Jean-Marie Le Pen
Jean-Marie Le Pen; drawing by David Levine


Writers on France are used to stressing French distinctiveness. Indeed, the two features that the French and American political traditions have been alleged to share are a belief in each country’s being an “exception,” and the claim that each is a blend of races and peoples, a melting pot. What the regional and local elections in late March have shown, in the French case, is that the melting pot is not melting smoothly, while France seems less of an exception to European trends than ever.

If one compares the French results to those of the recent elections in Germany, Italy, Great Britain, and the US, one finds that England was the exceptional case—the only country in which the incumbents won and the shifts from right to left, or vice-versa, were very limited (the Conservative percentage was the same as in 1989, and Labour gained mainly at the expense of the Liberal Democrats). In France, in Germany, in Italy, and in the US, most of the voters are in a mood of protest, annoyed both with the politicians in office and with what could be called the usual opposition. Those who have habitually managed or are managing public affairs are increasingly unpopular. In the German states of Baden-Württemberg and Schleswig-Holstein, the new extreme right and, to a lesser extent, the ecological parties benefited from this mood. In Italy, the neo-Fascists made some progress, but the triumph was the regionalist Lombard League’s, which won more than a third of the votes in northern Italy.

In France, the parties that have governed since 1984—the Socialists and the coalition of the two moderate right parties, Chirac’s RPR (Rally for the Republic) and Giscard d’Estaing’s UDF (Union for French Democracy)—won only 52 percent of the votes; the rest went mainly to the Communists (9 percent), the ecologists, divided into two factions (14 percent), and Jean-Marie Le Pen’s National Front (14 percent). In Germany, France, and Italy, the issue of immigration had a large part in whipping up public discontent, although the Lombard League was original in calling for a halt of Italian “immigration” from the poor South to the wealthier North. In Germany and France, the protest parties benefited from growing public anxiety about the pace and direction of European integration.

One result was common to France, Germany, Italy, and England: the plight of the Socialists. In England they fell far short of their goal—a return to power. In Italy, Benito Craxi’s Socialist Party failed to gain from the decline of both the Christian Democrats and the divided and largely discredited Communists. In Germany, the Social Democrats did no better in Schleswig-Holstein, where the extreme right-wing Republican Party made gains, than the Christian Democrats in Baden-Württemberg, where the Republicans also gained.

The decline of the French Socialists was the most spectacular. In the elections to regional councils, the Socialist Party’s vote was cut nearly in half, from about 34 percent in the legislative elections of June 1988, to a little over 18 percent. Many of the defectors, especially among the young and among wage-earners (workers and employees), appear to have voted for the ecological parties, particularly for the movement called Génération Ecologie, headed by Brice Lalonde, who was a member of the government of Edith Cresson. However, if one guesses, from past evidence, that two thirds of the ecologist voters came from the left and one third from the right, one is faced with a ratio between left and right of about 40 to 60 percent—the worst, for the left, in many years.

The past eleven years, since they first took power, have been turbulent and strangely self-defeating for the Socialists. In both 1981 and 1988, the party had a popular success. François Mitterrand was elected president, dissolved the National Assembly, and helped the party get an absolute majority in 1981, and a plurality in 1988. But each victory was followed three years later by a steep decline in popularity. In 1986, this decline led to a conservative victory in the legislative elections, despite Mitterrand’s manipulation of the electoral system, by substituting proportional representation for the longstanding system in which voters elect, on two successive ballots, a single deputy in each constituency, in an arrangement that amplified the winner’s margin in the Assembly. The Chirac government of 1986 went back to a single deputy system.

