Michel Rocard
Michel Rocard; drawing by David Levine


Between April 24 and June 12, the French voted four times—twice, on April 24 and May 8, for the election of the president of the republic, twice, on June 5 and 12, for a new National Assembly. The results confounded all advance predictions, and interpreting them has become an industry: virtually every political leader and expert in France claims that something of historical importance happened, but few agree on just what it was. I will here try both to derive some lessons from the elections, and to discuss the serious problems the French now face.1

The elections showed the disaffection of a sizable part of the French electorate from what General de Gaulle used to call the “poisons, games, and delights” of French politicians. The first surprise came on April 24. This first round of the election for president was supposed to be a battle among three men: François Mitterrand, the Socialist president since 1981, Jacques Chirac, the prime minister, head of the neo-Gaullist RPR and leader of the right-wing parliamentary majority elected in March 1986, and Raymond Barre, the economist who replaced Chirac as prime minister under Valéry Giscard d’Estaing between 1976 and 1981, and who was supported by the other right-wing party, the UDF. But a fourth man, Jean-Marie Le Pen, the far-right extremist who is notorious for his openly racist attacks on immigrants, did far better than predicted, obtaining 14.4 percent of the vote. If one adds up the abstentions (which were low: 18.5 percent), the votes for Le Pen, and those for the other candidates from the marginal parties that reject conventional politics—the official Communists, the “reformist” Communists, two varieties of Trotskyites, and the ecologists—one gets a total of almost 42 percent of registered voters.

It is clear that many French voters have felt increasingly estranged from the political parties that have governed the country for the past fifteen or twenty years. For them the period that began with President Pompidou’s terminal illness and the first oil crisis of the early 1970s has been one of economic trouble and social dislocation. Neither the Socialists in the early 1980s nor the right-wing Chirac government between 1986 and 1988 have been able to stop unemployment from rising. By the time of the election there were more than two and a half million unemployed people. In 1987 the purchasing power of wage earners stagnated but taxes again increased.

For men and women worried about the future, listening to the statements of the “big three” was triply disconcerting. The three politicians said little about economic policy, and certainly offered no prospect of an early to austerity, thus acknowledging that whoever won would have very little economic flexibility. Indeed, the policy of Chirac and his finance minister Edouard Balladur had not been very different from the one Mitterrand had initiated in 1983, when he cut public expenditures and held down wages.

The programs of the three seemed remarkably remote from the daily concerns of the voters—they were full of vague high-minded statements about improving productivity, organizing technical training, fostering investment, and the need for both economic competition and social security. True, this meant that the debate of recent years between Socialist dirigisme and Reagan-inspired claims for the free market was now over—if it ever had been genuine.

The speeches and writings of the big three presented France’s future as dominated by the code word 1992. That is the year when the economic and monetary union of Europe is to be completed and when, if all goes according to plan, France, Germany, and the other Common Market countries will have a common currency and the existing barriers to the movement of money, trade, and workers among them will be abolished. To bring this about will mean a huge and complex effort to deregulate national industries and services and to coordinate the various national fiscal policies. It will be immensely difficult for many French to accept that Greeks, Italians, and Germans, among others, will be free to work and settle wherever they want to in France. The French government will have to allow foreign companies to bid on state procurement contracts. Many voters—peasants, workers, businessmen, members of professions that will have to be opened to foreigners—see “1992” as extremely threatening. The idea that France has to be “adapted” to a vaguely defined “Europe,” in which many decisions about people’s lives are to be made by distant, mainly foreign, technocrats, provoked anxieties the three politicians did not address.

Thus to many Frenchmen the presidential campaign seemed largely show, a television event in which three men were trying to conceal how little they had to offer.2 For instance, Mitterrand did not mention the word socialism or appeal to working-class memories and pride until forty-eight hours before the vote; he simply talked in broad phrases about his greater concern for social justice and the poor.


