May ’88

Douglas Johnson

  • Les Sept Mitterrand by Catherine Nay
    Grasset, 286 pp, fr 96.00, September 1988, ISBN 2 246 36291 1
  • France Today by John Ardagh
    Secker, 647 pp, £22.50, October 1987, ISBN 0 436 01746 6
  • Jacques Chirac by Franz-Oliver Giesbert
    Seuil, 455 pp, fr 125.00, April 1987, ISBN 2 02 009771 0
  • Monsieur Barre by Henri Amouroux
    Laffont, 584 pp, fr 125.00, June 1986, ISBN 2 221 04954 3
  • The Workers’ Movement by Alain Touraine, Michel Wieviorka and François Dubet, translated by Ian Patterson
    Cambridge/Editions de la Maison des Sciences de l’Homme, 322 pp, £35.00, October 1987, ISBN 0 521 30852 6
  • The State and the Market Economy: Industrial Patriotism and Economic Intervention in France by Jack Hayward
    Wheatsheaf, 267 pp, £32.50, December 1985, ISBN 0 7450 0012 6
  • France under Recession 1981-86 by John Tuppen
    Macmillan, 280 pp, £29.50, February 1988, ISBN 0 333 39889 0

In April 1984 President Mitterrand gave a press conference unlike any that had previously been held under the Fifth Republic. He did not sit at a sombre bureau Louis XV decorated with red, white and blue flowers. He was not playing the part of the professor from the Sorbonne, as de Gaulle had so often done, lecturing his audience on the history of France. Even less was he the informal, friendly, pullover-wearing head of state whom Giscard d’Estaing had once sought to be. The site was the gardens of the Elysée Palace. The President strode in, mounted a platform and stood at a lecturn, with the national flag flying behind him. He had ceased to be Monsieur le Président. He had become Mr President.

The content of his speech was also American. Mitterrand had just returned from a six-day visit to the USA, where he had visited Pittsburgh and Silicon Valley. He spoke enthusiastically of modernisation and new technology. He was not ashamed of what the Socialists had done in the past when they had tried to control incomes and prices: but now he spoke of profit and success. He spoke of the need to replace old industries like steel and coal, to cease to support failing enterprises, to face up to the realities of competition, to make France an assertive and efficient economic power rather than one which was liable to decline in a world where the economically feeble were condemned. The fact that this press conference coincided with a strike among the steel-workers of Lorraine, and a hostile speech from the leader of the French Communist Party, made it all the more remarkable. Within a few weeks the Minister for Culture, Jack Lang, who was known to be close to Mitterrand and who had earlier, in a speech in Mexico, denounced the economic and cultural imperialism of the United States, was boasting of the Silicon Valleys that existed in France (partout chez nous, en Aquitaine, en Rhône – Alpes, en Bretagne, en Alsace). Within a few months Pierre Mauroy, a more emotional and traditional socialist, determined to attack unemployment and to revive those areas of the country which were economically depressed (especially around his own fief of Lille), was replaced as prime minister by the young and technologically-inspired Laurent Fabius. Soon it was announced that every school in France, however small or rural, had to have its computer and had to teach its pupils how to use it. The catalogues and advertisements of Christmas 1984 were dominated by the idea that les pères Noël bien intentionés would be distributing electronic equipment that year and that no child was too young to have his personal computer (les pianonoteurs en culottes courtes).

Catherine Nay claims that this was the turning-point of the Mitterrand septennat. He had become François Ronald-Reagan. François Léon-Blum had disappeared; the influence of Lamartine and Jaurès had diminished dramatically; the man who had intended to destroy capitalism seemed intent on slaying the evil empire of socialism. His road to Damascus was via Silicon Valley.

Naturally there is some exaggeration in this. Modernisation had always played a part in the recent thinking of the French Left. Most of the Socialist ministers who assembled in the Elysée after the legislative elections of 14 and 21 June 1981 owed something to Pierre Mendès France, who pleaded for une République moderne. Jean-Pierre Chevènement, the minister in charge of research, had urged the French to become the Japanese of Europe; in 1980 the Communist Georges Marchais had accused the opponents of modernisation of being agents of American economic imperialism; for years before that, Michel Rocard had been urging French socialists to imitate the West Germans and forget about Marxism.

It is nonetheless a fact that when Mitterrand was elected in 1981, his success was in large part a reaction against the relentless process of modernisation which had characterised the Fifth Republic from its inception. De Gaulle may have given up Algeria and the French empire with an ostentatious reluctance, but the very idea of de-colonisation was part of modernisation. The French Army, it was said, should not be confined to social welfare and sentry tasks in uninspiring parts of Africa. The General, who, in the Thirties, had seen that warfare was a matter of motorised movement, believed that the French Army should become an ultra-modern force, as capable as any other of threatening nuclear devastation. This philosophy was maintained under Pompidou and Giscard d’Estaing, as towers came to dominate the Paris skyline and the French population as a whole fell under the sway of gigantism and gadgets. But as John Ardagh points out in the revised edition of France Today, when Mitterrand challenged Giscard d’Estaing in 1981, the confrontation was between a more traditional father-figure type of politician, a man who emphasised the private qualities of life and spoke of old values such as equality, fairness, self-help and tranquillity, and the technocrat, the manager, the master of statistics, the prophet of unlimited progress. The lesson of 1981, as the sociologist Bernard Cathlat put it, was that the definition of ‘progress’ had to be revised. Yet within three years it was Mitterrand who was talking about technological necessities and economic competition, and who had installed as prime minister a technocratic whizz-kid who even resembled Giscard in his appearance.

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