Letter from Europe: France’s Presidential Election

It is said that history repeats itself the first time as tragedy and the second time as farce. Well, history will repeat itself for a second time on 10 May when Valéry Giscard d’Estaing and Francois Mitterrand face each other in the second round of the French presidential elections, just as they did seven years ago.

If the first time wasn’t a tragedy—it was more of an irrelevance really—the second time is certainly a farce, played out at the expense of the French working class. Both Giscard and Mitterrand stand for the same thing – the continuation of capitalism. The early stages of the campaign were enlivened by the intervention of a professional comic, Michel Colucci (Coluche), whose mocking of the professional politicians struck a chord in public opinion. But even he turned out to be as bad as the others when, after failing to get the 500 signatures needed for his candidature, he urged people to vote for Mitterrand, the candidate of La Gauche (The Left). As indeed – and of course – did the Trotskyists.

Giscard, the outgoing President, was born with several silver spoons in his mouth, even though he is not a “real” aristocrat (his father, a jumped up businessman who made a fortune out of exploiting the natives in the French colonies, bought the name d’Estaing in the 1920s). He, to use the confusing language of conventional politics, is the candidate of La Droite (The Right). To be their standard-bearer in the second round, he had to beat his former prime minister, Jacques Chirac, and ambitious and slimy politician who controls the Gaullist party. The rivalry between Giscard and Chirac was a purely personal one, their parties being nothing more than rival gangs of place-hunters (the French President has considerable powers of patronage).

De Gaulle, when he came back to power in 1958, wanted to encourage the emergence of a two-party system in place of the changing, multi-party system which had been a feature of the notorious political instability that France had known. His first Prime Minister, Michel Debre (also, incidentally, a candidate in the first round of these elections but polling a derisory percentage of the votes) thus devised the two-round election system in which, if no one gets an absolute majority in the first round, two candidates (normally the top two) go through to a second round run-off held a week or so later. When the President came to be elected by universal suffrage in 1962 the same system was applied.

This has more or less had the desired effect: there are now two broad political families competing for power, La Droite et La Gauche, the Majority and the Opposition, the Ins and the Outs, Tweedledum and Tweedledee as in other capitalist parliamentary democracies like Britain, America and West Germany. But—and De Gaulle and Debre had probably not bargained for this—it has also led, in the first round of elections, to intense rivalry within these families. On the Right, between Giscard’s place-men (the UDF party) and the followers of Chirac (the RPR party). On the Left, between the so-called Socialist Party (led by Mitterrand) and the so-called Communist Party (PCF).

In 1974 Mitterrand was the only candidate of the Left and was supported by the PCF, even in the first round. Then, in the Autumn of 1977, the PCF suddenly changed its line – the first PC change of line not decided in Moscow, by the way – and broke its alliance with the PS. Ever since, the rivalry between these two parties has become more and more virulent, although the PC is supporting Mitterrand on 10 May and is demanding to have ministers in the government he may form.

The leaders of the PCF evidently calculated, some time in 1977, that if they continued the alliance, they risked losing support to the PS as the larger and stronger partner. This they were not prepared to tolerate as it represented a threat to their livelihood as full-time party bureaucrats. Nothing quite like the PCF exists in Britain: a highly centralised and disciplined party machine controlled from the top downwards by a small group of self-appointed leaders. In September 1977 these leaders shouted “left turn” and the whole machine, from the MPs and Senators to the local branch secretaries and dues collectors, obediently started to mouth militant phrases and to attack the PS as reformist.

The PC places the responsibility for the break-up of the “Union of the Left” on the PS which, it claims, has turned to the “right”. But to an independent outside observer it is clear that it is the PC that changed. The PS certainly is reformist and only wants to be an alternative government of capitalism – as the PC says – but this was just as much the case during the period 1972-77 when the PC was its ally. Not that the PC is not itself reformist, even if it wants to go further along the road towards a bureaucratic state capitalism than  does the PS.

Although there exist in France these two rival political families it is not quite accurate to describe them as the Ins and Outs, since the Outs have never yet been in power under the Fifth Republic De Gaulle established (the last time “La Gauche” governed was in 1956 – but that was under the discredited Fourth Republic, and, indeed, helped to discredit it). That is why reformist illusions about what Mitterrand can and will do to solve social problems are so widespread.

To someone who remembers the run-up to the 1964 elections in Britain, this is all deja vu, but not many French workers are that familiar with the British political scene in the 1960s! Mitterrand is behaving like Harold Wilson did then, denouncing the incompetence and tiredness of the “outgoing President”, promising to plan production and to divert profits away from the wasteful pleasures of the rich to productive investment and technological innovation. Whether the political gang who have governed France since 1958 (for even longer than Wilson’s “Thirteen Years of Tory Misrule”) will be voted out in this election remains to be seen. Whatever happens, it will be a close-run thing like the last time when Giscard won merely by 50.8 per cent to Mitterrand’s 49.2 per cent.

Not that it will make any material difference to the wage and salary earners of France. If Mitterrand wind, he will govern capitalism just as Giscard did. At the beginning he may (like Harold Wilson) introduce a few reforms but will sooner or later have recourse to the excuse about being “blown off course” and settle down to governing capitalism in the only way it can be: as a profit-making system in the interest of those who live off the profits drawn from their ownership of the means of production.

Adam Buick

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