and part parliamentary, since the president has to appoint a prime minister supported (or at least not opposed by) a majority of the National Assembly. The two questions that this arrangement raised were, first, whether it would outlive General De Gaulle, for whom it seemed tailor-made—his very mixed experience as head of the government in 1944 and 1945 had taught him that he needed a capable intermediary in the form of a prime minister who would handle both the details of policy and the politics of dealing with parties and Parliament. Secondly, how would the relationship between the president and the prime minister evolve if the constitution survived the general’s departure?

The first question was answered at last when François Mitterrand was elected in 1981. Mitterrand had denounced the constitution as dictatorial and called the regime a “permanent coup d’état.” By accommodating himself (these were his words) to the very provisions he had attacked he made it possible for the Fifth Republic to win its biggest test so far—that of l’alternance, the coming to power of a left-wing majority after twenty-three years of government by the right.

The relation between the president and the prime minister did not become a major question so long as there was a clear majority in the National Assembly supporting the president. Paradoxically, under the constitution of the Fifth Republic, it is when all the conditions exist for a smooth parliamentary system—a stable majority and a cabinet emanating from it—that the regime is at its most presidential. In such circumstances, the prime minister is little more than the president’s chief of staff, and the president can make all the important decisions, especially to choose and to fire the prime minister as he sees fit. Since these conditions prevailed between 1959 and 1986, the predominance of the president over the prime minister became generally accepted as an essential feature of the Fifth Republic.

It is precisely because all powers seemed concentrated in the seven-year presidency that so many prime ministers have developed presidential ambitions—none more than Jacques Chirac, the young protégé of Georges Pompidou who, when his patron died, helped Giscard d’Estaing to become president (instead of the Gaullist candidate Jacques Chaban-Delmas, whom Pompidou had dismissed and whom Chirac disliked). Chirac became Giscard’s first prime minister in 1976, and he found the reward bitter since Giscard turned out to be a most intrusive and domineering boss. In the presidential election of 1981, he was instrumental in getting Giscard defeated. Giscard’s elimination insured the triumph of Mitterrand and the Socialists; but it also made Chirac, already the undisputed leader of the Gaullist party since the fall of 1974 and mayor of Paris (elected against Giscard’s candidate) since 1977, the de facto leader of the right-wing opposition, for the other party of the right, the Union for French Democracy (UDF) set up by Giscard, has neither the cohesion nor the organization of Chirac’s Rally for the Republic (RPR.)

In 1981, the Socialist-Communist alliance obtained about 55 percent of the popular vote in the legislative elections that followed Mitterrand’s victory. But the public’s support began to fade as early as the fall and winter of 1981. By the summer of 1984, the prospects for the left were disastrous.1 The union of the left collapsed, and the Communists returned to opposition.

Mitterrand moved to limit the damage. He appointed Laurent Fabius as prime minister, and let his protégé practice a policy that combined continuing economic and financial austerity with a new technocratic, pro-entrepreneurial, and politically aseptic tone, in sharp contrast to the socialist rhetoric and political excesses under the former prime minister Pierre Mauroy. Moreover, he changed the electoral law. The existing one—by which the voters chose a single representative for their district in two successive ballots—amplified the victories and defeats for each party. Proportional representation, to which Mitterrand now returned (and which he had practiced throughout the Fourth Republic), made it unnecessary for Socialists to court Communist votes on the second ballot, and above all made it possible to limit the parliamentary effects of the probable victory of the right in the legislative elections of 1986—especially since it would provide seats in the Assembly for Jean-Marie Le Pen’s National Front, the new extreme-right xenophobic movement that had obtained 11 percent of the vote during the elections to the European Parliament in June 1984, and taken most of its voters away from the two parties of the moderate right.

Nevertheless, in view of the decline of the left, there was no way by which Mitterrand could have controlled the Assembly after the elections of March 16, 1986; thus the problem De Gaulle dismissed—that of a dual executive—was going to emerge as a serious one for the first time. If the moderate right won a clear majority, wouldn’t the prime minister, leader of that majority, become the real chief of the executive? And what would happen to the president in that case?


During the long campaign—which lasted throughout the Fabius period—so sure was the moderate right of its victory, despite the change in the electoral system, that it spent far less time explaining its program or attacking the Socialists than discussing the constitutional choices they would face after March. Should the winners get rid of Mitterrand? That was Raymond Barre’s position. Barre, the second prime minister of Giscard (1976–1981), had his own hopes of becoming president and excellent results in public opinion polls, but no firm party base. His best strategy therefore coincided with (or determined) his conviction that a period of coexistence of Mitterrand and a cabinet of the right would thwart the right and benefit Mitterrand. On the other hand, an early presidential election following the parliamentary victory of the right would lead to the election of a president of the right—such as Barre. After which the Fifth Republic would go back to its normal system: presidential dominance.