Between 1981 and 1983, Prime Minister Pierre Mauroy, the mayor of Lille, presided over ambitious reforms that embodied old-fashioned socialist ideology, including nationalization of large industries and attempts to stimulate economic demand. In 1983, as inflation rose and the French balance of payments deteriorated, he made an abrupt shift toward fiscal austerity and a market economy, and then was replaced. Between 1984 and 1986 the government of Laurent Fabius aimed at moving the Socialists out of the abyss of unpopularity into which they had fallen by the end of Mauroy’s term. He too encouraged competition and free enterprise. He did well in the opinion polls between 1984 and 1986 but not well enough in the election to prevent the victory of the right in 1986.1


When the Socialists returned to power in 1988, Mitterrand first appointed as prime minister his former rival Michel Rocard, whose government was mildly popular, and then in 1991 Edith Cresson, who struck many people as strident in manner and far from competent. Now Pierre Bérégovoy, who was finance minister under both Rocard and Cresson, has been appointed prime minister with the difficult task of rescuing the Socialists. He stands relatively high in the polls at the moment, but in the legislative elections that will take place in 1993, his fate could well resemble that of Fabius.

Part of the cause of the French Socialists’ steep decline lies with Mitterrand; but part lies in France’s own version of the general crisis of social democracy that has taken place throughout Europe. François Mitterrand was reelected, in 1988, on a misunderstanding. The Olympian style of his campaign and his “Letter to the French,” published just before the vote, seemed to promise a broad ouverture—an opening to other parties, and a willingness to replace the Union of the Left (Communists and Socialists) with an alliance between Socialists and centrists. After his reelection, instead of negotiating, or letting Rocard negotiate, a formal deal with the centrist parties of Simone Veil and Raymond Barre, Mitterrand preferred to limit the ouverture to the appointment of a few centrists and representatives of so-called civil society (for example, Dr. Bernard Kouchner, the organizer of the international medical aid group, Médecins Sans Frontières).

Rocard’s attempts to reach broad agreements on controversial issues succeeded in defusing what could have been explosive demands for independence in New Caledonia and in dealing with other conflicts, including a strike by nurses. Still, this was only a temporary substitute for a genuine ouverture. And the sudden firing of Rocard in May 1991 seemed simply to be a whim of the president, the latest manifestation of that “quiet hatred” between the two rivals which had kept Rocard in the wings since his entry into Mitterrand’s Socialist Party in 1974.2 Mme. Cresson turned out to be a clumsy administrator, with little ability to control the bureaucracy, and she used shrill, socialist rhetoric that appealed to left-wing nostalgia for economic dirigisme and ignored the center’s desire for a consensus.

The impression grew that Mitterrand’s second term was going nowhere. During his first term he could claim two historical achievements. One was the gentle strangulation of the Communist Party, whose decline had other causes as well, but whose participation as a very minor partner in the Union of the Left caused it to lose ground in subsequent elections and to engage in damaging internal disputes. Mitterrand’s second achievement was the advances toward European integration that were later marked by the Single European Act of 1987 and the acceptance of the plan for a single European market in 1992. During his second term, one could argue that Mitterrand appeared to be a confident leader both during the Gulf War and in the negotiations on European Monetary and Political Union at Maastricht in Holland last December. But, as in the US, the “Gulf War effect” proved to be ephemeral; the Maastricht agreements have made many French fear the increasing power of a German-dominated European bureaucracy run from Brussels; and Mitterrand’s foreign policy has, since the fateful events in Europe in 1989, had its share of blunders, for example his impulsive willingness to deal with leaders of the August 19 Putsch in Russia.3 The president was thus seen as caring only, as one wit put it, for “les grands projets et les petits emplois” (big projects and small jobs); that is, he spent much of his time protecting and promoting his political friends, and indulging in such extravaganzas as the costly and controversial Très Grande Bibliothèque that will replace the Bibliothèque Nationale.

Above all, Mitterrand seems to have become the victim of his own increasing aloofness and his sometimes ostentatious display of being outside and above the Socialist Party, whose popularity was visibly declining along with Mitterrand’s ability to control its different factions. The presidency, in France, has an important pedagogic function—one that General de Gaulle had enjoyed performing. Under the Fifth Republic the president is in charge of France’s long-term interests and must explain to the electorate the policies that the government presents to Parliament. He must try to show that there is some large purpose or vision behind them. Except during the Gulf crisis, Mitterrand has failed to do this. His speeches and TV interviews have been perfunctory, cryptic, or too clever-sounding. A poster showing De Gaulle in a French crowd, which was displayed in the Paris subway during the commemoration of the centennial of his birth, quoted the general as saying: “Rien n’est si grand qu’un peuple gouverné.” (“Nothing is as great as a people who are governed.”) The French public often resents the state—remember May 1968—but it resents just as much the feeling that it is not “gouverné“; and successful government, in France, has long required not merely the use of power but a display of rational and rationalized Authority.


