History is always to hand

Douglas Johnson

  • Notre Siècle: 1918-1988 by René Rémond
    Fayard, 1012 pp, frs 190.00, February 1988, ISBN 2 213 02039 6
  • Histoire de la Vie Privée: De la Première Guerre Mondiale à nos Jours edited by Philippe Ariès and Georges Duby
    Seuil, 634 pp, frs 375.00, May 1988, ISBN 2 02 008987 4
  • France since the Popular Front: Government and People 1936-1986 by Maurice Larkin
    Oxford, 435 pp, £30.00, July 1988, ISBN 0 19 873034 9
  • France Today by John Ardagh
    Penguin, 647 pp, £6.95, June 1988, ISBN 0 14 010098 9

In his novels, the late Gwyn Thomas used to refer to those who frequented the pubs and cafés of small Welsh towns as ‘the voters’. It would certainly be the way to describe the adult population of France who, last spring, voted twice to elect a President (on 24 April and 8 May) and twice to elect a Parliament (on 5 and 12 June). In September they voted in local elections, and in November the referendum on the future of New Caledonia took place. Many of them are now thinking about how they will vote in next year’s municipal and European elections, and some wiseacres point out that the Constitution would allow the President, if he so wished, to dissolve the present Assembly in May 1989 and start the whole round all over again. Readers of René Rémond’s history of France in the 20th century will find these cascades of elections less surprising. On 16 November 1919, there were parliamentary elections; on 30 November and 7 December, municipal elections; on 14 and 21 December, elections for the general councils. Thus the French voted on five Sundays out of six, and in the following January those who were entitled to vote by indirect election chose two-thirds of the Senate and a new President of the Republic. The high level of abstentions in those Assembly elections – around 30 per cent – ought to have prepared the experts at any rate for the similar abstention level of June 1988 and the very much higher level (around 63 per cent) in November.

For those voters who had not had the advantage of reading the indispensable René Rémond, there was no lack of historical comment elsewhere. Indeed, seldom have elections been so awash with analogy and perspective. According to some polls, a minister in the Chirac Government was in danger of losing his seat in Brittany. This may have seemed odd, but it was argued that over the last few decades not only has agriculture become less important but the influence of the Catholic Church has declined in western France. The argument is confirmed in Histoire de la Vie Privée, where we are told that in 1934 priests in the diocese of Quimper estimated that they spent the equivalent of 34 days in the year hearing confessions: forty years later, the time thus spent occupied only some seven days. No need, therefore, to express astonishment at the fact that Quimper voted solidly for Mitterrand and elected a Socialist deputy. Similarly, in Normandy in 1950 one out of every two members of the active population was engaged in agriculture. Now nine out of ten people work in industry or in the service sectors. It is only natural therefore that a department such as the Seine-Maritime should be overwhelmingly Socialist (with a strong Communist element).

History is always to hand. When Le Pen’s National Front got some four and a half million votes in the first round of the Presidential elections, a British historian explained its success in terms of France rediscovering her roots. When, a few weeks later, the National Front found itself with only one deputy in the Assembly, it was remembered that extreme right-wing parties have a tendency to flourish, only to disappear: the Poujadists won two and a half million votes in the 1956 elections and by 1958 weren’t even in a position to contest the elections. Michel Rocard became prime minister after Mitterrand had been elected President. He formed a government and sent a letter to each of his ministers setting out their tasks and their methods of work. It was said that this recalled Mendès France, and the manner in which he had impressed his authority upon his 1954 government. When the Socialists failed to gain an absolute majority in the Assembly Rocard’s situation as the leader of a minority government was immediately compared with that of Guy Mollet, who led a minority Socialist government after the elections of 1956 which turned out to be the longest government of the Fourth Republic. A rapid visit to New Caledonia and a seemingly miraculous agreement with all parties revived the comparison with Mendès France, and his settlement of the Indochinese and Tunisian issues. As for the groups who occupy the centre ground of French politics, it was pointed out that some of them had recently been claiming descent from the Mouvement Républicain Populaire, which had emerged from the Resistance movement and in the 1946 elections won 23 per cent of the vote, thereby indicating a desire to return to the Fourth Republic and to governments which, from 1947 onwards, were formed by coalitions of the Socialists and the Centre.

