Proportional Representation casts a shadow over France
After the first five years of left-wing government the Fifth Republic has known, the result of the March 1986 parliamentary elections is already, and quite universally, taken for granted. The Left will lose its majority and without much doubt the next government will be formed by the leader of the RPR (Gaullists), Jacques Chirac. This result seems so inevitable that pollsters are amusing themselves by asking such questions as whether voters would object to voting for a candidate who was two-timing his wife with another woman (78 per cent would not object), while political sophisticates are already turning their minds to the real showdown, the Presidential election of 1988. Without much doubt Mitterrand hopes to neutralise a Chirac government via his considerable Presidential powers and then secure the election of another Socialist President in 1988 – who would dissolve the Assembly and hope to sweep in a Left-Centre coalition, thus reducing 1986-88 to the proportions of a brief interregnum. Chirac, naturally, has other ideas and since no one knows what will happen in 1988 there has been a Gadarene rush towards him by key élites. The RPR boasts that every single head of a nationalised industry has already been in touch with them. This is unlikely to save many of their jobs. The heads of TV channels are equally unlikely to survive.
The pre-electoral period is dominated not by the usual who-will-win question but by two concerns which are threatening a wholesale bouleversement of French political life: the introduction of Proportional Representation, and immigration. Speculation continues as to why Mitterrand has introduced PR. To be sure, the Communists demanded it and the President is thus fulfilling a promise to them: and defensively it has ensured that though Socialist losses will be heavy, the party will have about a quarter of the Deputies in parliament. But it also means that the PS (Parti Socialiste) can never again hope for the sort of absolute majority it won in 1981 and that it will not in future have the same leverage to force the Communists into supporting a PS Presidential candidate. The real reason probably goes deeper: it is Mitterrand’s revenge on de Gaulle. For with PR every future President will face the likelihood of shifting, conditional parliamentary majorities. The President will thus need to coax and curry favour with the Assembly, and the Bonapartist Presidency of the Fifth Republic will at last be cut down to size. It is the revenge of the Third and Fourth Republics on the Fifth.
The introduction of PR has already profoundly changed the political environment. It has, above all, transferred enormous power to the national party bosses and the select circle of cronies who fill their smoke-filled rooms, for it is they who will decide on who is to carry their parties’ colours on the 96 departmental lists and, more important, who is to get the ‘eligible’ places on those lists – i.e. the list positions likely to result in being elected. Thus a reform supported by the rhetoric of a wider, fairer democracy has immediately resulted in the key decisions being taken more secretively and by fewer people than ever before.
The best way to understand the anomalies thus created is to take the case of a hypothetical department with, say, ten seats. In 1981, let us imagine, the combined vote of the Left parties was 55 per cent and that of the combined Right 45 per cent. However, since the PS was the dominant party within the Left and the RPR within the Right, the final result produced by the majoritarian system in force in 1981 was six PS and four RPR Deputies (a perfectly typical result). In 1986, however, the polls point towards a 60-40 per cent majority for the Right in terms of the popular vote. With ten seats up for grabs and the small parties (Ecologists, Trotskyites, Independents etc) bound to take up to 10 per cent between them, it seems likely that 8-9 per cent of the popular vote will be enough to win a seat for one of the major parties.
Everyone does their sums – and panic ensues. The PS knows that the Left can get only four seats. But even though the Communists are weak, they can surely get 8-9 per cent and take one seat – leaving the PS with just three. This means that only the first three places on the PS list are of any serious interest, which means that three of the six sitting PS Deputies have to be dumped: virtual war between the six and their clients ensues. On the right the situation is no easier. Le Pen’s Front National (FN) is bound to take 8-9 per cent and thus one of the seats, but the Giscardian Centre-Right, the UDF, will run its own list and probably get 20 per cent and thus two seats. This leaves only three seats for the RPR, which has four sitting Deputies ... And nobody can be fobbed off with the offer of fourth place on either the PS or RPR lists, for everyone can see that it will take an electoral swing of enormous – and thus highly unlikely – proportions to make these of more than academic interest. To offer such a place to a sitting Deputy is insulting.
The situation has been further complicated by a (helpful) increase in the total number of seats from 491 to 577 – but also by the first proper redistribution along population lines for 27 years. This means that many departments have suffered a sharp drop in their number of seats – Paris has gone from 31 to 21 seats and the in-fighting in the capital is the fiercest of all, especially since Le Pen is standing here and is bound to be elected with at least one other FN candidate.
