Mitterrand: Middle of the Journey

Mitterrand: Middle of the Journey

On March 21, French President François Mitterrand arrives in the United States for a three-day state visit. When he was elected President in May 1981, he was the subject of great hope.


On March 21, French President François Mitterrand arrives in the United States for a three-day state visit. When he was elected President in May 1981, he was the subject of great hope. Now he is the source of deep disappointment. His victory was hailed as the rebirth of democratic socialism. Now, at the midpoint of his presidency, his failures are being cited as proof that socialism is a myth.

First let me attempt to destroy the great illusion, the mistaken belief that an attempt to build socialism in France has failed. Then I shall take up two questions I was asked frequently during a recent visit to New York City: How can a Socialist leader be Reagan’s most useful European friend? and How can a country with a radical tradition remain relatively aloof from the European nuclear disarmament movement?

Requiem for Social Democracy

Socialism has often been condemned for sins it did not commit. For a long time it has suffered from guilt by association with Soviet Communism. Now it is being blamed for the failures of social democracy.

The inability of the French Socialists and the supposedly socialist governments in southern Europe to cope with the current economic malaise is being triumphantly presented as proof that the socialist alternative to capitalism is a failure. The New York Times ran a series of articles last November and December showing that in Paris and Rome, in Madrid, Lisbon and Athens, Socialist dreams had foundered on political realities.

There is one fallacy in all such critiques: none of those places has tried socialism. What has not worked is the brand of “socialism” that does not venture beyond the limits of capitalism. Those who play a dirge for socialism are actually sounding a requiem for social democracy.

Demonstrating that point requires only a cursory review of the “failures” usually cited. In Italy the government of Prime Minister Bettino Craxi does not qualify as socialist, since the ruling coalition is dominated by the Christian Democratic Party. Portugal’s Mario Soares was voted into power not to repeal the capitalist rules of the game but to restore them. As for Spain, Felipe González’s political course makes even Helmut Schmidt of West Germany look radical in retrospect.

To be sure, Portugal, Spain and Greece emerged only recently from years of dictatorial rule. The task of left-wing governments in those countries has been to restore and consolidate the basic freedoms of bourgeois democracy. Whether that can be done without fundamental economic reform is another question.

To ascertain whether the socialist experiment has failed or indeed has even been attempted, one must turn to Paris. After all, France is still governed by a popular front coalition that includes the Communist Party, and not so long ago Socialists considered the label “social democrat” an insult.

In fairness to Mitterrand, it should be said that he never asked for a mandate to build socialism in France nor did he promise to lead his supporters along the revolutionary road. In a way, the popular front alliance was formed as an alternative to revolution. In May 1968, France was shaken not by a simple student uprising but by the biggest sit-in strike in its history, an upheaval which took the traditional left-wing parties completely by surprise. Both the Communists and the Socialists had to decide how to direct a spontaneous mass movement into parliamentary channels, how to convince their supporters that while there were no revolutionary shortcuts, change could be effected gradually through existing institutions. The Common Program drawn up in 1972 by the Communists and the Socialists was a rough map of this reformist road.

But their program had a side effect. A moderate platform favors the moderate in a coalition, and in France it helped shift the balance of power to the Socialists. The Communists’ refusal to accept the role of junior partner led to the breakup of the alliance and the left’s defeat in the parliamentary elections of 1978. All that had a series of consequences. The divided left never properly debated the issues raised by the economic crisis or the methods for coping with it. Mitterrand could claim that in the presidential poll of 1981 he won on his own. The Communists, who then climbed on the bandwagon, did not carry the influence they would have if they had not broken with the Socialists earlier. Altogether, victory was thrust upon the left by popular discontent with the right and paradoxically-unlike the triumph of Leon Blum’s Popular Front in 1936–it coincided with the ebb of the workers’ protest movement.