The disaffection of the electorate was not limited to the presidential candidates. On the first ballot of the legislative election that took place in June, after Mitterrand won the presidency on the second round, more than 34 percent of the voters abstained—a record figure for legislative elections in the Fifth Republic. Together the number of abstainers and of voters who supported Communist candidates and Le Pen’s National Front’s candidates is just over 50 percent of the registered voters. If not disaffection, certainly derision was expressed in the hilarious and popular Bebête show preceding the evening news on TV. After years of stuffy conformity on all TV channels, the political leaders now appeared in caricature as animal puppets. Mitterrand himself was seen as a portentous frog called “Dieu.”

The second point that emerges from the series of elections was that those voters who came to the polls and did not support extremist or protest candidates voted for “moderation.” This was undeniably the meaning of Mitterrand’s reelection. During the seven weeks of his campaign he presented himself as the father of the nation, a president who wanted neither to be omnipotent (a reference to De Gaulle) nor impotent (a reference to earlier Republics) and who wanted reconciliation and “civil peace,” the end of “exclusions,” solidarity, respect for “family values” and “Christian virtues.” His language seemed partly borrowed from Raymond Barre. He thus created expectations of an opening (ouverture has become the key word of the French political vocabulary) to centrist political forces, particularly to centrists associated with Raymond Barre.

But he also borrowed another theme from Barre’s campaign: an attack, which he was obviously more capable of making explicitly, against the “Etat-RPR”—the takeover of the state apparatus, including the police forces, by Chirac’s party. This was a clever way of driving a wedge between the two parties of the right, Chirac’s RPR and the much more heterogeneous UDF, which Giscard created in 1978 as a coalition of conservatives (mainly from his own Republican party) and Christian Democrats who wanted to preserve their independence from the RPR’s neo-Gaullist organization.

As he had done before,3 Mitterand took the risk of helping Le Pen at Chirac’s expense. He mentioned the possibility of allowing immigrant workers to vote in local elections, while deploring the popular prejudice against their doing so. This was just the kind of suggestion that would enlarge Le Pen’s vote. Until May 8, when Mitterrand was reelected with 54 percent of the vote, the tactic succeeded; the campaign before the first ballot became a battle between Mitterrand and Chirac. Barre, with no effective political organization behind him, had trouble even making himself heard. And Chirac became increasingly shrill, and seemed ill-at-ease, as he tried both to repudiate racism and to appease the followers of Le Pen.

Between the two ballots, after a debate in which a frozen and haughty Mitterrand dismissed the charges and boasts of a nervous Chirac, the leader of the neo-Gaullists overplayed his hand by seeming to arrange a series of spectacular events: three hostages were freed in Lebanon; one of the French agents involved in the 1984 Greenpeace affair was brought back from the Pacific; and, most dramatic of all, twenty-three French gendarmes who had been taken hostage by the Kanak independence fighters in New Caledonia were rescued (although at a cost of twenty-one lives, two members of the French commando, and nineteen Kanaks). On the second ballot, Mitterrand attracted one quarter of the voters who two weeks earlier had supported Le Pen, along with 14 percent of those who had voted for Barre. The failure of so many right-wing voters to support Chirac seemed a clear rejection of his peculiar combination of authoritarian-sounding conservative rhetoric and wishy-washiness in practice.

The voters’ desire for moderation (with a “social,” if not a “socialist,” flavor) evidently helped Mitterrand. But the same sentiment plagued him during the weeks following his reelection. His talk during the campaign of ouverture toward the center and right wing created expectations that could only be disappointed and fears that could only be damaging. He had soothingly promised to select a prime minister who would form a government capable of representing most of the French, and stated that it would be up to the National Assembly, elected in 1986, to decide whether to let him govern. If not, he said, he would dissolve the Assembly and call for a new legislative election.

