There are two unmistakable signs that France is entering a pre-electoral period: The government is once again tinkering with the electoral law and the politicians, particularly the leaders of the right, are competing with Jean-Marie Le Pen for his turf, pandering to the lowest racist instincts of the French people. All this is taking place very early. The regional elections, to be held throughout France next spring, are, after all, but a dress rehearsal. The general parliamentary election in the spring of 1993 will be the real test. It will determine whether François Mitterrand will have a fairly free hand in the last couple of years of his presidential term or whether he will have to put up with yet another period of undesired “cohabitation” with a government of a different political complexion. The parliamentary test and presidential prospect already cast their shadow over French politics.
That the Socialists want to do something about the way people vote is not surprising. Mass demonstrations, strikes and opinion polls all confirm the extent of popular discontent. The farmers, once the backbone of semirural France, now fighting for survival, were recently the most violent, intercepting trucks loaded with imported meat and attacking public buildings. But when their passion is spent, the farmers are pillars of property and tend to vote for the right. More worrying for the Socialists have been the mass demonstrations by nurses and other medical staff and the obvious dissatisfaction of teachers, of other public servants and of industrial workers, that is to say, of their own constituency.
Mitterrand’s gamble this past May in appointing for the first time in France a woman as Prime Minister did not come off. Poor Edith Cresson, admittedly no great captain, is criticized much more strongly than she would be if she were a man. She was in fact asked to perform a miracle: to win support for the government without altering its policy. Pierre Bérégovoy was left at the Ministry of Finance as the keeper of orthodoxy, praised by The Wall Street Journal and The Economist for keeping the franc strong. But for the French public this same policy spelled austerity, with high unemployment and virtually frozen wages. It is difficult to see why the left-wing electorate should be delighted because its government is carrying out the policy of its opponents and, therefore, hard to imagine the left getting a new parliamentary mandate in 1993.
Actually, the problem for Mitterrand is not so much how to make the Socialists win. It is how to prevent the right from scoring an outright victory, and this is where electoral reform comes in. The present French system of majority rule in single-member constituencies tends to amplify swings. A degree of proportional representation would minimize this movement. It would have the additional advantage of forcing the respectable right to face once again, as it did in 1986, the question of its relations with Le Pen’s xenophobic National Front. Unfortunately, some conservatives are ready to make a pact with the Devil for the sake of office.
‘Le Pen in Silk Stockings’
Jacques Chirac, former prime minister and Mitterrand’s unlucky rival in the last presidential poll, was first to show how far they were ready to go. In a speech, the leader of the ex-Gaullist Rally for the Republic (R.P.R.) went out of his way to express his understanding of an ordinary French citizen’s exasperation when faced with “the noise and the smells” of immigrant neighbors. The speech was stinking in its own right, but Chirac, whose party is competing with the National Front for the vote, could at least pretend that he had been misunderstood because he was improvising.
Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, the former president of France and proud of his sophistication, cannot invoke even such a phony excuse. His reference to the foreign “invasion” was made in a well-considered text about immigration. France, like many other countries, transmits nationality through jus sanguinis (the law of the blood) to children of French nationals or through jus soli (the law of the soil) to those born in France. The bourgeois republic, though not always for lofty reasons (a low birthrate, the demand for cheap labor), developed a rather open policy on immigration, claiming it was inspired by the universal principles of the French Revolution. The centralism inherited from the revolutionary Jacobins had as its counterpart a great capacity for assimilation; if the Nazis’ rule that one grandparent made you a Jew were now applied to foreign origin in France, about a quarter of the French population would have to be treated as alien. It is this tradition that Giscard now proposes to give up. France should stick to the law of the blood, to kith-and-kin and all that ethnic stuff because its identity is allegedly threatened by the foreign “invasion.”