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.

Most observers would say that it is both natural and desirable that political situations should evolve according to the general understanding of economic imperatives. Catherine Nay’s argument is that under the Fifth Republic political responses have been camouflaged. Under the Third Republic, when it became clear that the financial policies of the Cartel des Gauches were proving unsuccessful, the government changed and the more orthodox Poincaré took charge. When the Popular Front’s management of finance under Blum and Auriol ran into difficulty, Blum and Auriol were replaced by the more realistic Reynaud. After the Liberation, when General de Gaulle could not get his way within the terms of the new constitution, or when Pierre Mendès France could not carry out the economic policies he believed to be essential, they absented themselves from the scene (both, as it happened, for long intervals). But under the constitution of the Fifth Republic, it is possible for the president, who controls the government, to remain in power and to change his policies, either by changing his ministers, or, even more simply, by changing his directives to the same ministers.

This is the unexpected face of the Fifth Republic. Everyone wondered what would happen when a president elected by universal suffrage found himself opposed by a National Assembly, also elected by universal suffrage. Everyone asked themselves what a president would do if he was obliged to appoint as prime minister someone who was not his personal choice and how they could run the country together. We do not always remember how frequently those involved in the administration of the Fifth Republic have believed in the imminence of a return to the Fourth Republic. The elections of 1967 which gave the slenderest of majorities to de Gaulle’s prime minister Georges Pompidou (the votes of Deputies from the overseas departments had been crucial) seemed to announce the death-knell of the system – and were an important factor in bringing about the student riots and industrial strikes of 1968. The Pompidou era, when the President gave the impression of being the leader of a party rather than the leader of the nation, also seemed a threat to the very nature of the Fifth Republic as it had been conceived by de Gaulle.

Yet the Fifth Republic has survived. It survived the resignation of de Gaulle in 1969; the incapacity through illness of Pompidou, who died in 1974; the switch to Socialism in 1981 (the famous alternance which was so dreaded by some commentators); and the co-habitation of a Socialist president and a neo-Gaullist prime minister since March 1986.

The future holds many problems for the system. There are those who believe that in the event of victory in the second round of the forthcoming presidential elections (the second round is on 8 May) Mitterrand will want to revise a presidential constitution which he has never approved of, even if he has used it. This would be part of the process of bringing power back to the political centre and ending the polarisation evident since the 1978 elections. In the event of a Chirac victory, there may be a revival of the referendum as a method of taking decisions and thereby a reinforcement of Presidential power. Should Raymond Barre be the next president, there will be an attempt at consensual politics, made all the more pressing by the fact that Barre’s base in party terms is weak. But whilst the directions which might be taken after May 1988 are varied and uncertain, and although the problems of the economy, of defence and of France’s role in Europe, will prove complex, no one seems to doubt the ability of the Constitution to withstand the strain. The principle of a president elected by universal suffrage, first tried in 1965, has proved popular, as its most intransigent opponent, Pierre Mendès France, was eventually forced to admit. Co-habitation between the Socialist President and the neo-Gaullist Prime Minister has not only proved popular: it has created a working compromise between an American-style presidential regime, a British-style dominant prime minister and a Third and Fourth Republic-style all-powerful Assembly.

Yet the character of French politics does not seem to have changed. A glance at the careers of Jacques Chirac and of Raymond Barre enables one to understand this. One of the links between Mitterrand and Chirac is the most venerated of Fourth Republic prime ministers, the good doctor Queuille, who always reassured his country as he took its pulse. It was Queuille, the old-fashioned Radical, who urged Mitterrand to be a candidate in the department of the Nièvre in 1946, and who in 1965 gave his support to Chirac in the Corréze. During their subsequent careers both men have retained the same regional loyalties (civil servants claimed that anyone who wanted to persuade Michel Debré to adopt a line of policy about which he was hesitant had only to tell him that the policy would be unpopular, but that with Chirac all one has to do is convince him that it would go down well among the Corrèziens). Both men, too, have something of the traditional radical party in their make-up. They are temperamentally unable to be dogmatic. ‘If I have an idea, I must reject it, that is my method of trying it out,’ the philosopher Alain said, and that seems to be the precept they are both following. Mitterrand would always claim to be devoted to the principles of social justice, but he does not believe that the state can achieve everything. Chirac is determined to maintain the apparatus of the French state, but nevertheless believes in liberalism and in the importance of the market. Each criticises the other on the grounds that he is too ready to look after his friends and to revive the old république des copains. Thus Chirac has claimed that in 1985 Mitterrand went back on his promise never to introduce proportional representation, and accused him of being an irresponsible politician, type Quatrième République, ready to do anything to save his associates from electoral defeat. Mitterrand, speaking of his co-habitation with Chirac, claims that the Prime Minister never gets moved about anything other than appointments (the case of who was to be Prefect of Police is notorious), and has watched with amusement how privatisation has benefited the fortunes of many loyal Chiraquiens.