Mitterrand’s appointment of Michel Rocard, the popular Socialist maverick, seemed a step in this direction. Rocard had been on the far (but non-Communist) left during the 1960s, but he has many friends among politicians of the center and even on the right. He has been one of the principal advocates of turning the Socialist party into a genuinely social democratic party that would appeal to the middle class as well as to the traditional working class. But it appeared that Mitterrand’s talk of ouverture was still mainly talk. The cabinet announced by Rocard turned out to include only a handful of second-rank politicians from the center and a number of nonpolitical technocrats such as Roger Fauroux, former businessman and director of the Ecole Nationale d’Administration. (Some prestigious centrists were said to have refused Rocard’s offer.)


When several of the more doctrinaire Socialist “ayatollahs” (including Jean-Pierre Chevènement), who reminded the French of the ideological excesses of 1981 and 1982 were given ministerial jobs, there was heard, in political circles and in the press, a groan of disappointment. It was hardly an “opening to the center.” Mitterrand then abruptly dissolved the Assembly without its ever having had the chance of hearing the government’s new program, still less of voting for or against it. Mitterrrand said that the hand of reconciliation he had proffered had not been grasped and so he had to call at once for new legislative elections. This was not what many voters had been led to expect.

Mitterrand and Rocard had a strong case for going to the country quickly. To wait until autumn, after the sacrosanct summer vacation months, meant allowing the right, still dominant in parliament, to select the moment when the new government would have sufficiently sunk in the polls (as any government grappling with a trade and budget deficit is likely to do) in order to overthrow it. But if this was Mitterrand’s fear, he showed little confidence in the ability of the centrists he had been talking about to break away from the rest of the conservative majority. Prominent centrist leaders, among them the liberal Christian Democrat Pierre Méhaignerie, pleaded in vain that they needed more time if they were to organize a group of deputies willing to collaborate with the Socialists.

New legislative elections under France’s two-ballot electoral system made it inevitable that a traditional French contest between left and right would take place—precisely what most of the electorate had made it clear they did not want, and so hardly conducive to an ouverture. As a result, many of the voters who had switched to Mitterrand after voting for Barre or Le Pen on April 24 now supported right-wing candidates in their districts on the first ballot, or else abstained. On May 8 Mitterrand had won by 54 to 46 percent; now, in the legislative elections, the right-wing vote had a slight edge of 50.3 percent over the left-wing vote of 49.1 percent.

This defeat took place partly because Mitterrand had at first made it clear that he did not seek a large victory—one of the few such cases I can think of in modern politics. He obviously believed that dissolving the Assembly not only would give him a clear parliamentary majority but might even surpass the Socialist majority of 1981, as the polls suggested. To compensate for the shock tactics of calling an election so quickly, and to make plausible his plea for broad unity and his attack on RPR “domination,” he made statements suggesting that he didn’t want the Socialist party to have a big win on June 5: “It isn’t healthy for one party to rule,” he observed.4 This, and the defense of ouverture by Rocard even after the dissolution of the Assembly, apparently confused and discouraged the Socialist voters and caused some (particularly in the suburbs of Paris) to return to the Communist party, which had been badly beaten in the presidential election.

Having failed to increase its appeal on its right and having lost ground to the CP on its left, the Socialist party, on June 5, was still stronger than it had been in 1986. With its allied parties, it won 37.4 percent as compared with 33 percent in 1986. On the second ballot the Communists again supported the Socialists in districts where the latter were ahead, and vice-versa. But even though Mitterrand finally appealed for a “clear-cut and stable” majority in parliament, the Socialists missed getting an absolute majority by a dozen seats, and the twenty-seven Communists elected thanks to this electoral deal are no longer their partners in the Assembly.

Similar local deals between Le Pen’s candidates and Chirac’s RPR benefited Chirac and in thirty-three districts candidates of the right were elected with less than 51 percent of the total. The new Assembly, with its 27 Communists, 278 Socialists (and allies), 271 UDF and RPR, and one Le Pen deputy, has no clear-cut majority. The Socialists are condemned to a position of moderation, since the economic and social program of the government and Mitterrand’s foreign policy would not get the necessary Communist support; and some votes of non-Socialist centrists will be needed for the Socialists to govern.5 This Socialist failure was the second surprise of the elections.