Vol. 8 No. 3 · 20 February 1986
From Boyd Tonkin
SIR: In his grim and detailed portrait of French official racism in the pre-election period, R.W. Johnson (LRB, 23 January) may unwittingly leave the impression with your readers that two centuries of Enlightened thought have just curled up and died. By taking part in the squalid trade in anti-immigrant threats, the Socialist government and most of the press have indeed come to mimic the worst prejudices of the traditional Right and the Front National. But Johnson overlooks those pockets of political life where resistance continues to this shameful betrayal of the Arab and African communities who, quite literally, rebuilt France after the war.
On a wet and freezing Saturday shortly before Christmas, the non-party association SOS Racisme managed to gather around sixty thousand demonstrators in Paris to mark the end of a kind of anti-racist Tour de France undertaken over the previous month by groups of mostly Arab youths on scooters. Last summer, an SOS-sponsored concert in the Place de la Concorde attracted a quarter of a million supporters. Kept at arm’s length by Socialist ministers and lacking any patronage from other notables, SOS Racisme has created a powerful presence in little over a year, despite the usual problems of tiny budgets, tatty offices and erratic publicity.
The organisation has few friends at court, and media backing has come only from a mixed bunch of sympathisers that includes the gratingly trendy paper Libération (hardly a recommendation for many people) and the noisiest of the not so very Nouveaux Philosophes, Bernard-Henri Lévy (ditto). SOS’s relations with other immigrants’ rights groups have not always been happy – especially with those of an overtly Islamic slant – but it has become a conspicuous example of political pluralism in defence of strict republican principles, drawing attention to physical or ideological attacks on non-Europeans, and lobbying on cases and issues at a national level. It has both Jewish and Arab officers and activists, while its president is a 26-year old Frenchman of West Indian origin called Harlem Désir – his real name, amazingly enough.
Unlike the British Anti-Nazi League of the late Seventies, SOS has avoided hijack by the Trotskyists. Many of its militants are very young-lycéens rather than students – and appear to have no other political axe to grind. They include a large number of young Arab women, one of whom told me sadly that she felt she had to fight against her parents’ generation before achieving the independence to be able to fight for them. Compared to the great pikes of the mass parties whose sinister movements Johnson traces, a campaign like SOS Racisme is clearly, still a minnow. It does seem strange and depressing that such a precarious and informal body should have to bear the weight of defending the simplest of liberal values in France. Whatever happens to Le Pen’s increasingly smooth bigots and their imitators after 16 March, the task that SOS has set itself looks likely to grow alarmingly over the next few years.
From Jacques Beauroy
SIR: R.W. Johnson’s recent discussion of the current election campaign in France gives too much weight to Le Pen and the National Front, to the press baron Robert Hersant and to immigration and the ‘racist mood’ as the main factors in the likely victory, next March, of the Liberals and Centrists of the UDF allied with the ‘Barrists’ and the populist RPR. The following quotations sum up his argument: ‘In any case, once the present racist mood has produced a right-wing government, it will have largely served its purpose.’ And: ‘The French example suggests that if you introduce PR to a country which has two million plus coloured immigrants, high unemployment and a muscular, nationalist Right, things can quite easily spin out of control.’ Proportional Representation will not have the disastrous effects Mr Johnson predicts for France, nor for Britain if it ever crosses the Channel.
A clear victory of the UDF-RPR, if it happens next March, will be due to the failures of the Left since it came to power in 1981 to fulfil its utopian promises of La Force Tranquille and to Changer la Vie – which amounted to ineffective and ruinous nationalisations, rising unemployment and foreign debt, a brutal austerity turnabout in 1983, an absurd attempt to put an end to la liberié scolaire and, to crown it all, the shameful Greenpeace affair. This covert attack – in a friendly democratic country – on a small protest organisation mattered to the French, even though Mr Mitterrand and Mr Fabius survived the scandal and French opinion, given its national interest in the Pacific, seemed not to take it too seriously. The key issues in the next election are democratic and serious ones: Libéralisme, Anti-Étatisme, Régionalisation, Privatisation, Autonomie etc. There is also an anti-racist mood personified by Mr Harlem Désir, Mr Stasi, Mr Raymond Barre, Mrs Simone Veil and movements like Touche pas à mon pote or SOS Racisme which transcend the traditional divide between Left and Right.
