The Economist     July 6, 1968

The end of the first act, not the final curtain

Finita la commedia? At first sight, France's two months' crisis has run full circle, with the gaullists back in command of things--only very, very much more so. The barricades and the general strike of May begin to look distant. Communists seek to justify themselves, gaullists and outsiders to find comfort, in analysing the May crisis through June's electoral prism. Psephologists have taken over from social analysts.

The main reason for the gaullist triumph in the second ballot was that the floating voters of the centre rallied massively to the right. The second reason was that the alliance between the communists and the Federation of the Left, cemented last year by the prospect of victory, was shaken this time by the wind of defeat. The wastage of left-wing votes was small in Paris but high in areas of traditional competition between communists and socialists.

The two factors combined cost the left more than half its seats. The main communist leaders survived, as have the principal members of the Federation--MM. Mitterrand, Mollet, Defferre and Billières scraped through. But M. Mendès-France did not and M. Mitterrand's young lieutenants, who last year won a series of marginal seats, were now thrown out by the swing. Yet, for the left, loss even on this scale is less harmful than the loss of perspective. Here the political crisis has only begun.

In terms of seats, the gaullist victory is as big as the left's loss. Sweeping from their strongholds in western and eastern France, the gaullists have reconquered a large part of Paris. They have recovered positions in the industrial north. They have made serious gains in the so-called "red south," in the apparently impregnable areas around Toulouse and Montpellier. As a result the orthodox gaullists have a comfortable majority on their own and, though the followers of M. Giscard d'Estaing did well, they are no longer indispensable.

Yet this kind of statistics is for static minds. The parliamentary success is useful--not that parliamentary obstacles ever bothered the general--but the crisis has left residues that cannot be swept up as easily as the election could. Men like M. Pompidou, who understood the depth of the social upheaval, cannot simply forget. In his hour of triumph the prime minister soberly reminded his followers that their exceptional victory came at the close of a very serious crisis "of which we should not forget the causes, the features and the consequences."

The main financial consequence is the swelling of the wage bill. The minimum wage was raised by a third, while other wages should increase this year by roughly 13 per cent, about twice as fast as usual. In general terms, the government has a choice of two methods. It can try to keep prices down and take the opportunity to accelerate industrial concentration. The snag is that this would add to unemployment, which is already approaching the half-million mark. The alternative is to let a rapid rise in prices absorb the nominal gains in wages. This would lead inexorably toward devaluation. It could also provoke a second explosion by workers now conscious of the power of the strike weapon.

The government will probably manoeuvre between the two policies. It may also try to counter-attack through its programme of "participation." This pet gaullist scheme, a still unspecified elaboration of the general's old corporatist plan of association capital-travail, may not solve much. It could nevertheless be used to create trouble for the trade unions at a time when many workers feel that their unions did not give them a proper lead during a strike which had started spontaneously. The communist-led CGT has already begun to lose voters to the more militant CFDT.

Has anything been basically changed by the May crisis? The upheaval took almost everybody by surprise, both in France and abroad. The startling, and significant, thing was not that students dared to defy the government and put up barricades. It was that this precipitated the biggest general strike France has ever known, a strike that threatened the regime and sent General de Gaulle seeking reassurance from his army. The other key lesson is that the communist party did not seize this opportunity. It proved stalinist in manner, but fabian in action. Nobody really knows whether, if there were a second explosion, the communists would once again act as the firemen of the regime.

This brings us to the basic division among observers about what happened in May. Some see in it a historical quirk, after which things resume their normal course. Others wonder whether this storm, apparently out of the blue, does not herald a change in the political and social climate of western Europe. For France, a first act is ended and General de Gaulle and M. Pompidou, his rising lieutenant, are seeking to consolidate their position by taking advantage of the interval--an interval that may merely have been extended by the size of their electoral victory.

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