Three things were wrong with that script. First, the only way of forcing a president to resign is for the Assembly to refuse to support any prime minister appointed by him: something that was hard to imagine if the president selected one of the right’s own leaders. Secondly, such a tactic went against the interests of the two other leaders of the right. Giscard was eager for a comeback and in 1978 he had proclaimed that he would coexist with a left-wing majority if the left won the legislative elections that spring (he didn’t have to). Chirac, for his part, was running far behind Barre in the polls and therefore had no interest in an early presidential election.

Most important of all, the public showed no desire for a constitutional crisis. Not a clash but la cohabitation—the term that became popular to describe the coexistence of a Socialist president and conservative prime minister—was what the electorate wanted.

The mood of the campaign last winter was one of boredom and moderation. The Socialists, whose program was so mild as to appear to have been written in invisible ink, wanted to be seen by the voters as a responsible party of efficient managers. The moderate right put aside its enthusiasm for a kind of Reaganesque conservatism. (This is called libéralisme in France, as opposed to étatisme: most American liberals would be seen as étatistes by doctrinaire French “liberals.”) They drafted a program that sounded more pragmatic than dogmatic in its antidirigisme and reassured the voters about the irreversibility of several Socialist reforms, such as decentralization (which had actually put local government in the hands of conservatives) and much of the social legislation passed after 1981. Such a platform had the double advantage of offering a mild alternative (in the form of a liberalization of the economy) and of allowing for cohabitation.

As it happens, moderation benefited the Socialists more than the coalition of Chirac’s RPR and Giscard’s UDF. The verdict, on March 16, turned out to be both clear and ambiguous. What was clear was the shift to the right. The 1981 ratio of left to right was reversed, it was now 45 percent to 55 percent. The Socialists’ calculation of the 1970s that an alliance with the Communist party would benefit the Socialists far more than the CP had proven not only correct, but too much so: the Communist vote had dropped since 1978 from a little over 20 percent to less than 10 percent. The Socialists made a net gain since 1978 of about 10 percent, but the alliance was dead, and anyhow the combined vote of the two parties was not enough to win.

The ambiguity lies in the situation of the winners and the losers. The Socialists lost power, but obtained some 32 percent of the vote—a loss of only 5 points since the legislative elections of 1981, i.e., a much smaller loss than expected, especially since their 37 percent of the vote in 1981 was widely seen as exceptional (many voters from the center and right had either abstained or wanted to provide the newly elected president with an Assembly under his control, as had been the case since the beginning of the Fifth Republic, and to strengthen the Socialists against the Communists). The RPR-UDF coalition obtained only about 41 percent of the vote; Jean-Marie Le Pen’s National Front received almost as big a share (just under 10 percent) as in 1984. Mitterrand’s gamble had almost succeeded: the system of proportional representation he had selected gave the Socialists 37 percent of the seats, instead of the approximately 30 percent they would have received if the previous electoral law had been kept; the conservative coalition, with the help of a number of dissident rightists, has a majority of only two votes (instead of the fifty to sixty it would have had under the old law). But in politics, almost winning is not enough.



For the first time since De Gaulle’s return to power, French political leaders are playing without a detailed plan, and writing one while playing. For while the constitution is quite specific in describing the respective powers of the president and of the cabinet, not only had the practice of presidential predominance considerably modified the theory, but above all even the original text does not really tell us how the two centers of power are supposed to share it and to cooperate when each one is in hands hostile to the other.

The most spectacular innovation since Chirac’s return to the prime minister’s office is the shrinking of the presidency. The text of the constitution could always be given a parliamentary rather than a presidential interpretation, i.e., it could always be read as giving the biggest role not to the popularly elected president but to the cabinet which is responsible to Parliament, as in Britain. That was, indeed, the way many of the Fourth Republic politicians involved in its drafting in 1958, and the chief drafter himself, the Gaullist statesman Michel Debré, had intended it to be applied—as a frame for a regime in which the prime minister would, as Article 20 says, “determine and direct the nation’s policy,” thanks to an arsenal of measures aimed at forcing Parliament to cooperate, and backed by a president who could dissolve an unruly Assembly.

Debré and his colleagues did not expect an Assembly hostile to the president but one without a stable majority. This never happened, but the parliamentary interpretation is equally appropriate to the present situation, except in one crucial respect. Debré had wanted the president to have real powers so as to be able to provide continuity and leadership even if cabinets kept being overthrown by the Assembly; these powers were conceived as an added deterrent against chaotic Assemblies. But now these powers might be used not to consolidate a prime minister’s position, but to deter him from carrying out the majority’s program. From a huge spare tire (in Debré’s conception) and a powerful motor of governing (in the past twenty-seven years), the presidency could turn into a mighty brake. This is precisely what Chirac and his associates have wanted to avoid, mostly with success so far.

How has this been possible? In the first place, the presidency simply had to stop being the motor, once the transmission ceased to transmit. As long as the prime minister was the president’s man, the president had the great advantage of being able, in fact, to determine policy and to leave daily execution in the prime minister’s hands. He could control that execution through the small Elysée staff’s constant surveillance, prodding, and participation in the decisions that the cabinet and each of the ministers had to make. But that staff, unlike the White House bureaucracy, could never control by actually managing anything: it was far too tiny. All the levers of daily administration are at the Hôtel Matignon, the prime minister’s office. Thus when power lines are cut between Matignon and the Elysée, the Elysée is in the dark—or rather, the president is reduced to the text of his powers. He no longer governs. Today Chirac governs.