Another lesson of the elections concerns political ambivalence. Mitterrand, who is more skillful in dealing with tricky situations than with straightforward ones, lost the gamble that he would easily win the legislative elections because he had, uncharacteristically, overlooked some important features of the current French political landscape. One was the growing public hostility to parties strong enough to dominate, unhindered, the entire machinery of state.6 Only 22 percent of the voters said they wanted an absolute Socialist majority.7 Similarly, on April 24, Chirac had obtained only 19.9 percent of the vote—a gain of less than 2 percent and fewer than 800,000 votes since the presidential election of 1981. A public that has said in recent polls that it is suspicious of excessive state “interventionism” yet attached to “social protection” and attracted to “participation” wasn’t going to embrace any party that seemed too doctrinaire. The cohabitation between 1986 and 1988, in which the RPR-dominated majority was subject to pressures from the Socialist president, had been popular.

However, this does not mean that the old division between left and right has disappeared, even if the ideological issues dividing the two sides appear increasingly thin. Even when the content of the old slogans fades, the attitudes—the mentalités—survive. For reasons that often go back to family and religious, or class, traditions that are solid enough to have withstood deep social changes, migrations, and economic dislocations, some parts of France such as the north, the south, and the southwest, remain bastions of the left. Others, like Alsace, the Massif Central, and the west, remain strongholds of the right.8

Throughout France these mentalités are reinforced by party militants and prominent local politicians the French called notables, who, after years of electoral fighting between left and right, are deeply suspicious of attempts at blurring between the party lines; they are, usually, more “left” and more “right” respectively than the voters they appeal to. Finally, shifting moods and attitudes on political matters are forced into a mold of confrontation by the electoral system itself. The presidential election since 1965, for example, has always turned into a contest (on the second ballot) between two large blocs and so has every legislative election—even that of 1986, despite proportional representation. Under the present electoral law none of the major parties or factions is very keen on l’ouverture. When Rocard, after the legislative election, gave ministries in his government not only to an oddly assorted group of “nonpolitical” experts but also to several well-known politicians from the center the Socialists in the provinces howled with displeasure.

An electorate that is tired of ideological overkill nevertheless defeated almost all of the Socialist party candidates who were advocates of l’ouverture—mainly because these candidates had no roots in the districts to which they were sent. But this is my point: the public at large hopes for a formal alliance of Socialists and centrists,9 but those who make up the backbone of the Socialist party—public employees and particularly school-teachers—do not like the idea at all; nor do the conservative entrepreneurs and middle-level managers who provide the center with voters and resources. To be sure, a return to proportional representation might allow some of the more moderate centrists who admire Raymond Barre and Pierre Méhaignerie to develop a constituency of their own. They thus might emancipate themselves both from alliances with the more right-wing components of the UDF and from coalition with the RPR. This could prepare the way for a deal between the centrists and the Socialists, turning the centrists into a French equivalent of the Free Democrats in West Germany who oscillate between alliances with the Social Democrats and Christian Democrats. Such a centrist faction would want to encourage European union; it would probably take a strong stand for civil liberties and would favor larger incentives for business investment. But the price of proportional representation might well be too high for the Socialists: on June 5, it would have produced an Assembly with 233 Socialists and 262 deputies of the UDF-RPR coalition.


After four elections in three months it is much easier to see what the French voters reject than to see what they really want. They have become ambivalent in a way no one predicted: they will support one man up to a point, but will not provide a clear majority for any single party or coalition of parties. But they are not supporting a new experiment with cohabitation either—they reelected Mitterrand but did not give a parliamentary majority to the right. The recent elections, one might say, amounted to a vote for “limited monarchy.” 10

It so happens that this is not far from the situation for which De Gaulle and his chief aide, Michel Debré, drafted the constitution of 1958: nobody at the time believed that there could ever be a clear-cut majority in the Assembly, in view of France’s many squabbling parties. As a result, they made it possible for the government to govern, as long as it is not overthrown by a formal vote of no confidence by an absolute majority of the Assembly (289). The government, if it needs to, can get a bill passed by calling for a vote in which an absolute majority would be required to defeat it. If it must, it can obtain through executive orders the power to carry out measures that are usually passed as laws. Once it is formed, the government does not even need to ask for a formal vote of confidence. Rocard, speaking to the Assembly on June 29, did not do so. Thus the government can only be brought down by a hostile coalition of both the 272 deputies of the right and the 27 Communists.

