The EconomistJune 22, 1968
Is it the end of the popular front?
France's electors, whether they are stunned or merely puzzled, can summon up little interest in the election campaign. Most of the candidates, like the Bourbons, seem to have learnt nothing and forgotten nothing. Or perhaps they are too busy vote-catching. The gaullist campaign can be summed up by the small posters splashed all over Paris: these show black and red flags with the slogan "never again." The gaullists are banking on panic. The left-wing opposition, with the communists showing particular zeal, are trying to reassure an alarmed people. At the same time the opposition is presenting the gaullist argument, but upside down. If you keep the gaullists in power, so goes their warning, you will have to face a much bigger explosion, and sooner rather than later. The centre plays on both fears. "Totalitarian communism," it says, is the main threat. But gaullists, on their own, are not equipped to meet it. Nobody knows how such crude propaganda will work. Psephologists are numb. France has suffered a traumatic shock and may react with fear, with reason or simply with conditioned reflexes.
The election could itself precipitate the crisis brewing on the French left. It could spell the beginning of the end of popular front tactics. This may seem strange, since the basic assumption of this policy--that the communists can be brought into the existing system of government--seemed to be confirmed by their conduct during the May upheaval. They acted like Fabians, not like revolutionaries. And ever since they have emphasized that their party is one of law and order. They kept silent when the police occupied the Sorbonne. They dissociated themselves publicly from "rabble-rousers and ultra-left provocateurs" and acquiesced in the government's decision to ban all the small left-wing revolutionary movements.
The communists have chosen the parliamentary road. Do they risk finding themselves in a dead end? to understand why there is such a risk one must reconsider the calculation that drove their socialist partners to choose the popular front line. M. Mitterrand, who leads the Federation of the Left, reckoned that the only way to defeat the gaullists was an alliance between the communists and non-communist left. M. Mitterrand's good showing at the presidential election in 1965, and the fair success of the left-wing alliance at the parliamentary elections in March 1967, strengthened this view. Indeed, if general elections had taken place two months ago, the odds are that a popular front alliance could have won.
But M. Mitterrand and M. Guy Mollet, the Socialist leader, were assuming that though they needed communist votes to win an election, their own Federation would be the driving force in a popular front government. Though at the last elections the communists won a slightly larger share of the votes than the Federation, the latter had more deputies. The Federation leaders argued that the communists, only too glad to emerge from political solitude, would cheerfully accept a back seat. They would then, so the argument ran, gradually be driven to a different policy in foreign affairs as well as at home.
This was the hope underlying the strategy of M. Mitterrand and M. Mollet. It was both strengthened and shaken during the May crisis. It was strengthened by communist restraint and shaken by communist party. During a revolutionary crisis the number of deputies is of secondary importance and, indeed, the Federation did not count for much. The weight of the communist party and of the communist-dominated union, the CGT, was vital. The Federation's leaders did not miss this point. And if, on top of this, the Federation were now to do badly at the elections, opponents of the communist alliance--men such as the Radical party leader, M. Gaillard, or the Socialist leader, M. Defferre--could lead an open rebellion. Already they are talking, once again, about a "third force" between communism and gaullism.
In theory the communists could prevent this dissension by electoral manipulations between the ballots. Under the present system, the left-wing parties all put up their own candidates in the first ballot. Then, in the name of "republican discipline," they leave the left-winger with the most votes to face his right-wing opponent in the second ballot. This is the rule. But it has its exceptions. Last year in 13 cases a communist stood down in favour of a Federation candidate who had fewer votes but a better chance of beating the gaullist. The communist party could always increase the number of such gifts. But in so doing it would confirm that it accepts a political scene in which it is ready to be the junior partner of the Federation.
This could create trouble for the communists from the left, both inside and outside the party. And this is the trouble that communist leaders fear most. The arrest by the government of young militants of the revolutionary movement did not bring France's ferment to an end. Among the strikers returning to work, there are many who are visibly disappointed with the CGT. This internal crisis will not be fully reflected at the elections. All the same, it may result in a shift of communist votes to the Parti Socialiste Unifié (PSU).