Nonetheless, the victory of the French left after twenty-three years of conservative rule was more significant than a success of the Labor Party in Britain or of the Social Democrats in Germany. The French left had promised to make a clean break with the past, and in its first 500 days, Mitterrand’s government introduced a host of important reforms which can be grouped into three categories. First, it extended the public sector to steel, electronics, arms manufacturing, petrochemicals and, most important, to the bulk of banking and insurance. Second, it enacted a series of social measures aimed at propping up the welfare state at a time when the general trend was to dismantle it–a fifth week of paid vacation for workers, a reduction of the work-week to thirty-nine hours, an increase in the minimum wage and family allowances. Finally, it increased workers’ rights in the factory through the so-called Auroux laws and other legislation.

All those reforms, however, were not intended to cross the capitalist system’s outer frontiers or even to question its basic assumptions. Nationalization affected industries in deep crisis, like steel, or advanced sectors like electronics in which investment was insufficient. The state was stepping in where capitalism had failed, with the idea of doing the job better, not doing it differently. There was never a question of producing for different social objectives or reorganizing the system of production. Similarly, measures taken to reduce the economic inequality so evident in France were never presented as a means toward an egalitarian society. Nor were the new shop-floor prerogatives for workers considered a prelude to the abolition of private ownership of the means of production. On the contrary, Mitterrand was soon to sing the praises of private enterprise.

While not radical enough to threaten the established order, the reforms were sufficiently sweeping to provoke hostility. The most surprising thing was the extent to which the Socialist newcomers behaved as if France and Europe were still living in the period of relative prosperity that followed World War 11. From that perspective it should have been easy to get out of recession using Keynesian measures. The “gnomes of Zurich” and other financial centers, who mistrust a Socialist government on principle, did not have to plot its downfall. France was unprotected by tariff walls; it was an integral part of the Common Market and much more dependent on foreign trade than in the past, so accelerated inflation and a growing trade deficit did the trick. In March 1983, after the franc was devalued for the third time, the government was forced to balance Its books in good capitalist fashion and to subordinate everything else to that objective.

Some Socialists still cherish the idea that they can combine capitalist logic and progressive social policy, but such illusions are rapidly vanishing. Minister of Finance Jacques Delors tells his colleagues that the social welfare budget must be cut. As the number of available jobs declines it becomes increasingly costly and difficult to conceal the rise in unemployment with retraining schemes or early retirements. And the restructuring of industry, which calls for massive layoffs, has only begun. The change in social climate was symbolically illustrated last year when the Socialist government received applause from the Bourse and protests from organized labor. Share prices in Paris rose faster than those on other Western stock exchanges. Discontent among workers was shown graphically in the September elections of delegates to social welfare councils. Two large labor unions that support the government, the Communist-dominated General Confederation of Labor (C.G.T.) and the Catholic French Democratic Labor Confederation (C.F.D.T.), were big losers. Since then their leaders have perceptibly distanced themselves from Mitterrand, discreetly asking the question that their rank-and-file members are asking: Why should we accept from “our” government what we refused to take from its predecessors, especially without any compensation?

A left-wing government that overrides the interests of its constituency is bound to generate criticism from within. French Socialist leaders are under attack from two quarters. The first is the so-called deuxième gauche (“second left”). Minister of Agriculture Michel Rocard, who would have been its leading spokesman had he not dared to challenge Mitterrand for the leadership in the past, is working his passage back to the President’s favor, quietly performing his ministerial duties and faithfully toeing the line. His role has fallen to Edmond Maire, the outspoken leader of the C.F.D.T. Since the Socialists took power, Maire has indulged in friendly criticism, arguing that the government is not employing means appropriate to its ends. Emphasizing the issue of unemployment, he has pleaded for a sharp cut in working hours, with a slight reduction in wages if necessary.