But the government is likely to find ten or twelve deputies in the center or right who will abstain if there is a vote on a motion of no confidence.11 Indeed, Rocard will have to make sure that his legislative projects receive either Communist support (as the bill giving amnesty to various categories of criminals and delinquents, including union members, recently did, and imposing a tax on wealth might) or centrist backing, or both (as for his proposal of a minimum income for the underprivileged). Mitterrand in this situation has probably more freedom of maneuver than an absolute majority of Socialists, determined to follow an intensely partisan course, would have given him. On June 14, he congratulated himself on having the broad powers granted to the chief of state by the same constitution he had fought as dictatorial when it was adopted in 1958.12

A potentially divisive institutional problem remains. When the president and the prime minister are from the same party or coalition, the prime minister is clearly the subordinate figure, whom the president can replace at will. Nevertheless, there have always been tensions, even when the prime minister had been selected for his likely docility (Pompidou by De Gaulle in 1972, Barre by Giscard in 1976, Fabius by Mitterrand in 1984). Mitterrand and Rocard have been rivals for many years, and Rocard would have run for the presidency had Mitterrand decided to retire. Mitterrand, who came to socialism after a long journey from his original provincial Catholic conservatism, is something of a literary socialist; he is steeped in nineteenth-century humanism; he has toward money and money makers a deep distaste that derives more from the traditions of social Catholicism than from socialism.

Rocard, a Parisian product of the Ecole Nationale d’Administration, combines an idealistic reformist temper and managerial discipline in a way that is rare in French politics. He has been above all concerned to make French civil life more democratic. He used to plead the cause of autogestion—workers’ participation in control of industry—although he has said little about this recently.

Rocard, a Protestant, doesn’t share Mitterrand’s distaste for capitalism. His passion for sound management, financial rigor, and thorough study of les dossiers—the issues—he partly inherited from his mentor, the late Pierre Mendès France, whose relations with Mitterrand were never untroubled. Mitterrand, a man of changing masks, loves maneuver, surprise, and secrecy. Rocard, who seems entirely lacking in malice, believes in bringing people together in face-to-face discussions, and in appealing to their conscience and reason.

But Mitterrand’s evolution away from the socialist ideological positions of 1981—away, for instance, from the dogma of nationalization and the suspicion of corporate profit—has brought him closer to Rocard. The themes of the president’s long “Letter to the French,” circulated in April as part of his campaign, could be discerned in Rocard’s opening speech to the assembly, which startled the deputies because of Rocard’s deliberately low-key approach. He proposed no vast projects, no lofty vision, but mainly concrete measures—such as the repair of broken-down elevators in low-cost public housing developments—aimed at making urban life more tolerable. He talked of encouraging “everyday democracy,” and (echoes of 1968) of making people “talk to each other again.” Rocard’s popularity in the Socialist party establishment remains limited. Mitterrand will support him if he succeeds in expanding the still mysterious ouverture to the center—and if Rocard does not overshadow his president, ever vigilant to maintain an image of magisterial superiority.


This brings us to a second problem, the future of the “political class”—the politicians and their hangers-on who have an influential part in French party politics. A much heard code word of the moment is recomposition—reshaping. Every party is going through a period of soul-searching (except for the Communist party, whose leader Marchais was given a boost by the voters on June 5). For the Socialist party, Mitterrand is already a lame duck. When the party elected a new secretary general its governing board chose former prime minister Pierre Mauroy over Laurent Fabius, whom Mitterrand discreetly favored. Rocard preferred Mauroy for personal reasons. (Fabius and Rocard, both antidoctrinaire moderates, are rivals.) But some of the Mitterrandistes preferred Mauroy on grounds of principle. As the mayor of the industrial town of Lille, he represents the Socialist party’s historic connection with the working class, whereas Fabius had hinted that the party ought to become a catch-all coalition comparable to the Democrats in the US.

