Poland and the New France

Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie

It is now seven months since the Socialists came to power in France – time enough for us to draw up an end-of-year or new year balance of their achievement. President Mitterrand, like Mendès-France, was long a staunch opponent of the Constitution of the Fifth Republic, but, despite this, he has had no trouble in adapting to the institutions bequeathed to him by de Gaulle. In terms of ceremonial, he has abolished some needlessly regal customs brought in by his predecessor – having himself served first at table or taking precedence on entering a room; and he has avoided over-exposure on television. But he respects the undoubtedly monarchical, or at least personalised spirit of our institutions. These words are not intended to be derogatory: as a historian of the 18th century, I am more aware than most of the benefits which may be derived from monarchical or semi-monarchical structures, provided they are enlightened – and there is no doubt that our President is a man of culture. Nonetheless, the concept of a ‘personalised regime’ remains in itself inadequate to construe the situation in France. Giscard was, to some extent and without seeking to be so, a one-man show. He has been criticised for colonising the state through his supporters, but this process could not be carried beyond a certain point because the former President did not stand at the head of a major political party: he had relatively few ‘clients’ at his disposal. He attracted the support of a first-rate bureaucratic élite (men like Brossolette, Cannac and Verdeil): but he did not a priori advance liegemen whom he had brought up from nothing.

François Mitterrand’s position is quite different: he has behind him a powerful Socialist Party with a membership of well over a hundred thousand. Moreover, this party is founded on the new social groups – like teachers, for example, and civil servants – which proliferated during the period of sometimes rather disordered growth between 1950-1975. This ‘new class’, of qualified personnel, is electorally supported, moreover, by slightly less or slightly more than half the French population – it varies between 49 per cent and 51 per cent – and takes in all those who from 1958 to 1980 felt left out of the system, and, in consequence, bitter and frustrated.

Among the most frustrated were the young. The fact that they, and the masses who had been deprived of it for so long, have now gained power stresses the profound legitimacy of the new ‘system’. (I don’t want to use the term ‘new regime’, favoured by some writers, because France did not change its Constitution in 1981 – far from it.) But this legitimacy also has its drawbacks: at the Socialist Party Congress in Valence, a number of activists, in words at least, imagined themselves to be budding Lenins. If we were to take what they said literally, France could look forward to a grim future, in the shape of an authoritarian and dogmatic socialism which would largely do away with private enterprise. Happily, Mitterrand seems to have stepped in to put a stop to this trend – until the next congress? The Socialist group in Parliament aroused similar fears for a time. Its members, schoolteachers and university lecturers, are well-meaning but too easily carried away, behind their by no means grey beards, by the rhetoric of ‘socialism of the third kind’. Indeed from CERES, the far left of the Party, we sometimes hear the hollow tones of crypto-Stalinism. Jean-Pierre Chevènement, head of CERES and currently Minister of Research, has twice made fairly questionable statements appeasing the USSR over Afghanistan and Poland. The important fact, however, is that there now exists an immense Socialist pool in which the present leadership can fish at leisure for cadres to replace those formerly appointed by Giscard and Pompidou. Are we henceforth to see the electoral spoils distributed as they are in the United States or Mexico? Some would go even further, alluding to the seeds of a system of nomenklatura. (The Communists, especially, are actively advancing their pawns and placemen in the nationalised industries, the media and local government.) In real terms, leaving aside such problems of definition, one could say that this is how things might evolve. Suppose that in a major public concern the çi-devant Giscardian manager has to be replaced by a boss who is more in tune with the spirit of the Mitterrand era. To accomplish this, one might, for example, take a cadre from the fifth or sixth position in the hierarchy of the company who happens to be the only one among those five or six lucky enough to possess a Socialist Party card. Or the decision might be made on grounds of personal friendship. Either way, there is some risk of a rising tide of mediocrity. Has the same thing happened in countries which were, or are still, led by socialist parties: England under the Labour Party, Schmidt’s Germany, or Sweden? I cannot answer this question, but I feel that the comparison would be an interesting one, and not necessarily unfavourable to France.

The ‘President’s Men’ play a not insignificant role – though it is still ill-defined – in any White House or Elysée Palace system. Beregovoy, a veteran Socialist from Normandy, a genuine son of the working class, Ukrainian in origin, though not anti-Soviet, was a member of the Economic and Social Council under the previous ‘right-wing’ Presidencies which had shown themselves generous and open-minded in appointing him. Under Mitterrand, Beregovoy has continued to rise, becoming one of the mainstays of Presidential power. In passing, we may also cite the presence in the Elysée of that interesting personality Régis Debray, who was (and may still be) a convinced supporter of Castro and Che Guevara, but who has taken a firmly anti-totalitarian stand on Poland, though it is possible that he was influential in the recent controversial decision to sell arms to the Sandino-Castrist government of Nicaragua. Finally, there is Claude Manceron, another member of the Presidential entourage, who is preparing to celebrate the 1789 Revolution, starting in 1984-85. One can only hope that he will approach it in an ecumenical spirit, inspired as much by the views of François Furet as by those of Albert Soboul.