Whenever one mentions this small party, people think of its only well-known member, M. Pierre Mendès-France. Yet he is a case apart. Though political honesty is one of his main assets, his personal popularity creates an ambiguity. During the May crisis M. Mendès-France was the only political figure to attend the mass meeting of revolutionary students and workers at Charlety. At the same time he was picked by M. Mitterrand as the potential prime minister of a transitional left-wing government, and this choice was approved by several politicians from both the centre and the right. M. Mendès-France tried to dispel the ambiguity by asserting that he would accept office only if sponsored by a united left. Clearly he has sympathy and understanding for the students. But he is a radical reformer who can hardly be seen as the leader of a socialist revolution. On the other hand the party to which he loosely belongs is the only one to have some connection with the revolutionary movement.
The PSU, on this occasion, is putting up more than 300 candidates and is waging a distinctive campaign. It openly expresses its sympathy for the young students and workers who precipitated the crisis. It puts the blame for violence on the police--and the blame for the gaullists' survival on the communist party. The score of the PSU will not measure the full strength of the revolutionary movement. Some of the rebels are too young to vote; some refuse to take part in the "election fraud." Others will vote communist by habit. Yet the number of votes won by the PSU will be watched anxiously by both communist and Federation leaders.
Election results provide a more or less accurate picture of political preferences in a country at a given moment. This time the picture will be more than usually distorted because France has not recovered its composure. The question is how far the voters will be swayed by fear when they go to the polls on Sunday, and when they return there on June 30th to complete the job. Or rather to complete the election. For the election is not the end of the affair.
End of a phase
The first part of France's crisis is drawing to an end. The crisis started on May 3rd when the police entered the Sorbonne. Ten days later the students were back in their university and the cultural revolution was on. On Sunday, June 16th, the circle was completed with the police once again occupying the place. Order has not yet been fully restored in the Latin Quarter, since other parts of the university are still occupied by students. But the Sorbonne was a symbol.
As such it had to be stormed. The government's scheme was pretty obvious. It began with a press campaign about the horrors of the Sorbonne: the drugs, the orgies and the Katangais (supposedly mercenaries from the Congo). But the unkind students did not oblige. They themselves removed the Katangais and started cleaning the place in preparation for summer conferences. And so another reason was found--an investigation into the stabbing of a man outside the Sorbonne on Saturday. Ever since the first riots, the infirmary of the Sorbonne has been used as an emergency ward for the district. The stabbing on Saturday was not an exceptional case, but it provided an excuse for the police to go in. Once inside the Sorbonne, the prefect of police soon made it clear that he was less concerned with an investigation than with the evacuation of the Sorbonne. Some people left the place on their own accord. The occupation committee, consisting of both students and professors, had to be removed by force.
That night the professors involved held a conference to explain what had happened and to announce that they would refuse to teach so long as the Latin Quarter was occupied by the police. Walking through the district afterwards, one saw what they disliked. The famous Boulevard St. Michel looked like an area just taken over by the army. There was no light. Police lorries and vans were all over the place. Helmeted policemen were massed at street corners. Men ready for combat stalked up and down the Boulevard.
This show of strength may win additional votes for the gaullists. But it will not solve the problem of what to do about the university. As M. Pompidou himself said, there is no question of turning the Sorbonne into a barracks for the police. Nobody has seriously suggested that it should become a school for the CRS. And when the police are removed, what will happen?
The strike is also drawing slowly to an end. The Renault works were not quite the first to strike but by May 16th all Renault factories were occupied by the workers. Exactly a month later, last Monday, the workers voted to return to work. Considering their weariness, the fact that the general strike had died down and the determination of the communist-led CGT that the deal with the government must be accepted, the number voting against a return to work was high. It ranged from 22 per cent at Boulogne Billancourt to 44 per cent at Flins.
Despite the victorious headlines in L'Humanité, the mood of many returning workers was not exactly triumphant. They had discovered that they possessed power, but they felt that they had not yet learnt how to use it. If the wage increases prove ephemeral they will plainly feel cheated. On the labour front, too, there could be trouble in the autumn.
To avoid galloping inflation the government will be forced to make some changes in its budget. Several ministers have hinted that this may involve delays in the development of the nuclear strike force. But there is no question of drastic reductions in the military budget. The army commanders were able to remind General de Gaulle during the crisis that they are the defence against revolution. Any further cuts in the conventional forces would be resented. So the only possibility is a slowdown in the nuclear field. Projects for ground-to-ground missiles will probably remain in their files. The Mirages will have to go on flying for longer than planned and the delivery of Polaris-type submarines may be delayed. Some people believe that this slowdown foreshadows the end of an independent strike force. One reply is that what the general now needs is not a force de frappe abroad but at home.