The trouble with the deuxième gauche is that it often uses the language of the New Left while promoting social democratic programs. The two are contradictory The C.F.D.T. champions autogestion, but for workers, self-management limited to individual factories and unrelated to a broader vision of social change becomes an exercise in self-exploitation. No wonder that in the last two years the C.F.D.T. has followed a zigzag line, with outbursts of intransigence between long periods of moderation

The other group of critics, the “productivists,” fault the government for abandoning its original blueprint for economic expansion; for them the only solution lies in a faster rate of growth. Chief among this group are many Socialists, particularly the CERES group, headed by Jean-Pierre Chevenement, as well as the Communists. Their arguments are no: always convincing. For instance, the Communist Party maintains that there is no surplus labor in, say, the French automobile or steel industries. But in the context of capitalist France, obviously there is. The heart of the matter 1s that in a highly personalized presidential system members of the ruling coalition do not dare question openly the fundamental tenets of Mitterrand’s policy–his capitalist solutions at home and his laissez-faire approach to foreign trade. By discrediting the consequences of those policies and not their roots, the critics appear neither coherent nor consistent The C.P. has reached such an acute stage of schizophrenia–its ministers endorsing programs that party and union leaders flatly reject–that its exit from the government can no longer be ruled out.

Any genuine socialist movement faces a dilemma: how to seek solutions that lie outside the framework of established society while struggling within that framework. If it keeps its gaze fixed on the future, it may find itself years ahead of its supporters. If it sticks to defending their immediate interests, it will be forced to play the role of manager in a capitalist society. When it was out of power, the French left gave no indication that it would be the exception to the rule. Once Mitterrand got into office, however, the classic dilemma evaporated. He and his comrades had no intention of trespassing. Their problems are those of social democrats who in times of economic crisis find they cannot afford to keep their promises and so antagonize their supporters. The question of whether the Socialists are performing the task of capitalist “restructuring” better than their predecessors is irrelevant. Former President Valéry Giscard d’Estaing and his Prime Minister, Raymond Barre, during whose reign investment declined while unemployment climbed catastrophically, look ridiculous in their new role as judges of economic efficiency. But here we are not concerned with the relative merits of politicians on the right and the left whose policies are fundamentally similar. Mitterrand’s successes or failures cannot honestly be entered on either the credit or the debit side of socialism.

At the halfway point, the French socialist experiment looks rather like a failure m political terms. The next parliamentary elections will be held in two years and the next presidential vote in four. Under the most favorable circumstances, the President may succeed in splitting the right in the parliamentary elections, wooing its moderate elements and carrying on as the head of a “centrist” alliance stretching from Socialists to liberal conservatives. The Communists would no longer serve in the Cabinet though they might remain in the coalition. But that is an unlikely scenario. The odds favor a defeat of the left, which in keeping with a long tradition will pave the way for a government of the right that will launch a savage attack on the interests of working people. The groundwork for the assault will have been laid by the left’s “own” government.

Could it have been otherwise? By now the left has squandered most of its political capital. Yet that capital was impressive back in 1981. Then the Socialists were in a position to ask people to make sacrifices. The workers would probably have agreed to tighten their belts if told for how long and for what end. If Mitterrand had communicated a vision and a project for socialism, he might have split the middle class, winning the support of, say, teachers, technicians and researchers. All that, however, could not be built on a false consensus concealing contradictions. It would have required the frank admission that differences existed and a search for a true alliance, capable of the long-term action necessary to achieve a radical transformation of society. It also would have required a different kind of government: one which does not issue gifts from above–Elysian fiats, decrees decided in ministerial secrecy–but encourages open discussions and debates at all levels, in factories and offices, in local as well as ministerial councils.

Some might object that even if France had a genuine socialist government and even if people had responded to its call for sacrifice, two big ifs, the experiment still would have faded under pressure from abroad. The point is well taken insofar as it reminds us that the idea of socialism in a single country, which proved wrong in Stalin’s day, is absurd in this age of economic interdependence, particularly in a country the size of France. But the objection is also irrelevant. The question is not whether socialism can be built in one country but whether the process can even begin within the frontiers of a medium-size nation-state. It is a crucial question, though. Just to attempt an answer we must first look at the other and still sadder side of Mitterrand’s reign, his record in foreign policy.

