A few days before the second round of voting in the French presidential elections, Jean Monnet sat talking quietly, with the May sunlight streaming through the windows of the Paris apartment-office at the end of the Avenue Foch where he has dispensed so much wisdom, influence, and history in the last quarter of a century.
It has been a disastrous spring for Monnet’s Europe. Edward Heath departed from Number 10 Downing Street on March 4. Georges Pompidou died in Paris on April 2. Willy Brandt quit over the Bonn spy scandal on May 7. All were men with whom Monnet had been on terms of close friendship, intimacy, and influence for years. But in barely two months, all three suddenly disappeared from the seats of power. Economic crisis is hammering every government in Europe, and everything that Monnet has worked for has seemed to be coming apart at the seams. At the age of eighty-four, he pondered the past and the future, carefully and precisely forming his thoughts and phrases, alert and contemplative as always.
The problem, he said, was not that what had been done was unsound or that past policies were turning out to be wrong. The problem was that a generation of leadership was fading rapidly, and a new generation which is taking its place has yet to discover its own goals and give the future its own commitment of ideology and inspiration. He felt that quite probably the goals of the new leadership will in fact turn out to be basically the same for Europe as the goals which he had sought in the past, but nevertheless they have to be rediscovered, restated, and reinspired by new men. The biggest failure of European policy, Monnet went on, had been the failure to bring the peoples of Europe closer together, and this, he thought, would become the new goal and the new ideology of the future. Uniting economies and coordinating political aims and policies were not enough. It was people who mattered, and people must be brought together if Europe was to unite.
He felt certain that Valéry Giscard d’Estaing ought to be elected President of France. He spoke kindly of the Socialist candidate, Francois Mitterrand, as an honorable and capable man, for whom he had respect. But he said that Mitterrand would be too tied to his Communist supporters to be able to pursue policies which both France and Europe need. The Communists, after all, are certainly not working for the unity of Western Europe. Giscard d’Estaing, on the other hand, he found not only more intellectually qualified for the presidency but, above all, a new leader unencumbered by ideological commitments either on the left or to the Gaullists on his right.
“If Giscard is elected, then I believe that this process of disintegration which we have seen going on in Europe these last months can be stopped. But if he is not elected, then it will continue, and I cannot forecast what might happen to Europe then,” Monnet said.
The outcome of the election was painfully close. Giscard was elected third President of the Fifth Republic and twentieth President of France by a margin of only 470,000 votes out of well over 26 million ballots cast. A shift of a mere 235,000 votes, less than one tenth of one percent of the total, would have completely altered the outcome and the outlook for France and Europe.
Vote for change
It was, of course, an overwhelming vote for change—beginning with the first round of balloting on May 5, which abruptly knocked out Jacques ChabanDelmas and ended sixteen years of Gaullist domination of French politics. In part this was due to Chaban-Delmas’s lackluster performance as a campaigner, and in part to a political squabble over succession which broke out in Gaullist ranks even before Pompidou was in his grave. But above all it was the groundswell for change which reduced Chaban-Delmas’s vote to a lowly 14.8 percent on the first round, approximately what the small and ineffectual Centrist coalition had managed to poll against the great Charles de Gaulle himself in the 1966 presidential elections. For all the Gaullists’ squabbling over Chaban-Delmas’s candidacy, it is doubtful that the party could have produced anyone else who could have done better. But Chaban-Delmas certainly did not enhance his promises of creating a “new society” in France by relying on the support of Michel Debré and other Gaullists of the right, and then trotting out that fading Promethean, André Malraux, to deliver a television address which even the French found embarrassingly incomprehensible. Malraux somehow wandered off in the middle of his appeal to a discussion of the problems of audio-visual education, not exactly a cause to stir the emotions of the electorate.
When the votes were in after the first round, Giscard with 33 percent appeared to be well placed for an easy runoff victory. Mitterrand as expected was in the lead, but with 43.7 percent he had not done as well as the public-opinion polls had forecast, and he had not hit the target figure of 45 percent, which was regarded as the minimum he needed to carry him on up to a second-round victory. What followed was a hard-fought personal campaign by both men up and down France.
Mitterrand, a veteran of thirty years of leftist politics, but something of a political chameleon even by French standards, was certainly the more experienced politician of the two, a better speaker and a better crowd-raiser. But he had the support, and the burden, of the Communists. Obviously he would not have done as well at the polls without the Communists, but it is just as certain that because of the Communists he did not win. In fact, at the end of the first round of voting, an unexpected political twist created doubt as to how victoryminded the Communists really were on Mitterrand’s behalf.
