In the latest issue:

Boris Johnson’s First Year

Ferdinand Mount

Short Cuts: In the Bunker

Thomas Jones

Theban Power

James Romm

What can the WHO do?

James Meek

At the Type Archive

Alice Spawls

Where the Poor Lived

Alison Light

At the Movies: ‘Da 5 Bloods’

Michael Wood

Cultural Pillaging

Neal Ascherson

Jenny Offill

Adam Mars-Jones

Shakespeare v. the English

Michael Dobson

Poem: ‘Now Is the Cool of the Day’

Maureen N. McLane

Tativille

David Trotter

Consider the Hare

Katherine Rundell

How Should I Refer to You?

Amia Srinivasan

Poem: ‘Field Crickets (Gryllus campestris)’

Fiona Benson

Diary: In Mali

Rahmane Idrissa

Proportional Representation casts a shadow over FranceR.W. Johnson
Close
Close
Vol. 8 No. 1 · 23 January 1986

Proportional Representation casts a shadow over France

R.W. Johnson

4228 words

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.

The party bosses have priorities of their own. Thinking ahead to the key parliamentary battles of 1986-88, they all want their strongest teams in the Assembly – which means parachuting front-bench figures into leading positions in favourable departments, thus increasing the squeeze on the (highly indignant) sitting Deputies. There is also the pressure to broaden the parties’ appeal by including allegedly non-partisan ‘personalities’ here and there. But not a few of such notables have realised that Le Pen’s FN offers the best chance of all. Under the present majoritarian system he has no Deputies at all but under PR he will have several dozen. Although the early expectation that the film star Alain Delon might figure on a FN list has been disappointed, there has been a considerable flocking of local celebrities onto FN lists – thus creating furious ructions among the FN’s militants de première heure who had begun to preen themselves as future Deputies but now find their ambitions indefinitely deferred.

PR has robbed the election of any element of surprise it might still have had. Although it is clear that the parties will spend as never before – £50,000 per party, for each of the 96 departments seems a likely figure – not only the overall result but that for most individuals is already assured. In our hypothetical department, for example, the top two men on the PS, UDF and RPR lists are, effectively, already elected. Similarly, numbers four to ten on their lists are there only for the ride. All of these candidates can sleepwalk their way through the election. Only the marginal third man on the list is likely to break sweat. Similarly, while a swing of 2-3 per cent could well settle the whole election under a majoritarian system, under PR it will only modify the overall result very slightly: PR, as the Italian example shows, means almost complete immobility and the campaign itself becomes a largely bogus form of popular entertainment.

One talks of the top ‘men’ on the various lists advisedly, for once the party bosses get down to the nitty-gritty of allocating the ‘eligible’ list positions, it is usually the women who get squeezed out. Realising what was happening, the Minister for Women’s Rights, Yvette Roudy, led a uniquely cross-party campaign to shame the (male) party bosses into concessions. This was not wholly disinterested – Madame Roudy was finding herself left out of the ‘eligible’ places in one department after another. The PS has responded by trying hard to impose at least its women Ministers on usually very reluctant departments. Mme Roudy, having been rejected in Hauts-de-Seine, seems likely to find a place in Calvados. The Minister for Social Affairs, Georgina Dufoix, has been parachuted into Gard – but is being fiercely resisted by the local party. The Minister for Foreign Trade, Edith Cresson, is having a similarly difficult time after being parachuted into Vienne. The Minister for the Environment, Huguette Bouchardeau, has trekked all over France, being angrily resisted by local (male) vested interests everywhere. The Right has reluctantly doubled its number of ‘eligible’ places for women – from three to six. Only the Communists have a really strong feminine representation on their lists, but given the Party’s poor prospects, few of these will get elected. Overall, it is already clear that PR will be a disaster for women: from 27 Deputies out of 491 they will diminish to 24 or 25 out of 577. Shirley Williams please note.

What is true for women is also true for the young. The party bosses are naturally more susceptible to the powerful pressure of the senior sitting Deputies than to the claims of younger hopefuls with less bargaining power. It already seems clear that PR will have a strongly ossifying effect, entrenching the old political class, more able to elbow its way into ‘eligible’ places. As the weekly Le Point put it, ‘on the right the lists resemble the court of Louis XVIII, a veritable Restoration, replete with old powdered marquises, their hairpieces whitened with the passage of time, and with great local feudatories.’ On the left the difference is one only of degree.

