Electoral Fun and Games

Electoral Fun and Games

This year will be an electoral year in many parts of Europe. In France, François Mitterrand is scheduled to leave the presidency in May.


This year will be an electoral year in many parts of Europe. In France, François Mitterrand is scheduled to leave the presidency in May. Italy’s new government is clearly a caretaker affair, and the question is whether the next parliamentary vote will be staged in June or in the fall. Toward the end of the year the limelight will be switched to Eastern Europe. First the Poles must choose Lech Walesa’s successor, and the former electrician is desperately trying to cling to his job. Then, in December, it will be the turn of the Russians to elect a new Parliament.

This round of elections, one feels, foreshadows deeper changes than previous ones and may reshape Europe’s political landscape. The past is vanishing and the future is still uncertain. As Walt Whitman put it, “Society waits unformed and is for a while between things ended and things begun.” The notes that follow, limited to the Western part of the Continent, are designed to convey the amusing paradoxes but also the more serious dilemmas of this Europe in transition.

How sacred is property? Though not yet launched officially, the French electoral campaign is already in full swing. Indeed, according to the pollsters the result is a foregone conclusion. Without much enthusiasm, the French people, we are told, will opt for a bourgeois king, a latter-day Louis Philippe: Prime Minister Edouard Balladur. With the Communists in chronic convalescence, the Greens splintered into three and the Socialists fighting bitterly over their candidate (Lionel Jospin, former party leader and senior minister, finally emerged triumphant in a ballot of party members), the left is not even certain of representation in the second ballot. That takes place on May 7. when the two contenders with the highest number of votes fight it out. The right, apparently, can afford its divisions, since Balladur is sure to win, whoever his rival. But with more than two months to go before the first ballot and more than half the electorate undecided, all forecasts should be taken with a grain of salt. After all, both Georges Pompidou in 1969 and Mitterrand himself in 1981 won after trailing in early surveys.

One candidate determined to give the lie to forecasts of Balladur’s invincibility is his fellow neo-Gaullist and former protector, Jacques Chirac, now pondering the ways of political ingratitude (though the fickleness should not have surprised such a ruthless climber). Chirac is 62 and this is his third and probably last presidential bid. To succeed, he is ready to promise the moon and preach the opposite of what he has practiced. Indeed, in his zeal he has raised–at least symbolically–one of the significant issues of this campaign: Does the state have the right to requisition property to help those in need?

It all started before Christmas with the successful takeover by homeless people of a vacant block of flats in a fashionable district on the Left Bank. The squatters were sponsored by the veteran fighter for those without a roof over their heads, the highly popular priest Abbe Pierre. Sensing the mood, Balladur promised not to send the police to dislodge them. Chirac, Mayor of Paris, was first taken aback but then decided to outbid his rival. Brandishing a 1945 decree authorizing such actions, he promised to requisition empty flats to house the homeless. It was rather strange to hear a mayor, during whose seventeen-year tenure the poor were driven out of Paris, suddenly castigating wealthy speculators.

Chirac’s conversion is, of course, an electoral gimmick, but it showed that a mechanism for tackling the housing problem does exist. There are more than 100,000 vacant flats in Paris proper, and three times that number in the greater Paris area. Add to this the empty office buildings that could be converted into apartments, and you would make a beginning in coping with the growing number of street people and those living in appalling conditions. Yet nothing of this magnitude has been attempted. The city has started requisition proceedings for only three houses. The big construction companies, to show their generosity, have vaguely offered some blocks of flats and, simultaneously, raised all sorts of legal obstacles. Once winter–and the election–have passed, Chirac’s eloquent promises will be quickly forgotten.

But there is a lesson In this affair. The 1945 decree was issued by General de Gaulle in the exhilarating mood of liberation, when many in the Resistance cherished the hope that private property would no longer be allowed to stand in the way of social justice. How distant those days now seem. In Paris, where Pierre Joseph Proudhon once proclaimed that “property is theft,” la propriété is now the object of a cult. Even the Socialists don’t dare contradict the prophets of privatization. Chirac’s antics have thus reminded the left of the elementary truth it seems to have forgotten all over the world, namely, that you can’t defend the victims of the system without attacking the vested interests of the wealthy.

