< Ian Birchall: And now for something completely similar (June 1981)

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Ian Birchall

And now for something completely similar

(June 1981)

From Socialist Review, 1981 : 6, 14 June–12 July 1981, pp. 18–20.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Contrary to most predictions (including our own in Socialist Review two months ago) François Mitterrand has become President of the French Fifth Republic, the first clear-cut victory for the left in French politics since the onset of the Cold War in 1947. Street celebrations that have been in all seriousness compared to the events of 1968 leave no doubt as to the enthusiasm that has greeted Mitterrand’s victory.

But how real are the prospects for change? Tribune (15.5.81) looks to Mitterrand’s victory as being the ‘first salvo in the attack to drive back the madness of monetarism which has affected so much of the Western industrial world.’ But Mitterrand may find the road ahead much more arduous than his supporters expect. Ian Birchall explains.

* * *

Mitterrand’s victory was, of course, a narrow one. He took 51.75% of the vote is against Giscard’s 48.24%. In 1974 Giscard won by 50.81% to 49.19%. This represents a total swing of only just over 2.5% – i.e. only one voter in forty has shifted sides since 1974.

Indeed, since Mitterrand did particularly well among young voters voting for the first time, the result could have been achieved simply by Giscard’s supporters dying off while Mitterrand’s came of age, without anyone changing their mind at all. Certainly not an indication of a massive shift in popular consciousness.

Giscard d'Estaing

Secondly, Mitterrand was able to take advantage of the fact that the open representatives of the French bourgeoisie were in a state of disarray. In the face of growing economic crisis, the corrupt and authoritarian Giscard did not have the confidence of a significant section of the French ruling class. Hence the Chirac candidacy.

At the same time Mitterrand brought off the difficult tactical feat of getting substantial support from the Communist Party electorate without making any significant political concessions to it. Mitterrand was able to do this because of the deep crisis raging in the ranks of the Communist Party. The CP’s greatest growth in recent years came during the period between 1972 and 1977 when the CP was campaigning jointly with the Socialists for a Common Programme of government. The members recruited during that period have found it hard to follow the more recent swing to a line sharply critical of Mitterrand and the Socialists, and many more long-standing members have also drifted into opposition.

Many traditional CP voters seem to have switched their votes to Mitterrand on the first round. Hence the CP’s catastrophic performance, with some of their biggest losses coming in their traditional strongholds such as the Paris suburbs. CP voters seem to have believed that

  1. they might as well vote from the start for the only candidate who had any chance of beating Giscard or
  2. that it was better to vote for an openly reformist party than for a reformist party rather inconsistently pretending to be revolutionary.

While some observers may have been premature in writing the CP’s obituary, it is clear that the situation posed great difficulties for the Marchais leadership. If they had called for anything other than total support for Mitterrand on the second round, they would have faced a massive revolt from their own ranks and ended up looking very foolish. Yet this left them in the role of being mere voting fodder for Mitterrand without being able to impose their own demands on the situation. Despite Marchais’ bluster in calling for guarantees of CP ministers in Mitterrand’s government, they found no way out of this trap.

Mitterrand’s victory, then, was that of a clever political operator taking advantage of a favourable situation. This is indeed what one might expect of someone of his political background. Mitterrand was a minister on no less than eleven occasions under the Fourth Republic and showed himself to be a loyal agent of the French bourgeoisie and of French imperialism. When the Algerian national liberation struggle began on November 1st 1954, Mitterrand was the Minister of the Interior. It was his responsibility to organise the dispatch of CRS riot police to Algeria to try and suppress the rising. Mitterrand was one of those who insisted from the beginning that there could be no question of independence for Algeria.

‘The only negotiation is war’, he told the National Assembly on November 5th 1954, and on November 22nd he elaborated:

‘We want the Algerian people to be more and more integrated into the French nation, and it’s because we cannot allow it to be separated that we are having recourse to force, as the ultimate means of maintaining national unity.’

Likewise Mitterrand could be relied on to show the priorities of the Cold War period. Serving in the Mendes-France government, he declared: ‘We are not a government which confuses an anti-communist policy with constant victimisation.’ Clearly the former was quite acceptable, while the latter might be tactically undesirable. Mitterrand was responsible, as Minister of the Interior, for banning the traditional Communist Party demonstration on July 14th.

With this record Mitterrand proved which side he was on. His opposition to de Gaulle in 1958 was purely tactical. With so many politicians rushing into the Gaullist camp, it was necessary for someone to keep their hands clean and bide their time, just in case the Gaullist strategy didn’t work.

