History, whatever Hegel or Marx may have said about tragedy and farce, can also repeat itself as a tragicomedy. The French go to the polls on March 21 and March 28 to elect their National Assembly, and this election is, in many respects, a repeat performance of the one held seven years ago. François Mitterrand, the old republican monarch, is still clinging to his throne. Michel Rocard, the aging Socialist heir apparent, is desperately fighting to preserve his chance of succession. The triumphant right, bound for victory, is still led by its two men of yesteryear, the traditional conservative Valéry Giscard d’Estaing and the neo-Gaullist Jacques Chirac. Not only the performers weary, the show itself is rather farcical. It is only when one recalls the events of a quarter-century ago, in May 1968, when students and workers paralyzed France and imagination appeared to be seizing power, that the present collapse of the left and probable funeral of the Socialist Party acquire a tragic dimension.
Why this impending defeat? When analyzing French politics one must keep two things in mind. One is that the French Constitution, made to measure for General de Gaulle, is a hybrid: It is neither truly parliamentary nor fully presidential. The National Assembly is elected for five years and the President for seven, so Mitterrand’s mandate has two more years to run. Will he be able to survive that long with an Assembly dominated by his enemies, or will he be driven to call an early election? While fighting the present battle the parties are already thinking In terms of the next confrontation, in 1995.
The second point is that electoral laws change in France like fashions in Paris, and the system under which one votes greatly affects the result. In 1986, when Mitterrand first had to face a hostile electorate, his losses were softened by proportional representation. The respectable right (i.e., excluding the followers of the ultrarightist Jean-Marie Le Pen) received only 42 percent of the vote but still gamed a bare majority in the Assembly, allowing the President to fight back. This time the swing to the right will be amplified by an electoral system based on majority rule. In each district, the two candidates with the most votes In the March 21 voting, along with any others who win at least 12.5 percent of the vote, will go on to the second round. So when you read about a conservative landslide in France, do not conclude that the country has been swept by a reactionary wave. What we have to examine is not so much the rise of the right as the dramatic decline of the left.
The President still has some time to go and, with his political skill and fighting ability, he will pose quite a lot of problems for his opponents. But his reign is coming to an end, and it is time for an assessment. What a strange career! The man was a rather moderate and successful politician, frequently a minister, under the Fourth Republic, which collapsed in 1958. He then spent twenty-three years in opposition leading a popular-front coalition with Communists as junior partners. When he finally became President in 1981, he probably did not intend to “break with capitalism,” as his party proclaimed, but he clearly saw himself as a socialist reformer able to carry France beyond the Swedish model. His means, however, did not add up to such a radical end, and two years later his policy was shattered.
He then changed course. He would leave his imprint as the man who made France safe for capitalism, who destroyed the still-potent dreams of those who would radically change society through political action. He aimed to lead France into the consensus politics then prevailing in the West. And, in a sense, he succeeded. Brandishing a strong franc, his government now gets the blessing of the Bourse and praise from the journals of international finance. But with one person out of ten on the dole, it is being deserted by a good portion of its own electorate.