Since May 1981, when they won a sweeping electoral victory in the parliamentary elections, France’s Socialists have suffered two sobering shocks which, while they have brought many of their soaring dreams plummeting to earth, have made many malcontents. The first shock was administered in 1983 when, after two years of ideological debauch, which resulted in (among other things) the nationalization of 38 banks and three successive devaluations of the franc, the finance minister, Jacques Delors, put an end to the splurge by imposing a strict “austerity” program. The second shock was administered in 1986 when a majority of French electors voted the Socialists out of office, thereby forcing a clearly nettled President Mitterrand to choose a new non-Socialist prime minister—in the person of the neo-Gaullist mayor of Paris, Jacques Chirac.
In the United States, where we have an essentially presidential system of government, we have long since grown accustomed to seeing, for example, a Republican president having to share power with a Democratic Congress. But in France, which now has a hybrid presidential-parliamentary system, nothing comparable had been seen since the start of the Fifth Republic in 1958.
This period of forcible cohabitation proved to be relatively brief For in May 1988 François Mitterrand, who is with little doubt the cleverest (though by no means the most sagacious) politician in France, scored a sweet revenge—first by getting himself reelected president for another seven-year term, and then by leading his Socialist Party to a new parliamentary victory, which largely effaced the humiliating defeat of 1986. The campaign was fought on the distinctly unsocialistic slogan of an “opening towards the Center” and the person subsequently chosen as the new prime minister was a maverick Socialist named Michel Rocard, whose popularity in public-opinion polls in the past has often exceeded Mitterrand’s (to the latter’s intense annoyance). To prove that the promised “opening towards the Center” was more than hollow campaign rhetoric, Rocard (who happens to be a Protestant, often regarded in France as a guarantee of integrity) put together an enormously inflated government, with close to 50 cabinet ministers and under-secretaries, of whom half a dozen were nonsocialist “Centrists.” The idea was to break down the fairly rigid division of France into two hostile and almost equal blocks—one belonging to the “left,” the other of the “right”—and in doing so to generate a new atmosphere of social harmony or, as it has come to be known, a new national “consensus.”
That this new and so-far stumbling “consensus” was bound sooner or later to exasperate certain frustrated or disillusioned French socialists was inevitable; and if there is anything truly startling in this phenomenon it is the virulence with which the present situation of the Socialists has been excoriated in two recently published books, both written by fervent “leftists.”
The first book is the work of Thierry Pfister, a Socialist “insider” of Alsatian origin who served for three years as an aide to Mitterrand’s first prime minister, Pierre Mauroy (1981-1984). The title of his sparkling as well as devastating book—Lettre ouverte à la génération Mitterrand qui marche à côté de ses pompes—is on a par with its scintillating contents. (In French slang pompes means “shoes,” and when someone is said to be walking alongside of his “pumps”—in this case the Mitterrand generation—it means quite simply that he is hopelessly astray, not to say “off his rocker.”)
The gist of Pfister’s message is that the socialists who climbed enthusiastically back into the governmental saddle two years ago were no longer socialists in anything but name, having tacitly foresworn all of their old left-wing ideals and become members of what he wittily calls the “extreme center.” The French Socialist Party, he further claims, never developed the cohesion of Social Democratic parties in other European countries (notably in Scandinavia, West Germany, and pre-Neil Kinnock Britain), and at present it is a hodgepodge composed of three distinct generations. The oldest is composed of those who, like Mitterrand, were part of the “resistance” in wartime (1940-1944) France. The second generation, which he refers to as the mocassins, were opposed to the Algerian war and went on a car-burning and street-barricading rampage during the “Red May” of 1968. The third and youngest generation—which Pfister dubs that of the baskets (i.e., those who like to walk around in the kind of sneakers used by basketball players)—are the most uncertain and disoriented of them all.
Pfister’s book is peppered with withering remarks about the glib opportunism of French Socialists—the “caviar Left” as he terms them—and the hollowness of their political verbiage. And equally luminous is Pfister’s explanation of why, after voting in a conservative majority in 1986, the French electorate (or at any rate an appreciable number of them) did an about-face and voted in a supposedly “leftist” government in 1988. Mitterrand’s victory, he claims, was a victory of conformism, as opposed to the “dangerous” experiments which French economic “liberals” (led by the minister of industry, Alain Madelin) wanted to introduce in order to reduce the crippling power of the state and also the control of labor unions over French industrial concerns. “An anxious France, sensitive to the reaffirmation of its traditional values, preferred to assure its acquisitions rather than a liberalism which, by menacing known references, was disquieting. Mitterrand was the president-elect of the pause, the elect of state conformism and of social conservatism.”
