Bad News for French Socialists

Bad News for French Socialists

Toulouse, known as the cité rose because of the color of its walls, was the palest pink in October as the French Socialists held their congress there, the last before their inevita


Toulouse, known as the cité rose because of the color of its walls, was the palest pink in October as the French Socialists held their congress there, the last before their inevitable and deserved defeat in the parliamentary elections next March. It was an occasion for looking back at the road the party has traveled during its four years in power, or, more accurately, in office. When they were in opposition, the Socialists used to talk, however vaguely, of a "break" with capitalism. Now they discuss how best to manage this indispensable system. For the first time the Socialists unashamedly proclaim themselves social democrats. In 1959, at Bad Godesberg, the West German Social Democrats severed their official connection with Marxism. The Toulouse congress was billed as the Bad Godesberg of French Socialism. It proved much worse, if you will forgive the pun.

The metamorphosis of the Socialist Party is probably best illustrated by the political journey of Michel Rocard: the man who was expected to dominate the congress but didn’t; the former Minister of Planning, then Agriculture, in the Mitterrand government; the ex-radical socialist, ex-New Leftist, ex-champion of. worker-management and current panegyrist of profit; the perennially unsuccessful political climber. Oddly, Rocard, who used to criticize the state in the name of workers’ councils and now does so in the name of private enterprise, has a reputation for political candor and plain speaking. That is stranger still when one recalls that his famous outburst on television in 1978 following the Socialist defeat in the parliamentary election ("The left has again missed its appointment with history") had been rehearsed for hours on videotape.

Yet the reputation is understandable. As soon as he switched, in 1974, from the more radical Unified Socialist Party to the bigger but more moderate Socialist Party, Rocard began a swing to the right, in policy if not always in political vocabulary. An inspecteur des finances (a high-level civil service rank) by profession and an economist by training, he grasped at once that the economic crisis was altering the premises on which the program of France’s United Left was based. Instead of arguing that more radical means should be used to achieve the left’s objectives, he concluded that its aims should be modified. Mitterrand the politician would not hear of it; that, after all, is not how you win elections. Rocard then made the mistake of challenging Mitterrand’s leadership and of treating him as a man of the past. He was soundly defeated at the 1979 Socialist Party congress in Metz, and when Mitterrand was elected President, in 1981, Rocard and his followers, had to eat humble pie. He was politically silenced until he resigned from the government, in April. Since then he has not only repeatedly said to his comrades, "I told you so"; he has urged them to square their ideology with their practice, to stop pretending they are the gravediggers of capitalism. This candid admission apparently plays with the general public–judging by Rocard’s favorable ratings in opinion polls–and even in a Socialist Party bewildered and facing certain defeat. In votes taken as part of preparation for the Toulouse congress, the Rocard resolution drew 28.6 percent of party members’ votes, considerably more than had-been expected.

It is a custom in the Socialist Party when there are significant divisions over two or more motions to apportion seats in the executive committees in accordance with the votes cast for each motion beforehand, and then seek a composite resolution during the congress. Rocard was thus traveling to Toulouse to reach an inevitable compromise, but also to be the star of the show. He was outwitted by Lionel Jospin, Mitterrand’s handpicked successor as party secretary in 1981. Jospin, shall we say, turned Rocard on his right. We don’t want to be a small center-left party, he argued, but we have no objection to being a big social democratic one like the West German, British or Swedish parties. Yesterday’s insult became a term of praise among leaders who suffer from acute amnesia. Rocard, his political clothes stolen, no longer knew how to act. Usually an effective speaker with a machine-gun delivery, he came across as muddled and boring. To make things worse, on the last day the limelight was seized by the youthful Prime Minister, Laurent Fabius, Rocard’s main rival for the presidency.

Smooth and slick in looks as well as performance, Fabius might be described as a poor man’s Valéry Giscard d’Estaing; not because he is a shoddier version–he is probably more gifted–but because he is supposed to be on the side of the downtrodden. Like the former President, he was born with a silver spoon in his mouth. The son of an art merchant, he has an upper-middle-class Jewish background. Like Giscard, he was a champion at passing exams. He won honors in literature and politics at the highly competitive Ecole Normale Supèieure and the National Administration School, and graduated into an important post in the top civil service. In 1974, when he was 28, he discovered politics and the Socialist Party, becoming Mitterrand’s personal assistant two years later. Caligula’s horse? Not quite, though being chosen Mitterrand’s lieutenant enabled him to climb rapidly up the ladder, achieving the premiership in July 1984. Ideology and principles are not his forte, and his socialism is limited to a few platitudes about justice and solidarity. But he is good on the tube, excellent at explaining things in a simplified vocabulary and an unsurpassed technocrat who can claim to be as "modern" as they come. Rocard, who used to challenge Mitterrand for the title of Man of the Future, is now 55; Fabius is 39.

