History, whatever Hegel or Marx may have said about tragedy and farce, can also repeat itself as a tragicomedy. The French go to the polls on March 21 and March 28 to elect their National Assembly, and this election is, in many respects, a repeat performance of the one held seven years ago. François Mitterrand, the old republican monarch, is still clinging to his throne. Michel Rocard, the aging Socialist heir apparent, is desperately fighting to preserve his chance of succession. The triumphant right, bound for victory, is still led by its two men of yesteryear, the traditional conservative Valéry Giscard d’Estaing and the neo-Gaullist Jacques Chirac. Not only the performers weary, the show itself is rather farcical. It is only when one recalls the events of a quarter-century ago, in May 1968, when students and workers paralyzed France and imagination appeared to be seizing power, that the present collapse of the left and probable funeral of the Socialist Party acquire a tragic dimension.

Why this impending defeat? When analyzing French politics one must keep two things in mind. One is that the French Constitution, made to measure for General de Gaulle, is a hybrid: It is neither truly parliamentary nor fully presidential. The National Assembly is elected for five years and the President for seven, so Mitterrand’s mandate has two more years to run. Will he be able to survive that long with an Assembly dominated by his enemies, or will he be driven to call an early election? While fighting the present battle the parties are already thinking In terms of the next confrontation, in 1995.

The second point is that electoral laws change in France like fashions in Paris, and the system under which one votes greatly affects the result. In 1986, when Mitterrand first had to face a hostile electorate, his losses were softened by proportional representation. The respectable right (i.e., excluding the followers of the ultrarightist Jean-Marie Le Pen) received only 42 percent of the vote but still gamed a bare majority in the Assembly, allowing the President to fight back. This time the swing to the right will be amplified by an electoral system based on majority rule. In each district, the two candidates with the most votes In the March 21 voting, along with any others who win at least 12.5 percent of the vote, will go on to the second round. So when you read about a conservative landslide in France, do not conclude that the country has been swept by a reactionary wave. What we have to examine is not so much the rise of the right as the dramatic decline of the left.

Mitterrand’s Legacy

The President still has some time to go and, with his political skill and fighting ability, he will pose quite a lot of problems for his opponents. But his reign is coming to an end, and it is time for an assessment. What a strange career! The man was a rather moderate and successful politician, frequently a minister, under the Fourth Republic, which collapsed in 1958. He then spent twenty-three years in opposition leading a popular-front coalition with Communists as junior partners. When he finally became President in 1981, he probably did not intend to “break with capitalism,” as his party proclaimed, but he clearly saw himself as a socialist reformer able to carry France beyond the Swedish model. His means, however, did not add up to such a radical end, and two years later his policy was shattered.

He then changed course. He would leave his imprint as the man who made France safe for capitalism, who destroyed the still-potent dreams of those who would radically change society through political action. He aimed to lead France into the consensus politics then prevailing in the West. And, in a sense, he succeeded. Brandishing a strong franc, his government now gets the blessing of the Bourse and praise from the journals of international finance. But with one person out of ten on the dole, it is being deserted by a good portion of its own electorate.

At the opening of this electoral campaign it was pathetic to see Mitterrand, asked by voters about persistent unemployment, replying with unusual fatalism that this was the way of our world. It was even more revealing when, quizzed about the involvement of Socialists in financial scandals, he pleaded that more politicians from the opposition have been indicted. He seemed to have no inkling of the reasons for the popular revulsion against himself and his party. The left may not have been really expected to “change life,” as it once pledged. But it had been elected to alter society and reverse the policy of its opponents. It was supposed to bring some fresh air, a new morality-not to plead that its hands were no dirtier than those of its predecessors. Disenchantment and disgust are the price of normalization.

The political calculation did not come off either. The underlying assumption after Mitterrand moved to the right in 1983 was that the Socialists and their satellites would get around 40 percent of the vote and the respectable right roughly the same, with the Communists and the ultraright National Front sharing the rest. This is how consensus politics was intended to work. But with the Socialist vote now dropping to nearly half that level, the whole construction faIls to pieces.As a last resort, Mitterrand has labored not only for international capital but also for his own domestic right.

