Amid the noise of the unending Urbatechnic affaire, a scandal over the Socialist Party’s fraudulent financing of its electoral funds, the tenth anniversary of François Mitterrand’s presidential victory was commemorated here in a wistful mood. I remember May 10, 1981, quite vividly. Barely was the result announced, at 8:00 P.M., than 200,000 people flocked to the Bastille to celebrate the end of twenty-three years of right-wing rule. They danced until a sudden shower announced that the fete was over.
For me this was not one of Wordsworth’s "blissful dawns." Yet one could not help rejoicing. I can plead, however, that I was not carried away by the euphoria and cite an editorial I wrote in these pages to prove that my expectations did not go beyond the proof of the pudding. But I must also confess that even a skeptic like myself could hardly imagine that within ten years the political and ideological climate would shift so far to the right–and not only in France but in Europe. Indeed, Mitterrand’s tenth anniversary is probably a good occasion to look at the sorry state of the left in Western Europe. The Communist parties, in historical terms, are obviously out of business. But are their very unidentical twins, the Social Democratic parties, not themselves close to bankruptcy?
From a purely electoral perspective, this gloomy diagnosis can quickly be denied. After all, Mitterrand is still President, with a Socialist, Edith Cresson, as his new Prime Minister. In neighboring Spain, Felipe González, whose Socialist Party did not even pretend it would attack capitalist society, will also soon celebrate ten years as head of government. In Britain, while the idea of the conquest of power cannot easily be associated with Neil Kinnock, the leader of the Labor Party may well have office thrust upon him. Even Germany’s Helmut Kohl, who obtained his victory under false pretenses, no longer looks as triumphant and lasting as he did. At this stage, social democracy is not doing too badly at the polls.
The second objection is that Mitterrand’s open conversion to capitalism does no more than bring France into alignment with its northern neighbors. After all. the British Labor Party and the German Social Democratic Party have long acted as managers of the existing system; there was no panic on their countries’ stock exchanges at the prospect of, say, Harold Wilson or Helmut Schmidt taking over the premiership. Only in France was every general election prior to 1981 preceded by speculation about whether it would bring a change of government or, with the advent of a left that included the Communists, a change of regime. This French anomaly, it is argued, has now disappeared. More generally, as politics catches up with economics, the Latin members of the Common Market are supposed to adopt the pattern of their northern partners, with the Communist parties withering away and the Socialist ones falling into line (the Italian Communist Party-now rechristened the party of the Democratic Left-is ambiguously playing both roles at once).
The snag in this interpretation is that European Socialists are being asked to jump straight to the American pattern, with the electoral machine of the Democratic Party as their model. The postwar Social Democratic parties, while undeniably the managers of capitalism, did have a certain political vision. Indeed, the thirty years of unprecedented growth after World War II were highly propitious for reformism. As real wages rose steadily and people climbed up the social ladder, the Fabian doctrine of gradual transformation seemed to make sense. True, acceptance of the existing order was not as widespread as the salesmen of the "end of ideology" suggested. In France and Italy particularly, the 1960s revolt of students and young workers revealed the depth of hidden discontent. But the Keynesians had the upper hand among economists, the welfare state was fashionable and the general climate was social democratic. The right was obliged to contend that it desired the same objectives, only by other means.