Voilà the 30th anniversary today of François Mitterrand’s stunning victory over incumbent President Valéry Giscard d’Estaing in the 1981 presidential election. The anniversary is one of the lead stories in the French media today. Le 10 mai 1981 was a huge day for the French left, as it was the left’s first victory in a national election in 25 years, and the first ever in the Fifth Republic. That’s a long time for a democracy not to witness the alternation of power, and for the main opposition force to be deprived of governmental experience. The projection of Mitterrand’s victory when the final polls closed at 8 PM provoked celebrations by French lefties that were akin to those of US Democrats when Obama’s victory was announced on that glorious night in November ’08.
Thousands descended spontaneously on the Place de la Bastille.
Last night an email was sent out to those on the list of the Socialist-led opposition group in the municipal council in my (very right-wing) banlieue, asking recipients to tell their stories of how they experienced the evening of May 10th ’81 (I am not a member of the PS but am a critical sympathizer of the party—of its moderate end—and a friend of the local chapter, which nicely included me as a candidate on the main list of the left—PS-PCF-MRC-PRG—in the 2008 municipal elections; we had no chance whatever of winning and were decisively blown out). Voilà my story: I was living in New York City (Upper West Side) and it was a warm, sunny Sunday afternoon. At 3 PM I tuned into the BBC World Service on my short wave radio to get the election result from Paris. Upon learning of Mitterrand’s victory, I let out a cry of joy and called my gf of the time—with whom I had spent six months in Paris in 1977-78—to give her the news. I can’t remember if I expected the victory or not. Probably not. The only things I remember reading in the days preceding the vote were a couple of op-eds in the NYT, one arguing that it was critically important that Giscard be re-elected, in view of his close relationship with W.Germany’s Helmut Schmidt—as if French voters should be guided by such considerations and the Franco-German partnership would collapse otherwise—, another by the NYT’s then foreign affairs columnist Flora Lewis, who predicted that Giscard, despite his unpopularity, would eke out a victory, because, as we all knew, “the Frenchman’s heart is on the left but his pocketbook is on the right, and come election time he always votes his pocketbook” blah blah. One of the achievements of le 10 mai 81 was to forever relegate that cliché to the poubelle de l’Histoire…
The headline in today’s Le Monde is “Thirty years later, Mitterrand has once again become the icon of the left,” and the title of an article on p.10 is “One year from 2012, ‘tonton mania’ reigns in the PS” (tonton, which is what children call their uncle, is the affectionate nickname for Mitterrand). This is pathetic. I do hope the PS candidate, whoever s/he turns out to be, wins next year, but this is not the mark of a party in vigorous political or programmatic shape. The left’s nostalgia fest for Mitterrand can hardly mask the fact that his record was mixed at best. In fact, if one puts aside the fact of his winning the election and then being re-elected in a near landslide seven years later—which is no mean achievement, as he is the only Fifth Republic presidential candidate of the left who has done it—, then Mitterrand’s overall record is rather negative. I have long called him the Richard Nixon of French politics, in that he was a wily politician, kind of sleazy, ethically challenged, and driven above all by the thirst to acquire and exercise power—and doing whatever it took to attain that end. Michel Rocard was far more my man than Mitterrand (though I only began to perceive this during the latter’s second term, when I started to live in France and focus more on domestic politics).
As this is l’heure du bilan, with everyone assessing Mitterrand’s record, here’s mine. First, the good things Mitterrand did during his fourteen years in office:
- Eliminating the Communist party as a factor in French national politics. This is absolutely Mitterrand’s biggest achievement. The decline of the PCF would have happened anyway—the structural factors were overdetermining—but Mitterrand hastened the process, by slyly setting out in the 1970s to ratchet down the PCF’s share of the vote and make the PS the dominant party of the left. He knew that the Socialists could not come to power without an alliance with the PCF but that the left could not win an election so long as the cocos were the left’s number one party. If the left had been excluded from national power for over two decades, it was precisely because of the weight of the PCF (20-25% of the vote until ’81). So Mitterrand embraced the PCF in order to pick off its voters and bring it to heel. Thumbs up to that!
- Abolishing the death penalty. No more guillotine. Thanks to Mitterrand for appointing Robert Badinter Garde des Sceaux, which allowed this to happen.
