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Ian H. Birchall

Socialism in Europe


(October 1982)

From Socialist Review, 13 October-10 November 1982: 10, pp.13-15.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Socialist rose

It’s not just the British Labour Party that has been in the news lately. The ups and downs of other European socialists have been prominent too. We look here at their background and record. Ian H. Birchall looks at the French Socialist Party in power.

Socialist rose

‘President Mitterrand ... is now taking a line that, price-and-incomes control apart, even Mrs Thatcher might appreciate.’
(The Economist, 19 June)

In a recent article in The Guardian Eric Hobsbawm enthused over the achievements of President Mitterrand of France.

‘... This very able politician recognised the logic of his enterprise with unusual clarity ... Victory depended on mobilising all possible support against a reactionary and anti-democratic regime which was unpopular as such, and not only because it also seemed in its last years to be unable to cope with its economic troubles. It depended on mobilising the forces of progress against reaction and corruption.’

Professor Hobsbawm does not seem to have grown any more perceptive since the days, thirty years ago, when he was writing sycophantic defences of Hungarian Stalinism. For what he identifies as the strength of Mitterrand’s achievement is precisely the weakness that has now led it into a deep crisis.

In order to come to power Mitterrand had to do two things. He had to convince the majority of French workers that he would go at least some of the way towards meeting their demands for a better society. At the same time he had to persuade at least a section of the French ruling class, together with their hangers-on and ideological representatives, that he could offer some way of escape from France’s economic crisis.

It always was intrinsically implausible that he could satisfy both groups of supporters. The U-turn he was forced to make in June of this year showed that he was satisfying neither.

Mitterrand’s attempt to be the only country in Europe to solve the problem of unemployment by reflation fell flat on its face. Reflation produced a consumer-led import boom. In July for the first time France imported more cars than it exported; its deficit on trade with West Germany worsened by 80% in the first quarter of this year. Just about the only success story was a rise in arms sales. In the first half of 1982 the trade gap was twice as wide as the previous year, and the budget deficit is likely to double. French inflation is 10%, double West Germany’s.

The new economic orientation adopted in June showed clearly that Mitterrand had now recognised that he must stop trying to balance between capital and labour and openly serve the interests of the French bosses. The new policy was geared to the defence of the franc, the improvement of foreign trade, and the struggle against inflation. Inflation, not unemployment, was to be the number one enemy. The short-term solution adopted was a four-month wage and price freeze, announced on 13 June.

The wage-freeze seems to have been largely successful, even though it nullified rises already agreed by the employers (for example, phased increases negotiated at the time of the introduction of the 39-hour week).

But the freeze is only the opening shot in what will be a long-term struggle to hold down wage-levels. The government intends to use the public sector to hold down wages over the coming year. There is to be a maximum of 8% for wage rises in 1983 (for civil servants the figure of 6.1% has been proposed). The 8% figure is based on the predicted figure for inflation next year; just in case the prediction is wrong, there are to be no agreements linked to the cost of living. Le Monde has suggested that the loss of purchasing power over the next three years could be as much as 20%.

The price-freeze, needless to say, has been rather less effective. Despite the freeze prices rose by 0.7% in July (a rate of over 8% a year). One consumer organisation did a survey in the first week of the freeze checks on 1400 supermarket prices which showed that 10% had been increased – by up to 19%. Many prices were increased on the very day the freeze was announced.

Moreover, the government allowed many loopholes in the freeze. Postal charges rose by 13% only days before the freeze began; petrol and electricity prices were not covered by the freeze, nor were prices of fresh food covered by EEC decisions.

Debating on television with Giscard d’Estaing the week before his election Mitterrand declared that ‘the main axis of policy must rotate around solutions to unemployment’. If Mitterrand ever had such a policy, it is now in ruins. The jobless total passed the two million mark in May. Mitterrand promised to create 210,000 public sector jobs in his first eighteen months; the first year saw only 55,000, and there seems little likelihood of many more. A charitable estimate is that unemployment is 100,000 less than it might have been if Mitterrand’s policies had not been applied.

Wilted rose

The government has made much of its so-called ‘solidarity contracts’, agreements signed between companies and the government giving the firms financial benefits in return for guarantees on jobs. Nearly 2,000 such contracts have been signed, yet only 2,600 new jobs have been created; the usual pattern is for firms to give early retirement to older workers, replace them by young workers on lower wages, and boast that employment levels are being maintained.

Meanwhile the 35-hour week, much vaunted by the Socialists before they came to power, has been lost without trace. Prime Minister Mauroy has said there will be no further reduction in the 39-hour week before 1984, and perhaps not even then.