Rocard is now surrounded by a president of the republic he may not be able to count on and a host of potential rivals for the next presidential election. These include Fabius, the new president of the Assembly, who is not always friendly to him; and Pierre Mauroy, who is friendly to him but reluctant to help him politically. For Mauroy, l’ouverture means not a deal with the center but simply a broadening of the Socialist party, or building a new leftist movement around Mitterrand, including the Communists. Other rivals are the nationalist defense minister Jean-Pierre Chevènement, and the former party secretary-general Lionel Jospin, who is now the number two man in the cabinet as minister of education. Jospin has close ties to the powerful teachers’ union and he is generally suspicious of people on the right. His views seem likely to clash with Rocard’s own ideas about l’ouverture and about changes in educational policy on which Rocard is more open to experiment. (He did not mention the subject in his speech.)

Socialist party members are unhappy about the party’s having had to move from its proclaimed 1981 vision of “changing life” to its claim in 1988 of being simply the “party of daily life.” They are unhappy about Rocard’s promise to end the spoils system that his predecessors had set up to distribute top civil service jobs. They are dubious about Rocard’s plea for less intervention in, and greater respect for, “civil society”—ordinary social life beyond the control of bureaucracy—and they are hostile to any opening toward the right. The party’s members would rather cultivate their radical and working-class roots—and they need Communist votes in the municipal elections of next March.

Turmoil is even greater on the right. The UDF is increasingly a fiction and the press reports daily on the “war of the chiefs”—including Giscard and Raymond Barre. The liberal Christian Democrat Pierre Méhaignerie has turned his faction of the UDF into a semiautonomous parliamentary group. He argues that he remains in the opposition but will practice opposition “intelligently” and support Rocard—without joining him—whenever this makes sense. Raymond Barre says he thinks of creating a “social, liberal, and European association” and in the meantime openly cooperates with Rocard and Mitterrand. He supports Rocard in his spectacular and so far successful negotiation of an interim agreement on New Caledonia (to which, in true Mendèsiste fashion, Rocard devoted most of his enormous energy during his first month in office). Barre also authorized his supporter J.P. Soisson to enter Rocard’s government as minister of labor, a key position. He mocks the other leaders of the UDF and, like Mitterrand, sees the destruction or reduction of the RPR as a necessary prelude to any recomposition.

Giscard d’Estaing can often be seen on television trying to take advantage of the defeat of his former prime ministers Chirac and Barre in order to emerge as the leader of the right. He has been elected president of the UDF, but the party is falling apart and his call for a half-Socialist, half-right-wing government has fallen flat. In Giscard’s original faction, the Republican party (PR), there is now little room for him, since many PR members are “Barristes” and the others are followers of the ambitious and shifty François Léotard, who (barely) supported Barre but now clings to Chirac and the RPR.

How the still-mythical new center—composed of Christian Democrats and Barristes—ultimately evolves will depend not only on Socialist policies but also on the future of the RPR. For the first time Chirac’s leadership is being seriously challenged. The line he had followed was that of his two chief advisers: Edouard Balladur, who proposed (and still proposes) an RPR-UDF confederation, and Charles Pasqua, the minister of the interior of 1986–1988, a tough advocate of law and order who stated after the first ballot of the presidential election that Le Pen and the RPR shared the same values. The result was that Chirac did well only among farmers, business leaders, high-level managers, and people over fifty.13

Since the elections, Philippe Séguin, Chirac’s former minister of labor, has been trying to mount a revolt both against the RPR’s centralized structure and against its excessively conservative line, which alienated the broad popular constituency of the original Gaullist party and abandoned the use of charged populist rhetoric to Le Pen. There will be a clash between such “renovators” as Séguin, who loathe Le Pen, and the conservatives who prefer to hold on to a stable right-wing electorate that will make electoral deals with Le Pen (just as the Socialists do with the Communists). A victory of the renovators might slow down the drift of the centrists toward the Socialists; a victory of the conservatives and a continuing policy of making deals with Le Pen would accelerate it. Chirac, who still has not recovered from his defeat, is pondering in which direction he will move.