The bishop outcast. A Parisian wit suggested that the left could easily win the presidential contest if it chose as its standard-bearer Monsignor Jacques Gaillot, the former bishop of Evreux. I say former because, as if to prove that even with Stalinism dead and buried there is still a hierarchical order capable of kicking people out of their job for not toeing the line, the Vatican removed him from his diocese because of his views. Gaillot has always turned out wherever there was a fight for the oppressed, whether South African blacks or Palestinians; or, closer to home, the immigrants, the poor and the homeless (he was, naturally, among the squatters mentioned the outcasts.

Small, unassuming, bespectacled, with a twinkle in his blue eyes and a disarming smile, Monsignor Gaillot was also a popular television personality. With Christian charity, though to the horror of his superiors, he would show understanding for the abortion pill or the use of condoms to prevent AIDS, for the right of priests to be married or of women to be ordained. For John Paul I1 and his conservative followers such heresies were unbearable. And so it was the popular preacher’s turn to become an outcast. In post-Stalinist Russia discarded dignitaries were appointed ambassadors and posted to Outer Mongolia. The Vatican’s equivalent treatment for clerics disgraced but not excommunicated, since they don’t question fundamental doctrine, is to appoint them as bishops to defunct dioceses (they are also known as bishops in partibus infidelium). Thus, Monsignor Gaillot became bishop of Partenia, the nonexistent diocese of Mauretania.

What Rome did not bargain for was the passionate reaction in France. While the Pope was being applauded by the millions in the Philippines, his decision was being cursed both in Paris and the provinces. The French Church is Gallican by above). He was and remains a self-appointed spokesman for tradition, resentful of interference from Rome; this may explain the uneasiness of some of the hierarchy in this conflict. But the main protest came from the lower clergy and from lay people who sympathized with Gaillot and who, in a country where Catholicism is the dominant religion but practicing Catholics are few, saw the value to their church of his appeal to the downtrodden. Indignation was also expressed by his fellow fighters against racism and oppression who did not share his faith. The support movement reached a climax on January 22 when some 20,000 believers and nonbelievers attended Monsignor Gaillot’s last mass in Evreux. It clearly was not the end of the story.

But Rome has weathered greater shocks. Heinrich Heine once compared the two main churches in economic terms: He likened the Protestant Church to free enterprise, in which each parson must fend for himself, and the Catholic Church to a monopoly, in which all that matters is the success of the headquarters in Rome. The Vatican, obviously, is not on the verge of bankruptcy, but if it follows the reactionary line of the Polish Pope and his faithful servants on abortion, contraception and AIDS, it may soon have serious trouble not only with liberation theology in Latin America but with its liberal flock in Europe. As for the quip that Monsignor Gaillot should be the leader of the French left, it tells us a great deal about the latter’s current disarray.

The thirty-nine votes. On January 25, in Italy’s crucial lower chamber, the Cabinet of Lambert0 Dini was approved by 302 ayes against 39 nays with 270 deputies abstaining. These seemingly plain figures conceal a paradox: Italy’s most reactionary government since World War I1 was voted in by parties of the left and opposed by parties of the right. Headed by a former director-general of the Bank of Italy, the new Cabinet includes representatives of the Employers Federation and the financial community, as well as a host of right-wing professors. To make the blessing of the establishment complete, Susanna Agnelli, sister of Giovanni, the boss of Fiat, was appointed Foreign Minister. Yet this reactionary government was not supported by the right: The legislators who abstained were all followers of Silvio Berlusconi and Gianfranco Fini. The caretaker government won with the backing of the remnants of Christian Democracy, the weakened Northern League and, above all, the Democratic Party of the Left, the majority of the former Communist Party. The thirty-nine negative votes were cast by Rifondazione Comunista, the minority of the former C.P., the nostalgics, radical unionists and New Leftists determined to keep the name and revive the idea.

For a time, while Berlusconi was actively threatening to bring down the government, those thirty-nine votes looked decisive and their intended use provoked a passionate debate on the left. The leadership of Rifondazione, headed by Fausto Bertinotti, claimed that it could not vote for Dini without betraying its own supporters and the vast protest movement that Dini’s policies had prodded into life when he was Finance Minister in Berlusconi’s Cabinet. The critics of Rifondazione replied that the party should not enable Berlusconi to stage an election at the most propitious moment and thus help him to return to office and get on with his dirty job. Since the threat of authoritarian rule is spreading, it is worth summing up the broader issues of that debate.