Reagan’s Strange Ally

France looks like a fantasy island cut off from the vast antinuclear movement In Western Europe. Something is wrong with a country in which otherwise sensible people admiringly repeat their President’s dictum, “The Euromissiles are in the East and the demonstrators are in the West.” Had he said that there were missiles on both sides but mass demonstrations are tolerated only on one, he might have started a useful debate. Postulating an artificial divide between intermediate and strategic weapons and purposely ignoring the destabilizing effect of the Pershing missiles, Mitterrand scored a propaganda point. The fact that such biased arguments are accepted by so many French people as gospel suggests a certain amount of brainwashing.

I don’t think that word is too strong. The Day After was shown in Poland, but French television, which is owned by the government, decided it was unsuitable for viewers. Admittedly, the French could see it in movie theaters, yet on a public radio program inspired by the film, schoolchildren who asked questions about the possibility of nuclear doom were answered by just one expert, Pierre Gallois, a retired general connected with the arms industry, who is as close to the official French position as a Soviet spokesman would be to the Chernenko line.

On January 4, when French television devoted eighty minutes to the nuclear issue, critics of official policy–Communist Party spokesman Pierre Juquin and Adm. Antoine Sanguinetti, retired-were allowed only brief statements and the time was monopolized by the government’s defenders, notably André Glucksmann, the nouveau philosophe turned panegyrist of the atom bomb. (Incidentally, if you want to see how far sophistry can go in combining phony erudition and special pleading, if you want to discover how even Proust was begging for Pershing missiles, glance at Glucksmann’s latest book, La Force du Vertige.) The following day, Le Monde justified the glaring imbalance by saying Glucksmann’s views “sum up the consensus of French political forces, with the exception of the C.P.” A strange sermon indeed from the preachers of pluralism. I have heard the same argument used in Moscow to justify silencing dissidents.

But brainwashing alone did not make France the odd man out in Western Europe. To explain the weakness of the French antinuclear movement one must begin elsewhere. Because France remains outside the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, its leaders can advocate the deployment of American missiles without causing political problems. None of those missiles will be placed on French soil. Less logically, some of the French seem to think that, if a nuclear confrontation ever arises, the bombs or missiles will respect national boundaries. One must also understand that both the Communists and the Socialists, who in the distant past opposed nuclear weapons and poked fun at Gen. Charles de Gaulle’s force de frappe, have long since been converted to the doctrine of the national deterrent and are thus hardly in a comfortable position to make the case against atomic weapons.

Another factor is that non-Communist antinuclear organizations like the Committee for European Nuclear Disarmament have not attracted much attention, and so the general public associates the peace movement with the Communist Party. That link has at least three negative effects. First, having backed the Kremlin on Poland and Afghanistan, the French C.P. is not regarded as the most unbiased guide to international politics. Second, Communist leaders within the peace movement who have been told by their party that they must attack the SS-20s as well as the Pershing and cruise missiles have ended up doing neither very well. Third, the party belongs to a government that is solidly committed to the deployment of American missiles. The main responsibility for the irresponsibility of the French left thus lies squarely on the shoulders of the Socialists and their leader.

Again, to be fair, Mitterrand did not fool the electorate. He was known to be a “Little European” with Atlantic leanings. What people did not bargain for was the zeal with which he pleaded the American case. He was so determined to convince his European neighbors to accept what France has rejected, namely the presence of American missiles on their soil, that he journeyed to Bonn in the midst of the 1983 electoral campaign and sided with the Christian Democrats against his fellow Social Democrats on missile deployment. What came as a surprise was not so much Mitterrand’s readiness to act as Reagan’s chief advocate in Europe but his willingness to be seen performing that role, and that has led to varying interpretations. The official line is that Mitterrand has taken Reagan’s side only because the nuclear balance has tilted dangerously in the Soviet Union’s favor with the deployment of the SS-20s. But a truly objective observer would not have regarded the Euromissiles with such equanimity. He or she would have pointed out that their deployment gives the Americans an edge over the Russians. What would the French have said if the situation were reversed and the Soviet Union had put missiles in Cuba, thus enabling it to hit American targets much faster than U.S. missiles could reach Soviet territory?