The exception to this rule, of course, is that new faces are welcome if they belong to the rich, the powerful and the well-connected. With a handful of men in all the parties making the crucial decisions behind closed doors, money and influence can buy their way in as never before. One sitting PS Deputy has angrily resigned from the party altogether after finding ‘his’ eligible place assigned to a 28-year-old who happens to be Mitterrand’s grand-nephew. In Indre-et-Loire, a split in the RPR seems likely after the imposition of Bernard Debré, a son of de Gaulle’s first premier. In Eure, Chirac’s imposition of another of Debré’s sons has led to similar trouble. In Deux-Sevres, Chirac has had less difficulty in imposing the young Jean de Gaulle: no one in the RPR is very keen to oppose – publicly at least – the General’s grandson.

The most remarkable case, though, is that of the press tycoon, Robert Hersant – the third richest man in France. Hersant’s Vichyite and anti-semitic past does not make him an attractive candidate: the last time he stood in a parliamentary election in one of the safest conservative seats in France, he was roundly defeated. That, though, was under the old majoritarian system. With the coming of PR Hersant has gobbled up ‘eligible’ places not only for himself and his son but for another 13 of his collaborators and assistants as well. The only real question is whether Hersant will use his leverage to become a minister or will prefer to buy one of the public TV channels the Right is promising to sell off.

The introduction of PR also has a great deal to do with the fact that the election campaign is likely to be disfigured by a good deal of anti-immigrant racism. Under the old majoritarian system Le Pen could have said what he liked on this theme, got his 10 per cent of the first-round vote, and then watched his support flock towards orthodox conservatives on the second ballot without ending up with much leverage or a single seat. Under PR, however, every vote Le Pen takes is a direct loss for the RPR and UDF – and he will get lots of seats. His leverage is, accordingly, enormous: he can even dream of making and unmaking governments. The result is an alarming and escalating auction in racist promises and threats as the orthodox Right engages with Le Pen in a fierce competition for every last racist vote. Already Chirac has made it clear that he personally would like to see all unemployed immigrants expelled from France – which would give employers virtual power of deportation over many of their workers. Even official RPR policy calls for continuous street-corner identity checks by the police to clamp down on illegal immigrants (clandestins) and for the discontinuation of family allowances to immigrant families for their third and subsequent children. The assumption that more French children are a good thing and more immigrant children a bad thing is quite openly racist. This amounts to the almost complete adoption of the FN platform by the man who will be the next prime minister. It is no good, of course: Le Pen is only too happy to go further. The FN is now calling for the total abolition of all family allowances to immigrants; their deprivation of free education and of all trade-union and works-council voting rights; and the stripping of French citizenship from the most recently naturalised.

The atmosphere engendered by this auction is, as they say, something else. The Hersant press, with its apocalyptic warnings that French national identity will soon be lost, has become more and more openly racist – particularly Figaro, whose editorial staff includes an unashamed FN clique which reportedly ‘terrorises’ the more orthodoxly right-wing journalists on the paper. Le Pen’s meetings are increasingly anti-semitic as well as anti-Arab and anti-black. On TV the question put to all aspiring politicians is ‘What would you say to an Arab becoming prime minister of France one day?’ (As one looks round at the miserable Arab street-cleaners and reflects on the absence of naturalised Arabs from all the party lists, one wonders how these French variants on Anna Ford and Selena Scott manage to look so pertly relevant while posing such ludicrous questions.) Even ‘liberals’ such as ex-President Giscard make ponderous remarks about immigrants having to ‘remember that they may have rights, but they have duties too’ in such a way as to suggest that immigrants are falling down on their duties in some unexplained way. But the key mechanism is PR: it forces Chirac to compete with Le Pen; Giscard with Chirac; even the Socialist premier, Fabius, can be heard boasting on TV of the ‘exceptional firmness’ the Government would display against clandestins. PR has meant that Le Pen has been able to send powerful ripples flowing across the entire political spectrum.

Immigration seems likely to be the dominating election issue. Rather than simply berate the French for the appalling displays of racism and chauvinism this will undoubtedly produce, it is worth pointing out that historically France has been more welcoming to foreigners than any other European country. This is partly a matter of force majeure: the country has long land borders with five major foreign states (not counting Luxembourg, Monaco etc) and immigration is intrinsically difficult to control. By 1900 one inhabitant of Marseilles in five was an Italian, while the 1920s saw a huge influx of Poles. By 1930 there were three million immigrants in France (one-third of whom were Italians). Indeed, if one goes back four generations one Frenchman in three has immigrant ancestors and demographers point out that without this continuous inward flow over the last century, France would today have a population of 40 million instead of 55. Britain, by contrast, has been a large and continuous net exporter of migrants.