The most ferocious pages in this caustic appraisal of what is going on in the upper echelons of French government are those of the conclusion, in which he boldly compares Mitterrand to a “presidential vampire” who needs to regenerate his own aging blood with the fresh blood of a younger generation. “This man kills what he embraces.” In the 1970’s he embraced the French Communist Party, and after ten deadly years he dropped it, like a limp “bloodless rag.” In 1986 he reluctantly embraced Jacques Chirac and his colleagues of the opposition, and in just two years he had sucked them dry “like a totally devoured fruit.” “And who,” he concludes in the same ferocious vein, “will the vampire of the Elysée presently embrace? Socialists and Centrists are the next victims. Choice ones too. One need only watch them advancing, as though under hypnosis, towards the executioner, to realize that the process is well on its way. And doubtless irreversible.”
It is Pfister’s belief that French leftists can remain true to their ideals only when out of power and in opposition. In power, they find themselves confronted by a more or less immovable bureaucracy and having to administer a population which over the years has grown increasingly property-conscious and conservative.
Of a strikingly different tone is Régis Debray’s severe critique. An impassioned apologia of the French Republic—its title is Que vive la République!—it is the work of a one-time student of philosophy and self-appointed Third-World revolutionary who went off to join Che Guevara in the mountain jungles of Bolivia, and whose subsequent capture by Bolivian army forces was soon followed (some say as a result of indiscretions committed while under interrogation) by the trapping and killing of his hero.
An unrepentant Third-World Marxist, or at any rate an impenitent follower of Frantz Fanon, Debray has an essentially militant view not only of French history but more specifically of the French Republic, which he sees as “not a regime among others, but an ideal and a struggle.” Like Pfister, he has no use for the tepid “consensus” now dominating French political life and which has found recent expression in a deliberate attempt to reduce the bicentennial commemoration of the French Revolution to its tamest possible dimension. An unabashed admirer of Robespierre, Debray doesn’t hesitate to make an apologia for violence, without which revolutions cannot succeed. It is no accident that the two “bards” of the French Revolution whom Debray most admires are the historian Jules Michelet and the poet Victor Hugo.
The trouble, according to Debray, is that the French left has quietly sold out, not simply to the stockbrokers and the financiers but no less perniciously to the purveyors of the mind-numbing and hypnotic TV image and the “mediatic Golden Calf” The very opposite of a cold rationalist, Debray is a fervent believer in the strength and value of myths; and the decline, not to say the death, of the revolutionary-collectivist myth that was born in 1789 and triumphantly prolonged throughout the 19th century by various forms of socialism can only, he claims, leave an ideological void, which a new and far more terrifying fanaticism (Islamic fundamentalism?) may seek to fill.
More than once, while reading this book, I was reminded of Stendahl’s Lucien Leuwen the novel in which his critical portrayal of the “moneygrubbing” France of Louis-Philippe (1830-1848) was wistfully contrasted to the “old-fashioned” virtue he most admired: witty conversation. The virtues Régis Debray admires are of a different sort, beginning with revolutionary verve and militancy (which always means against some obstacle or adversary); but he shares the same contempt for the chrematistic ethos which Louis-Philippe’s austere premier, François Guizot, once summed up in this simple exhortation: “Enrichissez-vous!” Guizot’s regime prided itself on being that of the juste milieu, the perfect middle ground between the two reactionary and revolutionary extremes, while today François Mitterrand’s France seems destined to repeat history by becoming what the historian François Furet has called “la république du Centre.” But such abject moderation is enough to make Debray’s blood boil, simply because, as he puts it, “there is no Republic that can repose solely on the riches of spectacle or on the spectacle of riches.”
Some twenty years ago, after the shock of the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, the French Communist Party’s leading philosopher, Roger Garaudy, was so soul-shaken to find his visionary dreams reduced to dust that he finally took refuge from the horrors of the present by embracing Islam. Because the circumstances today are radically different, nationally as well as internationally, I doubt that Régis Debray would ever take such a desperate step. But given his mystic streak (“I am convinced that a socialist policy cannot survive for long after the disappearance of a socialist mystique”) and given his thirst for the absolute, there is no telling in which direction his philosophical dismay may take him next.