- Freeing up the FM radio band, i.e. legalizing private, associative, and community radio stations—though under state regulation, thus making FM radio in France far more diverse and interesting than in the US.
- Administrative decentralization and watering down the Jacobin state, i.e. transferring power away from prefects and to local elected government (thereby making municipal elections genuinely important and driven by local, not national, considerations).
- Adding a 5th week of mandatory paid vacation. Civilized. Working men and women need leisure. If employers won’t give it to them, then they need to be made to.
- Standing up to the US and its arrogant attempt to extraterritorialize American law over the 1982 Soviet gazoduc (natural gas pipeline) project.
- Standing firmly with the US during the Euromissiles Crisis. No namby-pamby peacenikism for Monsieur Mitterrand (who was a lifelong anti-communist and more wary of the Soviet Union than were others on the left and right, including his predecessor in the Élysée).
- Visiting Israel (in ’82, the first French president to do so), addressing the Knesset, and bringing balance back to French Middle East policy (thereby making France more of a player in the region). A corollary: cultivating moderates in the PLO and nudging it toward acceptance of a two-state solution.
- Supporting the Bush administration’s position from day one on the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait and contributing troops to the international coalition to throw Saddam Hussein outta there.
- The Grand Louvre: Ejecting the Ministry of Finance from the Richelieu wing and putting the I.M. Pei pyramid in the courtyard (previously a parking lot).
- Despite incoherence over economic matters (see below), Mitterrand showed himself to be a pragmatist, who did not hesitate to jettison ideology when circumstances so dictated—in this case, to save the European Community. In short, he demonstrated that the Socialists could govern “responsibly” and correctly manage a capitalist economy. Lefties hate this and scorn it, but the demonstration was important, as it enabled the left to continue to win elections in what was (and is) otherwise a majority right-wing country. It’s just the way it is. Mitterrand was a molletiste: talking the leftist talk in opposition but, when in power, behaving more moderately (though not acknowledging what he was doing, which was a problem but an old one for French socialists and not unique to Mitterrand). Likewise, BTW, with absorbing écoles libres into the public system, a longtime pet project of the left. When confronted with overwhelming opposition, he terminated the projet de loi Savary and no one ever brought up the issue again.
Now for the negative stuff. Where to begin?…
- Unemployment. Within one year of Mitterrand’s victory unemployment broke the 8% barrier and it has not descended below that since. Not once. Unemployment was, of course, not just a French affliction at the time (it was over 10% in the US in 1982) or since, but it has been a particular French malediction and that has ravaged French society over the past three decades. Under Mitterrand’s watch economic priority was given over to other matters, e.g. fighting inflation and maintaining the exchange rate with the Deutsch Mark. When it came to economics, Mitterrand was an illiterate. The subject didn’t interest him (à propos, Michel Rocard once talked of having visited Mitterrand’s book lined apartment in the 1970s—Mitterrand was a cultivated, well-read man—and not seeing a single title on economics; it was all literature and history). When Mitterrand said, in his final TV interview in 1995, that against unemployment “we have tried everything” (contre le chômage, nous avons tout essayé), but that nothing had worked—as if mass unemployment were a fatality, a permanent fact of life—, I wanted to throttle him. And I still do.
- In the same vein, clinging to economic dirigisme—as an ideological reflex if not in practice—after it ceased to make any sense, manifested in the “ni-ni” policy (neither privatization nor nationalization) after his re-election in ’88. This signified both a lack of political imagination and incoherence as to where he—and the dominant current of the PS—wanted to take France economically.
- Continuing in this vein, Mitterrand liked to denounce the perniciousness of money. I don’t think he ever railed against “le mur d’argent” but this was the thrust of his discourse on the subject, reflecting the old Catholic/aristocratic prejudice against businessmen and commerce (Mitterrand himself coming from a conservative Catholic background). Total crap but also total hypocrisy (as Mitterrand, as with everyone, liked money and comfort, and left the presidency far better off financially than when he entered it). Not a discourse worthy of the leader of an advanced market economy.