Moreover, immigrants have gained acceptance in all walks of life in a way that the more chauvinist British might well not have allowed. Giscard’s Interior Minister was a Polish count, Michel Poniatowski: could someone with a name like that become Home Secretary? The head of the largest trade-union federation, Henri Krasucki is a Polish Jew: could one imagine a Polish Jew heading the TUC? Among popular idols there are many of immigrant stock – Yves Montand (Italian), Johnny Hallyday (Belgian), Sylvie Vartan (Bulgarian), Constantin Costa-Gavras (Greek), Yannick Noah (Camerounian), and so on. Even the French soccer team, the European champions and the country’s pride and joy, has an immigrant majority – three Spaniards, two Malians and one Italian, who is also the captain. Indeed, the more one reflects on the immigrant presence in French life, on the one hand, and the strength of French national culture, on the other, the more one is driven to the belief that a nation is simply a defined cultural space into which large numbers of originally quite different people can be almost interchangeably fitted.

According to the most recent figures, there were, in 1984, 4,485,715 foreign migrants in France (i.e. 7 per cent of the population – the same proportion as fifty years ago). To these one has to add a guesstimate for clandestins. When the Mitterrand Government offered to regularise the situation of all clandestins on a once-and-for-all basis in 1981, 130,000 stepped forward. It seems a little unlikely that a similar number of fresh clandestins has built up again in just four years, but this does not prevent the figure being conventionally put at 300,000 – or, if you read Figaro, 500,000. (The discovery, last month, of a new source of clandestins, Chinese arriving from Zhenjiang province with bogus Cambodian passports, has received a great deal of attention, though to date the police have only found and deported 25 of these exotics – not quite the Asian tide of popular headlines.) A sensible maximum figure is probably 4.6 million, of which the largest single group (860,000) are Portuguese.

Politically, though, this is to miss the point. The heart of the matter is what Figaro refers to as the ENE – Etrangers Non-Européens. According to Gérard-François Dumont, President of the Institute of Political Demography, and Figaro’s leading expert on the subject, there are 2.6 million ENE in France. This figure immediately gained wide popular acceptance, although M. Dumont’s Institute itself turns out not to exist. When asked how he could justify his 2.6 million figure – far higher than anything the official figures will support – M. Dumont gave a glimpse of his somewhat unusual demographic techniques: ‘Every Frenchman knows in his heart of hearts that there are more than 2.6 million non-Europeans in France.’

The interesting point here is the sudden and crafty omission of the word ‘foreign’: M. Dumont is clearly including those of non-European extraction who are full French citizens and are thus assumed to be right outside the debate. But there are a lot of them, starting with the 400,000 ‘Harkis’ – Algerian Muslims who fought with the French Army and retreated en masse to France when Algeria became independent. There are also, no doubt, not inconsiderable numbers of French citizens from the old French empire, especially Senegal, and from the French Overseas Departments, especially Martinique, Guadeloupe and Réunion. One certainly meets a lot of Antillais (West Indians) in Paris, but since they are and always have been French citizens, they don’t get into official statistics about immigration. Undoubtedly, though, for the man on the metro to Saint-Denis who finds (as one easily can) that his is the only white face left in his coach by the time the train gets to the terminus, the crucial fact is skin colour, not whether his fellow passengers are Harkis, Antillais or even tourists. (Out in Saint-Denis, by the by, one right-wing mayor is barring all immigrant children from the local schools, thereby implementing part of Le Pen’s programme and doubtless hoping to provoke a confrontation with the Government just before the elections.) It is now the official policy of the RPR – and thus the next prime minister – to remove the right to citizenship of those born in France unless it is accompanied by a statement that the applicant will ‘seek integration into French society’ (by renouncing Islam?), but this is not going to get around the fact of the numerous Harkis and Antillais.

