The Mitterrand-Chirac-Barre Show

The Mitterrand-Chirac-Barre Show

Most French voters, judging by opinion polls, are bored with the current presidential campaign. No wonder.


It is the logic of our times
No subject for immortal verse
That we who lived by honest dreams
Defend the bad against the worse.
      –Cecil Day Lewis

Most French voters, judging by opinion polls, are bored with the current presidential campaign. No wonder. Twenty years ago, in May 1968, when imagination was supposedly poised to seize power, some of them had rediscovered hope. Seven years ago, in May 1981, the left had victory thrust upon it when François Mitterrand defeated Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, and many people assumed that, after twenty-three years of conservative rule, a new era would begin. Now nobody has such illusions. Whoever wins the May 8 election–Mitterrand, the incumbent and favorite, or one of his two conservative challengers, the pushy Jacques Chirac or the smug Raymond Barre–there will be no political earthquake. This does not mean that the result is irrelevant. It does matter, for the future of the right, which of the two challengers wins the April 24 primary and, for the future of the country, who wins the runoff. But it matters no more than when similar elections determine who will be the German chancellor or the British prime minister. What is at stake is the person and the party, not the nature of the regime or the fate of the social order.

The way in which France is following in America’s footsteps is shown by- the growing importance of money and media. True, France has not yet reached the stage of allowing political advertising on television; when the candidates appear on the small screen during the official campaign period, access is controlled, equal and free. Even so, the advertising expenditure is tremendous. Chirac, Mitterrand and Barre stare out from posters throughout the country. The government record is extolled in pages of advertising in both the Parisian and provincial press. Add to that the booking of halls, the bills of pop singers, the fees for pollsters and P.R, people, and it is estimated that Chirac, the biggest spender, has probably already exceeded the permitted ceiling of about $20 million. (Yet who will really check the cut-price deals, the phony bills and other tricks of show-biz, life must the trade?) It is at Chirac’s meetings that the new pattern is most striking. As in a chat show, the star performer answers questions from a panel, his image projected onto a big screen for all to see. In the make-believe world of political show-biz, life must imitate television.

Another feature of the campaign is the disappearance of genuine ideological debate. Worried by Mitterrand’s advance in the opinion polls, Chirac has tried to rally his side by reviving the specter of the “Red peril.” But his attempt to depict a battle between free-trading white knights and collectivist Red villains fell completely flat. The left, after all, did spend five years in office, 1981-86, during which.time the very word “socialism” nearly vanished from the Socialist vocabulary. Today nobody buys the image of Mitterrand as a Kerensky paving the way for the Bolsheviks. With the ideological divide blurred, the election is increasingly presented as a clash of personalities: three main contenders in search of the presidential crown.

François Mitterrand, who will be 72 in October, is clearly the top performer, and one who has played many parts. During the first twelve postwar years he,was a permanent player in the ministerial game of musical chairs of the Fourth Republic. Then, in 1958, when General de Gaulle returned to power, the tactician became a strategist: Mitterrand decided not to get back into office, except as leader of the united left, with the Communist Party as a junior partner. This eventually meant spending twenty-three years in the political wilderness. When Mitterrand’s ambition was finally fulfilled, in 1981, his electoral victory coincided with an ebb of militancy and the ideological defeat of the left. The tools of Keynesianism proved inadequate to confront the economic crisis, and within a year of taking power the French left was bankrupt. Within two it had forgotten its promises and principles. It was then that Mitterrand the failed strategist revealed himself, once again, to be a master tactician. If you can’t beat them, join them. Since he could not enter history as a Socialist reformer, he would do so as a consolidator of capitalism, the man who brought the French left into the system by destroying–at least for a time–its belief in a radical alternative.

Broken promises and betrayals led to an inevitable slump in the popularity of the President, and of the left as a whole. The right, crushed in the parliamentary voting of 198 1, took its revenge five years later. If Mitterrand’s stock is now high once again, it is partly due to the sense of resignation among his own supporters and partly to the blunders of his opponents. In the past two years, as a lame-duck President facing a hostile parliamentary Assembly, he confirmed his resilience and political skills. Acting as a sort of constitutional monarch, with real prerogatives only in defense and foreign policy, he allowed the Chirac government to run the country and take the full blame for the consequences.

This “cohabitation” was only possible because the governments that Mitterrand had headed had already poured so much water into their rosé. Thus, Mitterrand could preside over Chirac’s sweeping program of privatization because he had abandoned any commitment to a policy of nationalization. The avuncular Mitterrand would occasionally plead with Chirac’s ministers to be reasonable, hinting that the best way to preserve capitalism was not to hand money openly to the rich through changes in. taxation. But the President presented no alternative policy of his own. The reborn star is not the same performer. Seven years ago Mitterrand seemed to stand for some sort of change. Today he is the reasonable spokesman for capitalist consensus.

