Let Them Eat Socialism
A report on Mitterrand's election from REASON's correspondent in France
Paris—François Mitterrand president! The deepest and most entrenched enemy of the Fifth French Republic sitting in General de Gaulle's office at the Palais de l'Elysée. This is still a shock for many French. And we are now facing a new parliament in which the Socialists and their center-left allies hold a 289-to-202 majority.
How was this possible? In seven years of rule, Giscard d'Estaing lost only two percent of his 1974 national share of the votes—which is not much compared to the 15 percent erosion de Gaulle suffered in the '60s. But it was enough to topple Giscard out of office.
EXPLAINING THE UNEXPECTED
Clearly, many people voted against Giscard—because they did not like his monarchial style—more than they voted in favor of his challenger. Mitterrand ran a very skillful presidential campaign, while Giscard made mistake after mistake. Jacques Chirac's attacks upon his economic balance sheet (though it was not so unfavorable compared to most other European countries) considerably weakened the electoral position of the past president, with the final desertion of about one-third of the Gaullist electorate. All this played some role in the unexpected event of May 10.
More fundamentally, however, I think that Mitterrand's victory is nothing more than the logical outcome of something that has gone largely unnoticed: the slow process of "disinformation" (as Arnaud de Borchgrave and Robert Moss would call it) that gradually took over most French universities and media during the last 15 years.
The swing of Western intellectuals toward leftist and anticapitalist ideologies has been worldwide, of course. But it has gone much further in France than in any other Western nations because of the peculiarities of the French educational system.
On the one hand, the 1968 student revolt led to a new higher education system in which universities are largely self-managed by faculty members (though 100 percent State-financed). At the same time, the government made a huge financial effort to open new universities, so there was a shortage of teachers. Who filled it? Those radical and Marxist contestataires who were on the barricades in May 1968. Within a few years, without noticing it, the French government succeeded in handing down the control of most key positions in our higher education system and university research to the very same people, whose only motivation is the hatred they harbor against capitalist society.
On the other hand, French lower education is still organized on a very centralized basis, so the Marxisation phenomenon could, without any obstacle, spread down to all levels of our educational system. It spread, first, through the recruiting of young teachers just graduating from the university and, second, through the development of textbooks so completely permeated with Marxist ideology that it is hardly believable.
Of course, there was Solzhenitsyn, the discovery of the harsh Gulag reality, and the "nouveaux philosophes." For four years, Prime Minister Raymond Barre tried with some success to move the French government away from its long-time Colbertist tradition. (Jean-Baptiste Colbert was a 17th-century minister under Louis XIV who used protectionist measures to stimulate French industry and commerce, increased the role of the State in manufacturing, reorganized the French government's financial system, and initiated conscription into the French navy.) And there has been a promising revival of conservative and libertarian ideas (for the first time in his life, the Austrian economist F.A. Hayek was officially invited to Paris last December).
But all this was too recent. Under Giscard, voting rights were extended to youngsters of 18. En masse, they voted left—because many of them are unemployed, but also because that is the way they have been educated since their youngest age. With Sweden, France is the Western country where education has been the most penetrated by egalitarian and collectivist ideologies. The same phenomenon has occurred in the media (see Jean François Revel's Totalitarian Temptation).
The economic achievements of the political and industrial leaders of the Fifth Republic have been tremendous. But, despite numerous warnings, they failed to understand that the future of a society depends first and foremost on what happens in the realm of ideas. We now have to pay the price of their benign neglect of intellectual matters.
So, what next? Two main issues are at stake. The first concerns the future of the French economy in the coming months.
François Mitterrand was elected on a set of promises aimed at reducing unemployment through a private and public spending burst. His plan is to put France back on a four to five percent rate of growth by granting a general increase of the minimum wage and old-age pensions, by hiring 210,000 new civil servants within two years, and by launching an ambitious program of public works and investments—a traditional program of Keynesian demand management that is just nonsense in the present condition of high inflation and an increasing budget deficit, with an economy for which imports are becoming increasingly expensive.