In the second place, the specific powers of the president turn out to be a mixed bag. In many cases, his hands are tied. In theory, he could have chosen another premier than Chirac, but the winning coalition had made it clear that no one else would be acceptable to it. For most of the other officials the president can appoint, he needs the signature of the prime minister or of a minister. He can only call for a national referendum if the cabinet or Parliament propose it (De Gaulle and Pompidou, needless to say, had no trouble asking the cabinet to propose the ones they wanted). As protector of national independence and commander in chief, the president of the Fifth Republic has been in charge of foreign and defense policy. But the constitution gives powers in these matters to the cabinet as well, and Chirac has been especially eager to demonstrate that his authority extends to them (hence France’s dual representation at the recent Tokyo and European summits). Here the president’s previous powers have not disappeared, but they are being shared—with a prime minister whose views on foreign affairs are less Gaullist than Mitterrand’s on several issues, such as the SDI and Palestinian independence.

What else is left for Mitterand? Three categories of prerogatives. One is the power to warn and rebuke. The president is, under Article 5, the guardian of the constitution, the man who “sees to it that the various organs of the state function regularly,” and the protector of national independence. A broad, but not out-rageous, reading of that provision could make the president the authority in charge of protecting the French against violations of their liberties, as described by the constitution, by the bills of rights of 1789 and 1946 which the constitution incorporates, and by the jurisprudence of the Constitutional Council. This is a nine-person body to which the president, the prime minister, the heads of the two assemblies, and sixty deputies or senators can refer laws in order to test their constitutionality. Ever since 1981 it has begun to play a role comparable to that of the US Supreme Court. Between 1981 and 1985, it often infuriated the Socialists, by striking down parts of their laws. Mitterrand, by appointing his distinguished minister of justice Robert Badinter as president of the Constitutional Council shortly before the March election, obviously wanted it to play the same role once the right came back to power. Mitterrand, since March, has publicly disapproved a large number of measures initiated by Chirac’s cabinet.

What can be the effect of such rebukes and warnings? If the government disregards them and gets Parliament to pass a bill in defiance of them, and the Constitutional Council (supposing the bill is then referred to it) calls the law constitutional, the president can do nothing. Mitterrand was not able to prevent the passage of a bill that allows firms to fire workers without the prior consent of the bureaucracy. He was however able to influence the content of a bill on New Caledonia that changes the statute set up by the Fabius government, after threatening to submit it to the Constitutional Council.

But Chirac, because of his narrow majority in the Assembly, decided in two important cases to short-circuit the legislative process by resorting to one of the weapons Debré had made available to the government: the power to submit to Parliament a bill (loi d’habilitation) that delegates to the cabinet the authority to legislate on certain matters, such cabinet-made laws being called ordonnances. In these instances only the loi d’habilitation itself can be brought before the Constitutional Council, which has no jurisdiction over executive acts. The two cases are the denationalization of public enterprises and electoral reform, i.e., the new majority’s decision to revert to the single-district system. In both cases, Mitterrand objected. The government went ahead and got its two lois d’habilitation through Parliament anyway.

However, the president’s second prerogative is his right to refuse to endorse those governmental decisions that require his signature, not only ordonnances but also, for example, appointments of various high officials, including the bosses of nationalized enterprises. (This summer he approved a list of new appointees only after making sure that the old managers he had appointed were given decent new assignments.) The effect of this power is to prevent Chirac from having things entirely his own way. Mitterrand has used it sparingly but pointedly.

The Constitutional Council, on June 26, declared the loi d’habilitation on denationalization constitutional, but specified strict conditions (having to do with fair pricing and the preservation of French enterprises from foreign control) to be observed by the future ordonnances.

The denationalization decree prepared by the government met all those conditions, as well as even stricter ones added by the Conseil d’Etats, France’s partly administrative, partly judicial body. Nevertheless, on July 14, Bastille Day, Mitterrand declared that his responsibility went beyond that of legal agencies, and that his conscience prevented him from signing the ordonnance. He argued that there were still loopholes through which foreign control of denationalized enterprises could infiltrate. This was correct, but hardly persuasive. Already, the precautions taken by a government that proclaimed its commitment to free enterprise may well have violated the treaty of the European community which requires the free flow of capital across borders (and which it is the president’s constitutional duty to enforce). Commentators pointed out that under the Socialists many nationalized enterprises had allowed some of their branches to be bought by foreigners.

Obviously, Mitterrand’s intention was to show that he should not be taken for granted, and that if his warnings are ignored, he has ways of inflicting real pain. The issue was shrewdly chosen since the public is evenly divided about denationalizations.

