At Last, the Demise of Gaullism

On the eve of its national elections, France faces the end of two decades of political stability.

In mid-March Valéry Giscard D'Estaing will face the first major test of his presidency–the elections for the National Assembly. He himself is not running, nor will he take to the hustings for his party's candidates, but, indirectly, his policies and his style will be up for judgment.

Predictions on the outcome of these elections and what it will mean are as numerous as French political parties. But one thing is sure. The prolonged stability of French political life, maintained for twenty years by the mystique of Gaullism, has begun to break up. No matter who wins, or by how much, France after March will move into what Prime Minister Raymond Barre calls "a new political landscape."

For more than a year the French press has been obsessed with politics in an orgy of analysis and conjecture that probably has no pre-electoral parallel in any other democracy. This is because the French are fascinated by themselves in the special way of a people educated to believe that their country is the navel of the world.

What happens to France, the French believe, matters to everyone, and understandably, they take their politics very seriously. To give them credit, when it comes to the approaching elections they are probably right to do so. Among the industrialized democracies, France is the only country in which a defeat of the ruling majority could produce not the accession to power of a loyal opposition but profound changes in French institutions and the balance of economic and social power.

In the place of the Gaullists, who have held the majority of seats in the National Assembly for twenty years, could come the Socialist party (now the biggest party in the country), led by First Secretary Francois Mitterrand. Mitterrand, sixty-one, has survived longer as a major public figure than any other politician in the Fifth Republic.

Unlike many opposition figures in other nations, Mitterrand is little known outside his own country. He was raised a devout Catholic in a comfortable provincial family in central France, where his father was first a stationmaster and then local head of the national federation of vinegar producers. He is one of four brothers, all of whom have had brilliant careers one is a general who heads France's largest airplane manufacturer, another is a vice-president of Sperry Rand. His public career began as did the careers of most of France's older politicians during World War II, after a spectacular escape from a German prison camp. It was his third, finally successful attempt, and it led to increasing responsibilities in the French Resistance and his first encounter with General de Gaulle.

Mitterrand and De Gaulle conceived an instant and visceral dislike for each other. A cold, disdainful meeting took place in Algiers, where the general was masterminding Resistance activities and where he was using a certain amount of intrigue to insure his postwar leadership of France. Mitterrand challenged De Gaulle's authority to give him orders and made it clear that he was unimpressed by the imperious general. Upon returning to France Mitterrand reportedly told friends, "De Gaulle is not a republican."

Nonetheless, though De Gaulle scratched Mitterrand's name from i list of those to be honored for their war efforts, his Resistance record assured him a place in De Gaulle's first postwar government. After that, and throughout the Fourth Republic's many cabinets, he held a bewildering variety of ministerial jobs, eleven in all. His own small but pivotal party, the center-left UDSR (Union démocratique et socialiste de la Résistance), repeatedly provided the necessary Votes to make coalition governments possible. Says a former Gaullist deputy, "It was maneuvering there at the center that developed his skills as a political tactician."

The experience proved crucial. The overwhelming national support for De Gaulle's take-over of the government in 1958 (Mitterrand denounced it as a "coup d'état") forced Mitterrand to stake out a claim on the Left, the only space remaining in the political spectrum. Since that time he has relentlessly pursued what may be the major accomplishment of his career: the welding of France's socialist formations into a single party which may become the "first party of France."

Though Mitterrand is regularly listed as France's second most popular politician, he remains a distant, enigmatic figure. He has few friends and little is known of his private life. But that's the way he wants it. He undoubtedly agrees with De Gaulle, who wrote, "A leader is inevitably aloof because there can be no prestige unless he keeps his distance." The critical "classe politique" has accused him of scandal, opportunism, and being a poseur, hardly surprising for a man whose public life has spanned some thirty-five years. Recently, he seems to have deliberately donned the statesman's mantle. Hi popularity has developed as he has successfully projected concern for the poor and exploited. On television, his eyes blink rapidly and sincerely like an earnest young girl's. Above all, he exudes intellectual prowess. In France, almost everything is forgiven if one is clever enough.

Posters at Socialist party headquarters proclaim that socialism is an idea whose time has come. If true, much of the credit must go to Mitterrand's controversial alliance with the Communist party and its rough, tough leader, Georges Marchais. In 1972, the two men, along with Robert Fabre, the leader of a tiny splinter group, managed to draft and sign a concrete electoral platform, a "common program of government." This simplistic catalogue of lofty principles and specific policies was just imprecise enough to satisfy both Communists and Socialists, but its detailed list of industry nationalizations and major social and economic reforms terrified the ruling establishment.

It proved, though, to be the making of the Socialists. At the time it was hammered out, the Communist party held its usual 20 percent share of the electorate, compared to the Socialists' 15 percent. Now, the Socialist stake stands at about 28 percent while the Communists remain stuck at 20 percent.

Socialist strength grew with the increased credibility of the alliance, the result of minor shifts in dogma, made by Georges Marchais, which reassured voters that the most dictatorially rigid of Europe's Communist parties was capable of change.

The French Communists' efforts to appear transformed can almost be measured by Georges Marchais's improved wardrobe (some say Pierre Cardin) and more sophisticated public style. In a country where television is dominated by second-rate American films and talk shows, Marchais is the most original domestic program available. He steamrollers his questioners with uninterruptible diatribes. He hoots with derisive laughter. His eyebrows shoot up quizzically over bright blue eyes. His face registers astonishment, his tone irony. He thoroughly enjoys himself. He is, of course, another clever Frenchman.