With Mitterrand’s ambitious protégé Laurent Fabius now, after trying for six years, in charge of the Socialist Party, and his close associate Pierre Bérégovoy in charge of the government, the president cannot convincingly claim (as he tried to in a long television interview on April 12) that he has nothing to do with the difficulties facing the two men. He has been hurt by the party’s troubles, which can be described as very similar to the difficulties of Social Democrats in, say, England, Germany, and Sweden.4 The trend of the 1980s away from the Keynesian welfare state and toward a deregulated European market has deprived the Socialists of their traditional program, and they have not found a new one. In now opposing nationalization and celebrating private investment, private enterprise, and profits, they offer little more than an echo of their conservative opponents, and not much of choice, at a time when conservatives (even under Mrs. Thatcher) for the most part oppose dismantling the welfare system. In France as elsewhere, the Socialists have been unable to stop or roll back unemployment, and all they can promise the jobless is somewhat more humane treatment than they might expect from conservatives. The Socialists therefore have become resented by their own disappointed followers and distrusted by more well-to-do voters who suspect the Socialist Party of being the party of more bureaucracy and higher taxes. And the conversion of the French Socialists to the market has been accompanied by financial scandals and highly publicized instances of corruption that only reinforce the existing resentment and distrust.

French socialism has additional handicaps, which derive from its peculiar history. As two Socialist scholars have recently pointed out, 5 the party has always been highly ambivalent about governing. It sought power as the necessary means to “change life” or “change the type of society,” but it dreaded doing anything to advance the interests of a capitalism it opposed or, as happened to the unfortunate Léon Blum, having to accept the political and social status quo, in which the working class was making little progress in relation to the bourgeoisie. The party was originally based on an uneasy alliance of revolutionaries and reformers, of whom the greatest was Jean Jaurès (a leader who defended Dreyfus, asked the workers to trust the Republic to expand their rights, and worked for the separation of Church and state). The party could overcome its internal tensions only by indulging in a ritualistically radical rhetoric that promised more than mere reform, that spurned Scandinavian and British social democracy as too timid, and denounced money and profit as synonyms for injustice and corruption. After 1919, competition with the Communists made such rhetoric seem even more necessary, while it became even less credible.

With the fading Communist challenge, and the fiasco of the last attempt at “socialism in one country” between 1981 and 1983, many French Socialists were happy to discard this largely unsuccessful past. But in doing so they didn’t lose only their distinctiveness; many of their militants became demoralized,6 and many of their younger voters were estranged. Mitterrand’s willingness to ally himself with Bernard Tapie, a pugnacious financial operator from a poor family who became a millionaire by acquiring failed companies, and who owns the soccer team of Marseille, was seen by many “pure” Socialists as a flagrant sign of corruption. Tapie has now become minister of cities, an appointment that seemed to cast some doubt on Bérégovoy’s promises on becoming prime minister to restore honest government. The government’s commitment to European integration and monetary union sets limits on the amount the state can spend on creating new jobs, or on new social benefits, without risking inflation and a weakening of the franc, which is tied to the German mark. The alternative is to raise taxes, which would only make the government more unpopular. As for the Socialist Party itself, it has not recovered from the disastrous Congress of Rennes of 1990, where it became clear it was not a united party but a congeries of factions, each led by ambitious men—Fabius, Rocard, and Mauroy are only three among others—whose alliances often shift, and who seem unable to form a decisive majority or agree on a common program.


Many of the young people and wage-earners who deserted the Socialist Party have gone over to Le Pen’s National Front. By mobilizing voters against Le Pen in the weeks just before the regional elections, the Socialists succeeded in raising electoral participation to 70 percent after several years of decline, and in limiting Le Pen’s gains. Nevertheless, it is the first time that Le Pen’s party has reached the percentage he himself got in 1988 when he ran for president.