On the Monday after Giscard had knocked Chaban-Delmas out of the race, the Ministry of Finance, where Giscard was still Minister after five years in the Pompidou government, received a telephone call from the Soviet Embassy requesting an appointment for Ambassador Stepan Tchervonenko, ostensibly to discuss Franco-Soviet economic relations and trade matters. The next day he talked with Giscard for forty minutes. Obviously Tchervonenko was acting on instructions from Moscow; a Soviet Ambassador would be out of his mind to request such a meeting at such a time on his own initiative. But the surprised French Communist Party immediately issued a statement which in effect accused the Soviets of interfering in French internal politics. The Ambassador’s initiative, the Communist Party said, “is all the more regrettable in that it has created a pretext for political speculation which represents this as being a display of preference for the rightwing candidate.” And it certainly was.
Nevertheless, when the publicopinion polls narrowed in the second round and even showed Mitterrand taking the lead over Giscard, the Communist Party made another move which hurt the prospects for a leftist Popular Front victory. The Party secretary-general, Georges Marchais, blandly declared that the Communists would claim at least six or seven Cabinet seats if Mitterrand won. The Socialist leader, throughout his campaign, had sought to minimize his “Communist connection.” acknowledging it in as limited a fashion as he could manage and endeavoring to leave the impression always that it was a matter which he could handle perfectly well. When he was asked about the Communist claim for Cabinet seats, Mitterrand ducked awkwardly, which led Marchais to repeat his demand almost on the eve of the election. The Communists would not insist on any of the major Cabinet posts, such as foreign affairs or defense or interior, Marchais said grandly, but they were supplying at least one third of Mitterrand’s votes and they wanted one third of the Cabinet seats. Given the narrowness of the election outcome, it is reasonable to suppose that if the Communists had stayed mute on the subject of power-sharing, Mitterrand might have squeezed through.
But the fact remains that 49.2 percent of the French voters were indeed ready to contemplate having Communists in the government. This was not only a reflection of the collective French demand for change after sixteen years of Gaullist domination. It is also a reflection of the rising political respectability of the Communists all over Western Europe in the new atmosphere of detente which De Gaulle was the first to promote and which President Nixon and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and the departed Chancellor Willy Brandt have all assiduously pursued. Giscard campaigned on a slogan of “change without risk,” but when the vote was counted, it turned out that just about half of France was prepared to take very great risks to see things changed.
The Kennedy model remains a fascination for politicians all over the democratic world, and Giscard d’Estaing was an early emulator. He was able to capitalize on and project a lot of the built-in attributes of a Kennedy image—the intellect, the wealth, the healthy, attractive, smiling family, the taste for good living, a little bit of music, a little bit of sport, lithe youthfulness, some sex appeal, and the touch of arrogance. Even the closeness of the winning margin, like Kennedy’s in 1960, became part of the picture when Giscard declared on election night: “One could have imagined a larger margin, but what counts in a presidential election is decision and responsibility. You have taken the decision. I will exercise the responsibility.”
It was the greatest turnout in French election history—88 percent of the voters. Giscard wisely and candidly told the French that he recognized that the opposition vote reinforced the demand for change; with the formation of his new government, he wasted no time in getting down to real changes as well as the image of change. He gave short shrift to the defeated Gaullists. It would have been fatuous to promise change and then simply shuffle the old Gaullist faces around the Cabinet table. He has cut their number in the Cabinet to only five out of sixteen posts, and more important, the five he has chosen have no political weight or influence whatsoever in the Gaullist Party, with the possible exception of the Prime Minister, forty-one-year-old Jacques Chirac. But Chirac was at the center of opposition to Chaban-Delmas among the Gaullists, and his relations with the party’s old guard are cool to say the least. Still, the Gaullists do hold 181 seats in the National Assembly, and the ultraGaullists, nursing wounded pride and loss of power, could be pretty troublesome for Giscard.
Giscard has reinforced his parliamentary strength by including in the Cabinet Centrist leader Jean Lecanuet (his party is a remnant of the Christian Democrats). This should ensure Giscard of another thirty or so Assembly votes in the event of future difficulties with the Gaullist right. But the government is predominantly a Cabinet of technocrats. Apart from Chirac and Giscard’s own faithful deputy in the Independent Republican Party leadership, Michel Poniatowski, who is now Minister of the Interior, there is not a single Cabinet minister of any political importance. Eight of the new ministers have graduated either from the Ecole National d’Administration (ENA) or the prestigious Ecole Polytechnique. Foreign Minister Jean Sauvagnargues is a fifty-nine-year-old career ambassador who was abruptly plucked out of the French Embassy in Bonn. It is not a very colorful Cabinet nor much of a political Cabinet, but it is certainly a Cabinet of highly trained men. Giscard fully intends to supply the color and the political impact himself.