- The Maastricht Treaty; or more precisely, EMU, i.e. the project to create a single currency. I would have put this in Mitterrand’s plus column until a couple of years ago but have now changed my position. EMU was always more of a political than economic project; when it came to strictly economic arguments the cons were more compelling than the pros. This has become manifest nowadays. The balance sheet of the euro has not been positive—and it is downright disastrous for countries like Greece and Spain. Let’s say it loud and clear: the euro was a French idea and happened at Mitterrand’s instigation. He wanted it and he got it (though didn’t live to see it come to fruition, of course).
- His ongoing friendship with René Bousquet. Incomprehensible and unconscionable.
- His friends in general and notably some of the leading mitterrandiens, e.g. the ghastly Michel Charasse and the execrable Roland Dumas. One can tell a lot about a man by the company he keeps. On this score, Mitterrand did not impress.
- Promoting the unspeakable Bernard Tapie—financially and politically—, most notably in using him to scuttle Michel Rocard’s presidential ambitions (in backhandedly supporting Tapie’s list in the ’94 European elections). Related to this: causing the scandal at Crédit Lyonnais and at a huge cost to the French taxpayer.
- Backhandedly facilitating Jean-Marie Le Pen’s ascension, in order to wreak havoc on the right. It didn’t prevent the right from winning elections but did give a boost to the FN.
- Laying a flower on Pétain’s tomb every November 11th and refusing to accept responsibility in the name of the French state for the state’s involvement during Vichy in the deportation of Jews to the death camps (thanks to Jacques Chirac for doing what should have been done long ago on this). Related to this: not coming clean about the extent of his youthful involvement with Vichy. This was all the more puzzling (as was the link with Bousquet) as Mitterrand was a longtime friend of France’s Jewish community (and who returned the favor, with Jews voting for him in their large majority).
- Rehabilitating the putschist generals of the OAS (Raoul Salan et al). Even mitterrandien Socialists had a hard time swallowing this one.
- Continuing the disreputable practices of the French state in domestic political surveillance, such as illegal wiretapping, intimidation, and the like.
- Covering up, until the final year of his presidency, the existence of his daughter Mazarine and his relationship with her mother, who were nonetheless housed and fed at French taxpayer expense. For this reason alone, the public had a right to know.
- Sacking Michel Rocard as PM for no valid reason and replacing him with the not-ready-for-prime-time Édith Cresson. Related to this: tying Rocard’s hands while he was PM—and a good PM at that—and seeking to undermine him at various points.
- Tilting toward Serbia during the catastrophic breakup of Yugoslavia (again, thanks to Chirac for correcting French policy on this).
- Supporting the Hutus in Rwanda and not holding them responsible for the genocide (okay, Kagame and the Tutsi-led FPR were not exactly enfants de chœur but still…).
- Related to the above, continuing the FrançAfrique and despite the discours at La Baule.
- The so-called “Mitterrand Doctrine,” which granted political asylum to Italian extreme left assassins wanted in their own country—a Western democracy, member of the EU, and otherwise a close ally of France. An absolute scandal, epitomized by the circus over the more recent attempt to extradite the thug and murderer Cesare Battisti.
- The Grande Arche de la Défense. The problem is not its existence but the location, which obstructs the clear view through the Arc de Triomphe from the Concorde. I hate it. (On his other questionable grands travaux: A couple of friends who know about such things give the big thumbs down to the Bastille Opera. On the BnF, I thought it was a travesty based on articles such as this, but views seem to have evolved over the past two decades, so I now reserve judgment.)
Then there’s the stuff from Mitterrand’s pre-81 past: e.g. the Affaire de l’Observatoire, his role during the Algerian war (e.g. what he knew as Minister of Justice during the Battle of Algiers, when torture and extrajudicial killing were rampant), his political engagements in the mid-1930s…
But despite the bilan that may appear negative overall, Mitterrand incontestably had the stature to be Président de la République. The role is quasi-monarchical and Mitterrand fit it perfectly. He was an homme d’État, which not even his most severe detractors (who are numerous) would deny. Chirac didn’t match Mitterrand here. As for the current occupant of the Élysée, forget it.
ADDENDUM: Here’s Art Goldhammer on le 10 mai 81.
2nd ADDENDUM: Charles Bremner, the London Times’ Paris correspondent, also weighs in (in his blog on The Times’ web site):
Charles Bremner May 10 2011 12:36PMIf you land in France today, you will find that we are celebrating the beatification of a saint. The object ofadoration is the late François Mitterrand, who was elected president on May 10, 1981, served until 1995 and died in 1996 at the age of 80.