The Socialist victories of 1981 elicited comparisons with the Popular Front of 1936, and recalled the participation of the Communists in the post-Liberation governments. The election of a right and right-centre majority of deputies in 1986 and the fact that it had to ‘cohabit’ with the Socialist President sent observers back to 1851, when Lamartine discussed the most legitimate way in which to resolve a conflict between a President (in his case, le Prince-Président Louis Napoléon) and an Assembly. In 1988, the search for the appropriate historical analogy has been all the more pressing because all the political groups are suffering from an identity crisis. The Communist Party, faced with a return to the political ghetto, has to consider whether it wishes to present itself primarily as a national party or as a force in a municipal and trade-union politics. The Socialists wonder whether they can continue to seek a more just society whilst accepting the market investment realities of the European Community. The centre, or ‘the civilised right’ as it likes to call itself, has to decide whether its future lies with a moderate and technocratic socialism or with the more organised neo-Gaullist party, whilst that party has to decide if it can ever recapture a Gaullist predominance. The issue for the extreme right is whether to moderate its policies and become more acceptable or to be satisfied with being an emotional and dramatic disturber of the normal political processes. Within these dilemmas two fundamental problems must, inevitably, be considered, both in historical and in immediate terms: whether France is still divided into a Left and a Right; and what system of voting should be adopted.

The idea that there are two Frances and that there is unavoidable and constant conflict between them, des guerres franco-françaises, is longstanding, but it acquired special meaning with the development of the science of electoral geography, when it was argued that there was a long-term consistency in the way in which Frenchmen (and, after 1945, French women) voted either for or against the Left and the Right. This persistence was to be seen in terms of the two blocs’ rough numerical equality, their geographical strongholds and their attitudes on many social and national issues. For René Rémond, a believer in this approach to French political history, 1936, for example, represents a brutal confrontation between the bloc united under the progressive programme of the Popular Front, and the bloc united under the more defensive programme of the Right. The 1974 Presidential Election, when François Mitterrand opposed Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, was another classic contest between Left and Right, with each bloc mobilised behind its candidates. The result – 49.19 per cent voting for the Left, and 50.81 per cent voting for the Right – showed a country divided equally in two. The General Elections of 1978 produced, as Rémond explains it, an almost identical result, with the Left winning 49.53 per cent and the Right 50.47 per cent. Despite everything else that had changed, France remained divided in half.

Naturally Rémond is a knowledgeable and sophisticated historian who doesn’t over-simplify his analysis. He makes it clear that these divisions have not always been present and are not absolute (he devotes many pages to describing how the Left consisted of Communists, Socialists and Radicals, under the Third Republic, and how, since the death of de Gaulle, the Right has encompassed many different leaders and tendencies). He nevertheless sees this division as a key to French political culture, without which more than a century of history would founder in meaningless confusion.

Many people do not accept this way of thinking. They reject the idea that since 1870 (still less since 1789) French history has been dominated by a permanent confrontation between Left and Right. They maintain that for nearly two centuries France had invariably been governed from the Centre rather than by any real, or pure, representative of a Left or a Right. Certainly Maurice Larkin does not seem to think it has, although he does not address himself specifically to the problem in any analytical manner. He prefers to write about ‘the traditional multi-directional split of the electorate’ on certain deeply-felt issues, which he lists as class, clericalism, the constitution and colonialism. He writes about the Left, the Right and the Centre, and uses terms like ‘majority’ and ‘opposition’, but without attaching any significance to this terminology beyond what can be explained by the circumstances of the moment. Thus the Popular Front is not shown as a consolidation of the Left, but as a temporary agreement between Radicals and Socialists, since what the Radicals had given they could take away. The 1974 Presidential Election is not presented as a confrontation of Left and Right because Giscard d’Estaing was a man of the ‘centre-right’. However, when the 1978 legislative elections are discussed it is assumed that the Giscardians are part of the Right. René Rémond accepts that Giscard d’Estaing believed that France wished to be governed from the centre and that his aim was to bring an end to the polarisation of the political scene. But, whilst describing Giscard’s failure to achieve this, Rémond remains adamant in his belief that if centristes persist in describing themselves as either ‘centre-left’ or ‘centre-right’, it is because they have more in common with the Left or the Right than with the ever elusive Centre.