Unwanted Heir or la Clintonite?

Michel Rocard, Mitterrand’s unwanted successor, provided the only novelty of this campaign, the announcement that after this election he will start a “big bang,” a new party or movement–with members ranging from reformed or converted Communists to liberal conservatives and including both Socialists and ecologists–that will reshape French politics. This formation would naturally serve him as a platform in his bid for the presidency.

There is no love lost between Mitterrand and Rocard, who have had quite different careers. Unlike Mitterrand, Rocard did not come from the center. In the early days of the new republic he was on the far left as leader of the small but radical Unified Socialist Party (P.S.U.). In a recent interview he claimed continuity in his views, pointing out that he was hostile to the state in the 1960s. But he forgot one small detail: In his youth he attacked the state from the point of view of the workers’ councils; now he does so from the viewpoint of capitalist boardrooms.

On the other hand, Rocard can claim continuity from the moment he joined Mitterrand’s Socialist Party in 1974, where he found himself on the right. He and Jacques Delors, now President of the European Commission, were the two main spokesmen for the so-called Second Left, which opposed the alliance with the Communists and openly proclaimed that they wished to reform capitalism rather than break with it. Indeed, in the name of this strategy he unsuccessfully challenged Mitterrand for the party’s leadership in the late seventies and then had to pay for years for his lèse-majesté.

The paradox is that since 1983 Mitterrand has been practicing what Rocard had preached. Nevertheless, the latter had to earn his passage back into Mitterrand’s good graces, keeping a low profile and serving faithfully as a minister. It was only in 1988 that he was appointed Prime Minister, a job from which he was dismissed three years later. And it is only now that, planning for his political future, he dares to defy the lame-duck President.

The battered Socialists may well rally around his banner. After all, he is not asking them to change course, only to proceed further to the right. To put it plainly, Rocard is inviting them to build a Democratic Party à l’américaine. The left in Paris, as in London and Rome, is now affected by a case of what might be called acute Clintonitis.

There are, however, some serious question marks. Will the Socialists still be strong enough after the voting to be an axis for such a construction? After all, many of their leaders, including Rocard, are not even certain of being re-elected. Is the 62-year-old Rocard, with his checkered political past, the best symbolic leader for a new deal? Last but not least, there is the substance. Mitterrand has been deserted by large sections of the left not because of what he said or did not say but because of what he did, which Rocard proposes to continue doing.

Shades of Green

Disenchantment with the Socialists has benefited the one movement certain to make a big jump in votes m this election, the ecologists, who are predicted to get more than 15 percent of the vote. They are actually a coalition. Half the candidates are provided by the Greens, a loose party built through years of antinuclear struggle and other battles over the environment. The Greens themselves are a motley crowd. Their spokesman, Alain Lipietz (who, incidentally, has a chance of toppling Georges Marchais, the immovable General Secretary of the Communist Party, in a suburb of Paris), has red roots. On the other hand, their main leader and presidential candidate in 1988, the rather stiff Antoine Waechter, insists so vehemently that the Greens will not sit on the left or on the right in the new Assembly that one assumes they will be happiest swinging from the chandelier. But, whatever their inner differences, the Greens became the odd men out of French politics in recent years. Questioning the very nature of growth, they attacked the logic of the system and thus appeared to be the only attractive alternative to the increasingly consensual politics. Hence their appeal. Hence also the emergence of their new partner, Brice Lalonde’s Ecology Generation.

A smooth performer and clever politician, Lalonde is no newcomer. In 1968 he belonged to Rocard’s P.S.U. Thereafter he was active among ecologists, whom he represented In the 1981 presidential election. More recently, he was appointed first junior and then full Environment Minister by the Socialists, once they grasped that green was a fashionable color. At almost the last moment, Lalonde jumped off the sinking Socialist ship to swim on his own. With some environmentalists and politicians in search of a bandwagon, he set up Ecology Generation in 1990, did well in local elections last year and forced the Greens into partnership.

