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.

Giscard and Chirac have sharply contrasting views of France. Giscard is convinced that the French are ready to move beyond the confrontation politics of the Gaullist era, the time when André Malraux could say, "Between us [the Gaullists] and the Communists, there is nothing." Giscard sees himself as the architect of a new non-Gaullist majority made up of both the immediate right and the immediate left of center, which would continue the gradual reform of French society without recourse to the profound changes advocated by Francois Mitterrand and Georges Marchais.

For his part, Chirac finds the president's strategy naive and amateurish. The enemy for Chirac was and is the Left in all its forms. There is no way, he believes, that the cold war of French political life can be transformed into some replica of the moderate alternatives available in Anglo-Saxon countries.

But Giscard insisted on trying. He began by pushing through a number of long overdue reforms. Abortion was legalized and divorce made easier. The voting age was lowered to eighteen. Government studies proposed changes in the way company presidents would conduct their businesses. Worker representatives were to sit on corporate boards. A capital gains tax (there is none in France) would be levied on the sale of real estate, gold, paintings, and furniture. Tax evaders (a shameful percentage of tax revenue is lost through fraud) would be prosecuted.

Meanwhile, projecting a Kennedyesque style, Giscard breakfasted with immigrant street cleaners and sat down for simple dinners with workers' families. He ordered the Bastille Day parade rerouted to the lower-class boulevards of eastern Paris and the orchestration of the Marseillaise made less martial.

However, the voters refused to be tempted. In fact, in the 1976 cantonal elections, local tests which had never before been politicized, the Union of the Left received 51 percent of the vote. Chirac had predicted this. France enjoyed its quarrels too much ever to give them up.

Chirac had also proposed a solution. As far back as the spring of 1976 he insisted that Giscard could stem the leftist tide only by calling for early legislative elections, which would catch the Socialists off guard and take advantage of what was to be a brief spurt in the French economy.

Giscard refused. French presidents do not resort to such patent electioneering. Besides, Chirac's suggestion symbolized precisely the kind of confrontation politics he opposed. Elections called ahead of schedule would deprive Giscard of an important political club to hold over the legislature: under the constitution, the president must wait a full year between dissolutions of the Assembly. The disagreement between the prime minister and the president festered and finally burst into the open. In August 1976, Chirac stormed out of the government, the first Gaullist prime minister to leave voluntarily.

He was also the first to make no secret of his views. With barely disguised contempt he characterized Giscard as indecisive and politically inept.

Chirac's criticisms were seconded with almost pathetic eagerness by businessmen who blamed the president for dealing hesitantly with France's first serious recession in twenty years. One by one the disillusioned Gaullist barons sheepishly slipped off to pay Chirac allegiance in his spacious new skyscraper headquarters behind the National Assembly. When, in December 1976, he triumphantly convoked a national convention to refurbish and rename the UDR (he called it the Rassemblement pour la République, which audaciously recalled De Gaulle's Rassemblement du Peuple Français, the RPF), they were virtually all present and accounted for.

That was the nadir of Giscard's presidency. His popularity in the polls sank to 38 percent. He was ridiculed for the ham-handed imposition of his own lackluster candidate for mayor of Paris. Chirac, incensed at the attempt to wrest control of the capital from the Gaullists, countered by running for the office himself. When the municipal elections took place in March 1977, he won handily.

Chirac's good showing in Paris was expected. What was not expected was the magnitude of the Socialist-Communist victory outside the city. Unperturbed by Gaullist efforts to dramatize the Communist menace, voters elected coalition lists that put seventy-six Communists in office as mayors of France's larger towns.

The majority was stunned. For days and weeks afterward, polls and analysis predicted the unthinkable that the legislative elections, scheduled for March 1978, would return a National Assembly dominated by the Socialists and their Communist allies.

Despite this bleak outlook, the municipal defeat had no unifying effect on the majority. Raymond Barre, a respected, roly-poly economics professor who replaced Chirac as prime minister, had taken on the task of righting the foundering French economy. But so far, his mild austerity program of blocked prices and frozen salaries had had little effect. Chirac was only too pleased to point this out, and even added that Barre's pedagogical admonishings of the French public on television had no political appeal whatsoever. As the majority quarrel intensified, the French business community abandoned itself to apathetic acceptance of the prospect that France was doomed to collectivism and huge doses of state planning.

On the Left, euphoria rose in direct proportion to the majority's despair. Superconfident, Mitterrand masterfully crushed the outcroppings of dissent at his party's national conference in June. Socialist party working groups drew up some 200 position papers outlining priorities for the first non-Gaullist government in twenty years. Meanwhile, the Socialists took pains to assure the press, and foreign visitors, that the Left's victory would not threaten the free enterprise system and that the Socialist party would find it easy to dominate its Communist partner when the two parties began to govern together.

It was at this high point of the Left's expectations that Georges Marchais had second thoughts. France, he said, had evolved politically, economically, and socially in the past five years, and the Common Program had to be renegotiated and rewritten to reflect this. Mitterrand reluctantly agreed, but made it plain that he referred only to the details of the platform. The overall principles would stand. It is now clear that Marchais had already decided to torpedo the alliance.