Other social measures fit into the same picture. The new wealth tax has got even more loopholes than had been expected. Increases in VAT will hit the least well-off workers most severely. And the new legislation on workers’ rights in the factories has been so watered down that it adds virtually nothing to existing legislation.

Social services are also under attack. A proposal is now being put forward that hospital patients should have to pay towards their food and accommodation; a figure of £3 a day has been suggested. And the government’s encouragement of experimentation with new patterns of education in schools seems to be based not so much on enthusiam for local participation as on a desire to find ways of cutting costs.

One of the worst retreats has been the government’s abandonment of its promise to introduce measures refunding 75% of the cost of abortions. While this fits into the pattern of social service cuts, it is not simply an economic matter. The Minister for Social Affairs has said that it is not a matter of money, but that it is necessary to have the broadest consensus of French society. In other words, now that the government’s support is flagging, it cannot afford to offend the anti-abortion lobby. Mitterrand did his best to improve the government’s image in this respect when, on the day after Mother’s Day, he presented medals to mothers of large families. However, he does not seem to have made a good impression on irate feminists who threw leaflets from the gallery of the National Assembly in protest at the government’s betrayal.

No cuts, however, are planned in defence spending. Mitterrand has ordered a seventh nuclear submarine, something Giscard was reluctant to do, and research is continuing towards the manufacture of the neutron bomb. The traditional Bastille Day military parade was this year deliberately extravagant, at twice the usual cost, in order to reassure the Army leaders of Mitterrand’s good-will.

The economic measures have been paralleled by an increase in repression. The immediate excuse was an attack on a Jewish restaurant in Paris in August, when six people were killed. Mitterrand followed this with a special television broadcast, promising a range of ‘anti-terrorist’ measures – extra border squads, tougher visa controls, a new arms-traffic unit and closer scrutiny of diplomats. Gaston Deferre, the minister of the Interior, has called for a tightening up of the right to political asylum – a singularly irrelevant demand, since it is scarcely likely that ‘international terrorists’ would go through the formalities of officially registering.

The chosen scapegoat for the government’s new tough line has been a small, politically erratic ultra-left grouping called Action Directe. This has at most 200 members, and while it has certainly planted the odd bomb, it almost certainly did not have either the capacity or the political will to organise the murderous assault on the Jewish restaurant. That was far more likely to be the work of home-grown anti-Semites (of which France has many), of PLO dissidents, or even of the Israeli secret services.

The effect of the repression should not be overestimated. It will certainly contribute to the general drift to the right. But far more serious is the absence of any serious labour movement response to the government’s new economic policy. No union has proposed a united response to the freeze, in the form of strikes or even a national demonstration. The main complaint of the unions seems to be not so much the measures themselves, as the fact that their right to negotiate was removed. In future they will doubtless get ample opportunity for consultation in return for acquiescence in government policy.

Wilted rose

The pro-Socialist CFDT had made no direct criticism of the wage-freeze. The Communist-led CGT had made strong verbal opposition, but has limited itself to a call for local action rather than coordinating a centralised response. It has supported the price-freeze and offered to set up workers’ committees to make it more effective; a proposal which can only sow illusions in the price-freeze and divert energies away from the need to defend wages. At its recent Congress the CGT (which lost 12% of its membership between 1978 and 1980) declared itself part of the ‘governmental alliance’ and maintained that the government was going ‘in the right direction’ and was ‘no longer our enemy’.

The CGT’s acquiescence in the freeze is of course linked to the presence of Communist ministers in Mitterrand’s government. The Communist Party is putting its main emphasis on calling for higher production to solve France’s economic difficulties. At the same time it tries to cover its left flank. CP leader Marchais announced that CP deputies would vote for the freeze, but that ‘a vote doesn’t mean approval’.

Unfortunately, the revolutionary left does not yet seem ready to fill the vacuum on the left. Lutte Ouvrière has called on French workers to ‘build another left, other workers’ organisations worthy of the name’. This is a laudable sentiment but it is hard to., see how it will be concretised. Lutte Ouvrière and Rouge (paper of the LCR, French section of the Fourth International) are now publishing a monthly common supplement to their papers. Once again a positive gesture of unity, but it is likely that little will come of it except perhaps a joint revolutionary slate for the municipal elections next Spring. Since new electoral rules mean any party geting over 5% will get council seats, the municipal elections will be an even greater attraction to the revolutionary left than in the past. Meanwhile no one on the left is offering an effective focus to the discontent and disillusion that is now gaining ground among many who voted for Mitterrand.

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Last updated: 17 May 2010