Handicapping the French Elections

Handicapping the French Elections

All the ingredients are apparently there, but somehow the mayonnaise does not bind.


All the ingredients are apparently there, but somehow the mayonnaise does not bind. François Mitterrand, with his usual tactical skill, is both the umpire of the upcoming National Assembly elections and the skipper of the Socialist side. The three leaders of the rightist coalition–the corpulent Raymond Barre, with his falsetto voice; Jacques Chirac, too obviously ambitious, with his Mussolini-like chin; and Valély Giscard d’Estaing, the affected aging actor hankering after past glory–are already so preoccupied with the presidential poll, to come in 1988 at the latest, that it is difficult to tell whether they are fighting one another or the left. Spending on political advertising has broken all records, and posters showing smiling candidates plaster the country. The French now know the latest Madison Avenue imperative: instead of "cheese" they say "wistiti sex.” Yet for all this wisdom and expense, there has been no passion in this campaign.

Some commentators blame President Mitterrand for the lack of passion. There is no tension, they argue, because there is so little at stake. In past elections, when the left was-in opposition, it seemed to offer a radical alternative. Now, after five years of Mitterrand, that alternative seems to have vanished. The choice is obviously between two shades of opinion on how best to manage a capitalist society. Serge July, the editor of Libétion, a trendy newspaper, sort of a daily Village Voice, has just published a book describing Mitterrand as a reluctant normalizer, whose great merit is that he has fitted France into the traditional Western mold. It is strange that a Socialist president should receive tributes for destroying the only radical option. When I suggested that Mitterrand’s proposed model for his party is no longer the social-democratic variety but the American Democratic Party, in The Nation of November 30,1985, I feared I would be sued for libel. I didn’t know I was taking the argument almost from the horse’s mouth. In July’s book the same statement is attributed to Jean-Louis Bianco, Mitterrand’s chief of staff.

The lack of passion may also be attributable to the new system of proportional representation. Under the old electoral law, each district elected one deputy. There were fierce individual battles, duels between gladiators in which prominent politicians might be felled. Under the new system each party’s national headquarters draws up a list of candidates, and voters may not interfere with the order of candidates on the list. So important politicians’ heads will not go on the block, because their position at the top of the list guarantees their election. Indeed, in four out of five districts the results.can be predicted in advance.

France is divided into ninety-six départements and has ten overseas districts. Under proportional representation there is, theoretically, one deputy for every 100,000 people. In practice, small départements–even those with fewer than 100,000 inhabitants–will elect at least two deputies. The largest, Paris and the North, will choose twenty-one and twenty-four deputies, respectively. Given, the method of calculating election results (too complicated to go into here) and the absence of a national compensation system like Italy’s, whereby small parties that score a certain percentage of the total vote are awarded at-large seats, proportional representation is biased in favor of the biggest parties–the Socialists and the conservative coalition. It is estimated that if the latter takes 43 percent of the vote, it will win a bare majority of seats in the National Assembly, 289 out of a total of 577.

With that background in mind, here is what to look for in the March 16 elections. The key test will be whether the conservative coalition, consisting of the neo-Gaullist Rally for the Republic (R.P.R.), headed by Chirac, and the Union for French Democracy (U.D.F.), led by Giscard and Barre, can muster 45 percent of the vote, giving it a comfortable majority of 300 seats, enough to challenge the President-in the legislature. The Socialists’ target is 30 percent of the vote and 200 deputies. That showing would enable them to serve as a magnetic pole in the event that the "respectable" right does not gain a majority and enters into a coalition with the racist Jean-Marie Le Pen. For the Communists, who are predicted to win close to fifty seats, it is a matter of recovering from their dismal showing in the European Parliament elections two years ago, in which they took only 11 percent of the vote, a historic low for the party. Finally, Le Pen’s xenophobic National Front need not win much more than a dozen seats, say, 8 percent of the vote, to become a permanent sore on the French body politic. Its very presence has already poisoned the platforms of other parties.