In fact, given the extreme complexity of problems which governments everywhere will be called upon to resolve in the months and years ahead, there is a great deal to be said for installing strong technocratic administration at the top. For France, the impact of the energy crisis is especially acute, and French inflation is galloping at an astronomical rate, 18 percent per annum, the highest in the Common Market. Along with this, there are the intricacies of working out common economic and political policies with the rest of Europe, and all of this requires a very high degree of expertise to arrive at sound national policies and decisions. The French, moreover, put more emphasis on the schooling, training, and selection of an elite corps of civil service administrators and financial experts than any other country in the world. Giscard himself is a product of the system—a graduate of ENA like many of his ministers and an in-specteur des finances, one of that superior corps of monetary and fiscal experts who run the French treasury and much else in France. The real question now is whether he will show the vital political qualities of dynamic leadership and imagination to infuse his technocratic administration with both life and popular success.
The De Gaulle era is now truly over. It always had a kind of “son et lumière” quality about it, even when the production was at its height. What are the realities which are left for France? The General himself always said that he would never have a successor, evidently intending or expecting that his era would stand out in French history with chaos on one side and mediocrity on the other. Still, the Fifth Republic has already lasted four years longer than the Fourth Republic did, and strong, stable government is a major Gaullist heritage. True, the constitution—written to the specifications of the powerful, autocratic De Gaulle—might not have stood the strain of a Popular Front government, but that has not happened—at least not yet.
In addition, French politicians of all shades—Giscard d’Estaing and François Mitterrand included—rally and salute that magic Gaullist word “independence.” It is a simple fact of political life in France that General de Gaulle succeeded in reactivating the force and idealism of independence to a point where mundane acts of common-sense cooperation can instantly be elevated into matters of high principle. To cooperate with another government can be interpreted as a sacrifice of independence. Hence, France examines every invitation or overture from any direction in this fundamental light. Its active and intelligent civil service is geared to fight and frustrate or to accommodate, depending on how the President of France determines French interests and independence. It will be no different under Giscard d’Estaing.
He knows the principle and the technique well. He was Finance Minister from 1962 to 1965 when De Gaulle was railing constantly (and with much to be said for his attitude) against the profligate American balance-of-payments deficit and against American take-over bids for European industry. But in his last five years as Finance Minister under Pompidou, he got on extremely well with former U. S. Treasury Secretary George Shultz. Giscard knows that it is perfectly possible for France to have an independent policy—a Gaullist policy if it needs the label—but still accommodate itself to the views and interests of others. Giscard, according to a close associate who has known and worked with him for years, is genuinely anxious and determined to place Franco-American relations on a more equitable, even-handed, cooperative basis. But, his associate added emphatically, affairs between France and the United States will not go well if Washington now presses Giscard to reverse the Gaullist past or work in opposition to the Gaullist bloc.
The French have always preferred to cooperate in the corridors and the back rooms and in the secret exchanges of diplomatic cables rather than in public. They are wary of signing declarations and announcing their commitments. They like their cooperation to be ad hoc. They do not like to be tied to organizations or agreements which might work some future hindrance on their independence of action. De Gaulle hardened this approach, but it is a fundamental French tradition going back to Richelieu.
This is a national diplomatic style which is almost completely at odds with Henry Kissinger’s approach to foreign policy and politics. Kissinger likes dynamic words and declarations along with structures in which everybody has a well-defined place in a well-organized order; hence Kissinger’s clashes with French Foreign Minister Michel Jobert over the new Atlantic Charter idea and the ill-starred Washington energy conference. Giscard d’Estaing’s new Foreign Minister has none of Jobert’s ready waspish wit, but he will be no less tough in resisting involvements or commitments which Giscard judges to be counter to French interests and independence.
The simple hope at the Quai d’Orsay is that Washington in the person of Kissinger will now opt for a period of quiet in relations with Europe in general, and not thrust out ideas or challenges which France will feel bound to resist. In any case, there are infinitely more pressing problems within Europe itself. Before the end of his first week in office, Giscard met with Helmut Schmidt in Paris to begin that pragmatic examination of what to do about Europe which Monnet had hoped for.
With all his public exposure for more than a decade, Giscard remains curiously unknown. He was elected on a record of competence and ability which he has certainly shown. But competence alone is not enough in running a government of technocrats. He will have to show leadership as well. The tests will not be long in coming.