WORLD

Now the trouble begins in earnest

Mitterrand faces difficult battles ahead

Marci Mc Donald May 25 1981
WORLD

Now the trouble begins in earnest

Mitterrand faces difficult battles ahead

Marci Mc Donald May 25 1981

Now the trouble begins in earnest

WORLD

Mitterrand faces difficult battles ahead

Marci Mc Donald

The ancient three-storey townhouse on the obscure Left Bank street which meanders from Boulevard Saint-Germain to the Seine was once a relais de poste, a way station for 17th-century travellers. Inside the courtyard at 22 Rue de Bièvre, leaves fan out on a magnolia tree which its owner swears has never bloomed. This week there is talk of buds on the magnolia—a miracle that rates as minor compared to the one that burst into full flower May 10, when France chose the feast day of Joan of Arc to overturn 23 years of conservative rule and elect the man of the house, François Mitterrand, as its first Socialist president in nearly 50 years.

In the wake of the all-night street dancing that broke out at the Bastille and throughout France in testimony to just how deeply that change had been craved by so many who had felt themselves disenfranchised for so long, Mitterrand’s abode has now become another kind of way station: a briskly besieged waiting room for the Elysée Palace which Mitterrand is to take possession of this week. In the days since his stunning upset of departing President Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, by nearly four per cent of the vote, such an unrelenting parade of well-wishers, political collaborators and cabinet hopefuls have jammed the street that Mitterrand last week felt obliged to make a quick courtesy call on his neighbors, excusing the hubbub and promising that it wouldn’t endure.

But the turmoil into which his election has thrown France promises to outlast even the chaos on the Rue de Bièvre, as the country now faces yet another month of high-voltage electioneering for the legislative elections he will call for the last two weeks in June. Even the president-elect himself has no illusions about the smoothness of his victory road. Receiving the news of his win in the grassroots haven of the Hotel Vieux Morvan, the hostelry from which he has presided as mayor of the hamlet of Château-Chinon for 22 years, he commented, “Now the trouble begins.”

The elections are a gamble which Mitterrand may find impossible to win. If voters return another Centre-Right majority to the National Assembly, he will be the first president to confront a hostile parliament since the Olympian figure of Charles de Gaulle tailored the Fifth Republic’s constitution to his own measure in 1958. That could provoke a paralyzing institutional crisis and even the need for a new constitution—as well as a new Sixth Republic.

If the Left surges to a tight win on his coattails, his hold on parliament is no more assured. With the Socialists now claiming an estimated quarter of the national vote, he must still depend on the unruly and eternally unpredictable Communist Party, which has made itself his uneasy bedmate for the moment, but not without a price in mind.

So unaccustomed has France become to the alternation of power that some pundits have predicted that the only thing Giscard will leave behind in the Elysée this week for his successor is the secret code to activate the country’s nuclear force de frappe. But Mitterrand will also find himself heir to the very woes for which he taxed Giscard—a 13per-cent inflation rate and 1.7 million unemployed. If the country’s two main unions last week agreed to give him a honeymoon, they also exacted that some of his election promises be kept: a hike in the minimum wage of an initial 10 per cent by the end of June and the start of negotiations toward a 35-hour week. With the Bank of France repeatedly forced to intervene last week to keep the falling franc within the European monetary system’s safety net, and the Paris stock exchange spiralling into a sell panic on shares of those banks and 11 industrial heavyweights that the Socialists have promised to nationalize, the economy will be Mitterrand’s first major test.

Whether Mitterrand will be able to restore confidence in the business community will partly depend on his cabinet choices—a secret list he has carried in a suit pocket ever since the first round of voting. It promises to boast some of the country’s best-respected luminaries. Under the probable prime ministership of Pierre Mauroy, the burly soft-spoken mayor of Lille who is the perfect longtime political animal needed to lead the Socialists’ election campaign and keep a rein on relations with the Communists, his ministerial roster is also expected to include: Claude Cheysson, a 61-year-old former ambassador who now directs the European Community’s aid and development program with such flair that he has won the admiration of the Third World; and Jacques Delors, 56, a seasoned technocrat with social democratic leanings who has served not only the Bank of France but former Gaullist Prime Minister Jacques Chaban-Delmas.

While Washington still regards his victory warily, above all because the U.S. embassy in Paris completely miscalled the election results, he may surprise White House skeptics by hewing to a harder policy line against the Soviets and on behalf of Israel, despite the fact that he quite literally does not speak the same language as Ronald Reagan. Mitterrand is one of the few world leaders who in fact has never managed to master English.

What his election augers for FrancoCanadian relations is less clear. This is one reason why Ambassador Gérard Pelletier has been asked to prolong his departure from Paris. Federal diplomats optimistically suggest that Mitterrand will be less likely to play the Quebec “special relationship” card than was his predecessor, but in fact one wing of the Socialist Party has maintained just as close and supportive relations with the Lévesque government as have the Gaullists.

In the task of pulling together a cabinet or the country, however, compromise will be the name of the next presidential game. Happily, it is a talent that Mitterrand has displayed with such resounding success that his enemies have suggested that he is an unprincipled opportunist. Born into a pious conservative family 64 years ago in France’s southwest Cognac district, François Maurice Adrien Marie Mitterrand came late in life to official socialism—so late in fact that when he took over the party leadership in a surprise draft 10 years ago he was not even a member.

In the interval, Mitterrand has managed to shepherd the Socialists from a ragtag band which commanded barely five per cent of the vote in 1969 to what is undisputedly the country’s largest single party—a victory that is now all the more complete since it has been accomplished without the Communists whom he has fought most of his life.

Abandoned by them just before the disastrous 1978 legislative elections, then apparently dumped by much of his own party as late as last summer, Mitterrand’s ultimate dream seemed so proverbially doomed that he was moved to remark, “It would seem that history doesn’t like me.” In fact, as the new president’s friends like to point out, through all his reverses—including hints of scandal of which he was later definitely cleared—he has held on to a belief in his personal destiny.

It was a sixth sense he could already claim 47 years ago as a young resister on the run from the Gestapo. Hiding out in a Paris apartment, he spotted a photo on the piano, gazed into a pair of burning brown eyes and announced, “I’m going to marry her.” Within the year, he had made good the promise, wedding Danielle Grouze, a schoolteacher’s daughter who had become a volunteer nurse in the Maquis. Now the mother of their two grown sons, one a journalist, the other a lawyer, as well as a grandmother, France’s new first lady is a discreetly effervescent 56-year-old brunette, as impassioned an idealist as her mate. Already a Socialist when he met her, Danielle Mitterrand announced last week that, while carrying out all her presidential wifely duties, she would not give up her work for certain causes, including no doubt El Salvador’s tragic insurgents.

Mitterrand’s own profile is not nearly as cleanly cut as his wife’s. Despite 30 years in the political front lines, he remains to this day what one newsweekly called “the sphinx of French public life.” He is never without a book in one bulging suit pocket and his penchant for showing up late is legendary. Already somewhat behind schedule for his rendezvous with history, some observers are beginning to wonder how he will comport himself now that he has arrived. But if Mitterrand’s reign—like much of France’s future—remains veiled in uncertainty one thing is certain: the style that he will set. Having already spurned a more ostentatious Citroen limousine for a discreet black Renault, he has made good his determination to strip away Giscard’s aristocratic airs. The house on the Rue de Bièvre, like his bergerie in the Landes, makes clear that this time around—as one columnist put it—the French presidency is back in the “hands of the bourgeoisie.”