There are two unmistakable signs that France is entering a pre-electoral period: The government is once again tinkering with the electoral law and the politicians, particularly the leaders of the right, are competing with Jean-Marie Le Pen for his turf, pandering to the lowest racist instincts of the French people. All this is taking place very early. The regional elections, to be held throughout France next spring, are, after all, but a dress rehearsal. The general parliamentary election in the spring of 1993 will be the real test. It will determine whether François Mitterrand will have a fairly free hand in the last couple of years of his presidential term or whether he will have to put up with yet another period of undesired “cohabitation” with a government of a different political complexion. The parliamentary test and presidential prospect already cast their shadow over French politics.
That the Socialists want to do something about the way people vote is not surprising. Mass demonstrations, strikes and opinion polls all confirm the extent of popular discontent. The farmers, once the backbone of semirural France, now fighting for survival, were recently the most violent, intercepting trucks loaded with imported meat and attacking public buildings. But when their passion is spent, the farmers are pillars of property and tend to vote for the right. More worrying for the Socialists have been the mass demonstrations by nurses and other medical staff and the obvious dissatisfaction of teachers, of other public servants and of industrial workers, that is to say, of their own constituency.
Mitterrand’s gamble this past May in appointing for the first time in France a woman as Prime Minister did not come off. Poor Edith Cresson, admittedly no great captain, is criticized much more strongly than she would be if she were a man. She was in fact asked to perform a miracle: to win support for the government without altering its policy. Pierre Bérégovoy was left at the Ministry of Finance as the keeper of orthodoxy, praised by The Wall Street Journal and The Economist for keeping the franc strong. But for the French public this same policy spelled austerity, with high unemployment and virtually frozen wages. It is difficult to see why the left-wing electorate should be delighted because its government is carrying out the policy of its opponents and, therefore, hard to imagine the left getting a new parliamentary mandate in 1993.
Actually, the problem for Mitterrand is not so much how to make the Socialists win. It is how to prevent the right from scoring an outright victory, and this is where electoral reform comes in. The present French system of majority rule in single-member constituencies tends to amplify swings. A degree of proportional representation would minimize this movement. It would have the additional advantage of forcing the respectable right to face once again, as it did in 1986, the question of its relations with Le Pen’s xenophobic National Front. Unfortunately, some conservatives are ready to make a pact with the Devil for the sake of office.
‘Le Pen in Silk Stockings’
Jacques Chirac, former prime minister and Mitterrand’s unlucky rival in the last presidential poll, was first to show how far they were ready to go. In a speech, the leader of the ex-Gaullist Rally for the Republic (R.P.R.) went out of his way to express his understanding of an ordinary French citizen’s exasperation when faced with “the noise and the smells” of immigrant neighbors. The speech was stinking in its own right, but Chirac, whose party is competing with the National Front for the vote, could at least pretend that he had been misunderstood because he was improvising.
Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, the former president of France and proud of his sophistication, cannot invoke even such a phony excuse. His reference to the foreign “invasion” was made in a well-considered text about immigration. France, like many other countries, transmits nationality through jus sanguinis (the law of the blood) to children of French nationals or through jus soli (the law of the soil) to those born in France. The bourgeois republic, though not always for lofty reasons (a low birthrate, the demand for cheap labor), developed a rather open policy on immigration, claiming it was inspired by the universal principles of the French Revolution. The centralism inherited from the revolutionary Jacobins had as its counterpart a great capacity for assimilation; if the Nazis’ rule that one grandparent made you a Jew were now applied to foreign origin in France, about a quarter of the French population would have to be treated as alien. It is this tradition that Giscard now proposes to give up. France should stick to the law of the blood, to kith-and-kin and all that ethnic stuff because its identity is allegedly threatened by the foreign “invasion.”
Epigrammatic for once, Cresson thereupon described the former president as a “Le Pen in silk stockings,” an insult particularly biting if one recalls that she was paraphrasing a remark attributed to Napoleon about the chameleonic Prince Talleyrand: “shit in a silk stocking.” In this case, any insult was deserved. The only foreigners Giscard knows are bankers, members of the jet set or the nobility listed in the Gotha (though his own d’Estaing has been questioned), and xenophobia is probably not one of his vices. He made this pitch for purely political purposes, to win some reactionary votes and thus defeat Jacques Chirac in the presidential primaries of the right. But “honorable” politicians like himself, who make racism respectable, are in a sense more pernicious than Le Pen.
As long as the economic crisis does not become catastrophic there is no serious risk of a Le Pen coming to power anywhere in Western Europe. In the next French elections, in the worst scenario, the National Front could conquer one region, that of Provence=Côte d’Azur, which includes Marseilles and Nice. That would be morally shameful but not politically tragic. As things stand, the Front has no prospect of winning a parliamentary majority and its leader not an earthly chance of becoming president. And yet the disease is spreading throughout society. In the most recent poll nearly one-third of the French people said they agreed with Le Pen’s views on immigration; a year ago it was 18 percent. Politicians like Chirac and Giscard are carriers of the infection.
Jingoist germs are actually spreading throughout Europe. In last October’s Swiss general election, the party showing the biggest progress (from two to eight seats) was the xenophobic Partie des Automobilistes (Party of Car-Drivers), which advocates deploying troops on the frontier to stop illegal immigrants. And in the November election in Vienna the anti-immigration Freedom Party nearly tripled its representation in municipal government. More worrying are the cases of foreigner bashing and arson in Germany, particularly in the former East Germany, where immigrants are few and far between. This incidentally confirms that the so-called theory of a “threshold of tolerance,” beyond which the increase in the number of foreigners provokes a rejection, has nothing to do with science and is pure propaganda. These indeed are symptoms of the inner sickness of a society, like the anti-Semitism without Jews in Poland. As the nationalist tide is rising in Europe, two perturbing thoughts come to mind: First, people need ideas transcending their immediate preoccupations, and the void left by the provisional discrediting of socialism is being filled by ghosts from the past, giving scope to the priest and the jingoist preacher; second, in Eastern Europe, where the economic situation is catastrophic, the triumph of a Le Pen cannot be ruled out. But these are thoughts that can only be mentioned, not developed, in a brief entry in a diary.