Mitterrand’s own standing in the polls shows how far he has helped to shift the mood of the French. In the first ballot, where an absolute majority is required for election, he is expected to get more than 35 percent of the vote. He is not only well ahead of all the other contenders but is also the almost undisputed champion of the left. The official Communist challenger, Andre Lajoinie, is no longer a serious rival. Lajoinie, the leader of the Communist parliamentary group, is an earthy, solid, though uncharismatic figure. The party’s real leader, however, is its first secretary and chief gravedigger, Georges Marchais, who stood down this time for the simple reason that he had no desire to shoulder the full blame for the result. For a party that proved twenty years ago that it had chosen the electoral road, the track record is eloquent. Seven years ago, when Marchais got 15.4 percent of the vote, it was greeted as a disaster. Today, Lajoinie would be happy with half that percentage.

Admittedly, this time Lajoinie faces competition from an independent Communist, Pierre Juquin. But Juquin shows no sign of taking off. An effective speaker who trained as a teacher of German, Juquin has spent most of his adult life in the service of the C.P., much of that time as Marchais’s favorite and the party’s official spokesman. When he made his first television appearance as an independent candidate, most of the questions were concerned with his past record, not his future plans: How could he reconcile his libertarian feelings, his respect for movement from below, his sympathy for Poland’s Solidarity movement, with his functions in the C.P.? Juquin made no attempt to deny his errors and answered with dignity. Whether on the nuclear issue, women’s liberation or rights for immigrant workers, his program is much bolder than that of his left-wing rivals. Yet Juquin suffers from several handicaps. Some New Leftists will not vote for him because of his past; many more, in the present mood of disenchantment, will opt for Mitterrand for pragmatic reasons. Finally, in an election where money and the media count for so much, a man without funds and without a party apparatus can hardly get a hearing. Juquin will do well if he exceeds 3 percent of the vote.

A mathematically minded reader may raise a serious objection at this point. Even if you include Arlette Laguiller, leader of the Trotskyist group Lutte Ouvrière and a presidential candidate for the third time, the total vote for the left does not add up to 50 percent (the price still being paid for its five years in office). Why, then, is Mitterrand the favorite? Because the left is expected to show better “republican discipline”; that is, a massive transfer of its votes to the remaining leftist candidate in the second round, Mitterrand, incidentally, was so sure of qualifying that he delayed announcing his candidacy until March 22, just a few days before the legal deadline, and ran the first phase of his non-campaign in lordly fashion as the man above the fray. Chirac and Barre could not afford such luxuries. From the start, theirs has been a bloody battle for political survival, which is bound to leave deep wounds and result in a less disciplined transfer of votes in the second round of balloting.

Jacques Chirac, favored by the pollsters in his rivalry with Barre, may best be described in the words of George Bernard Shaw’s Mrs. Warren as “a devotee of the gospel of getting on.” Tall and handsome, his chin thrust forward, Chirac is half dashing cavalry officer and half crafty Tammany Hall pol. He is a Gaullist of Pompidou vintage, of the horse-trader rather than the Resistance-hero variety, and is particularly skilled at stabbing close allies in the back. At 55, Chirac is the youngest of the serious contenders. A product of the French hothouse for civil servants, the National School of Administration, he loved his war years in Algeria so much that he toyed with the idea of a military career. Back in Paris, he joined the staff of then-Prime Minister Georges Pompidou, the only man to whom Chirac was sincerely devoted. The affection was mutual and Pompidou promoted his young protégé first to be Under Secretary of the Treasury, then to be Minister of Agriculture. The keen climber managed to hand over so much in subsidies to his Corrèze constituency in Central France that it became a virtual fiefdom, and he featherbedded French farmers to such a degree that he remains their favorite.

But when Pompidou died, in 1974, Chirac had not yet been fully groomed, for the succession. Thinking of his own future, he promptly ditched his party’s presidential candidate, fellow Gaullist Jacques Chaban-Delmas, for his conservative rival Giscard d’Estaing. His reward was the premiership. There was, however, a misunderstanding between the two men. Giscard wanted to use Chirac to quash the Gaullists arid assert his own supremacy. Chirac wished to consolidate the party as an instrument for his own promotion. After two years the pair parted company. Chirac used his next five years out of office profitably, strengthening his hold on the neo-Gaullist Rally of the French People, or R.P.F. He also conquered the town hall of Paris, a very useful base for power and patronage. In the presidential poll of 1981 he settled his account, backing Giscard “as the rope supports the hanged man.”

