This year will be an electoral year in many parts of Europe. In France, François Mitterrand is scheduled to leave the presidency in May. Italy’s new government is clearly a caretaker affair, and the question is whether the next parliamentary vote will be staged in June or in the fall. Toward the end of the year the limelight will be switched to Eastern Europe. First the Poles must choose Lech Walesa’s successor, and the former electrician is desperately trying to cling to his job. Then, in December, it will be the turn of the Russians to elect a new Parliament.
This round of elections, one feels, foreshadows deeper changes than previous ones and may reshape Europe’s political landscape. The past is vanishing and the future is still uncertain. As Walt Whitman put it, “Society waits unformed and is for a while between things ended and things begun.” The notes that follow, limited to the Western part of the Continent, are designed to convey the amusing paradoxes but also the more serious dilemmas of this Europe in transition.
How sacred is property? Though not yet launched officially, the French electoral campaign is already in full swing. Indeed, according to the pollsters the result is a foregone conclusion. Without much enthusiasm, the French people, we are told, will opt for a bourgeois king, a latter-day Louis Philippe: Prime Minister Edouard Balladur. With the Communists in chronic convalescence, the Greens splintered into three and the Socialists fighting bitterly over their candidate (Lionel Jospin, former party leader and senior minister, finally emerged triumphant in a ballot of party members), the left is not even certain of representation in the second ballot. That takes place on May 7. when the two contenders with the highest number of votes fight it out. The right, apparently, can afford its divisions, since Balladur is sure to win, whoever his rival. But with more than two months to go before the first ballot and more than half the electorate undecided, all forecasts should be taken with a grain of salt. After all, both Georges Pompidou in 1969 and Mitterrand himself in 1981 won after trailing in early surveys.
One candidate determined to give the lie to forecasts of Balladur’s invincibility is his fellow neo-Gaullist and former protector, Jacques Chirac, now pondering the ways of political ingratitude (though the fickleness should not have surprised such a ruthless climber). Chirac is 62 and this is his third and probably last presidential bid. To succeed, he is ready to promise the moon and preach the opposite of what he has practiced. Indeed, in his zeal he has raised–at least symbolically–one of the significant issues of this campaign: Does the state have the right to requisition property to help those in need?
It all started before Christmas with the successful takeover by homeless people of a vacant block of flats in a fashionable district on the Left Bank. The squatters were sponsored by the veteran fighter for those without a roof over their heads, the highly popular priest Abbe Pierre. Sensing the mood, Balladur promised not to send the police to dislodge them. Chirac, Mayor of Paris, was first taken aback but then decided to outbid his rival. Brandishing a 1945 decree authorizing such actions, he promised to requisition empty flats to house the homeless. It was rather strange to hear a mayor, during whose seventeen-year tenure the poor were driven out of Paris, suddenly castigating wealthy speculators.
Chirac’s conversion is, of course, an electoral gimmick, but it showed that a mechanism for tackling the housing problem does exist. There are more than 100,000 vacant flats in Paris proper, and three times that number in the greater Paris area. Add to this the empty office buildings that could be converted into apartments, and you would make a beginning in coping with the growing number of street people and those living in appalling conditions. Yet nothing of this magnitude has been attempted. The city has started requisition proceedings for only three houses. The big construction companies, to show their generosity, have vaguely offered some blocks of flats and, simultaneously, raised all sorts of legal obstacles. Once winter–and the election–have passed, Chirac’s eloquent promises will be quickly forgotten.