To turn to what might be called the daily round (and how self-annulling it is) of governmental activity: in the economic field, the ideological rigidity of the chosen path may be contrasted with the timely pragmatism of those who have to carry it out. Rigidity of orientation or principle: no one is quite sure of the point of the current series of nationalisation measures, unless it is to provide evidence of the Government’s radical intentions (using the term ‘radical’ in the English or American sense, not as in France where it would imply the Centre-Left), as a means of disarming any attempt by the Communists to outbid it on the left. The total nationalisation of banks, with the exception of those which are very small, seems particularly ‘Catharist’. Are we to agree with our financial ‘nationalisers’ that any provision of credit outside the public sector that exceeds a certain limit is definitely wrong? Are we to return to the attitude of the Catholic Church in the Middle Ages? At that time, the Church condemned as usurious the activities of money-lenders in the private sector (not that there was any public-sector money-lending). The present French Government’s centralist purism is astonishing. Whoever has the money has the country, you may say. Agreed! But in that case let there be no talk of decentralisation, in this matter at least.

It must be added that in its daily management of the economy, the Government’s decisions and performance have been far from disastrous. Under Delors, who is rightly or wrongly accused of being a ‘wet’, inflation has hardly risen any faster than it did under the hard-line Barre. Unemployment is rising, but that, alas, was an inevitable consequence of demographic trends. Business felt discouraged and ostracised for a time as a result of the anti-capitalist rhetoric broadcast at the Socialist congress in Valence. But is it in a much happier state under Mrs Thatcher’s regime of ultra-liberal orthodoxy? In any event, there is nothing extremist about the Finance Minister Delors. For better or worse, he has tried to cushion the blows dealt to industry, in the name of ideological purity, by other ministers and over-enthusiastic parliamentarians. His aim is thus to pluck from the ashes that mysterious phoenix known as ‘confidence’, essential for a return to economic health. To the dismay of dogmatists, he has even called for a ‘breathing space’ in structural reform. He is boosting the economy (is inflation lurking at the end of the tunnel?). He is making sensible increases in the wages of the lower-paid. On television, he fervently asserts his Christian faith: will this bring him a good slice of the Catholic vote? His colleague Dreyfus, the Minister of Industry, can pride himself on having been an effective manager of Renault, which – with the help of large government subsidies – he made a model of a major industrial company. Leading industrialists therefore consider him one of themselves and among the most able.

The third member of this trio of economists is Rocard, the Minister of Planning. Much is expected of him: with his restrained, modern and moderate approach, he is – with some justification – expected to damp the ardour of his more doctrinaire colleagues. Unfortunately, up to now this remarkable politician’s appearances on television have been like those of Our Lady of Lourdes in the Pyrenees. We know that both he and She show themselves from time to time, and that they are potentially able to work miracles. But no one can actually think of a major, sustained speech, illuminating the most urgent problems of our time, made, during the past six months or over the past century, as the case may be, by either Rocard or Our Lady of Lourdes. It was suggested in some quarters that Rocard would make a firm statement on Poland, but sadly at the time of writing (22 January) nothing has been forthcoming after four weeks of ‘normalisation’ in that country. Has the cat got his tongue? The alleyways of the Elysée conceal such mysteries.

In other areas, the Government has adopted courageous and innovatory measures: Badinter, the Minister of Justice and one of the genuine humanists in the Administration, not afraid to call himself a social democrat, made a decisive contribution to the abolition of the death penalty, despite its popularity in opinion polls. Defferre, the Mayor of Marseilles, was mainly responsible for the laws on decentralisation. It needed considerable daring to raise the axe (though it may be blunted) against the system of préfets under which France has lived since the time of Napoleon and which, over the past 200 years, has had some outstanding achievements to its credit. (M. Mauroy casually remarked, in effect, that we had been strangled under the yoke of the préfets: come, come, Monsieur le Premier Ministre, our country is in surprising health after two centuries of suffocation.) However that may be, Defferre’s new decentralisation has brought France into line with the English system of counties or the German one of Länder, as well as with Italy and Spain, which are now to be regionalised too. There is no need for this historic movement to justify itself. Events will show what those parties which are regionally strong (among them the Socialists) make of the change: it is to be hoped that they will not use their victory to set up new and unnecessary non-Parisian bureaucracies. In other respects, Defferre, as Minister of the Interior, has crossed swords with the Police, whom he is supposed to lead. He unwisely described them as ‘racialist’, provoking an understandably hostile response. In the face of this, he changed tack and now never misses an opportunity to express admiration for his subordinates of the uniformed as well as the plain-clothes branch. It is also true to say that thanks to him and his colleagues, France has now become a happier place for many immigrants to live in, and that they are less liable than they were in the past to harassment by the Gendarmerie.