While the far right is on the rise in most of Continental Europe, France remains distinctive. Le Pen has been skillful in linking immigration to the government’s failure to protect people from violence. He blamed the many incidents of mugging and robbery that have disrupted some of the poorer suburbs around Paris and other big cities, where the schools tend to be mediocre and social services inadequate, on the immigrants from Muslim North Africa and from black Africa. In persuading many voters that immigration was therefore the central issue, and that immigrants must be thrown out of the country, he has thus seized an issue that the other parties had neglected. He forced them to oppose him on his chosen ground, either by denouncing his program or (more frequently) by arguing that they were just as hostile to immigrants as he was. (Only in the last few weeks did the moderate right-wing parties reject the idea of forming alliances with the National Front in order to capture regional or local councils.) In England in the early 1980s, Mrs. Thatcher had preempted the appeal of any potential extreme right movement by taking a tough line on immigration. In France, Le Pen seized the issue first.

In fact the number of illegal immigrants is not very high (120,000 at most, each year, in a country of 58 million), although the legally established population of Moroccan, Tunisian, and Algerian origin is estimated to be roughly 1.6 million. Moreover, the issues raised by the foreigners who are seeking asylum in Germany and by the ethnic Germans returning to Germany are far more serious. And, as any casual visitor in France can observe, North Africans and blacks are working side by side with the “natives” in countless shops and factories, and they are studying with them in schools. France’s immigrants are virtually all French-speaking, unlike the Turks in Germany or even many “Germans” whose families had lived for dozens of years in the former USSR or in Eastern Europe.

Integration of the immigrants is gradually, if not always easily, taking place, even though the institutions that have customarily done it—the schools, military service, parties, and unions—are somewhat less effective than they once were in turning immigrants into Frenchmen and -women. Muslim leaders from time to time try to impose a kind of social and religious segregation on young North Africans; but many of these are not deeply religious, and immigrant groups have made few demands for a French brand of multiculturalism that would officially accommodate Islamic fundamentalism or repudiate the traditional methods by which immigrants become French through absorbing the principles; and accepting the institutions, of the lay Republican state. At the same time the National Front had remarkable success in regions such as Alsace where there are very few immigrants. What, then, explains Le Pen’s rising proportion of the vote?

Partly, it is his shrewd emphasis on problems of daily life which the “governing parties,” on the left or right, had neglected: drugs, youth gangs, theft and crime, urban blight and decrepit housing, the absence of “convivial” meeting places or playing grounds, and the breakdown of the traditional controls exerted by the Church or by “family values.” Michel Rocard understood the need to deal with these issues and had prepared a number of programs to deal with them, but he didn’t have the time to carry them out—any more than his reforms of party financing and campaign fund-raising were able to give a new ethical tone to “the relationship between politics and private money.”7

Le Pen’s success derives to some degree from the appeal of his law and order populism and his strident antisocialism to parts of the French electorate which, for more than a century, have been drawn to such rhetoric in troubled times. Movements as diverse as the one that pushed General Boulanger to take power in the mid-1880s, or the one that supported fascist and authoritarian leagues and parties in the 1930s, and even the forces that rushed to join General de Gaulle’s opposition Rally of the French People in the late 1940s, have all found support from two quite different elements—the upper-class opponents of a Republic that, in their eyes, promoted the “ferments of decomposition” at the expense of traditional French values, and lower-middle-class citizens afraid of being eliminated by les gros (organized labor, organized big business), especially during periods of economic distress.

Le Pen’s is only the latest of these movements to detach from the left a great many “little guys” who feel betrayed by the Socialist and Communist parties because they are unprotected by them and neglected or harassed by a distant and bureaucratic government. Such movements divert and capture a kind of sans-culotte antiparliamentarism; they exploit a violent desire for a strong, tough government (la poigne). Also, they attract a sizable proportion of those who in ordinary times vote for moderate conservatives. Indeed the borderline in France between the parties of the right that accept representative, democratic government and the parties and factions that do not is far more porous than much of the scholarly literature suggests.