Those advocating a vote for Dini argued that you can’t stick to ideological niceties when democracy is in danger. There is, they insisted, a difference between a conservative and an authoritarian right. A Dini interregnum would not only gain time. It may pass laws, notably dealing with the control of television, that would prevent Berlusconi’s return. Behind the argument that democracy was in danger lay the memory of Germany in the 1930s, when the left bickered while the Nazis rose to power. To dismiss this line it is not enough to point out that history does not repeat, that the streets of Italian cities today are not filled with squads of jackbooted thugs. One must also realize that nowadays Big Brother may advance surreptitiously, hidden at first behind TV screens.

The snag, answered the other side, is that we have not been asked to back a government that is merely introducing democratic reforms but one that will carry out a policy of austerity with a clear class bias. To endorse such an unpopular program is to pave the way for the triumph of Fini and Berlusconi. This indictment raises larger issues. While Western Europe was being restructured in the past two decades, the left simply retreated, giving up position after position and principle after principle. The ideological void thus created, combined with growing discontent, provided a climate conducive to the rise of the far right. The problem is not striking temporary deals that, after all, can be explained to one’s supporters. The problem for the left is to show that it has political and economic solutions to a deepening social crisis.

The rule of hot money. Throughout Western Europe there is a strong feeling that employers and their servants in government are preparing to launch a major offensive against the welfare state and other postwar gains of working people. The alleged reason is to solve the persistent problem of mass unemployment. Europe, it is argued, must rush to deregulate, following the example of the United States, where there are fewer jobless.

Paradoxically, it is in Germany, where the election is over, that the crucial question of unemployment and the idea of a drastic cut in working hours as a means for reducing it were revived this past January. Dieter Schulte, president of the Federation of German Unions, hinted that if a four-day workweek would really save jobs, then his organization might consider working on Saturdays and even break their rule that reduction in working time should not be coupled with a drop in income. This proposed extension of last year’s Volkswagen experiment on a national scale has been greeted favorably by employers and less so by many unions, notably the engineers of IG Metall, who know from experience that the promise of more jobs seldom stands the test of technological change.

Why can’t profits rather than wages be lowered to absorb the costs of shorter working hours? The answer you get is the same as when you make other suggestions to soften the impact of unemployment, such as the mass creation of socially useful jobs In health, education, care of old people or preservation of the environment. To do so–the argument runs–would be “unprofitable.” Creating such jobs would mean raising taxes, and this can’t be done because of foreign competition; and if you lower profit margins capital will simply fly away. Having created a world kingdom dominated by financial capital, our rulers and their servants preach that everything must be submitted to the tyranny of hot money–funds that can be transferred rapidly from one financial center to another to take advantage of differences in short-term interest rates. Now almost all money is potentially hot money. In this new setting, labor unions and left-wing parties can no longer be satisfied with domestic solutions; they must carry the struggle beyond their borders and make the entire European Union their battlefield.

All over Europe there are tremors announcing a social upheaval and, probably, the formation of entirely new political parties and other structures. I have limited myself to Western Europe, which can be treated as an entity, though it clearly does not act as one. From Bosnia to Chechnya, Western Europe sees signs of its impotence, while Algerian explosions remind it of impending troubles from the South. It is in this transformed, deregulated context that the left must invent new forms of organization of labor and of democratic management of the economy. It must also project them beyond the frontiers of the nation-state. In order simply to survive, and not to surrender, the left must thus both think internationally and prepare for new offensives. This imperative, on reflection, is valid on both sides of the ocean.

Thank you for reading The Nation

We hope you enjoyed the story you just read, just one of the many incisive, deeply-reported articles we publish daily. Now more than ever, we need fearless journalism that shifts the needle on important issues, uncovers malfeasance and corruption, and uplifts voices and perspectives that often go unheard in mainstream media.

Throughout this critical election year and a time of media austerity and renewed campus activism and rising labor organizing, independent journalism that gets to the heart of the matter is more critical than ever before. Donate right now and help us hold the powerful accountable, shine a light on issues that would otherwise be swept under the rug, and build a more just and equitable future.

For nearly 160 years, The Nation has stood for truth, justice, and moral clarity. As a reader-supported publication, we are not beholden to the whims of advertisers or a corporate owner. But it does take financial resources to report on stories that may take weeks or months to properly investigate, thoroughly edit and fact-check articles, and get our stories into the hands of readers.

Donate today and stand with us for a better future. Thank you for being a supporter of independent journalism.

Ad Policy