Would it be right to think of Poland as a touchstone against which we can assess both the present state of France and the changes it is undergoing? It is an appalling thought that the tragedy of a great people should become a mirror to reflect our own features, sharpened or distorted by the events. That Sunday in December, when Jaruzelski, backed by the Russians who had taken over the levers of command, ‘invaded’ his own country, proved to be the occasion of a political psychodrama on our side of the Channel. The first reactions were frankly disappointing. Cheysson, whom Giscard, in his concern for advancing Socialists and Socialist sympathisers, had appointed to the EEC in Brussels, and whom Mitterrand subsequently made his Minister of Foreign Affairs, was, to begin with, deplorable, though he has since adopted a resolutely anti-totalitarian stand. In the early hours of that Sunday morning, he came out with the historic remark: ‘Naturally, we are going to do nothing.’ Can this lapse be explained by tiredness? Maybe, but there was some ill-intentioned muttering which claimed that Cheysson had spoken to the President shortly before he made this depressing assessment of the situation. Chirac, also reeling from the events, made a rather feeble speech on television, but ended on a more determined note, referring to the possibility of economic sanctions against the Eastern bloc. Jospin, a graduate, like Chirac, of the Ecole Nationale d’Administration, but a Socialist, criticised Jaruzelski, though in guarded terms, with the ghosts of the Socialist-Communist alliance, which he supports, at his side. Then, as that dark Sunday of 13 December wore on, hostile reactions to the coup in Warsaw appeared and gained strength: there were several demonstrations in front of the statue of Mickiewicz and outside the Polish Embassy, and the politicians became aware of a gradual radicalising of public opinion. The CFDT (the non-Communist left-wing labour federation) adopted a firm line: its leader, Edmond Maire, proved able to speak with courage and from the heart; he may be said to have led popular protest in France against Jaruzelski and the Soviets. Of course, he was delighted at the opportunity to make trouble for his Communist fellow unionists in the CGT, including Krasucki: nevertheless there was something solid and sincere about his pro-Polish declaration. Intellectuals and artists also joined in: it is true that the Union of the Left, seriously tainted by its compromise with the Stalinists, has never attracted even such radical thinkers as Michel Foucault or Pierre Bourdieu, who are consistent in their democratic views. There was a similar reaction from many journalists, who, despite their left-wing opinions, were profoundly hostile to the PCF: they included those working for the daily Libération. A heated interview with Michel Foucault and the actor Yves Montand, both very hostile to Jaruzelski/Brezhnev, set the tone of broadcasts on the important independent radio station Europe No 1, on the morning of Monday, 14 December. Whereupon Jospin blunderingly accused Yves Montand (a Communist fellow-traveller 25 years ago) of having made the mistake of visiting the Eastern bloc in 1956 at the time of the Hungarian uprising. In reply, Montand announced, as a simple fact, that he would never be caught making such visits again, which put Jospin in his place. On the Monday evening, the CFDT and the other non-Communist trade unions met in a massive popular demonstration on the Boulevard des Invalides. The ‘left-wing’ officials detailed to keep order on the march saw fit to take issue with some ‘right-wing’ Chirac supporters who had joined in this great demonstration. A ridiculous example of sectarianism! I took part myself in the parade down the Invalides among a handful of anarchists religiously grouped round their black flag, then with the CFDT police unionists: such are the fortunes of mass demonstration. I went away reinvigorated, even though this purely symbolic act did not stop the ‘Polish’ tanks from breaking through the gates of the factories in Gdansk.

The demonstration at the Invalides produced one further incongruous episode. A lorry of the Fédération de I’Education Nationale (the teachers’ union) started to broadcast the ‘Internationale’ through a microphone linked to a tape-recorder. Maybe they had forgotten that this was the anthem of a Communist International which, everywhere it is in power, savagely oppresses its workers. The result was an obscenity comparable to hearing the ‘Marseillaise’ sung at a congress of French pacifists, or ‘God save the Queen’ performed by a group of British Republicans. Yves Montand, obviously on his best form, pointed out that the Polish workers of Solidarity do not sing the ‘Internationale’: they sing hymns.