In this instance, Mitterrand did not use his power to withhold his signature as a right of veto. For there was an alternative road for the government—the road Mitterrand himself had deemed preferable and which he now, with some irony, suggested to Chirac, turning the ordonnance into a bill, i.e., having it adopted by Parliament. This could have had a triple effect: to give the Constitutional Council a second chance of reviewing the text; to delay the beginning of denationalization; and to oblige the cabinet, in order to minimize the delay, to cut off parliamentary discussion by asking for an immediate vote of confidence on the bill. However, as it turned out, the law quickly adopted by Parliament in August was less stringent on the issue of foreign control than the ordonnance Mitterrand had deemed too lax, and the Socialist opposition still did not send the bill to the Constitutional Council.

The Constitutional Council, when it examined the loi d’habilitation on electoral reform, put very strict and detailed conditions of fairness on the drawing-up of electoral districts in the forthcoming ordonnance. Mitterrand had objected to the idea of electoral reform by ordonnance instead of law. Once again, the government has to be extremely careful about the content of the ordonnance, and cannot be sure that Mitterrand will not declare himself unsatisfied anyhow and force Chirac to turn the ordonnance into a law. This would be far more trouble-some than in the earlier case, because the majority is reasonably cohesive on abolishing étatisme, but understandably jittery about carving up districts that might deprive many of its members (especially those of the UDF) of their current seats.

Mitterrand’s tactics are easy to understand. Whenever government has sent a bill to Parliament, it has had either to throttle debate—five times—or else to display the divisions within the majority and to wade through a flood of amendments (in the Senate the bill on television reform was subjected to more than eighteen hundred amendments and debate had to be mercilessly curtailed in the National Assembly).

The third category of presidential powers is less subtle, although more difficult to use. The president, as Mitterrand told journalists on May 18, is the master of the political calendar, i.e., he has the power to summon the voters. How? As we have seen, a referendum seems unlikely. Mitterrand mentioned the possibility of calling one on a proposal to shorten the length of the presidency (cutting it to five years, an idea that Pompidou had endorsed and gotten Parliament to adopt in 1973, but the process was never completed); so has Giscard.

However, this would be seen by everyone as helping Mitterrand himself get reelected—he is more likely, given his age, seventy, to be reelected for five than for seven years—and it is therefore not surprising that Chirac has rejected any revision of the constitution. Mitterrand can also dissolve the Assembly, but he told the journalists that he had assured Chirac he would not do so. If such a dissolution came after the ordonnances (or law) reestablishing the old electoral system had been duly signed, new legislative elections would, even if the governing coalition lost votes, still send a right-wing majority to the assembly. Dissolution while proportional representation is still in effect would make sense only if the government provided Mitterrand with a grand opportunity to pose as the defender of liberty and independence. But should this happen, a third possibility is more tempting: he could resign and, as he put it, “wage battle in a single district [France] instead of 577.” The experience of 1981 showed that dissolving the Assembly after one has won the presidency is a better tactic than reversing the order; for if dissolution fails, reelection is most unlikely, whereas reelection could be coupled with an appeal to the electorate to provide the freshly elected president with a friendly Assembly.

What all of these rather Byzantine calculations show is that the parliamentary version of the constitution may well be only temporary. In the hybrid French system, the president is unlikely to be satisfied with the limited powers at his disposal when Parliament and the cabinet are hostile to him: his interest is to seize the first good moment to strike back—and Mitterrand on Bastille Day put on a kind of rehearsal of the future final blow. And the prime minister can hardly be expected to enjoy coexisting with a president who may at any moment plunge a knife in his back: his interest is to complete his supporters’ victory in the Assembly, with a conquest of the presidency. Protracted coexistence, with actual dominance of the premier, is conceivable in the long run only under Debré’s hypothesis: that of an Assembly without any stable majority at all—the very case which a return to the pre-1985 electoral system is aimed to prevent. What is possible, in the future, is that the president, even if the premier becomes his creature again, will allow him more leeway (something the public has always desired), and that temporary predominance of the premier will occur again whenever the president loses the legislative elections. Two things, however, are clear: the flexibility of the constitution and the strength of the barriers against a return to the Assembly rule and executive paralysis of the third and fourth republics.

Thus the present cohabitation resembles more an armistice that either side might want to break than a stable new division of powers. At this point, all the polls show that the public favors coexistence and would like it to continue until the presidential election of 1988. This creates a situation comparable to mutual deterrence. Mitterrand cannot and does not want to be seen as intransigently blocking governmental action, and Chirac cannot yet go much beyond criticizing the president for occasionally resisting the will of the majority of the French.

What about the interests of the contenders? They are not self-evident. Mitterrand’s popularity is higher than it has ever been—but what an ambiguous signal this seems, since it coincides with his retreat into mere “arbitral powers”! On the one hand, if he waits until 1988, he gives his rival a chance to consolidate his authority and to make a good case for his elevation to the presidency; on the other hand, if he strikes before 1988, and resigns as soon as he senses a decisive drop in support for the new majority, he may be seen as having caused a political crisis that the public has no stomach for. His present way of handling the dilemma is to try to delay or somewhat complicate the enforcement of his opponents’ program and to hope that somehow their plans will fail and the responsibility for a break-up will be theirs.