Finally (with the exception of De Gaulle) the right-wing populist movements exploit latent racism and the desire to seek out scapegoats among those who are “not like us”: the Jews in the 1880s and 1930s; the Arabs, the blacks, and (through code words) Jews in Le Pen’s case. In March, he did well in Paris suburbs that used to be Communist or Socialist strongholds and that had been the scene of violent incidents involving immigrants, as well as in urban and suburban districts that are quite well-off. He also had strong support in cities where les Français moyens (“ordinary folks”) are afraid—in Giscard d’Estaing’s famous phrase—of being “invaded” by (in Chirac’s no less notorious words) “smelly” hordes from overseas.

Le Pen had some help from the contradictions of Mitterrand himself, who used lofty rhetoric of universal human rights and antiracism, and hinted he had a plan to give immigrant workers the right to vote in local elections, while his government was making shrill attacks on illegal immigrants and defending, without any sign of fresh thought, the traditional model of citizenship, which limits political rights to those of French nationality. The press and television meanwhile built up Le Pen by suggesting that his answers were questionable but his questions were the right ones. The widespread “malaise” about immigration was expressed daily in arguments not at all different from those used against Italian “invaders” in the 1880s and East and Central Europeans during the 1930s. In a country where the proportion of foreigners hasn’t changed much,8 but where Islam evokes disturbing fantasies and memories, Le Pen was able to link fears of immigration to far more diffuse, but growing, anxieties about the “disappearance” of French identity in an ominous united Europe.


Since 1984 Mitterrand has talked of a “grand design” for a United Europe in which France would have a central place, yet until the Maastricht meeting in December there was little public discussion of France’s relation to the new Europe. The Communists and some nationalistic Socialists such as former defense minister Jean-Pierre Chevènement denounced the Common Market as procapitalist; the centrists such as Raymond Barre were fervent “Europeans,” but the Gaullists and the ecologists were divided. Many of the Socialists, as usual, left foreign policy to the president. But Mitterrand’s silence or vagueness was all the more disconcerting because he did nothing to explain, or try to mitigate, the highly technocratic methods by which a united Europe was being constructed. What typically happens is that conferences of government representatives and experts ceaselessly redraft proposals that emanate from national bureaucracies and from Jacques Delors’s EC Commission (which is appointed by the national governments). The results are incomprehensible texts that must be decoded by legal specialists. None of this has encouraged public debate.

The gradual formation of the Community, ever since its beginning in 1950, has necessarily been an exercise in ambiguity. The members could never agree on the ultimate shape of the Community (should it be a Federal state? a Europe of loosely associated states? something far tighter than a confederation yet far less so than a federation?). Each step forward has had to preserve this ambiguity, so that no one would drop out, and could only be taken after detailed bargaining on a narrow range of issues.9

One result is that the French public did not quite understand what was happening. The Single Act of 1987 said that decisions in the EC Council no longer required unanimity and could be taken by a majority. This was a major break with national sovereignty but it was presented in the French press and to Parliament as if it were simply a way to avoid constant deadlocks. The financial “rigor” imposed on the French economy by membership in the European Monetary System, which is dominated by the Bundesbank, was seen as a remedy for inflation. The long negotiations that led to the Maastricht meeting were interpreted mainly as tests of the new united Germany’s willingness to remain a “good European” closely tied to its neighbors.

Suddenly, after the Maastricht agreements were announced, the controversy over Europe’s future—and over France’s future as a nation—became very sharp indeed, when many people realized that the new set of bargains would amount to a huge change in France’s economy and autonomy. France was to give up both its own currency and the possibility of manipulating the value of currency in order to regulate its economy. The new European Central Bank envisaged at Maastricht would be dominated by the Bundesbank, and, being totally independent (unlike the Bank of France), it could refuse to take into account national preferences and the interests of different sectors of the economy. The new provisions on Political Union extend the jurisdiction of the EC to such matters as immigration, defense, and foreign policy. The European Court of Justice already acts on the principle that Community regulations take precedence over national constitutions and laws; the EC’s Commission has often overruled French practices and projects in conflicts over industrial competition. The decisions of both groups have annoyed many defenders of France’s legal and economic independence, and the Maastricht accords will make them angrier.