With Giscard out of the way, Raymond Barre took his place. Chirac had the strongest party on the right, though not the highest popularity ratings. This is why in 1986, when the right won the parliamentary elections and could have forced Mitterrand to a confrontation, Chirac chose compromise and cohabitation instead; it gave him time to recover. He cannot be accused of sticking to principles that get in the way of his career. Classic Gaullism had stood for a strong state, nationalism and the struggle against U.S. hegemony. But in the past two years as Prime Minister, the neo-Gaullist Chirac has preached the doctrines of Milton Friedman and proclaimed his intention of privatizing even firms that had been nationalized by the General. He also discovered a passion for European integration and American leadership of the Atlantic alliance. To Chirac’s versatility one must add his great capacity for promising the moon and sixpence. (The most recent example of this was his pledge to stage the 1994 World Cup soccer championship in France, although the site will not be settled on for some time and will, in any case, be chosen by an international body.) More serious is Chirac’s propensity for packing the administration, privatized industry and the media with his own people, and the presence around him of shady characters, beginning with Charles Pasqua, his Fernandel lookalike Minister of the Interior. You might buy a second-hand car from a handsome salesman like Chirac. But is that reason to entrust the man with the fate of the Republic?

Can Barre, a perpetual political virgin, match this ruthless operator? Although Raymond Barre has spent nearly half his 64 years in active politics, he is still being described, curiously, as a decent professor fallen among politicians. Barre, who was born on the remote French island of Reunion, in the Indian Ocean, may indeed have felt quite fulfilled as a professor of economics. And it is true that he did stumble into political life accidentally, in 1959, when he was appointed chief of staff by an older academic colleague who had just been named Minister of Industry on de Gaulle’s return to power. During his four years in that post Barre demonstrated his ability, drive and determination. He never looked back.

Barre spent the next five years in Brussels as vice president of the European Commission and strengthened his international ties further by joining that International of the haves, the Trilateral Commission. Back in Paris, he served briefly under Chirac, and in 1976 took over as Prime Minister. There followed five years of economic austerity and fast-rising unemployment. It was not quite Thatcherism, since President Giscard d’Estaing feared the left and the coming elections. What made Barre particularly unbearable was his manner. Queen Marie Antoinette had told the poor to eat brioches; Premier Barre told the unemployed to set up their own firms, in a self-righteous falsetto that exuded smugness. By 1980 he was one of the most unpopular Premiers France had ever known.

Four years later he had become the darling of the right and a favorite in the opinion polls. The Socialists were the architects of this spectacular recovery. The left, after irs failure, switched t o a policy of austerity that could hardly be distinguished from that of its opponents;-Barre was hailed retrospectively as a man of truth, science and wisdom, The snag was that his party machine was no match for Chirac’s. The Union for French Democracy, or U.D.F., was a loose coalition of groups stretching from Christian reformers to downright reactionaries, and Barre was not even its leader. Yet, enjoying high ratings in the polls, he called for an immediate presidential election in 1986 and stayed out of government. Now, Barre is in a quandary. Many of his U.D.F. colleagues were in that government, which makes it difficult for him to attack it; yet, trailing behind Chirac in the polls, he is bound to do so. The longer this tension lasts, the better for Mitterrand.

To make the situation even worse, there is the ultra-rightist candidacy of Jean-Marie Le Pen. Once the plague has spread, it is not easy to get rid of. Le Pen’s Freudian slip last September, when he described the Holocaust as “a detail” of World War II, may have affected his reputation but not the size of his vote, which is still hovering above 10 percent in the polls. The nature of that vote has somewhat altered. In Paris, for example, it has partly shifted from posh to working-class districts. In the second ballot, when only one champion of the left and one of the right remain to fight it out, the Le Pen vote is expected to split, with half going to the right, a quarter abstaining and another quarter opting for Mitterrand. The real danger is not a mass epidemic but the slow spread of the poison as right-wing contenders try to woo voters who favor Le Pen. The other day, in Marseilles, a city with a large immigrant population, Chirac proclaimed that, while he himself was. naturally allergic to racism, he could “understand” it. What is that French saying? Tout comprendre c’est tout pardonner.

This, then, is the situation as the first ballot approaches. Mitterrand has donned the mantle of unifier and is already pondering with whom he will govern if re-elected. If Chirac is defeated in the second round he will try to swallow his partners afterward to form a single big conservative party. Barre is fighting for his political survival.. Gone are the hopes of 1968 or the illusions of seven years ago. Hence this uninspiring report, which reads more like rn electoral laundry list than immortal verse. But this, I hope only for a spell, is the logic of our times.

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