Blood and Business
Blood, in the meantime, has hit the headlines in a gruesome scandal involving contaminated transfusions. Several thousand patients, many of them hemophiliacs, were literally sentenced to death, at least some of them through a mixture of ignorance, bureaucracy and greed. Since the matter is sub judice, with four important figures in the world of transfusion already indicted, we shall limit the description to well-established facts.
Around 1983, specialists began worrying about the transmission of HIV through blood transfusions. Research was then pursued in two directions: a hunt for tests to detect at once the virus in donated blood, and a search for methods to purify that blood (notably through heating). But with the whole problem of AIDS underestimated, not enough money was spent on the effort. By March 1985, when unfortunately the bulk of the damage had been done, two facts were obvious in Paris: that the French stock of blood was contaminated and that nearly safe purified blood could be purchased from abroad. Yet four more months were needed for the authorities to draw the obvious conclusion from this state of things.
All those incriminated–scientists, managers and politicians–now plead that their knowledge was incomparably smaller six years ago than it is now; then eminent scientists were asserting, for instance, that only one out of ten people testing HIV positive would develop AIDS. This does not explain, however, why blood known to be contaminated continued to be used. It was not only a question of scientific ignorance; it was also one of getting rid of stocks, of beating the foreign competition–in short, of avoiding financial loss. People are now beginning to ask questions about indemnity payments for the victims (as if their suffering could be compensated), about the misbehavior of the administrators and the responsibility of the politicians. The scandal has only begun.
Some commentators have seized the occasion to prove that, morally, the public sector is no better than the private. The French system is dominated by the National Center of Blood Transfusion, which is state-sponsored and relies on voluntary donors. But on this principled and voluntary foundation a huge enterprise dealing with blood, run on commercial lines, was erected–a capitalist venture with high-salaried managers ready to take on foreign competition. It is this superstructure that is responsible for the current crisis.
A deeper lesson can be drawn from this scandal. There was a time when the public sector was supposed to have a logic and rationality of its own, different from the private. Public ownership of the means of production or, better, their socialization was supposed to extend that rationality so that it would dominate society. In recent years, throughout the Western world and by now in the Eastern bloc too, this reasoning has been reversed. State property is tolerated if it is run on business lines and guided by profit. If the whole story were not so tragic, it would be fun watching French editorialists, usually champions of private enterprise, deploring the extension of its logic to the domain of health. If those schizophrenic writers genuinely believe that you can have a fully commercialized society with a few moral islands within it, they must believe in Santa Claus.
Business and Literature
Christmas shopping is crucial for booksellers, and that is why November is the month of that uniquely French commercial circus, the awarding of literary prizes. The most famous of these is the Goncourt, founded by the two literary brothers and awarded since 1903. The next best known is the Renaudot, set up by literary journalists fed up with waiting while the Goncourt academicians were making up their minds over lunch at the Drouant restaurant in Paris, where the ceremony still takes place. Add the Médicis, the Femina (with only women in the jury) and the Interallié, and you get the main prizes for allegedly the best fiction of the year.
The actual prizes are modest. The winner of the Goncourt, for example, gets a check for 50 francs, less than $10. In fact, he gets a small fortune. Since you can give that book to your provincial aunt or to wherever you go for dinner, since television, radio and the press publicize the event and bookshops display the lucky winner, a Goncourt is sure to sell at least 100,000 copies (these were roughly the sales of Saint Germain ou la Négociation, crowned in 1958, which sank without a trace). A book that is already doing well has its sales greatly boosted; thus The Lover by Marguerite Duras climbed from 250,000 to nearly a million after the award. The other prizes have a lesser but still important impact. A book that would be selling in the thousands sells in the tens of thousands.
With so much money at stake, publishers are madly interested. This literary lottery is dominated by a strange animal called by critics Galligrasseuil, a collective name for three big publishers–Gallimard, Grasset and Le Seuil. The big three hog all the prizes and occasionally leave a bone for another publisher when the outcry over manipulation becomes too loud. How do they do it? Writers, too, are human. A majority of the ten members of the Goncourt Academy were for a long time connected with Gallimard. Now three of them are linked with Grasset. And publishers have many ways of influencing their writers.
And yet the bias is, probably, not the worst feature of the system. At this time of year, it is a customary game to recall the names of famous writers who didn’t get the Goncourt. But, on the whole, the record is not too bad. The trouble is that this prize giving is only part of a general process of commercial concentration, with publishers merging and being taken over by banks, with independent bookstores disappearing and distributors insisting on a quick turnover and a small number of best sellers. To which one is tempted to reply that this is happening everywhere and that it is better to sell a good number of fairly decent books than nonbooks or no books at all.
I suddenly realize the reason for a note of disenchantment I occasionally detect in my own writing. With the moneybags and the philistines gaining ground spectacularly, we are often forced not to present our own alternative but to take a stand for the lesser evil, for a barely liberal immigration policy attacked by the National Front, for a rather mediocre welfare state wrecked by champions of deregulation, for a more or less decent commercial literature threatened by real trash. The reason for the wistfulness is, as Cecil Day Lewis put it, “That we who lived by honest dreams/Defend the bad against the worse.” One hopes not for very long.