Suspense without passion is France’s strange electoral mood for the moment. President Valéry Giscard d’Estaing’s advisers are both perturbed and fundamentally optimistic. They have begun to be worried because what once looked like a mismatch and a walkover 1s now presented by opinion polls as too close to call If the President’s men remain nevertheless confident–and if the Paris Bourse is still quietly indifferent–it is because they are all relying on the divisions of the left and on Communist tactics to insure Giscard d’Estaing’s re-election. To put it bluntly, they are banking on Communist Party leader Georges Marchais.
In a country evenly split between left and right it may seem strange that the very idea of a conservative landslide was ever contemplated, what with the suicide of a minister involved in a land scandal and the disclosure of gifts of diamonds to Giscard d’Estaing by the bloody Emperor Bokassa throwing a sinister light on the Presidency. Diamonds, particularly when their awkward origin is splashed on the front page of Le Monde, are not a President’s best friend, yet the real reasons for the political difficulties of Giscard d’Estaing lie deeper than scandal. After his narrow victory In 1974, Giscard d’Estaing could parade briefly as a champion of reform, lowering the voting age to 18, or liberalizing the antiquated anti-abortion laws. The illusion, however, did not last The economic crisis rapidly revealed that, whatever his "centrist" disguise, Giscard d’Estaing’s wallet was unquestionably on the right. Under his reign France has the greatest social inequality in Europe.
With a heavy deficit in foreign trade, double-digit inflation, some 1.7 million unemployed now and the prospect of 2.5 million in the not so distant future, the prospects were good for a Giscard d’Estaing defeat. Indeed, back in 1977 everything seemed set for a sweeping victory of the left In the parliamentary elections, until the Communists, presumably having grasped the gravity of the economic crisis, decided that serving as junior partners to the Socialists in the ruling coalition and having to keep "social peace" in the factories was not for them. The right thus had victory thrust upon it, and Giscard d’Estaing emerged as the apparently undisputed king.
Nothing fails like failure. While the Communists were slinging mud at their ex-partners and the Socialists were wondering whether to ditch their leader, François Mitterrand, in favor of newcomer Mlchel Rocard, the stock of the left dropped dramatically. Since their votes no longer seemed to matter, many left-wingers felt they could only express their disgust by voting for Coluche, the professional clown who is a bona fide candidate. The mood, however, altered when the Socialist candidate became credible again last November, after a series of parliamentary by-elections. In the second round, when the strongest candidates slug it out, the cohesion of respective coalitions is tested. Two significant trends emerged: the bulk of the Communist electorate voted for the left-wing candidate, whatever the party line, and, by the same token, some Gaullist voters switched to the Socialists rather than go with the Giscardien.
As a result, Mitterrand, ultimately picked by the Socialists as their champion, made a spectacular recovery in opinion polls. One began to wonder whether he might not benefit from the divisions of the left and from the Communist onslaught. According to some analysts, Communists would vote for him despite their party’s insults, while undecided voters would because of them. When Mitterrand began to look like a potential winner, the Communists rallied to Giscard d’Estaing.
The issue of Communist seats in the French Government provides a handy test of their intentions. In 1974, when Mitterrand was the candidate of a united left and the Communists were doing their utmost to get him elected, they unilaterally proclaimed that they wouldn’t demand key ministries like defense, internal or foreign affairs, the very offices that Charles de Gaulle had said they should be denied. This year they have no such scruples. They are demanding that the stinking, reactionary Socialists tell them how many key seats they will get in the Cabinet. Their purpose is devious: to frighten away any middle-of-the-road voters who are tempted to vote for Mitterrand. Official propagandists did not miss the point; French television, which is very much His Master’s Voice, played up the Communist ministers issue.
When this Red Peril did not work, Marchais redoubled his efforts. Last week he warned Frenchmen on television that the workers will not be fooled by Mitterrand’s victory and will strike to get their due. Again, Georges Marchais’s purpose was to scare as many potential Mitterrand supporters as he could.
Reduced to its bare essentials, the French electoral equation 1s not too complicated. Forget Caesar’s dictum about Gaul being divided into three parts. France is split into two halves–the left and the right–each one again subdivided. Remember too that In the first ballot, to be held on April 26, when an absolute maJority 1s required to be elected, Frenchmen can "pick and choose," i.e., express their preferences. In the second ballot, on May 10, when the field has been reduced to two, presumably Giscard d’Estaing and Mitterrand, Frenchmen "eliminate." In other words, they opt for the lesser evil and get rid of their favorite enemy.
In this situation, the Communist leaders will not ask their followers to vote for Giscard d’Estaing or even to abstain. A certain number of militants might be persuaded to vote for the enemy (it used to be called a "revolutionary vote for the right"), but the bulk of the electorate would neither understand nor follow such oblique counsels. What Marchais and his colleagues may really hope for is that when they pay ritual fealty to the "unity of the left," hundreds of thousands of their supporters, disaffected by four years of a violent campaign, will go fishing rather than vote for Mitterrand.
Against this one must set the contradictions of the other side. It 1s no secret here that Jacques Chirac, the ambitious neo-Gaullist leader, hopes that Giscard d’Estaing will be defeated by Mitterrand. Then in the parliamentary election that follows, Chirac can emerge as the savior of the right.
The main preoccupation of the Communists today 1s for Marchais not to fall too far behind Mitterrand in the first ballot. Throughout the postwar period, Communists were electorally stronger than the Socialists. Then, under Mitterrand, the Socialists gained the upper hand. The difference between them, however, has remained small. What the Communists are frightened of is the opening of the gap, with Mitterrand getting, say, more than 25 percent of the vote and Marchais less than 20 percent. As to the second ballot, though they have no love for Giscard d’Estaing, they are keen on seeing Mitterrand defeated. Thus, a conservative monarch anointed by "Communists."
The very description of this electoral nouvelle cuisine ex- plains why there is still no passion despite the suspense. The the French left is badly divided, without even the semblance of a program, and no longer the bearer of high hopes. The illusions have vanished. Few Frenchmen nowadays think that their lives will be fundamentally altered by a miracle at the polls. But after twenty-three years of uninterrupted conservative rule, a Mitterrand victory would unloosen things, open up prospects, offer some opportunities. It might prepare the ground for some genuine change and this in itself is worth voters’ support.