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Ian Birchall

Mitterrand’s moderation

(February 1982)

From Socialist Review, 20 February-19 March 1982: 2, pp.7-8.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Ian Birchall examines the record of Mitterrand’s France so far.

The latest issue of the New Socialist carries a euphoric article about France under Mitterrand by Denis MacShane. In it he states that the Mitterrand government offers ‘one of the finest opportunities ever offered to the leadership of the labour movement ... to examine in detail the attempt to apply a sophisticated socialist programme, aimed at irreversible change based on democratic consent, to a modern industrialised capitalist society.’

There are indeed lessons to be learned from the French experience, but they are scarcely such as likely to bring comfort and joy to Messrs Foot and Benn. Already there are a number of signs that the initial reforming impetus of the new government, which undoubtedly set out with the goodwill of very many French men and women, is beginning to run out of steam.

A number of employers’ representatives, have recently made clear that they can quite happily live with a Socialist government. Thus on January 6th, Les Echos, an employers’ journal, wrote: ‘Over the last few weeks the tone has changed. The government is assuring us that it will keep the newly nationalised firms within the competitive sector.’ And Yvon Chotard, Vice-President of the CNPF, the main employers’ organisation, has commented on the government’s incomes policy: ‘In fact, Delors’ system is like a twin brother to the one Raymond Barre wanted to establish. The advantage that the former has is that he has more support from the trade unions than the latter.’

But popularity among employers does not necessarily mean popularity with the voters. In four by-elections held in January the Socialists did badly, losing all four seats on the first round. The anti-government swing varied between 4.6% and 9.3%. While these results scarcely affect the massive Socialist majority in the National Assembly, they are a clear indication that the honeymoon is over. The Communist Party did not stand in any of the elections, but indications are that it has lost support on a substantial scale since its dismal results last summer. If this is the case, there will certainly be pressure on the CP leadership to reconsider its line of participating as a very junior partner in the Mitterrand administration. A CP departure could be a further blow to Mitterrand, and would increase the tendency towards a rightward move.

In addition to this Mitterrand has met his Lord Denning in the shape of the Constitutional Council. This body of ageing politicians nominated by previous right-wing governments (eight out of nine are Gaullists or Giscardians, and the average age is 74) have rejected seven out of the fifty-one clauses in the government’s nationalisation bill. The government have responded by rapidly reworking the measures to conform to the ruling. This means a massive increase in the amount of compensation to be paid to shareholders – in some cases it will be up to fifty per cent more. The total cost of the nationalisation programme will now be twenty-five per cent higher than planned. Even The Economist (January 23rd) has commented that ‘the generosity of the new offer has surprised many.’

The ruling, and Mitterrand’s response, make it clear that the French ruling class is not afraid of nationalisation in itself – it has lived with it for a long time. But it is quite happy to use constitutional pretexts to squeeze more compensation out of Mitterrand .and to give him a warning to stay on a moderate path. Committed as he is to the politics of parliamentarism and not of mass mobilisation, Mitterrand has no alternative but to conform. The government has recently made it clear that employees of nationalised companies will have no greater security of employment than those in private firms.

Meanwhile the government’s policies are having little visible effect in stemming inflation or the rise of unemployment. The government’s latest plans for price controls will have little more than cosmetic value.

Another area where the government’s promises are turning out rather thin is its immigration policy. The government has ruled that immigrant workers without papers can regularise their situation; but to do so they have to produce contracts of employment. But in many cases the employers, who have been using their ‘illegal’ status to exploit them cruelly, will not provide such contracts. There have been a whole number of fierce struggles over this issue, with a number of large demonstrations and several factory occupations by immigrant workers designed to get the employers to concede.

In the absence of any lead from the left, the stage seems set for a drift to the right over the coming months. The Communist Party and the CGT are deeply divided by the Polish events and seem unlikely to offer a fighting lead. There were no revolutionary candidates in the recent by-elections, and neither the centrist PSU nor the ecologists registered any gains. As the fervour of the first few months of power evaporates, Mitterrand is beginning to walk the road trodden by Wilson and Callaghan before him.

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Last updated: 26 March 2010