“What has happened to your ‘socialist’ France? Is it going the way of all social-democratic flesh?”
Because I live in Paris I am asked such questions frequently by sympathetic American friends and by skeptical Brits who remember their own experiences under a socialist government. I could easily avoid this debate by pointing out that I was among the doubters in the heady days following François Mitterrand’s victory in May 1981, but I think these questions should be tackled for a number of reasons.
France, with its tradition of upheaval, is different from Harold Wilson’s Britain. Mitterrand’s experiment, far from finished, has not yet reached the point of no return. Most important, the international economic climate is not at all what it was in the 1960s. As a result of the right’s failure to cope with the current European economic crisis, the Socialists have been given a chance in Athens and Madrid as well as in Paris: If the reformist left, in turn, proves unable to cope, the consequences could be grave.
In fairness, it must be stressed from the first that the French Socialists’ record is not entirely negative. They began by abolishing the death penalty, granting residence and labor permits to illegal immigrants and clearing the air of the pollution left from years of “law and order” rhetoric. Also, at a time when the welfare state is increasingly under attack, they raised the legal minimum wage, boosted substantially the family allowance and augmented other social benefits. They outlined plans for a gradual transition to a thirty-five-hour workweek and for retirement with a full pension at age 60. They also passed legislation providing for an additional week of vacation. Yes, it must be repeated to incredulous Americans, all working people in France are entitled by law to five weeks of holiday with pay. (This, incidentally, was a Popular Front invention. Two weeks of paid holiday for all was granted by the Leon Blum government in 1936.)
Domestic critics, members of the previous government, who are partially responsible for the present mess, and monetarists the world over can be silenced fairly easily. These champions of economic stagnation and mass unemployment have no lessons to offer. Besides, the disasters that the right predicted would ensue upon the admission of four Communists into the French government haven’t happened. In Paris, natives and tourists are still sipping drinks at Fouquet’s, and sales of Rolls-Royces in France, according to Le Monde, went from fifty-two in 1981 to eighty-one in the first nine months of 1982. Civilization is safe.
More seriously, Mitterrand’s France does not compare unfavorably economically with its neighbors. The gross national product has grown slightly less slowly (0.3 percent in 1981 and 1 percent in 1982) than those of most of its Common Market partners and unemployment has grown less rapidly. With 8 percent of the labor force jobless, France’s unemployment rate is well below Britain’s and no longer higher than West Germany’s. Finally, the rate of inflation has been brought down, admittedly with the aid of a price and wage freeze, to just under two figures.