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.