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Imagination Has Not Yet Taken Power | The Nation

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Imagination Has Not Yet Taken Power

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"What has happened to your 'socialist' France? Is it going the way of all social-democratic flesh?"

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Daniel Singer
Daniel Singer, for many years The Nation's Paris-based Europe correspondent, was born on September 26, 1926, in...

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It is a battle royal, and it foreshadows many more like it in the struggle for the economic mastery of Europe.

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.

These facts are good for scoring debater's points, but they tell only half the story. The prospects for rising employment and expansion are now bleak. Particularly since the second devaluation of the franc, last June, there has been a clear shift in the Mitterrand government's emphasis from social justice to price stability, from equality to profitability. Taking its supporters for granted, the government has been trying, with predictable lack of success, to woo investors, domestic and foreign.

How did it all happen so quickly? The Socialists, on taking office, hoped to revive the economy by putting more money in consumers' pockets. The rise in wages, the expansion of social benefits and the budget deficit were all designed to boost consumption, which, in turn, would spur production and stimulate investment. But as the government had not altered the rules of the game in any fundamental way and had left trade barriers down, the main result of its policies was to increase imports. The trade deficit rose spectacularly. The gnomes of Zurich and other financial capitals, distrustful of a Socialist government, however moderate, had good reasons to speculate against the franc. After little resistance, the French government was driven toward economic orthodoxy and policies more acceptable to the international financial establishment.

Mitterrand's managers of the economy were a trifle unlucky. They had been banking on a general economic recovery throughout the West. In vain. Instead, they discovered the difficulty of a situation in which "everyone 1s out of step but our Johnny." The high international interest rates did not help, and the dramatic rise of the dollar added a lot to the French import bill.

Yet the basic reason for France's troubles was to be found elsewhere. The Socialists were seeking to cure the mild disease of yesterday. They did not recognize that the extraordinary quarter of a century of relative stability and prosperity of the capitalist system-based on the spread of durable consumer goods, on increased state intervention and on military expenditures-was over. Faced with this new crisis, capitalists in Britain and the United States dropped all pretense of consensus and launched an all-out attack on the labor movement. Mitterrand's economic advisers, in the same circumstances, chose to revive Keynesianism. Their failure is not the failure of socialism, which has not even been tried. I t is simply proof that Keynesian methods are inadequate when the capitalist crisis becomes really serious.

It might be objected that the French experiment, involving an enlargement of the public sector and the spread of new rights to the workers, cannot be described as pure Keynesianism, and in a sense that is true. In keeping with his campaign pledges, Mitterrand'; government has duly nationalized seven major industrial groups in electronics, engineering, petrochemicals and military equipment. It has taken over the ailing steel industry, the joint-stock banks that were still in private hands and the two big banques d'affaires, the Paribas and the Suez. It is too early to say what impact the expanded public sector will have on the French economy. But it can already be asserted that the whole operation is not designed to strike at the heart of capitalism--to alter fundamentally the traditional relations between owners and workers. On the contrary, nationalization is conceived of as a sanction: the state intervenes in areas where private enterprise has proved unwilling to invest or incapable of competing in international markets. It is in this sense that French nationalization follows an essentially Keynesian strategy.

The measures taken to increase the power of the workers have been similarly limited. The provisions of the so-called Auroux bill, which bears the name of the Socialist Minister of Labor, have reduced the power of the bosses in the factories by granting employees the right to be informed about and consulted on certain matters. But so far they have not radically altered labor relations or made them qualitatively different from those in neighboring countries. Indeed, critics have suggested that the Auroux bill did more to antagonize employers than it did to please the workers or significantly shift the balance of power in the factories. It must be added, however, that the government never seriously claimed that the legislation would bring about a democratic revolution on the shop floor. A left-wing government coming into office after twenty-three years of conservative rule could, have acted quite differently. It might have addressed its supporters as follows: "Though the years ahead will be tough and we will have little to parcel out, we do have our common vision and we should at least begin to implement this joint project. We can raise the wages only of those on the bottom of the scale, while lowering the highest salaries. Otherwise, from a slowly growing national economic pie, there will be little surplus to distribute. But we can start a gradual transfer of power to the workers in factories and offices. Our ultimate objective is a free association of producers, a society in which working people are the masters of their own destiny. Meanwhile, during the transitional period, let us determine together how to change our work and our lives. We also need your wholehearted support to stand up to the inevitable counteroffensive of capital."

This would have been the language of a leadership dedicated to forging a unified political coalition capable of long-term action. But such language would have provoked a strong reaction, and it is not surprising that Mitterrand chose instead the classless message of national unity.

When leftist governments feel compelled to take a conservative line , reporters rush to write about the clash between dream and reality. In France, the cliché is even more inappropriate than usual. Dreaming is conspicuously absent from the current French experiment. Indeed, it is difficult to recall that less than fifteen years ago, during the May uprising, Paris was in ferment with ideas on new ways of producing and consuming. The rebels acted as though they had reinvented life and love. Actually, there may be a link between the not-so-utopian dreaming of yesterday and the apparent realism of today. After the unexpected uprising of students and workers in May 1968, the task of the French left, Communists and Socialists alike, was to persuade its supporters that although a radical break with the past was impossible, steady improvements in living standards under a left-wing government would greatly alter their condition. But by the time the left was able to guide the revolutionary fervor into electoral channels, a generation of rising prosperity had come to an end throughout the Western world.

