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Ian Birchall

Mitterrand’s mediocre millennium

(October 1981)

From Socialist Review, No. 36, 17 October–14 November 1981: 9, pp. 7–8.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The enormous but superficial enthusiasm which greeted Mitterrand’s victory is already beginning to fade; between the end of June and the end of August confidence in Mitterrand, according to one opinion poll, had fallen from 71% to 62% of the population. The ousted right is still in utter disarray, but will regroup quickly enough if the government loses momentum.

The new regime has begun with a number of gestures which, while of limited significance, cannot fail to be pleasing to the left. The Plogoff nuclear power station will not be built and the Larzac military camp will not be extended – both had been symbolic focuses for leftist activists in recent years. Gaston Defferre, the minister of the interior, has not only refused to extradite ETA militants to Spain, but invoked his own past as a Resistance fighter to justify his decision. The satirical paper Hara-Kiri, banned under Pompidou, has reappeared; the ban on roulette within a hundred kilometres of Paris has been lifted, and – to the indignation of the paper Le Figaro – first-class compartments on the Paris metro are to be abolished.

Cartoon from Lutte Ouvriere

Likewise, socialists cannot fail to welcome the news that France – later than almost every other country in Europe – is to abolish the death penalty, and that the repressive Gaullist state security court is to be abolished. Welcome too is the amnesty for many categories of prisoners, a cheap way of alleviating the chronic overcrowding in French jails. There are, however, some strange gaps in the amnesty, such as conscientious objectors and doctors charged with abortion offences.

But there is to be no real change in the machinery of the French state. France’s corrupt racist police force will remain unpurged, even if it is momentarily subdued. Defferre has refused demands from the police unions for a purge of top police officials, saying there will be no ‘witchhunt’. The much-hated CRS riot police are no longer to be used to ‘maintain order’ – but a section of the army has been assigned to do the job.

The Mitterrand government has broken with some of the more openly racist aspects of the Giscard era. Illegal immigrants are to be given the opportunity to ‘regularise’ their situation; but in practice only those in full-time legal employment will get permission to stay. And controls to prevent further illegal immigration are being tightened up. The government is now rapidly reneging on a promise to give immigrants the vote; apparently this will not be practicable before the municipal elections in 1983. All these reforms are, however, in the last resort marginal to the real problem facing the Mitterrand regime – how to deal with the economic crisis. Like every other government in the world, the French administration faces the twin problems of unemployment and inflation. Mitterrand’s attempts at a solution may be more humane and even marginally more intelligent than Thatcher’s, but since he cannot opt out of the world system he will find it hard to discover a remedy to the one problem which does not aggravate the other.


Mitterrand’s accession has not halted inflation. On the contrary, his first months in power have seen rises in the costs of basic necessities – petrol, transport, gas, electricity – which will produce further increases throughout the whole economy. And unemployment too is still rising. The official figures – which as in Britain understate the true situation – reached 1,680,000 for July and are expected to reach two million by the end of the year. Prime minister Mauroy admits that at best it will be twelve or eighteen months before the rise can be halted.

The government has taken a number of well-publicised measures against unemployment. The creation of 55,000 new jobs in the public sector (post office, education, etc.) may be welcome, but it is only a drop in the ocean. Beyond this the government has increased bonuses, loans and subsidies to private employers in the – probably vain – hope that this will encourage the creation of new jobs. In many ways this is little more than a continuation of Giscard’s unsuccessful policy.

The minimum wage has been raised by ten per cent (twice as much as was legally required to keep up with inflation) but this has been accompanied by a measure which cuts employers’ social security contributions on wages which are less than twenty per cent above the legal minimum; in effect this is an incentive to employers to pay low wages. The government is postponing a full-scale plan to increase employment to the fateful year of 1984, by when it is hoped inflation will be under control.

Nor will the unemployment situation be helped much by the agreement, made with government encouragement, between employers and unions (except the CGT) for a 39-hour week and a fifth week of annual holiday. As the revolutionary paper Lutte Ouvrière pointed out, it is 45 years since the 40-hour week was agreed in 1936. At this rate it will take another 180 years to reach the 35-hour week. In fact the agreement also contains a relaxation of restrictions on overtime which in practice will probably cancel out the cut in the working week.

