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Mitterrand. A Study in Ambiguity. Philip Short. Review.

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This was written over a month ago. A slightly shorter version was published in the March-April issue of Chartist magazine.

 

Mitterrand. A Study in Ambiguity. Philip Short. The Bodley Head. 2013.

François Hollande’s electoral campaign in 2012 presented him as “Mitterrand’s heir.” Perhaps British readers will come to Philip Short’s biography more interested in the parallels between the former French Head of State’s ‘second family’ with Anne Pingeot, and Hollande’s affair with Julie Gayet. But Mitterrand invites more significant comparisons with the legacy of France’s first, and longest serving, French President.

Mitterrand, marked by “ambiguities” was known as “the Sphinx”, marked by “inner solitude.” He worked in “shades of grey”. His life is littered with riddles. Catherine Nay counted seven ‘Mitterrands’, from a left-wing Léon Blum to the Father of the Nation, in his first term of office alone (Les Sept Mitterrand. 1988). Philip Short has the more daunting task of covering a life and career from 1916 to 1996.

As a student in the 1930s Mitterrand was involved with the far-right Croix de feu. As an escaped prisoner of war he served the Vichy regime and was awarded the francisque emblem for his work. Engaged in the Resistance from 1943, he ended the war in Parliament and served, as a centre-left republican, in a variety of posts under the Fourth Republic. Short, more generously than many, finds excuses for these early years. In the 1930s and the War, he was no anti-Semite. As a Minister of the one of numerous Coalitions during the Algerian War of Liberation he opposed independence, and was just as “blinkered as most of his colleagues.”

Mitterrand furiously opposed De Gaulle’s 1958 “coup d’état” and the 1962 referendum on the direct election of the President. But his failure to speak out against torture and his ambiguity over decolonisation isolated him from the burgeoning New Left that regrouped during those years in the Parti Socialiste Unifié (PSU). Yet, Short argues, his distance from the “squabbling over political theory” of these factions allowed Mitterrand to rise to lead France’s left. A stunning 37,78% of the vote for his Presidential candidacy (backed the entire left, including the Communist Party) in 1965 brought him back centre-stage.

A Study in Ambiguity recounts how Mitterrand, from creation of the Parti Socialiste in Épinay (1971) to his electoral triumph in 1981 made himself as the undisputed Chief of the French left. Short has a fine eye for the role of ‘clubs’ on the French left, and how French parties come into being around a “new Leader”. Mitterrand, he argues, was able “to forge unity not around a programme but around his own person.”(Page 275)

The Socialist General Secretary rapidly came into conflict with the one French party with a collective leadership, the Communists (PCF). Right up until his 1981 election Mitterrand clashed with the PCF. From unity, over the Programme Commun in 1972, to the break up in 1977, relations were stormy. Short repeats the allegation that the Communists (still hovering around 20% of the vote during the decade) were prepared to secretly support Conservative politicians in an attempt to stop him coming to power.

The victory of the “force tranquille” (a phrase of Victor Hugo) in 1981 put Mitterrand on the stage of history. The new President’s supporters swept through Paris. The Right was “panic stricken”. Elected on a programme promising a “rupture” with capitalism, the new government included 4 members of the (already declining, 12.4% for the Presidentials and 11,26% for the Parliamentary elections) Communist Party. There were nationalisations (36 banks, 5 large industrial groups, and many more), a 10% rise in the minimum wage, the lowering of the retirement age to 60, an increase in holidays to 5 weeks a year, and new rights for employees at work. The Death Penalty was abolished. The first moves towards decentralisation were taken.

For a while it looked as if something resembling the British Alternative Economic Strategy was being put into practice. Nevertheless the core policy, raising incomes to spark a consumer boom, failed. There was immense pressure on the Franc. The French economy did not prosper. Unemployment and inflation rose.

Short asserts that confronted with these economic realities retreat was inevitable. By summer 1982 there was devaluation, and a “four month price and wage freeze, a cap on the budget deficit at 3 per cent of GNP” as well as “a commitment to bring inflation below 8 per cent in 1984. Over the next years, “socialist France had joined the rest of the industrialised world in a forced deflationary spiral to get its economy back into balance.”(P 366) For A Study in Ambiguity “The French Socialists had to absorb in months knowledge which their neighbours had accumulated over decades.”(Page 365)

For some on the French left, such as Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the left government ran up against the ‘bankers ramp’ (le mur de l’argent). Was this realism? To Short, Mitterrand and his supporters became zealots for “modernisation” competitively and talked up entrepreneurial “winners” and market flexibility. They would certainly have agreed with Short that the 1981 Projet Socialiste was an “anachronism” and that nationalisation and state controls had proved to be “irrelevant”.

This was not just a “disavowal of everything Mitterrand had stood for” .It was, for many on the left at the time, the replacement of the radical, and ill-defined, socialism of the 1970s by the exploitative “free market norms” of France’s partners. Instead of changing, for example, to a new pan-European left strategy, the Government had taken over the European right’s policies. Thierry Pfister, a direct observer of the shift, ridiculed the vacuity of this “modernisation” without radical content (La vie quotidienne à Matignon au temps de ‘Union de la Gauche. 1983).

Mitterrand won a second 7-year term, in 1988, with the slogan, “neither nationalisations nor privatisations”. While he promised to restore the wealth tax – abolished during his ‘cohabitation’ with right-wing PM Jacques Chirac (1986 – 88) this was “non-campaign”, focused “almost entirely on winning over the political centre.” It was a success.

Was in fact Mitterrand ever interested in more than winning and keeping power? Short argues – deceptions and ambiguities aside – that there was. Mitterrand “began a slow and painful accommodation to the economic and political realities of the world outside.” His values endured, “The construction of Europe and the quest for social justice, the two great causes which had sprung from Mitterrand’s experience as a prisoner of war, and modernisation, which had imposed itself as a necessity during his time of office, are legacy enough.”(Page 582)

Yet Short also describes another legacy. Mitterrand, from the mid-1980s onwards brought the far-right Front National into the electoral arena. In contrast to those who consider this a manoeuvre to split the Right, he states it was designed to “neutralise its venom”. The FN’s entry into the “mainstream of French politics”, he asserts, has warded off the growth of French “diehard racist parties”, to be seen in the other European countries.

As the Front National occupies a leading place in the opinion polls, over the last weeks the streets of Paris have been full of tens of thousands of far-right demonstrators. The sight of religious hysteria against gays and “gender theory”, and the sound of anti-Semitic chants, is perhaps not the kind of achievements the, excellent, Mitterrand. A Study in Ambiguity would wish to celebrate.

 Note: the Front National has since done well in the local elections and promises to do better in the European ones.

Written by Andrew Coates

April 4, 2014 at 11:08 am

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