Two other explanations for France’s nuclear strategy have been offered. According to one, the French support the introduction of the U.S. missiles in order to insure an American presence in Europe and, above all, to perpetuate the division of Germany. The dominant characteristic of French foreign policy is fear of German reunification. (As François Mauriac put it, “I love Germany so much that I want to see two of them.”) A flaw in this theory is that when General de Gaulle was concerned about German power and German opposition to his policies, he turned to the Kremlin rather than to the White House. The other argument is more pedestrian. It holds that Mitterrand feels impelled to prove that having Communists in his government does not tie his hands in foreign policy. As a result he must stand up to Moscow; he must out-Reagan Reagan.

All those analyses point to something more fundamental, to Mitterrand’s inability to contemplate a future beyond the capitalist horizon. The Socialists have proved they are incapable of solving France’s economic problems outside the confines of capitalist society; similarly, they are unable to think of their country’s future in terms of neutralism, of nonalignment, of a socialist “third force” beginning in Western Europe. Mitterrand’s failure is seen clearly when his policies are contrasted with the achievements of what we on the left used to call the “anachronistic realism” of General de Gaulle.

De Gaulle wanted to speak to the two superpowers as an equal. Since a country the size of France, to his “chagrin,” did not allow him to do so, he was ready to call on “the countries bordering on the Rhine, the Alps and the Pyrenees.” As leader of that bloc he would challenge the two “hegemonies.” The general was being realistic in that he believed the nation-state. even if historically doomed, still offered tremendous possibilities to a determined practitioner of power politics. So he pulled France out of NATO, challenged the mighty dollar, opposed American policy in Vietnam, slowed down Europe’s political and economic Integration. But he fought a losing battle. He did not have the planned means to resist the invasion of Europe by foreign, predominantly American, capital. He did not offer a vision of an alternative society and, therefore, there was no reason for other Western European countries to follow his lead. Implicit or explicit in the left’s criticism of him at the time was the assumption that a socialist government would create a different society and offer a different foreign policy. Mitterrand has belied that assumption, to put it mildly.

On assuming office In 1981 the Socialists seemed to have some ideas on foreign policy. Among them: France would extricate itself from its economic predicament partly by strengthening its links with the Third World. In Paris it had been fashionable to say that the main problem is the North-South and not the East-West conflict. In the superpower rivalry France was going to judge both sides by its own higher standards, chastising Moscow for its treatment of Solidarity and Washington for bullying the Sandinistas. France would set an example for the West by cutting the arms trade and improving relations with nonaligned countries. How quaint it all seems now. France is mired in Beirut, bogged down in Chad, mercenary in its arms deals with Saudi Arabia. It has done little to oppose Reagan’s policies in Central America. It does not even pretend to serve as an example to other nations. With France presiding for six months over the European Economic Community, Mitterrand has been traveling from capital to capital in search of a compromise on the community’s economic policy. His chances of forging an independent Western European bloc are incomparably less than were General de Gaulle’s.

We can return to the crucial question raised in the first part of this letter: Does the nation-state provide a framework for the construction of socialism? Yes, it provides the initial framework. It is no longer possible to imagine a radical transformation of society limited to one region, say, Lombardy in Italy or Yorkshire in Britain. It is not yet the time when state power in Western Europe will have to be seized in Brussels (except, naturally, for the Belgians). But the frontiers of the nation-state can still be used for the beginning of an experiment. At best it would be a holding operation, however, succeeding only if it were to spread by contagion. A genuinely socialist government, using the safeguard clauses of the Rome Treaty to protect its action, would have to negotiate with its governmental partners and to appeal above their heads to the working people. Whether that alternative is feasible cannot be s aid with certainty; it has never been tried. The failure of Mitterrand is indivisible, stretching over both domestic and foreign fields. And socialism, to borrow Saint-Just’s celebrated remark about happiness, is still “a new idea in Europe.” New in the sense of being untried, of really inexisting.

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