But Mitterrand’s main achievement over the last decade was the reconstruction of the Socialist Party. The old Socialist Party – the SFIO led by Guy Mollet, to which Mitterrand never belonged – became discredited through its support for the Algerian war and its capitulation to de Gaulle in 1958. By the sixties it had lost most of its members who made any claim to socialist politics – and many of those who didn’t. In the 1969 presidential elections its candidate Gaston Defferre got a derisory vote of around five percent.

The new Socialist Party was formed iri June 1971. It was based on a fusion of various social-democratic groupings, and chose as its leader Mitterrand. It made every effort to stress its discontinuity from the old rightist SFIO; it made great play of autogestion (workers’ participation), and openly sought an alliance with the CP, as well as coopting much of the PSU, a party formed in the early sixties by left dissidents from the SFIO. Some of its leaders, notably Michel Rocard, came from the PSU, with a suitable aura of leftism about them.

In June 1972 the SP signed a common programme of government with the Communist Party. Mitterrand’s strategy was already clear – to ally with the CP so as to equal it and then to dominate it, in order eventually to be able to go it alone. Mitterrand made no secret of his intentions. The day after the Common Programme was signed he told the Vienna Congress of the Socialist International:

‘Our fundamental objective role is to rebuild a great Socialist Party on the ground occupied by the CP, itself – to demonstrate that of the 5,000,000 Communist voters 3,000,000 can vote Socialist! That is the reason for this agreement ... The reconstruction of the historic bloc by escaping from Communist leadership.’

The CP accepted the union, despite Mitterrand’s open boasting, because they thought their superior industrial base made them invincible. But the SP remorselessly overtook them electorally. In the 1973 general election the SP was only 3% behind the CP, and by the municipal elections of 1977 it had caught up. Although considerably weaker in the workplaces, it began to catch up there too; in 1971 the SP had only 51 workplace branches, but five years later it had nearly a thousand. At the same time it developed its links with the bureaucracy of the CFDT, the second largest union federation in France.


If its members were predominantly white-collar and supervisory workers, and teaachers, it was beginning to break into the GP’s electorate. A 1976 opinion poll showed that 38% of industrial workers would vote Socialist and only 34% Communist. At the same time the SP was also able to get the support of some managers and employers – in 1976 some CFDT militants were disciplined for producing a poster showing a boss sitting on a worker’s shoulders, with the caption ‘Like your boss, join the SP’.

It was this irresistible ascent of the SP that forced the CP to break the Common Programme and make a ‘left’ turn in 1977. But it was all in vain. The SP’s electoral rise continued and culminated in Mitterrand’s victory.

It is not surprising, therefore, that Mitterrand’s victory was perceived by the French ruling class as something less than a total disaster.

True there was a sharp fall in prices on the Paris stock exchange in the week after the second round, but that was the result of speculation rather than a long-term collapse. The franc fell on international markets over the same period – but not catastrophically – the sharpest fall, from just before the election to just after, was from 11.28 francs to the pound to 11.55 francs to the pound. (For a British tourist that would make a 25-franc meal just five pence cheaper.)

A certain amount of financial nervousness will continue until the parliamentary elections in June – indeed it may be deliberately engineered to scare some voters back into the right-wing fold. But there is scarcely any indication of rampant panic among the ruling class. Indeed, many of them have taken the Socialist victory very philosophically indeed.

One French banker told the Economist that Mitterrand’s nationalisation plans would ‘change nothing in reality. Already no big business decision is taken by French industry without the implicit, or explicit, approval of the government.’

And Marcel Dassault, head of one of the big aircraft firms facing nationalisation has said:

‘If the majority of the French people decides that armaments manufacture should be nationalised, then I can only accept. There is not a shadow of a doubt about that.’

On the working-class side, there is no doubt that Mitterrand’s victory was felt as a great step forward. There are numerous reports of spontaneous demonstrations, and of workers taking bottles of champagne to work (Rouge tells of a workplace in Marseilles where a Trotskyist militant took champagne to work on the morning after the election – and where the CP members could not make up their minds throughout the day whether to drink any or not.)

In some places the result had a clear effect on the morale of workers – and of management. In a hospital near Rouen the management called a meeting to announce that all disciplinary penalties imposed since the beginning of the year had been cancelled.

It is certainly indisputable that Mitterrand’s victory has provoked considerable enthusiasm and goodwill. But this seems to arise from a general welcome for the prospect of change, rather than any very precise expectation of what that change will mean.

As a result some sections of the left seem to have developed exaggerated expectations of the implications of the result. Thus Rouge paper of the French section of the Fourth International:

‘An immense hope is born. The French workers have just won a substantial victory. It needed the general strike of 1968, then years of struggles and battles, often fought under difficult conditions, to lead to the defeat of the bourgeois parties and the opening of a new period. The victory of François Mitterrand is not only evidence of the rejection by a majority of the policies carried out for seven years by Giscard and the employers, it is also the expression of a victory of a will for radical change, a will to get rid of a society which exploits and oppresses the workers.’