As for Proportional Representation, which has its definite fairness, more than ‘the revenge of the Third and Fourth Republics on the Fifth’, it was a cunning move by Mr Mitterrand to save what could be saved of the Socialist Party in the next Assembly and Regional Councils after the likely March debacle. The scrutin majoritaire à deux tours, if it had been kept, would have reduced the PS to a particroupion. Unfortunately the price to pay will, in my view, be a small number (not ‘several dozen’) of Front National members in the National Assembly. In effect, their election, for the first time, will confine ‘racism’ to a handful of extremists in the Assembly and ensure their final discredit. France simply needs a good immigration law – say, on the Canadian model – and it will get it in the new legislature.
Concerning the co-existence of chauvinism and racism with a growing acceptance of cultural pluralism and of immigrants playing leading roles in all walks of life in France, Mr Johnson is not wrong, but Michel Poniatowski is not a good example of a mere ‘Polish count’ becoming Giscard’s Interior Minister. After giving a king to Poland in the 18th century, the family of the Princes Poniatowski has belonged to the French ‘ruling class’ and high society since the early 19th century when the ancestor of Michel Poniatowski, a ‘hero’ of Napoleon’s Army, held the rank of Maréchal d’Empire. Michel Poniatowski himself is an énarque, like Giscard, with whom he was a leading figure in the Républicains Indépendants and, in 1976, a founder of the Parti Républicain. It is thus difficult to consider him as an example of a successful immigrant of ‘recent’ assimilation like Henri Krasucki, Yves Mont-and or Yannick Noah, whose mother is actually French, all of whom are mentioned by Mr Johnson.
To sum up, the likely victory next March of the liberal and democratic opposition should not be equated with a racist right-wing victory for Messrs Le Pen and Hersant. Proportional representation will not bring about a catastrophe for French democracy but will simply save the Socialist Party from a too humiliating defeat.
Collège de France, Paris
From Peter Fryer
SIR: In his otherwise lucid and illuminating article, ‘Proportional Representation casts a shadow over France’ R.W. Johnson says that we in Britain ‘have over two million coloured immigrants’. Approximately half of Britain’s present black population were born here. How can somebody be an immigrant in the country of his or her birth?
Vol. 8 No. 4 · 6 March 1986
From R.W. Johnson
SIR: Jacques Beauroy, in his comments (Letters, 20 February) on my article on the French election (LRB, 23 January) is, of course, quite right to say that issues other than immigration will count in the election – and, of course, in saying that there is no shortage of issues on which to criticise the Socialist Government. The opinion polls give no support at all, however, to his contention that ‘the key issues … are … Libéralisme, Anti-Etatisme, Régionalisation, Privatisation, Autonomie.’ This is certainly what a relatively small number of right-wing intellectuals would like the election to be all about, but the polls show, repeatedly and overwhelmingly, that not one of these themes rates any popular mention at all and that when people are asked which themes matter to them, only unemployment and the standard of living compete at all successfully with immigration, either in a straightforward sense or in its coded form of ‘law and order’. Thus the SOFRES poll of 23-28 January (Le Monde, 6 February) shows sécurité to be the overwhelming issue for Parisians (60 per cent mentioning it), with another 32 per cent mentioning ‘the immigrant problem’. None of the issues mentioned by M. Beauroy makes any appearance at all.
There is also no doubt at all that PR is amplifying the importance of the immigration/law-and-order issue. Thus the latest poll for the Bouches-du-Rhône (Marseilles) region also shows these two issues way out ahead of all others – and shows the Front National at 17 per cent and Chirac’s RPR at just 7 per cent. Under the old electoral system the FN would have got no seat with 17 per cent: now they seem likely to get three seats there. Similarly, there is no doubt at all that PR has hugely amplified the opportunities open to M. Hersant. M. Beauroy may feel I gave too much weight to M. Hersant, but the ability of a single right-wing press baron to constitute almost a party of his own did seem to me an extraordinary phenomenon. I would recommend him to look at the recent Nouvel Observateur feature on ‘Hersant, the real boss of the Right’. PR will not, of course, produce a ‘catastrophe’ or ‘disaster’ (M. Beauroy’s words, not mine). Life will go on; my point was not to argue for or against the ‘fairness’ of any electoral system (I’m agnostic about that), but simply to point out the real consequences of choosing one rather than another.