Shortly after the events of 13 December, another dinosaur, the French Catholic Church, also awoke from its dogmatic slumbers. About time too: a few weeks earlier, the French bishops, in a long collective document issued in Lourdes, spoke of all the major problems of the world at the present time (arms sales, the Third World, hunger etc) – of everything, in fact, except the Communist system, to which they devoted one single line, which was in any case not even applicable to pre-Jaruzelski Poland (‘Christians are in prison for their faith,’ was all these prelates could say, without adding where, or how, or why, or by whom). Then suddenly, from 13 December, their diocesan references began to extol the fraternal ties which had long united them with Poland. They had masses said and burned candles for that unhappy country and even, a remarkable innovation, asked for ad hoc petitions to be signed at church doors.

French television also caught light. Until then, under the auspices of M. Filloud, the minister responsible for audio-visual media, it had seemed to be turning gradually towards eulogising the achievements of the new French Socialist system. From one day to the next, events in Poland rewrote the rules of this still ill-defined game: Christine Ockrent let fly on the news bulletin of the Second Channel, attacking the PCF leaders. Invited to appear, they showed their solidarity with the USSR, as they always do. A television announcer wore a Solidarity badge in his buttonhole, though what his boss thought of this behaviour isn’t known. The left-wing intelligentsia, down to the level of CNRS lab technicians, was openly disenchanted with Communism, without necessarily rushing to join Chirac or Giscard. It seemed that a massive anti-totalitarian current had welled up from the depths of French society, with Jean-François Revel, a long-standing opponent of Eastern-bloc totalitarianism, finding himself of one mind with the leftists of the class of ’68, with Socialist readers of the Matin de Paris, and with new or established philosophers like Glucksmann and Foucault. Paris intellectuals, united in this way against totalitarianism, must, however, admit that not everyone sees things their way, especially outside France: Germany, for example, hankers after neutralism, pacifism, and even the unity which was unjustly destroyed after the Second World War. There is nothing sacred about the Poles in the eyes of the fellow-countrymen of Honecker and Schmidt – Stalin, after the victory of 1945, having made the poisoned gift to his Slav brothers in the West of one-fifth of the former territory of the Reich. The Parisians’ resounding ‘Vive la Pologne, Monsieur’ is consequently not echoed beyond the Rhine. And there is only a weak echo from British intellectuals – that, at least, is the impression here.

Even here, Foucault and Montand are not in tune with those who determine national economic policies, far from it: are we not to purchase large quantities of natural gas from the Soviets through that pipeline of which we hear such marvellous reports? So much the worse for our solidarity with the oppressed people of Warsaw; and so much the better for the Russians, who will be able to blackmail us by threatening to turn off the tap. Then there is the never-ending problem of the French Communists. In 1939, at a time of danger for Poland, Daladier put them in prison. Now that Poland is once more in peril, Mitterrand has put them into the government. Neither solution is satisfactory, however much both Daladier and Mitterrand hoped, by these very different means, to contain the PCF and moderate or block its ambitions. Meanwhile, the four Communist ministers are doing their best, by well-tried techniques of infiltration, to place their friends, to get the railways to take on surplus staff, to increase the already excessive number of medical students, to transform the CGT branches into employment bureaux, and so on. Poland might have been the moment of truth for this quartet of eminent Stalinists. Alas, as with Afghanistan, the Communist leader Georges Marchais rallied behind his Soviet friends over Poland, to the extent of reiterating their most flagrant lies. ‘There is no Soviet intervention in Poland,’ he said, not batting an eyelid, and added: ‘What Jaruzelski is doing is the best thing possible’ (then, on second thoughts, ‘the least bad thing possible’).

In taking such an extreme stand, the PCF has cut itself off from its Italian and Spanish comrades under Berlinguer and Carrillo. Nevertheless, it has still held on to a section of the electorate, for whom the USSR is the iron fist of the anti-capitalist struggle and the bastion of order. On the other hand, the Party has alienated many intellectuals and workers who realise that the backbone of the Polish movement is composed, not of managing directors and bankers, but of workers, dockers and teachers. Despite all this, too much has already been invested in the other direction for Mitterrand to dismiss his Communist ministers. Several people have already had to put back in their refrigerators the bottles of champagne they were keeping to celebrate that break. Poland has certainly, for a brief moment, altered the intellectual and political face of France. Not enough, however, to compel our President to abandon what was and remains one of the central pivots of his policy: the union with the PCF. During uprisings under the Ancient Régime, rebels would shout: Vive le Roi de France, sans taxe et sans gabelle! I hope with all my heart, though with little confidence, that one day we may be able to shout: Vive Mitterrand, sans ministres communistes!