Now, however, after the legislative elections of 1986, when the expected right-wing landslide did not take place, and after those of 1988, when the overwhelmingly Socialist victory which both polls and politicians had predicted completely failed to materialise, the idea that France has reached a moment of consensus politics has become increasingly popular. Given that both the Socialists and some of the Right have abandoned dogmatic positions in the face of economic realities, they should be able to govern together. And this is what public opinion in France apparently wants. This consensus, what Mitterrand once termed la majorité sociologique, what the old centriste Edgar Faure once described as la majorité d’idées, and what Giscard d’Estaing has referred to as deux Français sur trois, is said to be the result of a transformation of French social and economic structures. Postmodernism, it is claimed, has transcended class antagonism and ideological confrontation.

The authors of La Vie Privée would to some extent agree. It was easy, they claim, to be a Communist in the years following the Liberation. The heroic days of the Resistance were present in everyone’s mind, a lively working-class culture was represented by the mining community and symbolised by a revered leader, Maurice Thorez, who was the son and the grandson of miners. But the Resistance is now distant and confused; the days when 80 per cent of France’s energy came from coal mines have long gone; and Thorez was, in fact, like some other politicians, the child of a grocer. It is now difficult to be a Communist waiting for the revolution that never comes. Although there has been change, there are other areas where the change will never be complete. The authors do not believe that the French will ever be completely Americanised: the nationalist, individualist, revolutionary and Catholic traditions, which feature so prominently in the works of Rémond and Larkin, will not disappear. The transformation of the proletariat will not mean the decline of aspirations for social justice. The replacement of industrial capitalism by finance capitalism will pose problems which could bring about a return to the traditional answers. Consensus may at best be only a temporary phenomenon in a nation which, as John Ardagh says in this revised edition of his book, is racked by uncertainty and anxiety. The terms ‘left’ and ‘right’ no longer being acceptable other than for the extreme parties, there is now talk of le bloc social-démocrate and le bloc conservateur. Is this a great change?

On the question of how France should vote, René Rémond has much to say about how France has voted. What emerges is the curious fact that convictions and principles have played little part in determining the choice of electoral method. In 1919, a hybrid form of proportional representation was introduced (‘hybrid’ because it did not prevent one list of candidates from winning all the seats within an electoral sector if it obtained an absolute majority of the votes cast) simply because it was vaguely felt that after a great war it was appropriate to introduce new ideas and procedures. In 1928, this system was abolished and France returned to the one-member, two-ballot system which had prevailed before the war, possibly as a sign that things had returned to normal, and possibly also as a device for reducing Communist representation (even though, having only polled 870,000 votes and gained 28 seats, they were hardly a threat to anyone, except possibly the Socialists, who were not members of the government). With the Liberation, proportional representation was brought back by de Gaulle, who seems to have had no strong feelings on the subject – as Rémond puts it, en la matière de Gaulle n’avait pas de religion. In 1958, he was in favour of a return to the one-member, two-ballot system. In 1985, Mitterrand re-established proportional representation, but this measure affected only the 1986 elections since, by June 1988, the one-member, two-ballot system had been re-introduced. Since then several leading politicians, including Mitterrand and Giscard d’Estaing, have suggested revising the electoral law and finding a compromise between proportional representation (where one votes for a list) and the system whereby one votes for an individual.

There can be no doubt that the country’s political complexion changes every time the electoral system changes. If proportional representation had been used in 1981 it is estimated that the Socialists would have had 191 seats instead of 285 and the Right 202 seats instead of 150 – in which case Mitterrand, who had been elected with a majority of more than a million, would then have been dependent on the support of the Communists, who would have had 82 deputies instead of 44. In 1986, under proportional representation, the Giscardians and Chiraquiens, with 44.88 per cent of the vote, only gained an overall majority of two: on the other system, their majority would obviously have been much larger. The Front National, which under the previous system would probably not have won a single seat (it has only one deputy in the present Assembly), had 35 elected. Larkin, who is normally urbane and humorous in his judgments on French politicians, is indignant about the elections of 1986 and suggests that Mitterrand’s revival of proportional representation displayed his readiness to sacrifice national political stability to the short-term interests of his party and his career.

How can one predict the future of a country where there is so much political uncertainty? Perhaps the last word should be given to Maurice Larkin, who, again with some acerbity, accuses the Socialists of having forgotten their principles. He gives as an example their authorisation of independent television channels in July 1985. ‘The only reassuring factor,’ he comments, ‘was that the franchise for Channel 5 was given to personal friends of the President, thereby demonstrating that there were at least some traditions of political favour that had withstood the erosion of time.’ Recent appointments have confirmed this judgment.