Catherine Nay sees seven different Mitterrands: Mitterrand-Blum, Mitterrand-Chautemps, Mitterrand-Reagan and Mitterrand-de Gaulle, now succeeded by Mitterrand the referee, Mitterrand the father of the patrie, and Mitterrand-Augustus, deified and crowned with laurels (there are those who await the emergence of an eighth Mitterrand – the patriarch of Europe), while for Chirac’s biographer there were at least three distinct Chiracs in the first few months of his premiership: Homo cohabitus, ready to maintain the reforms brought in by the Socialists and convinced that the first to step out of line in the ritual of co-habitation would suffer political death. Then, when Le Figaro complained that the conservative revolution was not taking place as expected, and ex-President Giscard threatened to lead the attack on an indecisive and unduly reassuring government, Homo liberalus appeared. Privatisation, the abolition of proportional representation, a plan to maintain New Caledonia as a French possession, formed the basis of an avalanche of reforms. But when the opinion polls failed to respond, the students rejected the introduction of selection into universities and liberals became uneasy about the establishment of a new nationality code, these allegedly reactionary measures were abandoned. Homo radicalus had taken over.

Chirac’s career has evolved in more ways than this analysis suggests, however. He wasn’t yet thirty when he found himself performing important functions in the office of Prime Minister Pompidou. He made himself one of the most devoted followers of another adviser, Pierre Juillet, himself a master of la cuisine politique; and through Juillet he got to know Pompidou himself. In 1967, he became Secretary of State for Employment. When Pompidou was succeeded by Couve de Murville in 1968, Chirac stayed in government, where he took on the role of Pompidou’s spokesman and critic of de Gaulle. When Pompidou became president of the Republic it was clear that Chirac, Juillet and Marie-France Garaud were the dominating influences, intriguing against the old barons of Gaullism, such as Chaban-Delmas. With the death of Pompidou, Chirac led the Gaullist dissidents who arranged that Giscard should become president and, at the age of 41, he himself became prime minister. In 1981, having separated himself from Giscard, he saw to it that the Gaullist vote did not go to him. In 1984 he distanced himself from Juillet and from Marie-France Garaud, both of whom had served him well, and surrounded himself with a new group of advisers. It is difficult to think of a more traditional French politician, always on the go, able to adapt himself to all audiences, at home in every sort of meeting, prodigal with his promises, his hand-shaking and his tutoiement, ready to admit his mistakes, conscious that every vote counts and convinced that every opponent can somehow be won over.

Raymond Barre represents a different strain in the Republican tradition. He is not so much of la République des copains et des coquins as of la République des professeurs. Himself a professor of economics, he became associated with Jeanency, the son of a former president of the Senate, with whom he wrote textbooks. He entered government in 1959 when Jeaneney became Minister for Industry in the first official administration of the Fifth Republic, with Michel Debré as prime minister. He became well-known as a shrewd adviser, capable of producing reports and analyses at very short notice. After combining these tasks with his lectures (at Paris and at Caen), he served for some five years with the European Community before entering Chirac’s government as Minister for Overseas Trade in January 1976. It was generally known that this government was in difficulties, not so much because both inflation and unemployment were rising, but because relations between the Prime Minister and the President had deteriorated, with Giscard d’Estaing refusing to allow Chirac the freedom to deal with the situation. In August 1976, having driven back to Paris from his holiday in Venice, Barre bought a copy of Le Journal de Dimanche which spoke of Chirac’s imminent resignation: after mentioning the names of other possible successors (Fourcade, Chaban-Delmas, Alain Peyrefitte) the paper made a brief allusion to him. The next day the President invited him to be prime minister and promised him the liberty of action he had refused Chirac. For the next five years he held office.

