In “At Last, the Demise of Gaullism” (February 1978), Patricia H. Painton depicted the political landscape on the eve of suspenseful congressional elections. She explained that the deteriorating economic conditions—the 1979 oil crisis, rising unemployment, and an untamed inflation rate—had helped to boost the Socialist Party and its leader, François Mitterrand, into a winning position.
At the same time, Painton emphasized that much more was at stake than an electoral showdown between the Left and the Right:
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.
The Right narrowly won the 1978 congressional elections, but this victory only delayed the inevitable. Mitterrand prevailed in the 1981 presidential election and immediately launched a series of major reforms: he abolished the death penalty, freed the media, increased the minimum wage and shortened the workweek. His victory seemed to signify that the French republic had matured at least—that years of heavy-handed governance would finally give way to full-blown democracy.
But before long, Mitterrand’s ambitions began to mirror the monarchical visions of his predecessors. The length of his presidency—fourteen years—gave him time to nurture a new political elite, build ostentatious monuments throughout Paris and be implicated in a number of major scandals. In “Paris Is Finished,” (August 1995), David Lawday vividly described how Mitterand had assembled a modern-day “court” and imposed his personal taste on the city of Paris:
That the change happened so fast—well within two decades—and on so vast a scale explains better than any reading of the constitution how incorrigibly imperial are the powers of a French leader. Without the tiring distraction of debate in Parliament, a good $6 billion of taxpayers’ money was spent at the President’s personal behest on the renewal of Paris: a splendid revamping of the Louvre, a monumental national library in the east, a celestial arch in the west, an opera house in Bastille and enough striking novelties in between to shake up every tourist’s yellowing fantasies of the city.
Going so far as to describe Mitterrand as a “latter-day pharaoh,” Lawday reached a bold conclusion. He argued that the French were less committed to democratic principles than commonly thought and that they were perfectly willing to accommodate their leaders’ monarchical visions in the name of the grandeur française:
A French President can impose almost anything on the French if he wraps it up as essential to the nation’s gloire. The French display more concern than most for liberty, and a little less than most for democracy. All the best for us tourists. If other rich nations conducted themselves less democratically, they might have capital cities to compare to Paris.
Yet this selection of Atlantic articles challenges Lawday’s assertion. In fact, over the past two centuries, the French people have continually rejected unpopular reforms and kept authoritarian governments in check. The rise and fall of the Paris Commune, the May 1968 protests, the Socialist victories of 1936 and 1981, and large-scale protests against Jacques Chirac’s government as recently as 2006—all of these point to the people’s determination to keep the spirit of 1789 alive.