The French socialist saga makes awkward reading for left-wingers. It has a wistful air of déjà vu. The progressive hero starts out filled with good intentions and plans for social justice, but then, näively playing by the twisted rules of the game, he falls easy prey to the gnomes of Zurich and the masters of the multinationals. There is no happy ending. France, the once-proud odd man out, is brought down. Yet the old story is never quite the same, and it is instructive each time to see how the hero is first bewitched before being bullied into line. Besides, hope springs eternal, and the French story is still unfinished…
Let me pick up the narrative where I left off in a previous letter. The euphoria-the so-called “state of grace”–of the Socialist victory–had been dissipated; and the government had discarded the tools of Keynesianism and was groping uneasily on the road to deflation [see Singer, “Imagination Has Not Yet Taken Power,” The Nation, January 29].
Disenchantment with the state of the economy was bound to affect the voters. In the elections this March, the French chose their municipal councils. In the first-round balloting, some middle-class voters swung to the right, and many supporters of the left expressed their discontent by staying at home. They could afford to do that because the fate of the government was not at stake (the terms of National Assembly members still have three years to run, and the President’s term has five). The heavy defeat the Socialists suffered was inevitably magnified by comparison with the results of the municipal elections in 1977. Then the left was at the height of its power (the split between the Communists and the Socialists had not yet occurred), and it swept the country, winning control of an additional sixty-one cities of more than 30,000 inhabitants.
The spectacular setback of the left in the first-round voting came as no surprise. The unexpected was the line the opposition took. The right waged a Spiro Agnew-style law-and-order campaign mixed with a good dose of xenophobia. British Tories once fought a notorious by-election on the slogan “If you want a nigger as neighbor, vote Labor. ” The French right engaged in a similar whispering campaign. Only the “niggers” here are foreign workers, and racism is concentrated on Arabs from North Africa. All the familiar dirty tricks were employed. As it happens, the number of French citizens now on the dole (1.7 million) is about the same as the number of immigrant workers in the country, making the latter ideal scapegoats for rising welfare expenditures, overcrowding and, above all, crime in the big cities.
On paper, at least, it can be argued that adult immigrants are an economic boon rather than a burden, because they perform the tough, dirty, monotonous jobs French workers are not keen to take. But in the cities, where the social fabric has been rent by high unemployment, the rational argument does not have an immediate effect. The Socialists and Communists were not blameless in all this. In the past, they had taken an ostrich-like attitude toward racism, which is too serious a disease to be cured by counterpropaganda just at election time.
Still, in the week between the first- and second-round balloting, the left hit back. To wake up its followers, its leaders reminded them of the policies the right stood for. They said racism was racism and it stunk. One Socialist minister went so far as to refer (metaphorically) to the “fetid breath” of Jacques Chirac, Mayor of Paris and the opposition leader. The press, which hitherto had not been shocked by the right’s language, pounced on those words and began-pontificating about the left’s intolerance and the low level of political discourse. Presumably, the right’s jingoistic campaign, Which blamed everything on the wogs, and called for shipping them back across the Mediterranean, smelled like Chanel No. 5 .