Moreover, before they can be ratified, the Maastricht agreements require a revision of France’s constitution, which grants the right to vote only to French nationals, while the agreements grant voting rights in local elections, and in elections for the European Parliament, to citizens of the Community’s nations wherever they happen to live in the EC (a decision which separates citizenship from nationality). The French Constitutional Council, moreover, recently held that the constitution does not allow the “transfer” of sovereignty that would take place under the new arrangements concerning European currency and a common European policy on visas for citizens from nonmember countries.

The French are thus faced with a double set of quandaries. One concerns domestic politics. Should the revision of the constitution and the ratification of the treaty be entrusted to the Parliament (where a three fifths majority is needed) or submitted to the entire country for a referendum? Both methods are possible constitutionally. But a referendum could be fatal to the EC if the “enemies of Europe,” and the enemies of Mitterrand, should all join forces and say “no.”

As for a ratification by Parliament, the neo-Gaullists led by Chirac are already making it clear that they will support Mitterrand (and also thereby preserve their alliance with the unconditionally pro-Europe centrists and conservatives led by Giscard d’Estaing) only if the treaty is diluted by a variety of “guarantees,” and if Parliament’s vote is followed by a referendum. Such reservations recall the unfortunate history of the European Defense Community, whose ratification was delayed for several years because of the divisions among the French parties, and was finally rejected by the National Assembly in 1954.

A more fundamental question concerns France’s future. Mitterrand has said, “France is our nation, Europe our identity”—a neat phrase but no more. So far, the French who hold high places in the bureaucracy and especially in business have endorsed the Community because they realize that national economic independence in Western Europe is now a myth. But the Maastricht agreements raise serious questions. If sovereignty through isolation is absurd and has to be replaced by the hope that France will gain influence through cooperation, how much influence will France have in the Community of the future?

Already, French peasants fear that the Commission will yield to US pressure against price supports for farm products and that France will be isolated and outvoted in the EC’s Council, which sets the agricultural policies that the Commission enforces. Giving up a franc that is already dependent on the deutsche mark is no easier for the French than giving up the DM for the European écu seems to be for the Germans. Some French experts warn that a common, anti-inflationary monetary policy of high interest rates will perpetuate unemployment and cripple the one “national” instrument by which a government could still manipulate its economy, the national budget.10

Parliamentarians and commentators deplore the “democratic deficit” of the EC, i.e., that its top institutions, the Commission and the Council, are not responsible to any democratically elected body, that the powers of the European Parliament remain small ones, and that the national parliaments will soon be doubly dispossessed—not only, as usual, by the national executive and its bureaucracy in each member state, but more than ever by the regulations and directives of the European Commission and Council.

Finally, the Maastricht accords raise even higher the barrier between a more densely integrated Western Europe and the outsiders in the eastern half of the continent. Should the members of the Community accept this trend, or should they rapidly open their membership so as to let many more countries in, thus helping the floundering new democracies in Central and Eastern Europe, even at the cost of “diluting” the EC? Through this dilemma the old debate is reemerging between advocates of “federalizing” Western Europe (which is unacceptable to the UK) and those of a broader but flimsier “Europe of states” that would more easily include the East Europeans.11

The traditional idea of “national identity” is thus threatened in two ways: by the increasing tendency to mass migration, especially from the south, and by the continually tightening integration of the European Community. The two threats are not easily separable. The same Socialists who proclaim that foreigners must assimilate in the traditional way to French culture, political and social practices, and institutions have also pursued, until now rather enthusiastically, a European policy requiring France to submit to Community decisions that obviously reduce French autonomy and distinctiveness. One now senses in France a largely unstated but rampant fear about German preponderance replacing the Franco-German “axis” that had been the driving force of the European Community since the days when Germany was divided.

