Co-existentialism in France

Co-existentialism in France

Although Sartre may be out of fashion, political co-existentialism is the main subject of speculation in Paris.


Although Sartre may be out of fashion, political co-existentialism is the main subject of speculation in Paris. François Mitterrand is being described as if he were, to borrow Carlyle’s quip, the president of the Heaven and Hell Amalgamation Society. But the word "coexistence," with its implication of conflicting systems, conveys the wrong impression. What is at stake here is the fitting of France into the Western pattern, the Parisian version of consensus politics. As there is no constitutional precedent for this match between a Socialist President and a conservative Assembly, or even clearly defined rules; assessment is not easy. Enough time, however, has elapsed since March 16, when the Socialist reign ended without a bang, to survey the scene and ponder the prospects.

Because the electoral swing to the right was expected, it was overshadowed by two events that presented more of a surprise. The first was the "respectable" right’s attainment of only a narrow majority. To scrape together a majority of the National Assembly’s 577 deputies, the 155 neo-Gaullist followers of Jacques Chirac and the 131 members of the Union for. a French Democracy, partisans of Valéry Giscard d’Estaing and Raymond Barre must rely on five independent conservatives. The second was the relatively good showing of the Socialists, who, with their center-left allies, captured 32 percent of the vote and 216 seats in.the Assembly. The respectable right would have had a huge lead if it hadn’t been for the switch to proportional representation and if the neo-fascist National Front hadn’t managed to get 10 percent of the vote. With thirty-four deputies, Jean-Marie Le Pen is now the star performer in the Palais Bourbon, the seat of the National Assembly. At the opposite end of the spectrum, the Socialists’ good performance is attributable to the almost total disappearance of the Green and New Left candidates, whose followers deserted them rather than waste their votes, and to the further decline of the Communists, whose showing–10 percent of the vote and thirty-five deputies–was disastrous.

All this-in no way affects the big shift in the balance of electoral power from left to right. In the parliamentary poll of 1981 the left defeated the right by 12 percent of the vote. Now the right has the same edge (55 percent to 43 percent). It could be argued that what matters after an election is the number of deputies in the Assembly, not the balance of electoral forces in the country. That argument, however, misses the peculiarity of the current French situation and the constraints this balance places on the veto powers of President Mitterrand.

The government of Jacques Chirac, deriving its strength from the majority the conservative alliance holds in the National Assembly, is supposed to carry out the normal executive functions–to run the country. Yet it is also supposed to cooperate with the President, who, himself elected through universal suffrage, is no figurehead: He signs international treaties, has his finger on the nuclear trigger and watches over the proper functioning of the institutions of government. About once a week he presides over the formal meetings of the Chirac government, and his signature is required for its bills to become law (whether and when he can refuse to sign is now a matter of dispute). Last but not least, the President can appeal directly to the people, either by dissolving the National Assembly and holding a snap election or by resigning and precipitating a presidential one. No wonder that among Chirac’s first bills is a measure designed to abolish proportional representation in favor of the former majority system, which, assuming the present mood of the electorate continues, would result in a landslide for the right.

Against this backdrop the tactics of the protagonists are easier to see. Mitterrand’s term ends in 1988. He must wait and see if the other side blunders by passing some unpopular measures. He must appear reasonable in dealing with the right’s proposals though not so weak as to endorse without protest policies that run counter to his program. He must oppose judiciously, avoiding being forced to exercise his veto and thus trapped in a fight he would be certain to lose. So far, he has merely warned Chirac not to go too far and has expressed his misgivings for the record. Thus, he has accepted the idea of denationalizing enterprises taken over since 1981 but not those President de Gaulle took over after World War 11.

Chirac is operating under the same time pressures. The new National Assembly, though elected for five years, will last at most two, until the next presidential poll. If a Socialist is elected, be will dissolve the Assembly, hoping to get a parliament that supports him. If a conservative wins, he will do the same, hoping to turn his present tiny majority into a thumping one. The presidential election dominates French politics in another way. Chirac has to reckon with allies who happen to be rivals in his own party. He has formed a government in which members of his own party hold key posts: Edouard Balladur is Minister of Economics, and the sinister Charles Pasqua is Minister of the Interior. But he is being closely watched by two conservative competitors who chose to stay outside the government. Giscard plays the part of a condescending elder statesman, award good and bad marks. Barre, who lost ground as a "splitter" opposed to coexistence with Mitterrand, acts as a loyal skeptic.