The appointment of a relatively unknown personality as prime minister had an excellent precedent in the Fifth Republic – that of Pompidou (who was also of la République de professeurs). But the Fourth and Third Republics, too, had had their unknowns (when journalists tried to find out something about Joseph Laniel in 1953 they were disconcerted to discover that he was not in the French Who’s Who), and like them, Barre adapted himself to the National Assembly with relative case, as he also adapted himself to the new exigencies of the media. Like Poincaré, under the Third, or Mendès France, under the Fourth, he was chiefly concerned with day-to-day economic questions. Not for him, as he continues to say, the ideology of socialism or the ideology of liberalism. But he was nevertheless obliged to play the party-political game. Since he had been chosen by Giscard, his constituency consisted essentially of the confused groupings of Independent Republicans, Social Democrats, Independents and moderate Radicals. Beyond these were the Chiraquiens, who sometimes threatened to withhold their support, and, in direct opposition, the Socialists, who were in the process of making themselves into the other organised political party of the Republic.

The Fifth Republic, with its powerful president, and its Constitutional Council aping the American Supreme Court, may be unlike other Republics, but the traditional process of politics goes on, as unwithered and various as ever. The Mitterrands and the Chiracs may revel in this. The Barres make the best of it.

So if it is not politics that have changed, what has changed under the Fifth Republic? John Ardagh points to changes in personal attitudes and life-styles, rather than in the more formal and official structures that dominate public life. He sees a contrast between the dynamism, ingenuity and energy of individuals and the clumsiness of the official apparatus. In spite of sociologists, such as Michel Crozier, who still see France as a stratified society progressing towards even greater rigidity, and in spite of his own conviction that the racial issue reveals the prejudice and intolerance still lurking below the surface of French life, Ardagh sees a free and more informal society developing. There is greater freedom for young people and for women, with fewer constraints from religious and political sectarianism.

The work of Alain Touraine and his associates attempts to establish a more precise measurement of change. When they talk of the decline of what they call ‘the workers’ movement’ in contemporary French society, they are writing about the unions as a body which once sought to challenge the distribution of power and wealth in society. The movement was a force for confrontation, whether rhetorical or real, rather than one for negotiation. This, it is argued by Touraine, has changed.

The French have lost their vision. Increasingly preoccupied with wages and working conditions, they have become much less interested in political affiliation. The generation of working-class consciousness, they argue, is closely tied to a particular stage of industrial development. When the workers were predominantly engaged in manual work, in machine-minding or on the assembly-line, there was a craft identity among them and a shared sense of frustration and resentment, both reinforced by the fact that they lived together in working-class communities. It could be that Touraine is looking back nostalgically to a movement that was never as forceful as he suggests, and that he underestimates strikes (among railway workers, air-line personnel, seamen) as protest movements which can have their effect on ‘the workers’ movement’ as well as on feminist, ecological or professional movements, and thus help to articulate divisions within French society. But Touraine illustrates a basic social reality.

How far should the state be responsible for determining how the economy is managed, how society functions and how people live? In the philosophy of General de Gaulle there was no problem. If the state did not exist, then France would not exist. But within the ranks of those who voted for him there were many who were ready to question the role of the state as the chief guiding force in the implementation of economic policy. The ease with which the representatives of the state, above all the Inspecteurs de Finance, were able to move into the private sector of the economy, at no risk to their status and pension rights, emphasised this tendency.

It is possible to say, as Dr Tuppen does, that the Socialists’ devolution reforms (which Mitterrand has said were the most important achieved by the Socialist governments) and, from 1987, the acceptance under Fabius of the terms of the marketplace, followed by Chirac’s determination that the state should withdraw from some of its traditional responsibilities and offer greater opportunity for individual initiative, all represent movements of change which are of fundamental importance. Professor Hayward would point to the difficulty of finding out how the state determines economic policy. He would also point out that there were ambitious schemes for reorganising production which broke down because the state could not find industrialists capable of bringing them about. When the inertia of some part of the private sector caused the state to step in directly with loans and a purchasing policy, often foregoing short-term profitability, and success then followed, the state would find itself facing a new and assertive force the power and resources of the enterprise might have been created by the state, but they were put to use by the enterprise in its own interest. Thus, while accepting that there has been change, Professor Hayward sees an unavoidable and necessary continuity as the essence of the French economy, and this means a constant co-operation between the public and the private sectors. As he puts it, a government can abolish capital punishment by a sovereign political decision, but it cannot similarly decide what will be the employment level or the exchange rate. The significant change, for Hayward, is that the Socialists have now understood this.

If Mitterrand retains the backing of the Socialist Party and can continue to present himself as a socialist, while acting as the champion of moderate government and the friend of market forces, then it might seem to the electorate that he can deliver continuity and prosperity. We might then see the appearance of François Mitterrand-Henri IV. And this is important, given the imminence of 1992 and the creation of a single European market. For the French have never chosen Europe: they have always chosen wealth.