And taxation policy is unlikely to lead to any fundamental change in the distribution of wealth. The income tax increase needed to provide the funds to pay unemployment benefit to a greater number of jobless will hit workers as much as higher-paid people. And the proposed wealth tax will have a minimal impact, amounting to about one per cent on fortunes over £300,000.


As for Mitterrand’s nationalisation proposals, they are singularly failing to alarm the French ruling class. Managers and shareholders alike seem reasonably confident that their positions will not be significantly worsened. Five large industrial groups are to be nationalised, but their subsidiaries will not be included in the measure, and only 36 of the three hundred private banks are to be taken over. Nationalisation will be on the Renault model with companies having managerial autonomy; Renault has been nationalised since 1945 and French capitalism has in no way suffered thereby.

The head of Thomson-Brandt, one of the groups due to be taken over, has said that nationalisation will be no problem ‘if we are left to work like a private enterprise’. As for the shareholders, they will receive generous compensation in the form of long-term bonds. The nationalisations may give the government slightly greater control over the economy, though even that is doubtful; they will certainly not shift the balance of power in French society.

In terms of foreign and military policy Mitterrand’s position is even more openly reactionary. There has been talk of possible friction between France and the USA because of Mitterrand’s support for leftist regimes in the Third World. In practice this may not be so much conflict as a division of labour. As The Economist has suggested: ‘pro-Western governments in Africa may conclude that they should turn to Mr Mitterrand when they want money and to Mr Reagan when they want arms or soldiers.’

And there seems little likelihood that Mitterrand’s radicalism towards the Third World will extend as far as France’s colonies in the West Indies, where the repressive racist regimes remain unchallenged. In the Middle East Mitterrand’s pro-Zionist line led the Israeli Labour Party to call a special meeting of ‘solidarity with socialist France’.

As far as East-West relations are concerned, Mitterrand lines up with the hawks. He has demanded that the Western powers should build up their nuclear strength before engaging in any disarmament talks.

France’s own military strength is being carefully husbanded. An old Socialist Party promise to cut military service from one year to six months has been shelved because of the level of unemployment. And a decision has been made to construct a seventh French nuclear submarine. This means France will be able to have three nuclear subs at sea at any given time (Britain has to make do with one).

Despite the Plogoff gesture, Mitterrand is being equally cavalier about earlier promises on the question of nuclear power. Work has been suspended on about half the nuclear power stations currently being built, but the other half are to go on. The factory at La Hague, near Cherbourg, which processes foreign nuclear waste, also continues to operate. It was demonstrators against this – including Socialist Party members and members of the pro-Socialist union CEDT – who were the victims of the first tear-gas grenades of the new regime at Cherbourg in August. The pro-Communist CGT, not to be outdone, has organised demonstrations in defence of nuclear power and the jobs it creates.

Prospects for the left

Mitterrand has still some time left before he faces any outright opposition from the left. The CP, electorally humiliated and then coopted into government, will not launch any significant militant action this winter. For the moment they will continue to give Mitterrand full support. For example, the CP transport minister, Fiterman, persuaded French air traffic controllers not to take action in support of their American comrades.

By next winter, if inflation and unemployment continue as predicted, the CP may have to take a left turn to preserve their base. The fact that the CGT is technically quite independent of the CP might enable them to do this and still remain in the government.

The cooption of the CP might seem to give the far left the opportunity to put itself at the head of any struggles. Unfortunately this will probably not happen. The OCI and the LCR (Fourth International) have spent so long calling for a Socialist-Communist government that they are a little stunned now they have got one. Lutte Ouvrière’s insistence that nothing at all has really changed enables it to make correct propaganda but little else. The fact that the first struggles are occurring around the issue of nuclear power might seem to give the initiative to the left socialist PSU, with its ecological-cum-beyond-the-fragments-type support; but the PSU has been too busy negotiating a cooperation agreement with the Socialist Party to take the lead. For the revolutionary left, just as for Mitterrand, time is running short.

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