Issue 194 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published February 1996 Copyright © Socialist Review


In the name of the rose

Last month the former president of France, François Mitterrand, died. Gareth Jenkins looks at the record of his Socialist Party in office and its legacy
Mitterand's commitment to cutting unemployment

The avowed agnostic François Mitterrand chose a requiem mass in Notre Dame cathedral as the way to be commemorated. It was a fitting end for a man whose socialism had never stood in the way of service to his real god and master, the French ruling class. It was also appropriate for one whose first political involvement had been as a student activist in the Catholic fascist politics of the early 1930s and who had served in Marshal Pétain's wartime, pro-Nazi government.

Mitterrand's involvement in the Vichy regime has been justified as cover for his work in the Resistance. And indeed he played an important role in the liberation of Paris in 1944. But it has been less possible to justify more recent revelations. He remained a close friend of another Vichy minister, Jean Bousquet, the notorious dispatcher of Jews to the Nazi concentration camps and, until the outcry forced him to stop only three years ago, had had flowers placed annually on Pétain's grave.

Yet Mitterrand's significance is not that he was a political enigma. It is that he made reformist socialism into a politically viable option--something that had not happened since the heady days of the Popular Front in the 1930s.

In 1946 Mitterrand, trading on both his right wing connections and his Resistance record, entered parliament. He ran as a candidate for a small centrist grouping but on an anti-Communist ticket. Promotion was rapid. Within a year, at the age of 31, he became the minister responsible for veterans' affairs. He was to play a leading role in 11 of the shifting parliamentary coalitions which dominated the life of the Fourth Republic. The high point of his career was becoming first minister of the interior and then minister for justice between 1954 and 1957.

This was the period of the war in Algeria and Mitterrand took a very hard line in defence of French Algeria. He maintained that the only acceptable form of negotiation with those fighting for independence from France was war. Eventually the intractable nature of the conflict, together with the threat from right wing sections of the army in Algeria to invade France, led to the collapse of the Fourth Republic in 1958 and General de Gaulle's assumption of power.

Whereas most of the centre and the left acquiesced in de Gaulle's takeover, Mitterrand was bitterly opposed. He denounced the authoritarian nature of the Fifth Republic as a permanent coup d'état. His opposition to de Gaulle isolated him (he lost his parliamentary seat and was refused membership of a new left wing group) but served him well in the longer term. It allowed him to claim a radicalism which his period of office in government did not justify.

In 1965 he stood as a no hoper in the presidential elections. He lost but polled 45 percent of the vote in the second round. He had proved, against all the pessimists, that he could tap the substantial opposition on the left to de Gaulle. The question now was to forge an organisation capable of mobilising that opposition to win parliamentary power.

Two problems confronted the success of the reformist project. The first was the old socialist party, the SFIO, which was faction ridden and had been thoroughly discredited by its parliamentary manoeuvrings in the Fourth Republic. Mitterrand's advantage was that he had never been in the SFIO. He could therefore bypass it and use the prestige his presidential candidature had given him to create a new Socialist Party in 1971. This brought together left wingers in the SFIO and radicals from his own rather ramshackle organisation of political discussion groups.

The second was the Communist Party (PCF). The PCF was the dominant force on the left. It regularly attracted over 20 percent of the vote. No reformist party or politician could afford to ignore it (or its massively powerful trade union federation, the CGT). Yet it was ghettoised and demonised as the Bolshevik threat to democracy. Association with the PCF appeared to be the kiss of death as far as parliamentary office was concerned.

Mitterrand's bold step was to conclude a common programme with the PCF in 1972. Mitterrand was severely criticised by fellow reformists who thought he was now the prisoner of the Communists. Mitterrand thought otherwise. 'Our fundamental objective is to rebuild a great Socialist Party on the ground occupied by the PCF itself, in order to show that out of 5 million Communist electors, 3 million can vote Socialist!'

He was proved right. He correctly guessed that the CP's thirst for electoral acceptance would oblige it to support him on his terms, not on its own.

Mitterrand's Socialist Party steadily but surely overtook the Communist Party in the struggle for votes. The PCF fell from 22.5 percent in 1967 to 10 percent in 1986. The Socialist Party, on the other hand, moved upwards from 20.8 percent in 1973 to its highpoint of 37.3 percent in 1981.

