New Statesman & Society     January 12, 1996

Letter from Paris

Francois Mitterrand badly wanted to leave a mark on history--and not just as the holder of a statistical record, as the only French president of the Fifth Republic to have served two full terms (a total of 14 years), or as the first Socialist to be elected president through universal suffrage. But doe he deserve a real place in history as shaper of events? And, if so, will it be as the unifier of the French left or as the destroyer of its dreams?

Mitterrand was born into a conservative family in Cognac country 79 years ago. As such, we now know, he fitted quite naturally into the collaborationist Vichy administration during the war. Yet he ended the conflict as a leader of the resistance and must be judged by his subsequent political record.

This can be divided into three periods: 12 years constantly in office between 1946 and 1958; the next 23 in constant opposition; and, finally, the presidency. The first period coincides with the Fourth Republic. Dark and handsome, Mitterand was a minister in 11 governments and, by analogy with Machiavelli, became known as "The Florentine."

The second period began when General Charles de Gaulle, brought back to power by the settlers and the French commanders in Algeria, set up the Fifth Republic. More ambitious by now, Mitterrand saw himself as the general's challenger and developed a new strategy for the French left. He believed that the left could not win unless it was united--thus, it had to include the Communist Party (PCF) -- and that its victory would be accepted only if the non-PCF left became the senior partner in that alliance.

He stuck to this line through thick and thin, though when he started he certainly did not guess that final success would involve 23 years in the wilderness. He did not know how he would gain the leadership of the left or how he would elaborate a "common programme" with the PCF. He did not even know that one day he would become a Socialist.

He joined the Socialist Party and immediately became its leader during its famous Epinay congress of 1971. From then on, he talked socialism with the zeal of a convert. He promised "a breakwith capitalism". He thundered that "big business, master of levers of economic and political command, remains the enemy number one, with which there can be no possible compromise."

Did he believe what he was saying? Not quite. But you don't talk like that for years without being affected. As he was finally poised to seize his presidential prize, in 1981, Mitterrand saw himself as a socialist reformer who would take France somewhere beyond the Swedish model.

But he was not a man to go to the bottom with his principles around his neck. Having violently attacked the Gaullist institutions of authoritarian rule, he found them quite convenient once he took over. Without popular mobilisation and pressure from below, moreover, the left stood no chance, particularly since its Keynesian economic programme was bound to meet outside hostility. The government first got bogged down and then rapidly surrendered.

If he was not going to gain laurels as a socialist reformer, Mitterrand decided that he had to win them as a "normaliser". From 1983 onwards, with their policy of austerity and financial orthodoxy, the Socialists got the blessing of the Paris Bourse but lost the backing of many of their own supporters. The left lost the parliamentary elections of 1986, providing the Fifth Republic with its first cohabitation between a president and a parliament of different political complexion. The victorious right, however, blundered so much that the astute Mitterrand managed to get re-elected. The right had to wait until 1993 to win back the National Assembly and until 1995 to regain the presidency.

The obituaries are now congratulating Mitterrand for the role he played, with German chancellor Helmut Kohl, in furthering European integration. Essentially, this is praise for bringing the left into the fold and, by the same token, merging France into the western world and its pattern of consensus politics.

Mitterrand converted France to alternance, a word that the Anglo-Saxons neither know nor need to know, because it simply means that the Democrats follow Republicans (or Labour Conservatives) and vice versa. In France, until 1981, such a succession was not seen as normal, because it was assumed that, if a left including the PCF wins an election, it would involve not just a change of government, but a change of regime. In short, the French left believed in a radical alternative, because it considered that society, and hence life, could be altered by collective political action. It is by destroying that belief that Mitterrand is deemed to have converted France to the consensus.

But after the strikes that paralysed France last month and the mass demonstrations that shook the country, it is increasingly difficult to talk with certainty about the end of French exceptionalism. Indeed, in the battle over the welfare state, and hence over the future shape of west European society, a battle that has only begun, the French have again shown the way of resistance and their example may actually prove contagious. It is to be hoped that he will go down only as the man who tried to destroy the dreams of the left, the man who had the illusion of shaping history.

Copyright Statesman and Nation Publishing Company, Ltd Jan 12, 1996