Some of M. Beauroy’s points are simply partisan. He is not wrong to describe the RPR-UDF as a ‘liberal democratic’ opposition – but it remains the case that it was the Opposition’s opportunistic use of the race issue in the 1983 municipal elections which prepared the ground for Le Pen. Similarly, he may regard the nationalisations of 1982 as ‘ineffective and ruinous’, but the fact remains that many of those industries were then in deficit while now, thanks to massive state investment, almost all of them are making enormous profits. Indeed, this is why the Opposition are backing away from some of their earlier privatisation commitments, as they realise the sheer impossibility of the small French stockmarket being able to absorb the enormous flotations which would be involved. To take one example, Rhône Poulenc was worth Fr.3 billion when it was nationalised, but is valued at Fr.13 billion now. M. Beauroy may term all this ‘ineffective and ruinous’ if he wants, but British voters would be thrilled if nationalisation had resulted so quickly in such a massive return to profitability.
Finally, both M. Beauroy and Boyd Tonkin are right to bring up the role of SOS-Racisme. Unfortunately, Tonkin’s characterisation of this movement as having ‘few friends at court’ is far more accurate than M. Beauroy’s claim of a significant anti-racist mood bridging Right and Left. The missing dimension to what M. Beauroy says is the extent to which a quite opposite mood has led almost all the leaders of the ‘liberal democratic’ Opposition to compromise their claims to principled non-racism. What is one otherwise to make of M. Chirac’s wish to make the family allowance system discriminatory against immigrants? Or of his famous characterisation of immigrants in Paris in 1983 as ‘men of the sack and the cord’? Or of Mme Veil’s unhappy admission in the 1984 European elections that while she was Jewish, M. Hersant, also running on her list, was an anti-semite? Or of M. Barre’s well-publicised meetings with Le Pen when the latter first burst onto the scene, or his recent resuscitation of the old Vichy slogan of Patrie, Travail, Famille? This is not to quarrel with M. Beauroy’s characterisation of Chirac, Veil and Barre as ‘liberal and democratic’, but it does illustrate the pressures under which even such politicians now have to operate – and why SOS-Racisme has ‘few friends at court’.
Vol. 8 No. 7 · 17 April 1986
From R.W. Johnson
SIR: In your issue of January 23 I contributed an article which dwelt at some length on the strength of the racist mood in France and of Le Pen’s Front National, and on the fact that proportional representation made it virtually certain that Le Pen would gain ‘several dozen’ seats. This brought a strong rebuke from M. Jacques Beauroy, of the College de France (Letters, 20 February):
R.W. Johnson’s recent discussion of the current election campaign in France gives too much weight to Le Pen and the National Front, to the press baron Robert Hersant, and to immigration and the ‘racist mood’ … The scrutin majoritaire à deux tours, if it had been kept, would have reduced the PS to a parti-croupion. Unfortunately, the price to pay will, in my view, be a small number (not ‘several dozen’) of Front National members in the National Assembly. In effect, their election, for the first time, will confine ‘racism’ to a handful of extremists in the Assembly and ensure their final discredit. France simply needs a good immigration law.
I hope M. Beauroy will have the grace to admit that he was quite wrong. What has actually happened is that the ‘racist mood’ (I’m not sure why M. Beauroy insisted on inverted commas around this quite tangible reality) was strong enough to give Le Pen a major triumph, with nearly 10 per cent of the vote and 35 deputies (‘several dozen’, I hope it will be agreed). In addition, Le Pen has 135 regional councillors who hold the balance of power for the next six years in nine out of the 22 regional councils. These nine regions include Paris, Lyon and Marseilles and well over half the French population. French conservatives have been visibly shaken by the sheer strength of Le Pen’s push and some – like Jacques Blanc, head of the Giscardian Parti Republicain – have already openly announced their willingness to do deals with the FN. Secondly, it is not true that the retention of the old electoral system would have reduced the Socialists to a particroupion. Calculations inevitably differ, though only between 153 to 210 seats for the Socialists under the old system, as opposed to the 215 they got.
Finally, Robert Hersant has played a critical role. His newspapers kept up a barrage of racist propaganda throughout the campaign, his money helped to fund the right-wing parties, and he and nine of his clients, relatives and employees have been elected. Given that M. Chirac has a wafer-thin majority or even none at all, these ten Hersantistes are in a position to exercise enormous leverage on the new government.
M. Beauroy is still right, of course, to say that the elections need not be a catastrophe for French democracy. But the facts are the facts and it is better not to be too bien pensant in simply trying to wish them away.