Is it still possible to manage existing society in a reformist fashion? If not, can an experiment that began with a moderate program be radicalized, under pressure from below, to invent new solutions? Can the French forge for Europe a model different from the American, and do so without controlling capital movement deregulated in the context of globalization? These are the key questions thrust upon France, Europe and beyond, unwittingly, by Jacques Chirac and his miscalculated gamble. The French people have rejected the ruling conservative coalition, which promised progress but practiced austerity, and have given the personally honest and truthful Lionel Jospin a mandate, though not a blank check, for change. Jospin was then asked to form a government because his Socialist Party, with 246 deputies (260 including the Radicals, its closest associates) is by far the biggest in a National Assembly of 577 members. Yet even including the eight leftish Greens, newcomers to parliamentary life, and the seven followers of Jean-Pierre Chevènement–a stern opponent of the Maastricht Treaty-the Socialists require the thirty-eight Communist votes to have an absolute majority in the Assembly. It is a united, pluralistic (to use the trendy word) left that has now been given its second historical chance.
Once bitten, twice shy, however. There was no fiesta this time, no dancing at the Bastille as in 1981. And, unlike François Mitterrand, Jospin is not talking, even in the vaguest of terms, of “a break with capitalism.” He is not trying to extend the public sector, merely promising to put a stop to further privatization. His policy to reduce unemployment is purely Keynesian. It involves inflationary measures and the creation by the state of 700,000 jobs, half of them directly in various social services and half by subsidizing private enterprise. But because the Socialist leader proposes to call a conference regrouping labor leaders and employers in order to discuss employment, wages and a reduction in the work week, because he dares to proclaim that the prevailing trend to reduce the share of wages in the national product has gone much too far and must now be reversed, he is described by orthodox foreign correspondents as a man of the past. More puzzling, remembering how kind the Socialists in their earlier incarnation were to the stock market, is the irrational hostility of the Bourse and of French big business in general. (With great electoral skill, Peugeot, the car manufacturer, waited till the Monday after the poll to announce a plan of massive job reduction.)
International markets are apparently also worried by the proposed European policy of the new French government. Not because it is very radical or hostile to European integration–after all, it has the blessing of Jacques Delors, one of the chief architects of the European Union. But to woo the French public and keep his coalition together, Jospin refuses to apply the Maastricht Treaty according to the monetarist interpretation of the German Bundesbank. He has been arguing that the convergence criteria and the dates of application–that the deficit be cut to 3 percent of G.D.P. by the end of the year–can be handled with flexibility; that Italy and Spain should figure among the founding members of the new Monetary Union; that the common-currency euro should not be overvalued in terms of the dollar; and that a European bank should be controlled by some form of economic government. Together with his German counterpart, the Social Democratic leader Oskar Lafontaine, he has claimed that the European Union, instead of spreading austerity, should have a program of public works designed to fight unemployment.
Yet, should a crisis now develop over the euro, this may be due less to French maneuvers than to the trial of strength between Chancellor Helmut Kohl, who wanted the German gold reserves to be revalued and to use the windfall gains to reduce his nation’s budget deficit without tears, and the Bundesbank, which successfully rejected this accounting gimmick. If such antics continue on all fronts, speculators may conclude that the common currency is not for this millennium and pension funds may start withdrawing money from countries with weaker currencies. We could be on the eve of a major monetary storm, starting, say, with the lira and then spreading to the franc.
Is the new French government ready to stick to its modest program whatever the resistance of the markets, domestic or foreign? It will have to do so if it wants to preserve the backing of its supporters. Because of precedents, there is no grace period this time. On Sunday night, while the Socialists were celebrating their victory in an elegant palace in the heart of a Paris booked for the occasion, thousands of militants gathered outside to hail the defeat of the right but also to remind the left of its pledges on privatization, on immigration laws, on solutions for the homeless. Since then the labor unions have made it plain they have no intention of postponing their demands. This time, unlike 1981, electoral victory comes from a period of social unrest and the government may be under the pressure of a social movement. It will be judged from the start on its record, not its promises, and must accomplish something fast, not only because otherwise it might be deserted by its Communist partners.
Jospin and his colleagues are aware that a second historical failure of the left would spell disaster. It would not only enable Chirac, stunned for a while, to seek political revenge. The real beneficiary would be the horrible Jean-Marie Le Pen. While his National Front won only one seat in the National Assembly, he has shown the potential strength of his movement and its capacity to create trouble for the right. By his conduct–filmed, his face torn by hatred, trying to beat up a frail woman who happened to be a Socialist candidate–he has also shown that he is a thug and a direct heir of the terrible thirties. As usual, with hope comes danger, its companion. The victory of the French left opens up new vistas. It also imposes the imperative duty not to disappoint.