As for Chirac, he acts as if he needed two years in order to be able to boast of good economic results—it is as if, after a controversial period of hectic action, he needed a prolonged one to digest and manage his accomplishments. On the other hand, while he waits, and especially if the results are not good, his rivals in his own camp will sharpen their knives—especially Barre, who did poorly in March in his district in Lyon because he was seen as a spoiler, but could reemerge as a vindicated prophet if cohabitation under Chirac disappoints those who voted for it, and if Mitterrand behaves as the spoiler Barre predicted he would be. Of the two, Mitterrand and Chirac, it is Chirac who is in the most difficult position: he has to suffer the erosion of popularity that actual governing usually entails, to cope with a vigilant president as well as a turbulent majority, and to defend his program against the critical and expanding jurisprudence of the Constitutional Council, which has now provoked governmental threats to curtail its powers unless it acts with more restraint in the future. Chirac, moreover, has no easy way of provoking an early showdown should he so desire. Whether in order to dissolve the Assembly or to resign, Mitterrand is the one who decides whether to wait or to provoke—or let himself be provoked. As Chirac’s press spokesman put it, there is now a “Hitchcockian suspense” that makes all predictions foolish.


The next presidential election being everyone’s goal, much will depend on how the new cabinet works. It has been in power for over five months, and it is too soon to draw a balance sheet. Its economic and social policy appears like a combination of Reaganism and more orthodox conservatism, aimed at dragging France out of the relative slump in which its economy finds itself after not merely five years of socialism but thirteen years of economic crisis. Before March 1986, thanks to Socialist austerity between 1983 and 1985, and favorable trends in world prices, French inflation fell drastically, the balance of trade improved (while remaining in deficit), and productivity and investments began to rise again. However, economic growth was below that of France’s OECD partners, purchasing power was no higher than in 1982, the weight of taxation and other state-imposed burdens had not decreased despite Mitterrand’s promise. Above all unemployment—despite a small improvement in 1985—had remained very high (10.5 percent of the active population in 1985); and France’s share of world trade had continued to decline (from 6.3 percent in 1973 to 4.9 percent in 1984). Both the state deficit and public debt had reached new highs by March 1986.

The new majority proposed, on the one hand, to accentuate the shift from state to free enterprise and competition that had begun during the second half of the Socialists’ tenure. This meant denationalizing banks and industries instead of merely exhorting them to be competitive and profitable (or of allowing them to sell off branches and to let private citizens buy nonvoting shares). It meant giving entrepreneurs greater “flexibility,” i.e., relieving administrative obstacles to laying off workers; reducing taxes on enterprises; and deregulating French industry and services—a herculean task that requires not only ending state help to industry and the dismantling of price and exchange controls but also the destruction of a number of very traditional, as well as more recent, state monopolies in telecommunications and television. Supply, thus liberated, is to be stimulated by demand: taxes on personal income are also to be lowered. On the other hand, Reagan’s apparent indifference to the budget deficit was not to be imitated; the deficit, despite the promise of lower taxes, is to be reduced by drastic spending cuts and decreasing the number of civil servants.

It is true that the French economy had become an inextricable thicket of state controls and subsidies, firms eager for state help, and unions that depend on the state not only to obtain social security but agreements with business. However, the theology of liberalization is running into predictable snags.

First, the favorable effects of privatisation and deregulation will take time. Meanwhile, perverse effects could flourish. A quick end of state aid to troubled industries or a sharp cut in state subsidies to the different levels of local government whose powers have been considerably increased since 1981 could have catastrophic effects on growth and employment. An end to price controls, especially in commerce and in services, could revive inflation. Secondly, there exists a sharp political contradiction between the economic program and Chirac’s political debts (and hopes). The latter require special attention to, and favors for, those categories of voters who had supported the majority, such as farmers, whose income had dropped by almost 5 percentage points in 1985, or the building industry, which had slumped.

How has the government dealt with these contradictions so far? Liberalization has been tempered (or tampered with) to allow the state to pursue the costly Socialist policy of helping firms to hire more young workers, and also to help Renault, the ailing steel industry, and the workers laid off by closing shipyards. As for the needs of electoral clients, they have been met, at the cost of new expenditures, or of more exceptions to liberalization (shopkeepers remain protected by a bill that limits the creation of supermarkets). On the whole, however, an attempt has been made to fulfill their expectations in other ways. For instance, real-estate owners will benefit from a new bill that regulates their relations with tenants more favorably than the bill passed by the Socialists. Well-to-do citizens who had illegally sent capital abroad received an amnesty in exchange for bringing the money back, and the right to buy and sell gold anonymously has been reestablished. Above all, the wealth tax created by the Socialists is to be abolished in 1987.

Another demand by the RPR-UDF electorate had to be met—especially since it was also the principal grievance of Jean-Marie Le Pen’s supporters: greater toughness in the fight against crime and in dealing with immigrants. Bills were quickly drafted to punish terrorism (very vaguely defined), to speed up the judgment of alleged criminals and keep them in jail longer, and to give the police wider powers to check people’s identity. They also make it easier for the bureaucracy to deny entry to foreigners and possible for it to expel them without any judicial control.

