Letter From Europe: France – From Failure to Fiasco

When Edmond Maire, Secretary of the CFDT trade union federation, emerged from a meeting with President Mitterand on 31 January he announced that a further round of austerity was inevitable. The government was horrified as this was not the sort of information it wanted publicising in the run-up to the local council elections in March. The Prime Minister, Pierre Mauroy, came on television to deny that any such austerity plan existed; the worst of the crisis was over, he assured viewers, and in any event he had no intention of going down in history as the Prime Minister who devalued the franc three times.

Subsequent events proved him to be either a fool or a liar, or both. On Monday 21 March, a week after the local elections (in which the government parties in the end did not do as badly as had been expected) the French franc was devalued for the third time since May 1981. Mauroy duly resigned . . . only to accept renomination as Prime Minister the next day. On the Wednesday Mitterand himself appeared on television, waving his arms about like General De Gaulle and amidst strains of the Marseillaise, to shout, “Buy French” and “Vive la Patrie!” On the Friday the supposedly non-existent austerity package was unveiled: an increase in taxes and public charges (telephone, gas, electricity, railways), a forced loan, tough exchange controls, with the declared aim of cutting internal consumption as a way of reducing France’s balance of payments deficit.

The four-month wage freeze imposed after the second devaluation of the French franc in June last year already represented a failure of the PS/PCV government’s policy of trying to spend its way out of the crisis. Marx once remarked that, although a government could not end a period of stagnation by the monetary policy it pursued, it could make matters worse. The question must now be posed as to whether the French government’s obstinacy in not cutting its spending financed by the printing press has not in fact done this.

At the beginning of the year the government had been feeling satisfied with itself: the unemployment figures had been stable for a few months at “only” 2 million and the target of an “inflation rate” of “only” 10 per cent in 1982 had been achieved. The trouble was that although the “inflation rate” had fallen in France—reflecting the deepening of the world economic crisis rather than anything the government itself had done—it had fallen even further among France’s economic competitors in Germany, Britain and other Common Market countries.

The lower fall in France reflected the fact that the government there had been having more recourse to the printing press to finance its spending than had the other countries. Part of this newly-printed money had gone to disguise the real level of unemployment by financing bogus training schemes, early retirement and above all by paying firms, especially the nationalised industries, not to sack workers whose continued employment was no longer justified in profit-making terms.

The economic forces of capitalism have now demanded an end to this policy and that the priorities of profit-making be respected. Unless it wishes to be confronted with a fourth devaluation the PS/PC government is going to have to obey this injunction. Unemployment, which had been kept down artificially by government subsidies, can now be expected to rise in the course of 1983 to its real level.

When this happens the inability of reformist policies to end, or even reduce or slow down, unemployment in a slump will be evident for all to see including, we would hope, those who might be tempted by the Labour Party’s recent promise to reduce unemployment in Britain by over 2 million in five years. The French PS was making similar promises before it came to power.

The new government formed by the liar-fool Mauroy after the devaluation of 21 March contained a number of changes. Two ministers (one of them J. P. Chevènement, leader of “leftwing” of the PS) resigned, but those of the French Communist Party who also favour protectionism remained and the leader of the Parti Socialiste Unifié, Hugette Bouchardeau, came into the government as a junior Minister in charge of the environment.

The PSU—a sort of French ILP—was formed in 1960 with the aim of creating “a new socialist force different from communism and social-democracy”. Claiming to be a “revolutionary party” it declared its aim to be “to liberate the working class from capitalist exploitation”. After the events of May 1968 in France the PSU, under its then leader Michel Rocard (who jumped over to the PS bandwagon in 1974 and is now French Minister of Agriculture after having been Minister of Planning in the previous Mauroy government), earned a certain notoriety with its campaign for autogestion (translated into English as “workers control”) and its criticism of the PCF as not being “revolutionary” enough or as being no longer “revolutionary” at all. Needless to say this provided an ideal hunting ground for Trotskyist and Maoist elements who regularly bored their way in and out of the PSU.

Rocard was the PSU’s candidate in the 1969 Presidential elections and got 816,471 votes (3.61 per cent), the highest score that has ever been obtained by a candidate of the “extreme left” (as the PSU was then classified). The fame of the PSU and Rocard even spread to Britain where the trendy lefties of the “Bertrand Russell Peace Foundation” published a lengthy interview with him as a pamphlet Michel Rocard Speaks (Spokesman Offprints No. 13). In this interview, dating from 1971, Rocard kept on talking about being a “revolutionary” committed to “workers control:. But in fact he never understood the first thing about socialism.

In a book published in France in 1972 Questions à L’Etat Socialiste (whose title already betrayed his ignorance of socialism since a “socialist state” is a contradiction in terms) Rocard attacked as a “tenacious myth” the view that money would disappear in socialism. In this he was typical of the other members of the PSU who were committed not to socialism but to some impossible “workers control” of the wages-prices-profits system.

The PSU today is only a shadow of what it was in the immediate post-1968 period. The Trotskyists and Maoists have left. Rocard and the other careerists have joined the PS. All that remains is a confused bunch of feminists, regionalists, ecologists and ban-the-bombers. Now their leader too has joined the PS/PC government, with the approval of the party it must be added. The PSU too will now be playing, alongside the two other false “socialist” parties in France, a direct part in imposing austerity on the working class they once professed to free from capitalist exploitation.

Actually, the PSU itself summed up rather neatly what it will now be doing, in a leaflet issued to support Hugette Bouchardeau when she was a candidate (against Mitterand) in the 1981 presidential elections (where she finished last of the ten candidates, with 312,391 votes, a miserable 1.1 per cent:

    For us socialism must involve real social changes and not be limited to a “more democratic” management of the crisis: with regard to the type of growth, energy, foreign policy, defence, institutions, the PS only proposes adjustments and small changes to the policies pursued by Giscard.

We have added the italics, not that we can see how the anti-working class policy pursued by the present PS/PC/PSU government is any more “democratic” than that pursued formerly by Giscard.

Adam Buick

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