L’ouverture could be an important new twist in French political life, but it remains nebulous. It is for some a potential contract among political parties; for others it is a matter of personal decisions by centrists to shift toward the Socialists; for Rocard it is an appeal to “civil society.” For Mitterrand, as of July 14, it means the acceptance, in the distant future, by a still unreliable center, of the policies—which he says he has defined—of “the progressive majority” that voted for Mitterrand.

Everyone believes that nothing much will happen before the municipal elections of next March—in which the Le Pen forces, now almost totally excluded from parliament, could take their revenge: after the first presidential ballot, Le Monde pointed out that in 206 out of the 333 cities with UDF and RPR municipalities, the right could win a majority only with the support of Le Pen.14

The internal anxieties and contests of the parties seem once more disconnected from the problems of the French polity and economy. There is considerable agreement on what ails the French economy—insufficient competitiveness, industries and companies that are too small compared with their counterparts in Europe or the US, not enough incentives in state fiscal policy for investments and for creating new jobs, not enough money for research and technical education, excessively high taxes and social security contributions. The impending union of Europe in 1992 makes remedial measures imperative if France is not to be overwhelmed by European competitors; but the need to spend more on research and education conflicts with the need to lower the level of public taxation. So does Rocard’s determination to reduce the budget deficit in order to bring interest rates down. Economic growth may reach almost 3 percent in 1988, and private investment is up, but not enough to increase French productive capacity so that it would begin to meet domestic and foreign demand.

One of the effects of France’s economic difficulties is seldom discussed publicly by politicians: the need for a new, more modest approach to foreign and defense policy. There is an evident tension between the coming European unification and France’s longstanding insistence on national independence in defense matters. The French have at the same time a costly program of foreign aid, particularly to the African countries, and hugely expensive plans for expanding their strategic nuclear forces, building longer-range missiles and a mighty navy. Budgetary limitations will probably have to be imposed if Rocard is to find the resources with which to encourage civilian investment.

But the main problems are those of the French polity. The startling success of Le Pen has revealed the extent to which post-1973 France has been diminished by the fall in the rate of national growth and the spread of unemployment. Economic growth mitigated the huge social dislocations that occurred between 1955 and 1973—the decline of agriculture, the spread of industry, the boom in the cities. But since the mid-1970s traditional industries have been ravaged in the north and east (the coal, steel, leather, and textile industries have lost between one quarter and one third of their personnel between 1975 and 1982).15 In big cities especially, the old social controls enforced by the Communist party and by the Catholic Church have collapsed: there are now vast numbers of unemployed or underprivileged French, men and women who work at temporary or part-time jobs or are on the public dole, and who feel excluded. They are all the more bitter because they have to live next to and compete with the immigrant workers, often Muslim, who become objects of hatred and are blamed, often unfairly, for urban crime. Add to this the disappearance of much of what was left of traditional agriculture, the result of the European Community’s efforts to reduce the overproduction of dairy products and wine. The expansion of new service jobs and of new advanced industries in the west and south has proceeded (as in England) side by side with these social disasters.

The political dangers latent in these developments have been visible ever since Le Pen began to muster a following in 1984—and in the years since then he has added supporters from among urban blue- and white-collar workers and farmers to the shopkeepers and traditional middle- and upper-class supporters of the far right. On April 24 Le Pen did extraordinarily well in major cities, ranging from Besançon, Lyon, and Lille, to Montpellier, Nice, and Marseille; he was supported by 19 percent of the men, 19 percent of the young between ages eighteen and twenty, 27 percent of the business leaders, 20 percent of workers and of peasants, 19 percent of nonpracticing Catholics (“only” 12 percent of practicing Catholics). A map showing the concentration of the Le Pen votes is not the same as one showing the centers of the North African immigration; it conforms much more closely to a map showing where unemployment is high. However, Le Pen also did spectacularly well (22 percent) in Alsace-Lorraine, where his chauvinism appealed to farmers who feel their income is declining because of the Common Market, to workers obliged to find work across the Rhine, to business and professional people afraid of “1992.” He has taken votes away from every other party.16