Socialist growth is obviously not merely the result of communism's more respectable image. It parallels the realization among voters that France's explosive industrial growth has created enormous problems which the majority party seems unable to solve. Over the past twenty years, French agricultural workers in search of jobs have streamed into crowded, ugly cities where rootlessness and alienation find their expression in violence, drugs, and broken families. Politically, though, for parties exploiting discontent, high-rise buildings are easy to organize. The fastest growing department in France, a suburb south of Paris, now sends three Communists to the National Assembly. Says Georges Chavannes, a socially innovative motor manufacturer, "Industry has unwittingly proletarized France."

The traumas of industrialization were acceptable when all incomes were increasing. But since the 1973 oil crisis and the subsequent slowdown in economic growth, expectations have been daunted by rising unemployment (1.2 million in late 1977) and an untamed inflation rate (10 percent for two successive years). As European voters have demonstrated, it's a situation made for the opposition. In France, the Socialists have gained at all levels: among the working class, where the Communists are traditionally strong, among white-collar workers, farmers, lower- and middle-class management, and even company owners.

A profile of the party is an almost perfect mirror of France. Geographically, the Socialists have gradually developed a national appeal as their support spread in the conservative, Catholic bastions of eastern France and Brittany. Then the party acquired the legitimacy it had lacked when, in 1974, Francois Mitterrand was chosen as the single candidate of the Left. Socially and politically it was finally acceptable to vote Socialist. The number of people who did so surprised the nation. Mitterrand came within 3 percent of beating Valéry Giscard D Estaing for the presidency.

Giscard's narrow victory was the culmination of forty-eight years of preparation for the job. From the beginning, he had been earmarked for the presidency by his ambitious father. When he was in his teens, Giscard's piano teacher suggested that the boy enter the conservatory. But his father had other ideas.

Giscard has considerable intelligence he sailed through the right schools and on to a series of choice government appointments leading to France's top cabinet post, minister for finance. He has never been a Gaullist. Instead, he heads up a tiny center-right formation, the Républicains Indépendents, whose political philosophy reflects its well-heeled, well-educated, business establishment membership. The party is for Europe, America, fiscal integrity, and mild doses of reform. As such it is close to Giscard's own political beliefs. But its size has suited him too. The Gaullist party, the UDR (Union des Démocrates pour la République), was and is too crowded with jostling political barons of national reputation to offer Giscard enough space for his ambitions.

Over the years, he has not been uncomfortable supporting most Gaullist positions. Tactically, it was a way of having the best of both worlds. It paid off in growing national prominence while he waited for the inevitable slippage of Gaullist power. In 1969, Giscard felt sure enough to mark his distance from the UDR. Asked whether he favored the referendum submitted to a national vote by De Gaulle-to approve or disapprove the transfer of substantial power from Paris to the regional level- Giscard equivocated, and some of the most loyal Gaullists never forgave him.

Not so Georges Pompidou, who appointed Giscard for a second term as finance minister in the government formed after De Gaulle's resignation and his election as president. Giscard began preparing his own run for the presidency during Pompidou's long, unacknowledged illness. Almost the day after the funeral, Giscard's supporters were ready to paste up billboards displaying the finance minister's face.

Giscard owes his success to some smart image marketing. The candidate was photographed at home, at work, pumping an accordion, and playing soccer with the hometown team. His campaign also made much of his career as the technocratically competent finance minister. Only six months before the elections, the Arab-Israeli war had sent a shiver of apprehension through the oil-dependent economies of Europe. Giscard was familiar with national budgets and international heads of state. In the end, he came over as slightly more reassuring than his Socialist opponent.

From the outset, Giscard's presidency and policies have needed the support of the Gaullist party and its rising new leader, Jacques Chirac. Chirac, now forty-six years old, first worked for Giscard, was later troubleshooter and hatchet man for Pompidou (who called him "my bulldozer"), and finally became head of the politically sensitive Interior Ministry. At Pompidou's death, Chirac decided that Giscard could win and would be the manageable president Chirac needed for his own future plans. He threw his frenetic energy into galvanizing the Gaullist party machinery on Giscard's behalf. He was repaid by being named prime minister.

The choice of Chirac for this position has troubled Giscard's three and a half years as president. For the first time in the history of the Fifth Republic, the president and his majority leader belonged to different parties. It's a situation not foreseen by the French constitution, and it was inevitable that the conflicting ambitions of the two men would eventually raise the possibility of a constitutional crisis.

Presented by

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register with Disqus.

Please note that The Atlantic's account system is separate from our commenting system. To log in or register with The Atlantic, use the Sign In button at the top of every page.

blog comments powered by Disqus


The Horrors of Rat Hole Mining

"The river was our source of water. Now, the people won't touch it."


What's Your Favorite Slang Word?

From "swag" to "on fleek," tweens choose.


Cryotherapy's Dubious Appeal

James Hamblin tries a questionable medical treatment.


Confessions of Moms Around the World

In Europe, mothers get maternity leave, discounted daycare, and flexible working hours.


How Do Trees Know When It's Spring?

The science behind beautiful seasonal blooming
More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In