Le 10 mai is like the Kennedy assassination or the killing of Osama Bin Laden. Everyone is supposed to remember exactly what they were doing on that Sunday night in the spring of 1981 when they heard the momentous news that France had anointed its first leftwing president of modern times. At least until next May, Tonton (Unkie), as the Socialist leader was affectionately known, remains the only leftie to have reached the Elysée Palace. What is one to make of this “Tontonmania”? It is more about nostalgia and the eternal French yearning for Utopia and revolution than about the very mixed legacy of a complex man.I was a young Reuters correspondent in Paris in 1981 and can vouch for the rejoicing over what much of the younger generation thought was a brave new dawn. Thirteen years after the failed revolt of May 1968, the moment of youth had arrived (although Mitterrand was 65). I also remember feeling exasperated by the naivety and self-delusion that prevailed at the time. I had just served for two years in Moscow, witnessing the bankruptcy of the Marxist-Leninist model that many in France still admired. In the west, Margaret Thatcher and the newly-elected Ronald Reagan were pushing the free market. Yet here was France, out of phase with the rest of the world, embracing a semi-Marxist who put four pro-Soviet communist ministers into his government and set about nationalising industry and the banking system.
Mitterrand’s arrival put the wind up the older bourgeoisie, some of whom rushed off to stash their money in Switzerland before the Soviet tanks rolled down the Champs Elysées. Their fear was unjustified. Mitterrand, the son of a prosperous southwestern vinegar merchant, was a late convert to socialism, having served in rightwing governments in the 1950s. He started his career working for the wartime collaborationist regime of Philippe Pétain (though that was not known in 1981). Of course it ended in tears. Two years into power, Mitterrand reversed course to save the economy and the dream of overthrowing capitalism perished. Mitterrand presided over the birth of France’s biggest ill — permanent mass unemployment.
Mitterrand’s reign is remembered for a string of scandals. These included the illicit telephone-tapping of his rivals, the sinking of the Greenpeace Rainbow warrior in New Zealand by the French secret service, illicit party financing and the enrichment of his cronies thanks to big state corporations. The president who had pledged to abolish the monarchical style of de Gaulle’s Fifth Republic cultivated it more than ever, keeping a secret second wife and child in high style at state expense.
Yet France and Europe also have reasons to be grateful to the Florentine, as the Machiavellian Mitterrand was known. He got rid of the death penalty, decentralised government, made official culture festive (the Louvre Pyramid, la Fête de la Musique), improved welfare for the poor and perhaps above all, sealed the reconciliation with Germany. That created Europe’s Maastricht treaty, single market, the Schengen free travel area and the single currency, crafted by Mitterrand and Chancellor Helmut Kohl. It is not fashionable, especially in “Anglo-Saxon” circles, to see the construction of Europe as an achievement, but I believe that it was a great one, however flawed the euro has turned out to be. Mitterrand’s hostility to the Soviet Union also helped speed the end there as well as the demise of its French comrade party. I admit this is simplification. For example, Mitterrand, like Margaret Thatcher, was not keen on reunifying Germany.
Mitterrand’s 14-year rule faded out like the end of a decadent monarchy and his immediate Socialist successors took their distance. Lionel Jospin, the protégé who became Prime Minister in 1997 under President Chirac, all but disowned Mitterrand. All that has changed as the Mitterrand years have turned into a golden age, at least for much of the media and chattering classes. In the prevailing view, old Tonton had his flaws and was a bit of a rascal, but he was also brilliant, cultivated, visionary and courtly. Those are qualities that are, naturally, not widely attributed to the present tenant of the palace.
With the election 12 months away, Mitterrand’s would-be successors are fighting over his mantle. The most shameless grab was made by on Sunday by Ségolène Royal, who proclaimed herself his true political heir (she served him as an adviser, then minister). [Watch tv report here] A poll has found that François Hollande, a former party leader, rates as the most Mitterrandien of the bunch of would-be candidates. Over in Washington, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the party favourite, has not yet come up with a tribute to the President who launched his ministerial career with an appointment as a junior in his last government in 1991. But he undoubtedly sees Mitterrand as his model — an elder statesman with an aura of wisdom.