Even if the combined ecologists manage to capture as much as one-fifth of the vote, they have no strongholds and will end up with no more than a handful of seats. To do better, they will have to strike a deal with the Socialists; if that happens, in each district either a Green or Socialist candidate will drop out so as to weaken the conservative tide in the final balloting. Will they do so at the last moment? Whatever the case, in terms of votes cast this election will be a triumph for the ecologists. It may also mark the beginning of a salutary crisis, since one can hardly imagine the long-term coexistence of Green militants genuinely wanting to change the world with Lalonde and his fellows trying to climb as high as they can within the existing system.

Victorious and Divided

We should briefly deal with the right because we shall have to live with it in office for at least two years-much longer if it wins the presidential contest in 1995. The right has had victory thrust upon it; its problem is how to consolidate. It will not repeat its mistake of 1986, when it revealed its reactionary nature by attempting to abolish the wealth tax. The new government will try to sell state property so as not to raise taxes, and will postpone unpleasant measures until after 1995. But it will not be able to put off decisions about the value of the franc and interest rates.

The main difficulty for the right is its divisions. It is in fact an alliance of two coalitions. The Union for French Democracy (U.D.F.), of which Giscard is the main leader, includes everyone from decent liberals to archreactionaries. At least the U.D.F. roughly fits its usual description as classically conservative with free-trade leanings. The normal description for Chirac’s Rally for the Republic (R.P.R.) used to be Bonapartist, that is to say, state interventionist and populist. Yet the person likely to be picked as the next prime minister, should the R.P.R. seat more deputies than its partner, is Edouard Balladur, a caricature of the moneyed bourgeoisie. On the other hand, the two leaders most popular among the militants are Charles Pasqua and Philippe Seguin, the twins who fought against the Maastricht treaty and whose jingoism may have won some votes back from Le Pen.

Add to this volatile mixture open and hidden governmental or presidential ambitions. Add also a number of unknowns: Is it wiser to coexist with the President or to seek a confrontation? Is it better for a presidential candidate first to be prime minister, as Giscard seems to think, or stand aloof, as Chirac believes after bitter experience? François Mitterrand, the Garry Kasparov of political chess, will have plenty of gambits to play before his final exit.

Beyond the Poll

The election being all over but the counting, here are some tips for assessing the results. After the first ballot, in which, as the French say, “you pick and choose,” all that matters is the share of the vote. Will the respectable right get 40 percent? Will the Socialists slide to 20 percent or below (crisis), or reach 25 percent (and breathe)? Will the ecologists be nearer to 15 or 20 percent, and what will be their differential with the Socialists? Will the National Front and the Communists reach 10 percent? (The Communists, frozen in the past under Marchais’s leadership, have missed a golden opportunity.) In between ballots, the questions will be, How many ecologists coming third will decide to run In the second round (thus hurting the Socialists and themselves), and how many followers of Le Pen have enough votes to do so? After the second ballot, the relevant query will be, Which of the two right-wing partners–U.D.F. or R.P.R.–captured more seats and will, therefore, be asked to form a government? Afterward we will find out if the victory of the right is overwhelming, whether it will have won more than 400 seats in an Assembly of 577, producing what the French call a chambre introuvable, by analogy with the post-Napoleonic Assembly that the King himself considered too royalist.

It is probably voters’ absolute certainty about the results that explains the lack of passion, the subdued climate of this campaign. Yet there is also in the atmosphere something of a twilight, the end not only of Mitterrand’s reign but of an era: the end of the respectful left, Cornrnunlsts and Socialists combined, which in 1968 managed to keep in check the popular movement from below and then convince the people that their condition could be altered by ballot box alone. Perhaps the left has to live its time to the bitter end–the Communists showing they have no model beyond the Soviet, the Socialists proving that there is no social democratic solution to the present crisis, the Greens discovering their own contradictions–before it can start afresh. Who said that Rocard must be right and the future inevitably American? On second thought, the horizon may not be as sad as my title, borrowed from Françoise Sagan, suggests.