At first, the Communist demands were diagnosed as ploys in a struggle to gain more power within the alliance before the elections. But as the summer progressed, positions froze and the dispute grew more shrill, deteriorating into a bitter public wrangle. The questions under debate were narrowed down to how many subsidiaries of the nine companies set for nationalization would be taken over and how they would be controlled.

The press gave wide coverage to the demands of both sides, and as party leaders took to TV and radio, after each negotiating session, to explain and blame, a few commentators wondered out loud if the Communists did indeed want to win and govern. Most concluded that the momentum of the five-year alliance was so great that a split was out of the question. Certainly the Socialists were profoundly shaken when a last-ditch conference broke up at two A.M. on September 23 with the unadorned admission that the Left could not agree among themselves.

In retrospect, it seems surprising that the inevitability of the breakup was not foreseen. Almost before anyone realized the enormity of what had happened, the Communists began such an intense campaign of invective that it became hard to believe that the partnership had ever been possible. Accusations and justifications continued in orchestrated measures, all through the fall. They reflect an internal party logic which outsiders overlooked. Clearly, for the French Communists, governing is the goal only if it promises the means to effect profound change.

Marchais has repeatedly said that the party does not want to come to power to "manage the crisis." On one level he means that he can't accept the sort of ideological dilution or "historic compromise" that has hamstrung the Italian Communist party in its association with the Christian Democrats. On a less lofty level, he sees how few options any government, Left or Right, has in what will be a long period of slowed economic growth. He simply does not want to participate in a failure. He also doesn't want to run in harness as a junior partner.

It takes little astuteness to see that the short-lived alliance dramatically strengthened the Socialist party and reversed the power roles that existed when the Common Program was signed. By 1978, the Communists could not hope to have equal status with the Socialists, once in government.

Yet of the two parties, the Communists have the least to lose from the split. Their organization is strong and can count on the support of France's largest trade union, the CGT (Confédération Générale du Travail). They are accustomed to being a power out of power. It's a safe, pure role, and the party is still old-fashioned enough to believe that in time its chance will come. Meanwhile, it has no interest in continuing an alliance that is sure to make the Socialists the largest party in France.

What the Communist party did not foresee was the wave of disappointment among its own membership and sympathizers when the reality of the rupture sank in. At cell meetings in Paris, restless younger members disagreed with the leadership's explanation that it was not prepared to pay any price to govern. The militants argued that even moderate changes with a government of the Left would be more acceptable than five more years of the Right.

So far the leadership's view has prevailed, and there is little hope of agreement on a revised Common Program. About the best the dismayed voters can expect before the March elections is an "electoral agreement" between the two parties to support each other's best positioned candidates in the runoff elections that are held one week after the first round. Recriminations have been so bitter that it's doubtful that such an agreement would carry much weight. Voters may simply decide to stay home on the second electoral Sunday in March.

It is possible that with or without an "electoral agreement," the Socialists and Communists could end up with the largest percentage of the popular vote but without the majority of seats in the legislature. At the same time it is likely that Chirac's RPR will lose the commanding position Gaullist formations have held throughout the Fifth Republic. With the Assembly that is then formed, all the ground rules will change and Giscard will face some hard decisions.

During the Fifth Republic, France was polarized by De Gaulle into two hostile blocks, a convenient cleavage that served him and the Communists equally well but left the country with the choice of social and economic upheaval or more Gaullism. As a result, Gaullism spread across the entire political spectrum, isolating the Communist party and permitting no other party to grow in its shadow. It gave the French the longest period of internal stability and economic growth since the Bourbons.

But Gaullism in its present mutation has lost momentum. Chirac is labeled with disturbing accuracy as a rightist. Under his autocratic leadership, the party's well-known names are uneasy, their faces timeworn, their programs undefined. To judge by the events of last fall, the Communists remain unaltered, but for them, too, the opponents are no longer the same. For the first time since De Gaulle came to power, voters have in the Socialists a credible alternative. Four years of polls have persistently shown that the majority of the French want what the Socialists are offering—a moderate, center-left government that can provide the real "change with continuity" that Giscard promised in his campaign.

Giscard feels vindicated. He claimed all along that the Union of the Left was an "unnatural alliance" and could not last. Sadly, if he turns out to be correct, he can take no credit for events. He has not led them they have led him.

But the quarrels of the Left may give Giscard the chance to become his own man. A new Assembly, with a more balanced distribution of party strength, will not necessarily presage a return to the games and deals of the Fourth Republic. This is true because the presidency of France was conceived by De Gaulle to command events. The president has enormous powers-to dissolve the Assembly, decree laws, and call referenda. The office is an instrument that could, in a period of troubled transition, forge a political system to deal with the social and economic changes of the last twenty years, and with the maturing aspirations of the French people. What is disturbing is that no one can be sure that Giscard has the political sensitivity and toughness needed for such a delicate task.