Moreover, the new Socialist administration pledged itself to enact new legislation reducing the official work week to 35 hours (without a wage reduction). Workers will now have a fifth week of holidays paid for by their employers. Full pension rights will be extended to people over 60 instead of 65. Taxes will be reduced for labor-intensive industries, but this concession will be compensated for by the introduction of a new tax on industrial equipment. And so on.
The reaction of the international financial community was not long in coming: Within less than a month of the election the Banque de France had lost about a third of its currency reserves. The stock exchange dipped by 25 percent. Experts now agree that France will experience a 20 percent inflation by the end of the year, with more than two million unemployed. As was usual under the Fourth Republic, the Socialists are to destroy in just a few months the whole capital of international confidence and internal good will built up by the previous administration. François Mitterrand and his chief economic advisors hardly understand anything of economics.
It is now very likely that France will experience a major economic crisis within the next 18 months—a crisis that will be marked by a strong decline of the standard of living and that unfortunately will strongly reinforce the existing proclivity of French Socialist leaders to deploy industrial protection against international competition. This will be bad not only for French consumers but also for all of our trading partners.
The second issue is more fundamental. Is François Mitterrand's election just a regular and welcome democratic change, with one team of competing politicians replacing another? Or is it a precursor to much more dreadful events, the beginning of a true socialist revolutionary process that would have terrible consequences for the whole Western world?
During his electoral campaign, Mitterrand aimed mainly at fostering the pragmatic image of a responsible social-democrat dedicated to introducing "change" for more social justice but respectful of the Fifth Republic institutions. He gave his pledge that there would be no spoils system despite the 23-year rule of Gaullist and conservative governments.
His hatred for the Communists is well known. His appointment of four Communists to his cabinet is generally regarded as the stroke of a master politician. They have been put at the head of only minor ministries—health, transport, the civil service, and vocational training. The key positions in the 44-member government are held by moderate center-left politicians or technicians.
However, one must not forget that François Mitterrand, then first secretary to the Parti Socialiste, officially endorsed in 1979 a party platform that is a pure Marxist-Leninist chef d'oeuvre. Called "Le Projet Socialiste," openly neutralist and anti-imperialist (that is, "anti-American"), this document declares that "capitalism is even a greater threat for France than is the Soviet Union." It clearly states that its logic is one of "outright rupture with the present capitalist and free-market system." It not only plans an overwhelming extension of State ownership and State planning (all banks and financial institutions are to be nationalized; half of the industrial population would work for the public sector). It also officially favors "a larger collectivization of our lifestyles" and openly aims at introducing into French industries a Yugoslav type of self-management with workers' councils having the power to veto all major management decisions such as hiring policies, lay-offs, job planning, wage hierarchies, and investment and technology decisions.
In a country with strong Communist influence over the trade unions movement, one has no difficulty imagining what such a radical reform of corporate law would mean: if all the written propositions of the "Projet Socialiste" were implemented, France would rapidly move along the unfortunate road that leads not only to economic decay but also to an outright totalitarian state.
The new president is too wise and pragmatic a politician to take the risk of a full-fledged French socialist experiment. He will most likely try to run the country with a center-left coalition whose socialism will be Swedish social-democrat style.
But we must not lose sight of the fact that he owes a large part of his victory not only to the neutral complicity of the Communists but also to the active support of radical leftist minorities (like pro-Castro writer Regis Debray, now Mitterrand's private advisor on…foreign affairs!). These minorities will not easily accept frustration of their romantic dreams for a new egalitarian society—a model that no other advanced industrial country has yet tested, a model full of deadly ambiguities and very unstable indeed.
Strangely enough, I rather welcome this new situation in the hope that it will at last open the eyes of all those who believe in a free society but never understood the need for a strong ideological renaissance. Unfortunately, people always need an emergency to feel the urge to mobilize. With the continuation of a conservative government whose everyday acts contradicted its own words, those who treasure liberty might never have risen to its defense.
Henri LePage, REASON's correspondent from France, is the author of several books, including Demain le capitalisme. He is associated with the Institut de l'Entreprise, a free-market think tank based in Paris.