The government’s honeymoon period was brief. To many it seems as reactionary as the Socialists had seemed obsessed with class in 1981 and 1982. Some of the new measures have been unpopular: the abolition of the wealth tax and of administrative control of layoffs; the end of price controls; the decision to “privatize” one of the three public TV channels, TFI. The new criminal legislation is popular, but may well violate constitutional principles and European treaties. The increasing presence and toughness of the police have led to some ugly incidents. Denationalization threatens the rights workers had obtained in public enterprises. The drastic cuts in research funds aimed at reducing the deficit violate a promise in the RPR-UDF platform and have caused dismay. (Prospects for 1987 are only a little better.) A new law makes it easier for press barons, such as the powerful Robert Hersant, owner of Le Figaro, to take over more newspapers. It has been largely struck down by the Constitutional Council which proclaimed that pluralism has a “constitutional value.” The price of telephone calls has gone up, the interest rate on savings accounts has gone down.

Another problem has been coherence. Parliamentary debates have revealed sharp splits between members of the RPR and those of the UDF, between hard- and soft-liners on crime and immigration, between passionate “liberals” and moderates on economic and social policy; the deputies of the National Front have tried to exploit these differences despite Chirac’s promise of a “new system of values.” The Socialists, between 1981 and 1985, went through an ideological phase, followed by a far more pragmatic one. The Chirac government seems split into ideologues and pragmatists, the former being the young UDF ministers and subministers in charge of culture and communication and industry. The abolition of a series of Socialist laws on matters ranging from education to taxation—even when replacement measures were not ready or not so different—seemed to signal the triumph of the doctrinaire.

On the whole, however, the pragmatists have prevailed. The ministries of justice and education were given to management types, not dogmatists. The legislation on crime goes less far than the Peyrefitte law voted under Giscard. Edouard Balladur, the powerful minister of finance and economic affairs, is a moderate former aide of Pompidou. Denationalization won’t be completed until 1991 so as not to crowd private companies seeking funds out of the stock market. The dismantling of the state monopoly of telecommunication services has been postponed, the deregulation of transport is to be gradual, as well as the lifting of price controls on services. The state will sponsor two French television satellites which even some of the ministries believe could be a new extravaganza, comparable to the Concorde. The role of the market in housing and urban development is increased at the expense of public regulation, but moderately so. The new bill prepared by the minister of higher education is so timid as to appear unnecessary. It certainly does not give French universities the full autonomy which some right-wing professors have insisted on but which most academics still consider premature. The minister of labor has so far succeeded in convincing labor unions of his belief in collective bargaining.

Not unexpectedly, such pragmatism has earned Chirac much sniping from Giscard (whose own libéralisme, when he was president, was limited to the sphere of culture and mores) and grumbling from Le Figaro. One reason why relative moderation does not seem to have helped the cabinet’s popularity is the impression of confusion it has often conveyed. The bills on New Caledonia, denationalization, and the reform of television have had to be rewritten before or even during their discussion by Parliament; uncertainty continues to surround the timing, extent, and forms of denationalization.

However, the main reason for the drop in Chirac’s popularity has to do with economic results. The deficit of social security and the high cost of measures against unemployment will make it difficult for the government to keep its promise to reduce state-imposed burdens from about 46 percent of the gross domestic product to 35 percent within ten years. Indeed, a temporary new tax on all incomes will have to cover part of the social security deficits. Foreign-trade figures remain mediocre. Unemployment increased again in March, April, May and July, and the decision to stop subsidizing failing shipyards will not help it. So far, enterprises have not hired many new workers, or responded with any great enthusiasm to politicians’ exhortations to promote growth. Jobs in the consumer-goods industries are likely to continue to decline and new jobs will have to come mainly from the services sector. The devaluation of the franc has made imports more expensive, although the burden has been eased by the drop in the value of the dollar and the price of oil. But French exports remain sluggish: prices are not the only obstacle to French sales abroad. With wages still frozen, demand—which had increased in the spring—is expected by many businessmen to fall again, and they often prefer to use their improved profit margins for reducing debts or for buying financial capital rather than for investments.

Many of them also complain about political uncertainty. How far will the government go in carrying out its program? How soon will the nationalized companies be entirely private, how much control will the state keep over them, and before they become private, how many of the managers appointed by the Socialists will be replaced by new men with different ideas about the firms’ strategies? (In July, twelve were fired and thirteen were kept but the fate of forty more remains to be settled.) Will the shares of the first privatized companies be given a high value by the stock market? Is the “liberal” shift a turning point, or a mere transition between two Socialist experiments? In its desire for a clear-cut political answer, the business community is more Barriste than Chiraquienne. On the eve of their hallowed summer holidays, the government didn’t look so good to many Frenchmen, both because of some of its more spectacular innovations, which the public sees as helping only the rich, and because its overall pragmatism and caution make it appear as not so different after all from the previous government—which the French dismissed.


