Letter From Europe: Congress of French reformists

The National Congress of the so-called Socialist Party (PS) in France took

FRANCE. Metz. Meeting of the Socialist party (CongrËs de Metz). Claude ESTIER, Gaston DEFFERRE, FranÁois MITTERRAND And Lionel JOSPIN. 1979.

place in Metz the week before Easter. It was marked by preliminary manoeuvrings for the position of the Party’s candidate for the 1981 Presidential elections. The two contenders were the present leader, Francois Mitterrand, a recycled wheeler-dealer politician from the old IVth Republic (1946-58) now posing as a socialist, and Michel Rocard, an ambitious technocrat who was once leader of the left wing breakaway “Parti socialiste unifie” (PSU).

Both have been Presidential candidates before. Mitterrand in 1965 and 1974 (when he missed by only 1 per cent beating the present President, Giscard d’Estaing). Rocard in 1969 when he was the candidate of the PSU, standing against the official candidate of the PS, which he did not rejoin till 1974.

The real issue before the Congress was not the choice of a Presidential candidate although this was at the back of the delegates’ minds. In France the conferences of trade unions and left wing political parties do not have before them, as in Britain, a list of resolutions to be voted on one by one. Instead they have to vote on rival global strategies, long wordy statements called “motions”, presented by “currents” within the organisation. For the PS congress at Metz seven such currents had been formed to propose a motion, only four of which were significant: apart from those of Mitterrand and Rocard, that of Pierre Mauroy, mayor of Lille and boss of the PS machine in the North of France, and that presented by CERES (“Centre d’etudes, de recherche et d’education socialistes”) which regards itself as the left wing of the PS.

Reversal of Alliances
In the end, the Mitterrand motion obtained 47 per cent of the votes of delegates, Rocard’s 21 per cent, Mauroy’s 17 per cent and CERES’ 15 per cent. These four currents will be represented proportionally on the Party’s management committee and executive bureau but at the start only Mitterrand’s supporters were on the National Secretariat which runs the day-to-day affairs of the Party. A few weeks after the Congress representatives of CERES were admitted to the Secretariat so that the Party is now run by a Mitterrand-CERES alliance. Since, for the previous four years, the Party had been run by a Mitterrand-Rocard-Mauroy alliance, with only CERES excluded, this reversal of alliances is regarded as a turn to the left by the PS.

But this all depends on what you mean by “left”. It is a virtually meaningless term that is best avoided, a position which is reinforced from an examination of CERES’ claim to be left wing. For CERES (like the so-called Communist Party in France) is a staunch defender of French national independence, opposing the Common Market as an American-backed threat to this independence. Again like PCF, it wants to see established in France a nationalist state capitalist regime, cut off from the rest of the world market. Policies which, before the last war, would have been regarded as “right wing” and even fascist. In addition, many members of CERES are practising Catholics even though they claim to be Marxists (no wonder Marx once said that he wasn’t a Marxist!).

Mitterrand too is a Catholic and this illustrates a change that has come over the PS since it was reorganised on a new basis in 1971. Up until 1969, it has been known as the SFIO or “French Section of the Workers’ International”, a name it gave itself when it was founded as a uniting of rival groups in 1905 under the auspices of the Second International with the open reformist and anti-Marxist Jean Jaures as leader. In 1920 most of its members voted to affiliate the Party to the Comintern and to become the Communist Party; the minority led by Leon Blum broke away reviving the old name of SFIO. By the 1930s, the SFIO had grown bigger than the PC and it was Blum who became Prime Minister of the Popular Front government in 1936. During and after the war it was the PC that emerged as what the trotskyites would call “the party of the working class” or the party that most factory workers and trade unionists supported.

The SFIO was a militant anti-clerical party—much more so than the PC—whose strength and support was drawn from traditionally Republican and Radical areas. For a reformist party, a party seeking the support of as many workers as possible on a programme of reforms, this was a handicap since it thereby cut itself off from half its potential supporters: the Catholic-minded workers. Overcoming this handicap, which enabled the Party to penetrate traditionally Catholic areas in the West and East of France, is the main reason for the success of the new style PS under Mitterrand’s leadership.

The PS has now once again overtaken the PC as the main left wing party in France. Despite an often acrimonious rivalry, the PS and PC are both committed to the strategy of the “union of the left”; in other words, an electoral alliance and coalition government (together with a much smaller group of breakaway Radicals who call themselves “Left Radicals”). The closeness of this alliance was one of the issues which divided Mitterrand and Rocard, with Rocard urging that the PS should take a more independent line. Another issue between these two currents was the degree of central State ownership and control of the economy. Expressed in terms of arguments that have gone on in Eastern Europe, Mitterand can be said to be for a more or less centralised State capitalism while Rocard favours so-called “market socialism” and workers’ councils.

In actual fact these differences are not important since, if the PS ever comes to power, it would be faced not with the problem of putting into practice some airy principles it might have adopted but with the problem of running capitalism. It would be capitalism that would dictate the priorities, just as it has done to the various Labour governments in Britain and to the various Social Democratic governments in the other countries of Europe.

No Experience
The PS has never had experience of trying to govern capitalism. though some of its individual leaders have including Mitterrand himself. But that was before he claimed to be a socialist and his record then was not particularly “left wing”: it was he who as Minister of the Interior banned a number of PC and trade union marches in Paris in 1954 and 1955 and it was he who as Minister of Justice signed the death warrant in 1957 of a member of the PC in Algeria. Because it has not had this experience the PS has many more illusions than similar reformist parties in other countries about what it thinks it will be able to do if it comes to power. Thus the Mitterrand motion, which obtained the most votes at the Metz Congress, declares:

  The object of the PS is not to modernise or to moderate capitalism but is to replace it with Socialism.

Such language has not been used by the Labour Party in Britain since 1945, even if by “socialism” is only meant “state capitalism”. The PS missed a chance of coming to power last year when it failed to win the March general election. Its next chance won’t come till 1981 when either Mitterrand or Rocard will be put up to challenge Giscard d’Estaing, who will be seeking a further seven-year term as President. But if it does come to power in 1981 it will be to try to modernise and moderate capitalism. Not having (not even having sought) a mandate for socialism, it will have no alternative but to continue capitalism. But capitalism can only be run in one way: as a profit-making system in the interest of those who live off profits, which any PS or PS-PC coalition government in France would be sooner or later forced to recognise and put into practice.

Adam Buick