A straight line can be traced to Le Pen from Edouard Drumont, the anti-Semitic author of the 1886 best seller La France Juive, a line running through General Boulanger and Colonel de la Rocque’s 1930 Croix de Feu and the Parti Social Français. All of them made the same shrill appeal to nostalgia for “old France” and the same attack on the conventional politicians, “the big ones,” the corrupt establishment, the press, the intellectuals, and the civil servants who have allowed the old France to be destroyed, not least by allowing foreigners into the country. This kind of ultraconservatism is different in its anti-state rhetoric from fascism, yet it often has fascist trappings; it is a reaction to distress that seeks scapegoats and clings to a cramped, closed, and xenophobic fantasy of France.


The existence of such a pool of discontent underscores two important points. The first is that there are sharp limits to what has sometimes been called the “banalization” of France—the view that the French have not only abandoned dogmatic ideologies on the left and right but have given up as well the notion of a single, homogeneous, culturally unified “hexagon” and have worked out a pragmatic consensus tolerating regional and ethnic diversity. This consensus leaves out a good quarter of the French. It emerged at least as much from necessity (the failures of dirigisme, the imperatives of the world economy) as from conviction or desire.

The central problem remains what could be called the encadrement of France, the social mechanisms by which people get to the top and stay at the top. Far too often, between the polished and arrogant officials trained at the ENA or Polytechnique and the French body politic, there is nothing. The elite officials (whatever their social origin) have a monopoly on positions of power, and even though their training is primarily directed toward bureaucratic service, they often become heads of France’s main public and private enterprises—where they have to compete with the often much better trained entrepreneurs of other countries. When these ambitious young men plot their careers both politics and business figure prominently in their plans, but awareness of social problems barely at all.17

In France the voluntary associations that Montesquieu and Tocqueville argued should mediate between citizens and government remain weak; unions have fewer members and low funds; regional and departmental bodies, despite the decentralization laws of 1982, remain heavily dependent on the state—only a few powerful mayors and their machines sometimes succeed in fighting urban deterioration. All of the political parties suffer from a decline in militant, card-carrying members. The Catholic Church doesn’t have enough priests, its religious communities are dwindling, its authority over sex and family matters is widely ignored, and religious practice has been in sharp decline since the 1960s. Hence the limited influence that the forces of social control can exert over society and the recurring surge of extremist movements that surprise everyone by their strength and suddenness. The weakness of voluntary associations and the highly politicized local governments will make Rocard’s call for enlarging the functions of “civil society” difficult to carry out. And changing the system of elite recruitment and privileges would require a drastic transformation of French higher education, something no government has contemplated since the very limited reform Edgar Faure drafted under pressure of necessity in 1968.

One of the main tasks of the new government will be to prevent “adaptation” to the new Europe of 1992 from creating more social and economic dislocation. Rocard has promised to try to prevent a “wild” abolition of the regulations that the French feel protect them from foreign competition and interference in their lives. But it is well to remember that the creation of the European Economic Community in 1958 made it necessary for the new De Gaulle government to establish stable political institutions, to devalue the franc, to abolish protectionism, to deregulate prices, and to heavily increase public investments. In much the same way, “1992” may require not only the economic and social measures I mentioned earlier, on which most experts agree, but also the reforms of higher education and of the ways the French select and train elites; for without such changes all the other measures might, in the long run, fall short. Will a somewhat remote president, a dynamic but hemmed-in prime minister, a top-heavy government filled with political prima donnas and politically inexperienced newcomers, and a parliament composed of troubled factions be able to carry out so demanding a task?

July 21, 1988

This Issue

August 18, 1988