Strange as it may seem, the left has never pondered publicly the political consequences of this economic downturn. When the Socialists and Communists elaborated their "common program" in 1972 or, two years later, when Giscard d'Estaing defeated Mitterrand narrowly for the presidency, the economic crisis was not a major issue. In 1977 and 1978, when the left appeared to have victory within its grasp, it staged something that sounded like a parody of a debate on the subject. The Communists painted the future in terms of a Japanese-style growth rate, thus evading the problem. Michel Roccard, today's Minister of Planning, hinted that as the means had diminished, one should scale down the ends, while Mitterrand, like all astute politicians, preferred to postpone decisions till after the elections. After the Communists chose to split with the Socialists rather than join them as junior partners, the left managed to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. Its supporters were stunned, and since there was no longer any search for a Joint program, there was no need to discuss the crisis. Victory came in 1981 as a "divine surprise,'' a gift from heaven.

A huge electoral victory that was unrelated to any important social movement--this may be the historians' verdict on the latest Socialist success in France. When the Popular Front was swept into office in 1936, its triumph was hailed by workers occupying factories. On the night of Mitterrand's victory, young people stormed the Place de la Bastille to dance and lightheartedly berate the ci-devant Elkabbach and Mougeotte, the now-forgotten TV personalities of the ancien regime. Absence of support by an open social movement gives a left-wing government room to maneuver, as it can generally rely on the sympathy of the labor unions. The disadvantages, however, are much greater. Lack of pressure also means lack of passionate support, which is indispensable for intimidating the opposition. In 1936, big business pleaded with Blum to make a deal with the workers, whatever the price; all that mattered was to salvage the system. Following Mitterrand's election, business, big and small, has remained unfrightened.

The Socialists were well aware how great an asset a social movement could be. Yet they did nothing to encourage its development because of their reluctance to antagonize business. One recent incident will serve to illustrate the point. Addressing a rally of business leaders, Jacques Delors, the Minister of Finance, made a surprise announcement that the real minimum wage would not be raised by 4 percent in 1983, as had been promised, but only by 3 percent. The change, though not big enough to alter the government's economic planning, did anger its supporters, particularly those who had been justifying austerity measures on egalitarian grounds. But the timing of Delors's announcement had a symbolic purpose. It was intended to show that this government is orthodox, reasonable and ready to defy its own supporters.

Since this letter seems to have become an indictment, I had better add some qualifications. The situation in France is not a repetition of the Harold Wilson story in Britain, with its surrenders and betrayals. Mitterrand did not promise any revolutionary change and has, so far, kept most of his campaign pledges. The story, rather, is one of anachronistic platforms and obsolete remedies. Capitalism was so successful for a quarter of a century that most of the left, including Western Communists, were converted to some version of reformism. But the Socialists in France were voted into office at a time when capitalism had plunged into a crisis that, by its very nature, was a crisis of reformism as well. Today it would be more realistic to tackle the problems raised by the May "utopians" fifteen years ago--what growth, for what purpose, in whose interest?--than to follow the "realists," who are unable to imagine anything beyond the confines of existing society, with its prospects of greater exploitation and higher unemployment.

Naturally, the search for a radical alternative would be merely a beginning. There are a host of questions to be answered about the nature of a different society and how to construct it. How would the people express their deep aspirations and shape them into a policy? How would a measure of planning, necessary to coordinate change, be combined with power at the grass roots--centralism with genuine democracy? Could a country like France start the experiment on its own? How long could French Socialism last without a European contagion, and to what extent could it afford to forgo some of the advantages of the international division of labor? With the Soviet model derailed and the Western model, once praised for its "permanent motion," running obviously out of steam, the left must embark on an uncharted road and show an extraordinary capacity for invention. I am not condemning the French for not providing all the answers, merely suggesting that they are not asking any of the right questions. With the Socialists paralyzed by the prerogatives of power ("office" might be the more accurate word), the Communists dizzied by a series of volte-faces and the New Left totally absent, as if the May Movement had no children at all, one may put it nostalgically: imagination has not seized power In Paris so far.

Paris, Athens, Madrid today, and possibly Lisbon tomorrow. Everywhere the bankruptcy of the right paves the way for Socialists, for reformers who will be faced with the same dilemma as the French. Admittedly, in a Spain Just emerging from the Franco nightmare or a Greece run previously by all sorts of colonels, the Socialists must also liberalize the country, perform the task of the bourgeois revolution. Yet fundamentally their problem is the same as in other Socialist countries. When the left advances boldly on the economic front, reshaping society, it can be brilliantly libertarian. When it retreats, it can be reduced to cheap electioneering and mean concessions. On law and order, on immigrant workers, on the rights of women, the official mood in Paris is no longer what it used to be.

But the pendulum has not swung completely the other way either The worst is never a certainty. If the government forgets the class struggle, the employers do not. The unions backing the government will begin losing votes in factory elections. The goodwill of the workers will not be eternal. And there is François Mitterrand, too, determined to leave his mark on history, and he knows he cannot do so by following in Harold Wilson's footsteps. In this rather lengthy and gloomy letter I have tried to paint the whole canvas and stress the dilemma. In future letters I shall fill in the gaps with more specific and, possibly, more hopeful messages. The only thing I promise is to attempt, then as now, not to present my dreams as French or European reality.

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