Mitterrand Redux

Mitterrand Redux

Mitterrand can make it. He is, undoubtedly, the winner of the first round in the French presidential election.


Mitterrand can make it. He is, undoubtedly, the winner of the first round in the French presidential election. With 26 percent of the votes cast he has done better than any Socialist since the war. If you add the 2.2 percent of the vote won by the Radical, Michel Crépeau, whose party is normally amalgamated with the Socialists, François Mitterrand just overtakes Valéry Giscard d’Estaing (28 percent) and leaves his Communist rival, Georges Marchais, well behind.

The first ballot does not predetermine the second, runoff elections on May 10. While the upheaval within the French left is tremendous, the switch from right to left is small. The combined total of the left in the April 26 election was just over 47 percent, which is only 1 percent higher than it was in the last presidential poll, in 1974. The total for the right dropped from 52 to 49 percent, with the difference being made up by the "Green" or Ecologist Movement, whose candidate, Brice Lalonde, polled 4 percent. The swing may be limited, but the narrow gap separating the two main contenders means that a victory for Mitterrand is arithmetically possible. This arithmetic, however, still must be converted into political fact.

Mitterrand’s gain is Marchais’s loss. Indeed, the dramatic setback of the French Communist Party is the highlight of this election. With only 15.5 percent of the total vote, the Communists have regressed to their electoral share in 1936. Since World War II, they had held about a quarter of the French electorate, although when de Gaulle seized power in 1 1958, he temporarily lowered their total to 19 percent. But they gradually climbed back to above one-fifth of the vote. Now, they have collapsed spectacularly, losing over a quarter of their accustomed electorate in one go.

Some of the loss is undoubtedly due to the nature of the presidential poll and to the wish of the electorate to "vote usefully," as the French say. Yet this merely points to the heart of the matter. Georges Marchais is now paying a price for a combination of things, for Afghanistan and the party’s position toward Russia, for its scandalous policy toward the immigrants and, above all, for the collapse of the left-wing alliance. For some fifteen years, between 1962 and 1977, Communist Party members were told that the victory of the united left would solve everything. Then when there was a sudden switch away from this strategy, they were left bewildered. Their leaders claimed that only the intellectuals were upset, but a glance at the electoral map shows that this was not the case. The Communist vote has slumped in the working-class district of the capital, and in the industrial "red belt" around Paris. Apparently, many Communists voted for Mitterrand on the first ballot.

In the long, or even the medium run, Marchais may pay for this defeat with the loss of his job as party secretary. For the time being, the immediate consequences of his setback are twofold. The Communist pressure on Mitterrand loses a great deal of its weight. So does the chief weapon in Giscard d’Estaing’s arsenal, namely the charge that Mitterrand is the stooge of the Communists.

How does the right emerge from this confrontation? Giscard d’Estaing’s performance is assessed in contrasting fashion. His sympathizers emphasize the fact that, despite the wear and tear of office during a period of economic crisis, he has come out on top. The critics point out that, despite the prerogatives of office and his power over the media and the bureaucracy, he has lost five percentage points since his first run. In any case he has failed to crush his conservative rival.

Jacques Chirac, the Gaullist, has done badly in the light of the high expectations he raised; he had managed to persuade some journalists, including American correspondents, that he would overtake Mitterrand. Actually, his 18 percent total represents a respectable showing and, allowing for two minor candidates, the Gaullist vote still makes up more than one-fifth of the total. Only it should not be called Gaullist any longer. Chirac has his own constituency of farmers, shopkeepers and small industrialists.

On April 27, Chirac, who may still fancy himself as a potential redeemer of the right, announced that he himself would vote for Giscard d’Estaing, but that neither he nor his companions would campaign for him. Quite a number of his followers are expected to switch to Mitterrand. The obvious unknown IS whether these Gaullist switchers will be nullified by Communist abstainers.

The outlines of the runoff campaign are very clear. Giscard d’Estaing, despite the Communist setback, will concentrate on the dangers of collectivism, the Red Peril and the road to serfdom, Mitterrand will stress his opponent’s record and the need for change. At the moment, the odds are very slightly in his favor and yet, paradoxically, the Bourse remains fairly quiet. Are the financial powers still convinced that Giscard d’Estaing cannot lose?

There may be deeper reasons for their apparent unconcern. The left may not frighten its enemies because it does not inspire its followers either. After the great political upheaval of May 1968, when Frenchmen had a glimpse of a different future, the established parties on the left had to do something to recapture the allegiance of their supporters. Political unity and a common program were invented for this purpose. Millions of left-wingers were convinced that electoral victory would not only alter the political landscape but that it would basically change their own lives. Such hopes and illusions have by now vanished.

Skepticism over Mitterrand’s chances is probably linked with the belief that the left cannot win unless it is carried by a popular movement, that it can only gain power by showing cohesion, conviction and drive. But seizing power is quite a different matter, and in this electoral context the question finally comes down to whether the left can tiptoe into office. If Frenchmen really vote against, the left may have victory thrust upon it. In any case, Giscard d’Estaing will use the time between elections to frighten and Mitterrand to mobilize.

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