Has France’s fractured Left snatched defeat from the jaws of victory?
Has France’s fractured Left snatched defeat from the jaws of victory?
In the elegant 17th-century headquarters of the French Socialist Party on Paris’ historic Place du Palais-Bourbon, the preparations had been nothing if not prophetic. To make room for the two-day summit of the country’s Socialist, Communist and Left Radical Movement party leaders to update their common election platform, the Socialist hosts went so far as to tear down two second-storey walls.
Sure enough, less than nine hours after the talks began, Robert Fabre, president of the tiny minority Left Radical Movement stormed out, elbowing Communist chief Georges Marchais aside in front of the TV cameras and accusing him of provoking a rupture which demolished the facade of solidarity that France’s leftist alliance had laboriously maintained for five years.
As stunned French voters looked on, the tiff went on to explode with such a bang that it now threatens not only to bring tumbling down the Left’s hopes for a united win in next spring’s key legislative elections but to shake the very
foundations of Eurocommunism itself.
“The French people are not prepared to sacrifice free enterprise and individual initiative to the extent the Communists would like,” raged Fabre, over Marchais’ demands that 1,000 additional firms, including the entire oil, steel and Peugeot-Citroen auto industries, be added to the list of nine corporate groups already slated for nationalization after a leftist victory. But as he stalked off, stage right, he proved to be only a minor player in the drama.
In the following days, as a second attempted summit broke off in the strained early hours of morning at the Communists’ own trendy, smoked-glass and stainless steel headquarters, the Left’s two strongmen, Marchais and Socialist leader François Mitterrand, were left in the spotlight, squared off against each other. Their bitter volleys of press conference invective, mass propaganda appeals and political posturing made one thing increasingly clear: the cracks in their longtime wall of solidarity over the nationalization question were only the
basic breach between two uneasily wed ideologies. Shaping up on the French political horizon was a growing power struggle over who was to control France’s mushrooming left vote.
The quarrel was a cruel blow to Mitterrand, leader and spiritual godfather to the leftist alliance who, on the eve of his sixtyfirst birthday, had seemed to be a mere five months away from grasping the prime ministership which had so long eluded him. Looking drained and sombre in a mass press conference, Mitterrand denounced Marchais’ act of bad faith but declared himself open to a reconciliation.
Within hours, however, Marchais was haranguing a mass rally of 20,000 workers at Paris’ Porte de Pantin, slinging counter accusations and taunting, “It’s up to you, François Mitterrand, whether the agreement is signed.” Chances for a get-together appeared slim. Indeed, as events unrolled, suspicions mounted that the entire sce-
nario had been scripted in advance by Marchais.
If Marchais had set out to undermine the union of the Left, the question that rippled through Paris’ puzzled political salons remained. “Why?” As the weekly Le Nouvel Observateur suggested, there might be a simple answer: the Communists might really not want to share power with the Socialists following the next election, after all.
According to that theory, they fear that a coalition government might be helpless to halt the country’s steady economic decline or, worse, once its internal disputes over policy surface, that it might collapse. That is exactly the scenario predicted in a recent study by a Paris-based banking research firm called Eurofinance and in a new best seller, The 180 Days Of Mitterrand. In this book, a novel, a prominent French journalist paints visions of disaster under a left government, using all the real-life characters’ names.
Other pundits see the deus ex machina as none other than the long arm of Mother Moscow. The Soviets have never made any secret that they regard Eurocommunism as heresy and an article published recently in the leading Russian party journal Kommunist warns Western European Communists not to allow their thirst for power to involve them in ideological compromises with wishy-washy Socialists.
Marchais appears to have followed that advice—although for reasons probably closer to home. When he signed the 81page common program in 1972, the Communists were the leading party on the French Left with 22% of the vote. In five years, the Socialists have leaped past them to win more than 30% of popular support while the Communists have slipped back
to 20%—a fact which openly rankles with the party’s Stalinist old guard, which blames the decline on cavorting with the Socialists.
By flexing his ideological muscles now, Marchais is undoubtedly rallying his disparate flanks in an attempt to recover the party’s dominant position and ward off rumors that, in a common government with the Socialists, the Communists might end up being thrown the cabinet crumbs of a few inferior ministries.
Marchais had a vivid reminder of the dangers of what the Kremlin calls “collaboration” when thousands of angry young Italian Communists staged a three-day protest in the party’s traditional stronghold, Bologna, against leader Enrico Berlinguer’s floundering “historic compromise” with the country’s capitalists.
While the daily Quotidien de Paris trum-
peted that the Marchais-Mitterrand rift was the “end of Eurocommunism,” it was still too early to tell if it wasn’t, instead, only a major setback. Berlinguer, who has made no secret that he was watching the progress of his French neighbors before making a move at home, sent a special envoy to Marchais.
Meanwhile French President Valéry Giscard d’Estaing’s right-centrist coalition quietly rejoiced at this unforeseen political bonanza. The pro-government FranceSoir exulted over the left summit, “It’s a failure.” But, as Le Monde cautioned, it is still too early to pen an obituary of the Left in France. Even without a common program, the Socialists could squeeze out a victory in the coming elections and form a coalition government with the Communists. Indeed, Mitterrand has been seen lately arriving at his party headquarters in the shadow of the National Assembly with “newfound serenity.” Elis demeanor might well be accounted for by an opinion poll published by the weekly L’Express. In it, 52% reported that “despite the falling out, they would still vote for a combined left government.” As the French say, “Plus ça change ...” The more things change, the more they stay the same, MARCI MCDONALD
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.