The first hurdle that Mitterrand faces will be the parliamentary elections now set for June. Undoubtedly the presidential success will produce a certain band-wagon effect and produce a good result for the Socialist Party. Some polls show 38% of the vote going to the SP and their close allies, the Left Radicals. But even this will not be enough for the SP to govern alone, especially since the present electoral system, established by the Gaullists in 1958, is deliberately rigged against the left, with some constituencies (generally left-wing ones) having more than six times as many electors as others (generally right-wing ones).

Talks between the CP and the SP on an electoral agreement (for the first time since the 1978 elections) have been resumed. The CP need such an agreement, since without it they are likely to have their parliamentary representation catastrophically reduced. But Mitterrand will doubtless take good care not to get himself too closely tied to the Communists. Any decision about the vexed question of Communist ministers will be left until after the election results. Mitterrand would doubtless prefer an Italian-style solution, whereby the CP give support to the government but do not actually vote for it.

Mitterrand’s provisional government does not contain any Communists. It does contain Claude Cheysson, former member of the European Commission, Jacques Delors, who in 1971 was economic adviser to the Gaullist prime minister Chaban-Delmas before deciding to become a Socialist, and Michel Jobert, a former Gaullist minister.

Whether these will serve as a bridge to more formal links with the Gaullists as an alternative to an alliance with the CP only time – and the election results – will tell. Mitterrand may prefer a series of ad hoc alliances in order to get specific measures through.

Two things, however, are clear. Firstly, whatever the formal designation, Mitterrand’s will be a thoroughly bourgeois government. The fact that a man like Delors now sports the label ‘Socialist’ does not make the government he belongs to into a ‘workers’ government’. Whether or not Mitterrand openly governs with the Gaullists, his regime will be based on class collaboration. And secondly, whatever happens, Mitterrand will have some good excuses for not carrying out all of his programme – his allies or lack of them can always be blamed for that. Some observers have seen parallels between the present situation and that of 1936. In 1936 a Popular Front government – based on an electoral alliance of Communists, Socialists and Radicals – was elected on a programme of anti-fascism and social reform. The enthusiasm this electoral victory gave rise to sparked off a series of strikes with factory occupations, and before the Popular Front government even took office there were hundreds of thousands of workers occupying their factories. Despite being sold out by the Socialist and Communist bureaucrats, the mass strike achieved important economic concessions – notably two weeks’ annual holiday for all workers – and potentially could have set off the process that led to a revolutionary situation.

Doubtless the Mitterrand victory, like that of Blum in 1936, has produced great enthusiasm. But the French working class is a very different phenomenon from what it was then. In 1936 the French working class was still substantially unorganised. At the beginning of the year the membership of the CGT was only around one million – by the end of the year it had risen to five million. The strikes were largely spontaneous – in some cases workers occupied and then came to the union officers to ask what the demands ought to be. 1936 was the struggle of a working-class which had not yet been coopted by reformism – and which, in the absence of a revolutionary leadership, fell into the hands of the Socialists, Communists and CGT. The French working-class of 1981 has a long tradition of trade-union and political organisation behind it. Its response to a Mitterrand government will initially be one, not of revolutionary euphoria, but of goodwill and cooperation.

The real crunch will come when Mitterrand proves incapable, in a crisis-ridden world, of delivering his promises, and seeks the support of the workers’ organisations for a policy of austerity. That will be the point at which the right – probably led by Chirac – will be able to start making a comeback. Then it will be a question of whether there is any force in the working-class able to resist demoralisation and a drift to the right. Otherwise Mitterrand is all too likely to act out a Wilson-Callaghan scenario – social contract followed by return of the right.

In the short term the election has been a shot in the arm for the revolutionary left. So much had been invested in the electoral perspective that a win for Giscard would have certainly led to colossal demoralisation.

But all sections of the left will have to break with the political habits acquired in the pre-election period. Thus the LCR (Fourth International) have devoted so much attention to calling for left unity to defeat Giscard that they have run the risk of seeming to be cheer-leaders for Mitterrand. The danger is that they will now get caught up in metaphysical abstractions about whether Mitterrand has capitalist ministers or not, instead of preparing to lead a real fight. As for Lutte Ouvrière, they have devoted themselves almost exclusively to pure propaganda; ceaselessly proclaiming that the workers must rely on their own struggles, they never explain how such struggles can be organised.

The next period will be more testing for the revolutionary left than any in the last decade. If they do not rise to the challenge, then 1981 will go down with 1936, 1944 and 1968 in the catalogue of missed opportunities.

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