He and others have to be loyal; any defections would bring down the government. Chirac is thus helped, for the moment, by the very narrowness of his lead. He is also taking advantage of two articles of the Constitution. One states that the legislature may grant the prime minister special powers to act by decree in a specified field. Chirac is using the prerogative to denationalize industries as well as to change the electoral law. The second provision enables a bill to become law so long as it is not specifically rejected by the opposition. This is quite a weapon for enforcing party loyalty. It is one thing for a-deputy occasionally not to vote with his party; it is quite another to vote against it, joining the opposition in a vote of censure.

With Mitterrand breathing down his neck and two "allies" scrutinizing his every step, with time pressing and pitfalls galore, Chirac must act quickly, though cautiously, or at least give the impression that he is a determined leader. The small devaluation of the franc that he pushed through and could easily blame on his predecessors is supposed to give the government some room to maneuver, while it is hoped that the drop in the value of the dollar and in oil prices will counteract the resulting inflationary pressures. To satisfy his supporters, Chirac parades as a champion of law and order and a scourge of immigrants. The powers of the police to harass aliens are being widened and its "blunders"–Chirac dixit–will be treated with understanding. Immigration from non-Common Market countries is to be restricted and the grounds for expulsion of foreigners extended. The respectable right may not yet openly court National Front deputies in parliament, but it is already wooing their supporters.

On nationalization the government is expected to act in two contrasting ways. Having acquired the authority to dismantle almost the entire public sector, it will proceed slowly, partly to avoid dumping too many shares of the state-owned companies on the market and partly to avoid charges that it is abandoning its Gaullist heritage. Things are moving much faster in other areas. Two out of the three existing public television channels are to be handed over to private enterprise. There are friends and backers to be rewarded; France is discovering the delights of the spoils system.

The class-based nature of the new administration will become even more apparent in the autumn, with the presentation of the budget, which will abolish the wealth tax and reduce the highest rates of income tax. But plans for dismantling the welfare state will have to wait until after the presidential election. Rambo may be a success in Paris, but direct attacks on social security are not yet considered politically profitable.

The contrast between the liberal views of Robert Badinter, Socialist Minister of Justice in the outgoing government, and the Agnew-like language of Chirac, between the Socialists who extended the public sector and the born-again free-traders who want to undo the work of half a century, tends to confirm the impression of a struggle between heaven and hell, between two radically hostile conceptions of society. The dividing line is much more blurred, as exemplified by the convergence of conservative and Socialist views on nationalization. When the left took office five years ago it regarded the nationalization of banking and of a large part of the industrial sector as an instrument of social change. A couple of years later it said that nationalized firms functioned as more efficient capitalist enterprises. Toward the end of their reign the Socialists themselves were ready to sell off part of the public sector. Now they do not criticize the program of denationalization in the name of justice or social planning; rather, they accuse the other side of being doctrinaire. Today it is the Socialists who parade as the pragmatists, while the right is criticized for acting on the basis of ideology instead of efficiency. The left and the right speak the same language.

What differences over policy that remain will be emphasized in the climate of permanent electioneering to which France has been condemned. Mitterrand and Chirac, the Socialist left and the respectable right, will be jockeying for position and combating each other with genuine passion. It is the same passion that Tories and Labor or even Republicans and Democrats would have displayed had circumstances temporarily thrown them together in an unprecedented and loveless match. Although not Tweedledum and Tweedledee, they are partners in the same system, no longer proponents of contrasting societies. That is why François Mitterrand is being praised by some at home and abroad as France’s great "normalizer," and cursed by others, including myself, for trying to reduce the.French left to the political level of the United States. The odds are that the present strange period of co-existentialism will not even last two years. How long consensus politics will prevail is a more important question and one that is more difficult to answer.

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