Since neither Barre nor Fabius succeeded in making the French economy as productive and competitive as they had claimed they could, betting on Chirac’s success between now and the presidential election of 1988 would be premature. Whatever the fortunes of the Socialist party (currently embarrassed by a scandal involving corrupt financial practices in one of the former Socialist ministries), Mitterrand has a good chance of thwarting Chirac’s presidential ambitions. Both men have a small number of strongly held but vague principles, and a heavy dose of opportunism. If it were only a battle of wits and skill between the president, nicknamed the Florentine, and the premier, nicknamed the bulldozer, one could bet on the former. Chirac, in his political career, has been better at blitzkrieg than at sieges. Finesse, cunning, bargaining with parliamentarians were never his strong qualities. His energy is immense, but he seems to have always needed patrons or strong advisers.2 What both men share is what makes them rivals: ferocious ambition. Chirac’s asset is his relative youth (he is fifty-three). Mitterrand’s dilemma is that age and the erosion of his power may well work against him should he choose to run again, but if he decides not to, the various potential Socialist candidates could tear one another apart, and the most popular Socialist candidate in the country—Michel Rocard—is the favorite neither of Mitterrand nor of the party apparatus.

A Socialist candidate’s chances depend on the volatility of the French electorate. Like most other citizens in Western democracies, the French vote against rather than for: they pass judgment on their current rulers. Hence the remarkable shifts of the past twenty years. A bad performance by the Chirac government could produce the swing of 5 or 6 percent that would ensure the election of a Socialist president. Such shifts are made easier by another trend characteristic of both the electorate and the political elite itself: a move toward the middle away from grand ideologies. The collapse of the Communist fortress results from the gradual disappearance of the old, concentrated working class, and from the Party’s inability, because of its insistence on the primacy of the industrial proletariat, to build a class coalition comparable to that which the Italian Communists achieved.

By the 1980s the Party was no longer credible, either as a collector of protest votes (for its influence turned out nil) or as the carrier of a dream, the French version of the Soviet model. Today its clumsy leadership can still ignore but no longer contain or expel the many dissenting and discontented militants. Le Pen’s movement is, to a large extent, a one-issue party. Its geographical location shows it: it is strongest where there are large concentrations both of Muslim workers and of uprooted or unemployed “poor whites”; it has replaced the Communists as a protest movement but has no coherent ideology at all, and its parliamentary group is already beginning to divide.

There is now a huge middle group, some 80 percent of the electorate, which agrees on a number of essentials: on defense and foreign policy, on a modicum of economic liberalization, seen as necessary for industrial growth and employment, but also on the preservation of the welfare system and of workers’ rights, on a fairly tough policy against crime and illegal immigrants, on maintaining a Jacobin conception of national unity (i.e., foreigners can become French, but only if they adopt the values and mores of the French, which rule out cultural pluralism and enforce strict separation of religion and the state). They also agree on the peaceful coexistence of public schools with private ones subsidized by the state, on greater independence of radio and television from the state, and on decentralization.

As Jacques Julliard, one of France’s best political writers, has put it, such a political consensus would not have been possible without growing social cohesion.3 Today’s largely salaried bourgeoisie has little in common with the cramped and arrogant bourgeoisie of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries; the relations of business to workers are not the open struggle they used to be; indeed, the “class struggle” is so diversified and complex as to have no resemblance to the Marxist scheme. Except at the two ends of the scale, income does not determine how people vote. Conservatives, largely thanks to De Gaulle, became modernizers and are still marked by his admittedly vague and unfulfilled ideals of worker participation and national unity. Socialists have finally given up the concept of a front de classe and the notion of breaking away from capitalism. The two are no longer very far apart.

Does this mean that France, contentious France, is threatened by “banalization,” and by a routine, boring alternation of the moderate left and the moderate right? The latter is probably the case, even though resignation to it comes less easily to the professional politicians than to the public. Precisely because the differences have shrunk, each side tries to magnify the significance of the remaining ones (hence, at present, the spectacle of Socialist deputies showering government bills with hundreds of amendments, thus obliging Chirac to use the various gimmicks provided by the constitution in order to cut off debate and force votes). But “banalization” is not yet at the end of the road, for two important reasons.

The first one has to do with the central issue of French history: the relation of society to the state, the search for the proper balance. Nobody—except perhaps the leaders of the Communist party—wants an immensely strong and centralized state anymore: in that sense, Bonapartism is dead. But there remains a cleavage. On one side are those who believe that society ought to emancipate itself dramatically from the state; that the Rousseauist myth of the superiority of the general interest, embodied by the state, over the lesser and dubious private interests ought to be laid to rest at last. On the other side are those who believe that the state has a vital mission in providing guidance, in harnessing interests, in setting high cultural standards, and in protecting the weak from the strong. It is a cleavage that does not divide the left from the right; it runs across that old, perhaps obsolescent division.