Such are some of the issues behind the French “malaise,” which is also exacerbated by 10 percent unemployment and a relatively low rate of productive investment, and which is reflected in the recent rejection of the Socialists and the rise of Jean-Marie Le Pen. Many large French companies and banks have recently taken part in a bewildering series of industrial mergers, takeovers, and alliances, but it remains in doubt whether these changes will help France compete in the coming single market. France also suffers from a familiar paradox: the state has retreated from its interventionist economic policies of the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, partly because the opening of borders in the EC made such intervention ineffective, partly because of the general reaction against the Keynesian state, and partly, too, because of hopes that local and regional economic development will be revived. But the limited powers and financial resources of the regions, the weaknesses of the French labor unions and voluntary associations, and the long dependence of French businesses on state support have so far discouraged local investment and growth.12

Mitterrand says he will concentrate for the next six months or so on the complex battle to revise the constitution so as to approve the Maastricht accords. He will then turn in the autumn to another constitutional revision, aimed at shortening the seven-year mandate of the president. Virtually everyone agrees that two seven-year terms are too long. But Mitterrand has not said whether such a reform would take effect only after his current mandate, which lasts until 1995, or whether, as most French would prefer, he would apply the reform to himself, and resign before the legislative elections of next March. If he does not resign, he will probably have to endure another period of “cohabitation,” amounting to an impasse with the government of the right that will likely be elected in March 1993 and headed by Edouard Balladur, the smooth former aide of President Pompidou and ally of Chirac. Under a new cohabitation, French politicians and parliamentarism might be even more discredited than they are now.

But the length of the presidency is probably less of a problem than the dual power of the president and the prime minister under the French system, which allows the president to deal with the most important issues and to deflect his unpopularity onto the prime minister. When the two leaders are political enemies, as with Mitterrand and Chirac between 1986 and 1988, the executive becomes a battlefield; and when—as has been the case since 1988—they are political allies, the system works well only if the president does not retreat into the grandeur of the Elysée palace or prefer to the tasks at home the pomp and prestige of visits to foreign countries. Between 1988 and 1991, the nation had a largely silent president, while Michel Rocard, a competent manager and a prudent and foresighted reformer, did not forthrightly explain the changes he wanted to make for fear of annoying Mitterrand, on whose very limited good will he depended.

Everyone predicts a conservative majority in next year’s legislative election—especially now that Mitterrand has given up his attempt to get the Assembly to install some form of proportional representation to replace the current system. The main beneficiaries of proportional representation would have been the ecologists and the National Front, which the present electoral system almost excludes from Parliament. Proportional representation would likely have made France ungovernable, and the public would have blamed the Socialists for blatantly trying to manipulate the system.

The rightly gloomy Socialists can see only one reason for hope. Should Jacques Delors come back from Brussels, either before next year’s legislative elections (assuming Mitterrand resigns in time) or, after the new “cohabitation,” when Mitterrand’s term ends in 1995, all the polls indicate that he would easily win the next presidential election. The declining popularity of the Socialist Party has not affected him, partly because he has been “Mr. Europe” in Brussels since 1984, partly because, as in the US, the election of the president is a contest of personalities at least as much as a choice between left and right. And a victorious Delors might, like Mitterrand in 1981 and 1988, or Pompidou in 1973 and Giscard in 1978, persuade the voters to provide him with a working majority (probably composed of both Socialists and Centrists) in the Assembly. At present, according to the polls, if Rocard were the presidential candidate running against Chirac, the 40-60 ratio of left vs. right would come closer to 50-50.

Whether any one person will be capable of dispelling the “malaise” is far from clear. But the Socialists have, at least, two more cards to play, and they may have to make a painful choice between them. Those who appreciate ironies will note that one—Delors—was a Christian Democrat and fellow traveler of Gaullism before he became a Socialist, while the other—Rocard—has tense relations with the traditional apparat of the Socialist Party, all the more so because, like Delors, his hopes for a more humane industrial society have little to do with traditional socialism. The two statesmen who are thus most likely to become rivals are really separated by little more than personal ambition. But isn’t this usually the most bitter source of enmity?

April 30, 1992

This Issue

May 28, 1992