How many deputies the respectable right will elect remains the crucial question. No one knows what will happen if the President is fixed with a hostile Assembly. The hybrid Constitution of the Fifth Republic, half parliamentary and half presidential, is still untested. How will this odd two-headed bird fly with each head pulling it in the opposite direction? Everybody, therefore, thinks of the morning after, and this is particularly true of the right. But it is difficult now to distinguish the traditional divisions of the French right–liberal and authoritarian–when the alleged neo-Gaullist Chirac damns all government planning and is ready to accept American hegemony in the Strategic Defense Initiative. (General de Gaulle must be turning in his grave.) It is easier to perceive the political calculations of the leaders. Barre, who does not have a sizable party machine but is doing well in opinion polls, wants an immediate confrontation with the Socialists. Although moderate in his criticism of them, he scorns the very idea of coexistence with the President. For him, the sooner a presidential election is held the better. Conversely, Chirac, head of the biggest party but down in opinion polls, attacks the Socialists violently, yet he would be willing to serve as Mitterrand’s Prime Minister in order to gain time to restore his fortunes.

Mitterrand can do with such unwitting support because he himself is likely to be in an awkward position. Having openly campaigned for the Socialists–their main slogan is "Give the President a workable majority"–he will be identified with their defeat. For him the best result would be a situation in which the respectable right needed Le Pen’s bloc to form a government. Such a deal would be too much for some of the liberal conservatives to stomach. But that is unlikely to happen, so Mitterrand will have to rely on all the weapons in the constitutional arsenal and on dissension among his opponents. He is an astute tactician, and you can count on political fun and games.

The government’s important last gift to French voters before the election was a new television channel, the fifth, inaugurated with pomp and ceremony on February 20. La Cinq is the first fully commercial national network, Its birth was like a soap opera, or rather a morality play on political hypocrisy. On one side you had the Socialists swallowing as fast as they could all their past attacks on America’s cultural hegemony, of which commercial television had been the most degrading symbol. On the other side you had the right, which was even funnier. It suddenly discovered the virtues of public service and became all artsy-craftsy, bleeding at the very thought that films, works of art, would now be sliced like salami and sandwiched with commercials. The posture was more farcical when one knew the real reason for this rage. Since money available for television advertising is not unlimited, La Cinq could frustrate the right’s own plans to sell public television at a rock-bottom price to its commercial backers and, in particular, to hand over one big channel to press lord Robert Hersant–or Herr Sant, as Le Canard Enchaîné used to spell it, as a reminder of the honorable gentleman’s collaboration with the Nazis.

What casts a shadow over France now, however, is not so much Hersant’s past as his present position as France’s biggest press tycoon. He owns 38 percent of the national press, including Le Figaro and France-Soir, and 26 percent of the provincial press. Laughing at the press antitrust law, he has just bought out a competitor in Lyon, thus insuring a monopoly in France’s second-most-important economic region, the Rhône Valley. The eloquent preachers of pluralism on the right didn’t utter a word of protest. Pluralism is for Poland and, anyhow, you don’t attack the high and mighty. And Citizen Hersant has power. If all goes well, he will control more than a dozen deputies in the next National Assembly, including himself, his son, former or future ministers and other scribbling servants. Power and ambition. From the press and radio, he now stretches to television and begins to look beyond French frontiers.

The "unacceptable face of capitalism"? Come off it. We are living in a world with a strange vocabulary, full of contradictions in terms–"caring capitalism" is Maggie Thatcher’s latest–and sad pleonasms like "socialism with a human face." The final comic twist in the French campaign was provided by the monthly economic statistics. Because the retail price index was excellent, the Socialists paraded as the upholders of price stability, the greatest of all social virtues. Because the unemployment figure was bad, an increase of 2.4 percent, the right shed crocodile tears for the proletarian victims. The world upside down? The expression does not fit, since it often refers to a revolution, and revolutionary is the last adjective one would use in connection with this campaign. Farcical is more accurate.

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