At the end of June the convention of the Socialist party showed that whereas all Socialists have now resigned themselves to being social democrats, Michel Rocard’s emphasis on citizens’ autonomy and their capacity to bargain, alongside a minimalist state, still clashes with Jean-Pierre Chevènement’s “grand design”—the rather archaic one of a republic protecting the general interest against the cupidity of the rich or the “Atlanticized” bourgeoisie. On the right, the Gaullist version of Rousseau has not been abandoned by all, and it is sometimes hard to take seriously the cry against the state when it is uttered by perfect products of the Ecole Nationale d’Administration or the Ecole polytechnique. So far liberalization and deregulation are strictly planned and controlled at every step by the state. The state is loosening screws, not removing them.

The inevitable reform of the social security system, aimed at making it less costly, will show how wide this cleavage is. What makes overcoming it difficult is of course the ambivalence of the French themselves. As Jean-Marie Domenach has put it,4 they dream of freedom but cling to the protection of the state. It is also the difficulty of finding an adequate model for the new equilibrium many people seem to long for. The “formula” of the Third Republic sharply limited the functions of the state, especially in economic and social affairs. The result was stagnation and injustice. After the liberation, a remarkable blend of technocracy and resistance leftism built a powerful dirigiste state in which the notion of public service and planning was seen as a key condition of economic growth and a guarantee of social justice, a defense against the “moneyed interests” and exploitation.

Today, almost everyone agrees on the need to loosen the grip of the state, to heed the call for autonomy in civil society. But no new model has emerged. Can the state let go without terrible risk—that of an economic slowdown—if French entrepreneurs, after decades of reliance on state guidance, fail to move into those sectors (of high tech, for instance) that could replace the dying old industries—textiles, shipbuilding, steel, even cars? And the risk as well of a jungle of private conglomerates competing to grab the “privatized” industries and services, at the expense both of workers or employees and of the French in the poorer sections of the country, which public agencies used to serve even at a loss?

Can the state let go in a society where voluntary associations remain brittle and accustomed to rely on public officials? In particular, the labor unions have been weakened by economic depression and political division. The once powerful business association (CNPF) has been wracked by the increasing diversity of interests among its members (large versus small enterprises, enterprises in the richer parts of France versus firms in poorer ones), and by the greater ability of many companies to deal with unions at the plant level instead of having to bargain at the national one. Many of the more important voluntary associations, such as the shopkeepers’, or the workers’ and civil servants’, or the farmers’, still insist on state intervention against competition, against the loss of their droits acquis or against the risk of pure and simple bankruptcy.

The drama of society versus the state is thus likely to go on. The other reason why France will not succumb to boring banality is even more serious. It has to do not with cleavage but with the very consensus I have described. Can the French achieve the goals they do agree on? On three matters at least, the question is worth raising. Take diplomacy and defense: Are independence and influence still compatible, or can influence be achieved only by a united Western Europe? So far, as I recently heard a former French foreign minister put it, Europe is merely a means for France, rather than a goal in itself. Can France afford its formidable military ambitions? Both Mitterrand and Chirac want a much enlarged nuclear force, with MIRVed submarines, a new mobile missile, an expanded tactical nuclear force, perhaps the neutron bomb, a conventional quick deployment force, a powerful navy, some military projects in space, possible antimissile defenses on the ground. The new majority wants to raise the military budget to 4 percent of the GNP (it has oscillated around 3.8 percent, which will be the level for 1987); this will not be easy if growth remains sluggish, nor will it be enough to reverse the recent trend, which has been a slowing down of the growth of France’s already small conventional defense force, and an increasing, narrow-minded concentration on the nuclear cure-all.

Or take the issue of immigration. Recent forecasts show that the proportion of North African immigrants among the total number of foreigners is likely to grow. Can what I have called the Jacobin consensus accommodate a large group of aliens who will not want to become French either for religious reasons or because they do not want to ask for a change of nationality? (The new cabinet wants to make the automatic granting of French citizenship to persons born in France more difficult.) So far, many immigrants from North Africa have chosen the path to assimilation. What will happen if it becomes blocked, or if fewer choose it?

Finally, there is the consensus on modernization and growth, perhaps the most remarkable postwar achievement of the French. What will happen if French enterprises, whether prodded by the state or left to themselves, fail to meet the challenge of the new technological revolution and fail to remain competitive on world markets—especially those of the advanced countries where France’s trade in industrial goods shows a growing deficit? (The surplus with the developing countries results largely from sales of arms, which are becoming more difficult as the competition with other suppliers is getting more fierce.) French enterprises may be thwarted by limits on their abilities to innovate, as well as atavistic failures in spending enough on research, in funneling technological advances into industrial production, in marketing and in seeking foreign markets aggressively enough, even though such a search is essential at a time when French demand, partly for demographic reasons, cannot serve as the single engine of growth.

All these limits, ultimately, threaten what the French have been most proud of: France’s distinctiveness and continuing presence in world affairs. Their collective rejection of decline, their insistence on France “being herself” have indeed kept them different even as their economic and social makeup, their political behavior, and their values and mores were becoming more like those of their neighbors, or of the US. What will save French politics from becoming banal in coming years is not only the temporary struggle between a president and a prime minister, which is only the prelude to a contest for the presidency. It is both the absence of a consensus on state-society relations and the conflict between a national consensus on so much else and formidable challenges from the outside world.

This Issue

September 25, 1986