Success at a Socialist congress, however, is not everything. Most people know that the Socialists have no chance of winning next year. The electoral law was even altered to prevent the right’s victory from turning into a landslide. In 1981, under an electoral system based on majority rule, the Socialists, in coalition with the Communists, polled 49 percent of the vote and gained an absolute majority in the National Assembly. Next March the deputies will be elected through proportional representation. Even if the Socialists capture 30 percent of the vote, a share beyond their wildest dreams, they will not have a majority, and the weakened Communists are no longer their allies. The only serious question is, Will the respectable right be able to form a government on its own, or will it need the votes of Jean-Marie Le Pen’s racist National Front? [See Singer, "The Resistible Rise of Jean-Marie Le Pen," The Nation, September 7.]

Yet in France’s two-headed system the Socialists will not lose everything when they lose Parliament. Theoretically, Mitterrand will remain President until 1988. (I say theoretically because the French President; unlike his American counterpart, can resign and precipitate an early presidential election.) Rocard and Fabius on the left, Jacques Chirac, Giscard d’Estaing and Raymond Barre on the right, are already jockeying for position in these presidential stakes.

On October 27, two weeks after his success in Toulouse, Fabius faced his hardest test yet: a televised debate with Chirac. In hyperbole that put Madison Avenue to shame, the French media heralded this confrontation not just as the opening of the electoral campaign but as the match of the century. Although watched by an audience of 22 million, it was a flop. Not that the protagonists pulled their punches. "I have seen liars, but …" Fabius interjected at one point, while Chirac accused him of barking like a pug. The flaw in this much-touted fight was that it was phony and unprincipled. Chirac, allegedly a Gaullist, deplored France’s unwillingness to participate in the Star Wars program (the general must have been turning in his grave). Fabius, allegedly a socialist, offered no plan for the economy, saying only that it should be flexible. In the past, when Pierre Mendès France faced Michel Debré, say, or François Mitterrand squared off against Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, one had the impression-or at least the illusion-that two attitudes, even two worlds, were facing each other. Having managed the capitalist crisis for four years, the Socialists have lost the right and even the capacity to speak in the name of a different society.

How far their language has degenerated can be measured every day. Jacques Delors, the Socialist Minister of Finance from 1981 to 1984 and now president of the Brussels commission of the European Communities, has just published (with a journalist co-author) a book contending that the French left has fortunately learned "that it must submit to the international law of change, " that its great merit is to have taught the French people that "a firm must prosper, have profit margins’ ‘ and so on. This same book tells us that "unemployment benefits in France, as in other European countries, are nothing but a powerful incentive not to work." To say that the French Socialists have converted to social democracy debases the term. In its heyday, in Germany before World War I, social democracy was an integral part of the socialist movement, which was seeking to abolish capitalism and the exploitation of the workers. Only so-called reformers such as Eduard Bernstein assumed, wrongly in my view, that those aims could be achieved gradually, within existing institutions. Even today’s bastard social democratic parties in West Germany, Britain and the Scandinavian countries cannot swallow the crap Delors puts out; they are too closely linked with the labor movement for that. What the French Socialists are really after at this stage of their downhill slide is a catchall organization along the lines of America’s Democratic Party.

What are you whining about? the American reader may object. Consensus politics and the absence of a true alternative have been our lot for decades. But France once was different, and Italy too. In France, with its revolutionary tradition, its questioning of the prevailing ideology, millions of people believed in^ the possibility of changing life fundamentally through political action. It is this precious capital, this belief in an alternative way, that the Socialists have squandered.

With the electoral ides of March approaching, the Socialists are again seeking to rally the left-wing electorate. Beware, they warn. The conservatives are coming back, and with Le Pen breathing down their necks, they are more dangerous than ever. They will denationalize enterprises like the Renault car works, publicly owned since the end of the war. They will do their best to dismantle the welfare state, to roll back the victories of the labor movement in the factories and beyond. The alarm is in no way exaggerated, and the warning is earnest. The Socialists simply forget to add that if the right is aggressively on the move, it is because the left paved the way for it, politically as well as ideologically. As a genuine socialist put it to me: "In 1981 the victory was theirs; in 1986 the defeat will be ours." His gloomy message does not apply only to France.

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