Celebration of Mitterand's 1981 election victory would turn sour within months

Mitterrand's reward came in 1981 when he beat his old opponent, Giscard d'Estaing, by a hair's breadth. There was jubilation among ordinary workers in France as 23 uninterrupted years of right wing rule came to an end. People danced in the streets and drank champagne in the workplace. It seemed at last as if real change was going to take place. And for a short while things did move.

Mitterrand embarked on a programme of extensive nationalisation designed to boost investment and growth. He was going to spend his way out of the economic crisis that had helped hasten the end of the domination of the right. The strategy was to put money in people's pockets and let increased demand stimulate production. He also undertook political reforms. The death penalty was abolished, the nuclear programme frozen and immigrants gained certain rights. The retirement age was reduced to 60 and the minimum wage increased by 10 percent. There was also a programme to create jobs in the public sector.

It wasn't only in France that there was rejoicing. In Britain the left Labour paper Tribune claimed in May 1981 that Mitterrand's electoral triumph represented 'the first salvo in the attack to drive back the madness of monetarism which has affected so much of the Western world'.

Within six months this 'sophisticated socialist programme' lay in ruins. In June 1982 the Mitterrand government introduced its first austerity package. The following April a second, much more severe set of austerity measures came in.

The modest expansion of the economy which had accompanied nationalisation and increased public spending came to a shuddering halt. Full employment was no longer the goal--restructuring of industry, with its inevitable shakeout of jobs, was now the priority. Unemployment began to rise rapidly. Wages were controlled and the cost of welfare went up--particularly in health provision. The nuclear programme was resumed with a vengeance and Greenpeace's Rainbow Warrior was blown up in a New Zealand harbour.

'Harsh realities' led him, according to The Guardian, to abandon the utopian dream of 'socialism in one country'. Yet the run on the franc and the persistently high inflation rate were the result of decisions taken by the captains of French industry and the privateers in the French stock exchange to protect the profitability of their industry, whatever the cost to those who created the profits in the first place.

There was, of course, some resistance to the attacks on conditions and jobs from the most militant sections of the working class--particularly in the car industry where the PCF was strong. But Mitterrand showed once again how he could exploit his alliance with the CP. When, soon after his presidential victory, the Socialist Party took control of parliament in the general election, Mitterrand had a large enough majority not to need to appoint a left wing coalition government. He nevertheless appointed four PCF ministers.

It was an astute move. For one thing it provided Mitterrand with useful left cover. It also guaranteed that the PCF would not stir up trouble and attempt to push the government further in its reforms than it wished to go. Instantaneous expulsion from office would have been the consequence--and the PCF had spent too long in the electoral wilderness to embark on that option lightly. Even more importantly, when Mitterrand's government now imposed austerity, it used the PCF's influence within the most powerful trade union federation, the CGT, to dampen down opposition to the government's measures. It wasn't until 1984 that the PCF finally resigned--by then the allure of office could no longer compensate for its slump in support.

It was also the worst year for workers in a quarter of a century. Mitterrand succeeded in doing what none of his predecessors in the Fifth Republic had done--cutting real wages. This decline in living standards contrasted sharply with a record 24 percent rise in profits.

The worst consequence of Mitterrand's treachery was the boost he gave to the fascists. In 1981 Le Pen had been unable even to get the signatures required to stand as a presidential candidate. By March 1983, with austerity demoralising workers, the National Front was on the march. In 1986 it managed to have 35 MPs elected, thanks to Mitterrand's cynical introduction of proportional representation in an attempt to divide the right and bring victory to an unpopular Socialist Party.

It was a move that failed. The Gaullist Jacques Chirac became prime minister in the first period of cohabitation between left and right. Mitterrand won a second term as president in 1988 and a return to parliamentary office of the Socialist Party. This time there was no dabbling in socialism. Economic orthodoxy was the order of the day--with attacks on workers continuing. The Socialist Party's popularity nosedived once again. It lost disastrously in 1993, demoralised and sunk in scandal. The second cohabitation prepared the way for Chirac's victory in the presidential elections of 1995.

This is the awful record which needs remembering. Today Chirac and Juppé are faithful to Mitterrand's politics of trying to make workers pay the costs of European unity on the bosses' terms.

The warmth of the appreciation for Mitterrand's record should warn us of what is to come. The Guardian claimed that he would be remembered as the man who 'educated French socialism into an appreciation of the realities of power in a post Marxist age' and convince his fellow citizens of the need for 'European integration'. This is the aim of New Labour. Tony Blair will pick up where Mitterrand ended. Whether he can be stopped from doing what Mitterrand did to the working class depends on us.

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