There are many ironies in the immigration imbroglio, starting with the fact that the tenacity of old French imperial assumptions has contributed a great deal to the present situation. It might, of course, have been even more difficult if the Right had got its way. Le Pen, after all, was the most extreme defender of Algérie Française: had he and the rest of the Right succeeded in keeping Algeria as a French department, another twenty million North Africans would now have entry rights to France. More mundanely, it was under de Gaulle, Pompidou and Giscard that the really massive influx of ENEs took place (the Mitterrand Government has been more restrictive than any of its predecessors) – and yet the Right has now found in that influx the perfect stick with which to beat and destabilise the Left. Then again, we have the spectacle of Robert Hersant, who has struggled for so long to overcome his unfortunate beginnings on an anti-semitic paper, reaching the culmination of his career by means of a fresh outpouring of racist panic-mongering. We have, too, the spectacle of Alain Peyrefitte, former Gaullist Minister and one of the forty ‘immortals’ of the Académie Française, solemnly warning that Colombey-les-Deux-Eglises could soon become Colombey-les-Deux-Mosquées. (Peyrefitte, too, is now on the Hersant pay-roll.) Perhaps most ironic of all is the figure of Mourad Kaouah, an Algerian Deputy under the Fourth Republic and, like not a few Harkis, keen to prove that he is a sort of super-Frenchman through the strength of his hostility to Arab immigrants. A close friend of Le Pen, Kaouah was 14th on the FN list in the 1984 European elections (and thus not elected). It is assumed that several of the FN Euro-MPs will resign their seats when they get elected to the French parliament in March. Kaouah will then move up to take one of the vacant places and the Fifth Republic will have its first Arab Deputy at any level – under the colours of the Front National.

The election campaign is clearly going to be a nasty one. How permanent its effect will be is, however, quite another question. Once Chirac has control of the government, he will want to lose his rabble-rousing image and establish a calmer, more statesmanlike and, ultimately, more centrist appeal – essential if he is to appear as a Presidential winner in 1988. This could well militate against an attempt to fulfil some of his wilder anti-immigration commitments – which Mitterrand will anyway use the power of the Elysée to block. In any case, once the present racist mood has produced a right-wing government, it will have largely served its purpose. On the other hand, racism is not going to go away: the co-existence of 4.6 million immigrants and 2.37 million unemployed more or less guarantees that. Besides, the Le Pen phenomenon is well and truly established and while PR lasts Le Pen will remain powerful.

But will PR last? Quite possibly not. All polls show that a majority of Frenchmen want to go back to the old majoritarian system, which they associate with strong, coherent and stable government. Chirac is so determined to get rid of the system that every RPR candidate has been made to sign a contract engaging him to vote the old system back. The Communists and Le Pen will naturally fight for PR while they have breath in their bodies, but many Socialists, although they loyally voted the new system in, would privately prefer the old system back. The pivotal group is likely to be the Centre and Centre-Right. Publicly, they too are committed to going back to the majoritarian system, but the truth is that PR suits them in the same way that it suits the Alliance in Britain. There is already some sign of backsliding there. Chirac, naturally, wants the old system back right away but centrists are beginning to talk of such a change as something for ‘after 1988’ – the precious principle of unripe time thus making its familiar reappearance. The present betting has to be that Chirac will be strong enough to get his way and that PR will be a one-election wonder. All those who do not wish to see an escalating auction of racist rhetoric at every subsequent election will have to hope Chirac does get his way.

It will be evident that the discussion of PR in practice in France does not have much in common with the bien-pensant discussion of PR in theory in Britain. No doubt Alliance spokesmen will rush to assure us that it would all work quite differently in Britain because, well, because we’re British. But how different are we? 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.

Britain has, I have suggested, been less tolerant and welcoming of immigrants than France. In any case, we, too, have over two million coloured immigrants; we have at least a million more unemployed than the French; we certainly have a muscular, nationalist Right; and we have a right-wing popular press which is just as unscrupulous as its French counterpart and is run by our own passable imitations of Robert Hersant. Maybe it would be different in Britain. Maybe.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

letters@lrb.co.uk

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Letters

Vol. 8 No. 3 · 20 February 1986

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.

Boyd Tonkin
London N1

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.

Jacques Beauroy
Collège de France, Paris

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?

Peter Fryer
London N6

Vol. 8 No. 4 · 6 March 1986

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’.

R.W. Johnson
Paris

Vol. 8 No. 7 · 17 April 1986

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.

R.W. Johnson
Paris

send letters to

The Editor
London Review of Books
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

letters@lrb.co.uk

Please include name, address and a telephone number

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Read More

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences