France

Running scared in the final stretch

MARCI McDONALD May 11 1981
France

Running scared in the final stretch

MARCI McDONALD May 11 1981

Running scared in the final stretch

France

MARCI McDONALD

Charles de Gaulle once said of him: “His problem, it’s the people.” De Gaulle’s successor, Georges Pompidou, opined: “It isn’t that he thinks he is better than France. He doesn’t think France is up to his size and intelligence.” Those put-downs of President Valéry Giscard d’Estaing by his two predecessors seemed to be joined by a third this week, as France prepared for a presidential runoff which appeared to be less a matter of naming the most powerful chief of state in a Western democracy than of rapping the knuckles of the man who now holds that office. After emerging from the first round last week only a three-per-cent whisker ahead of his inveterate rival, Socialist leader François Mitterrand, Giscard was clearly running scared as he headed into the final stretch.

Crisscrossing the country for as many as three rallies a day, complete with thunder-and-lightning film clips showing how he had captained France to calm amid the international hurricanes, Giscard added his own brimstone storm warnings against the chaos that would sweep over the country upon the election of a leftist president. If such a campaign seemed to be both defensive and falling flat, Giscard had every reason to be glancing nervously over his shoulder. Not only had Georges Marchais’ Communists roundly adjured their deflated 15.5 per cent of the electorate to back Mitterrand, the neoGaullists, who were supposed to side with Giscard, had given him instead only their most tepid and reserved unofficial endorsement. A series of secret and not-so-secret polls predicted that Mitterrand would streak into a one-percent lead at the wire with 51.5 per cent of the vote.

If the pollsters prove correct, however, it will not be so much a case of the French opting for the Socialist vision as a reflection of their hearty ennui with Giscard’s vacillating centre-rightism and his haughty autocratic personal style. As L'Express columnist Olivier Todd, once a Giscard booster, put it: “It’s going to be very close and it will be decided on a completely irrational basis. The thing could change from day to day, depending on how much the franc or the stock market falls.”

The disenchantment is all the more profound because Giscard swept into office after Pompidou’s death in 1974 as the candidate of hope and reform, a debonair whiz-kid characterized as the French John F. Kennedy. Now, however, he is seen by the Nouvel Observateur as “the man who would be king,” a personage who insists on being served before his guests at state dinners, while wielding his already formidable powers with a disdainful disregard for justice. A former finance minister who once entranced TV audiences with his blackboard calculations, Giscard now finds himself blamed for the country’s stagnating economy and its record 1.7 million unemployed.

To his old enemies the die-hard Gaullists—who have never forgiven him for contributing to the general’s defeat 12 years ago in a regional referendum, and who took out quarter-page newspaper ads last week to remind voters of the betrayal—Giscard has added some new ones. For the first time in history, France’s estimated 400,000 Jewish votes were cast in an angry block last week, punishing Giscard not only for his blatant anti-Israel stand, but for his apparent insensitivity to the Jewish community’s fears of local terrorism.

But the most effective stab may have come from his onetime prime minister, Jacques Chirac, whose dynamic firstround campaign re-established the flagging neo-Gaullists—possessors of nearly 18 per cent of the popular vote— as a force to be reckoned with. Chirac’s reluctant “personal” vote for Giscard was seen by many pundits in France— where politics are seldom as they seem—to be a coded endorsement of Mitterrand, whom he has privately pegged as the winner. In fact, Mitterrand’s triumph would best suit Chirac who could then play legitimate Opposition leader while, at 48 the youngest of the major aspirants, still keeping his cherished presidential ambitions alive for 1988.

Such cynicism was reflected by the voters who found themselves once more faced with the scenario of seven years earlier—a tight Giscard-Mitterrand squeak to the finish. They responded with half-filled rally halls and the prospect of resigned abstention. In fact, however, the same old faces could not have more different backgrounds. Giscard, at 55, springs from the haute bourgeoisie—the product of the country’s best schools and a family that made its fortunes in the colonies and its connections among the civil service elite. Mitterrand, the son of a Cognac-area railway station agent, is the ultimate petit bourgeois, the product of a farming milieu who still tends to donkeys and oak trees on weekends in the southwest and had to be instructed by image makers to doff his dowdy Left Bank intellectual suits and shed his baroque, bookish rhetoric for the TV cameras. The former stalwart of the Fourth Republic—he held six different cabinet posts—has also toned down much of his program of proposed bank and business nationalizations. Once an opponent of the nuclear force de frappe, he now endorses it.

All this means that there are few political reasons for the French to reject Mitterrand; and while he suffers from many of the same personality traits as his rival—both are shy intellectuals, whose reserve often seems like plain arrogance—the Mitterrand-Giscard playoffs are less a choice of man than of societies—a left-right split that is as old as the republic and that Giscard himself once characterized as the “national schizophrenia.” In every postwar vote when the French seemed to be rushing headlong to the left, they have pulled back at the last minute and opted for the safe centre-right route. On May 10 Giscard will be hoping that just that national schizophrenia will once again be working in his favor.