The Spark

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.” — Karl Marx

Mitterrand’s Election:
A Victory
– But for Whom?

Oct 31, 1981

At the time of the election of François Mitterrand as president of France, the SWP (Socialist Workers Party in the U.S.) characterized it as “a victory for working people”, in their editorial in the Militant of May 22, 1981. For the SWP, this election signified an opening for the working class. They saw the election itself as proof of a radicalization of the French electorate, a leftward shift. And they said that, “For the first time in twenty-three years, the workers have been able to place their representatives at the head of the government.” Thus, they implied that this government represents the working class. Finally they saw Mitterrand’s program providing solutions for the workers, while inspiring fear in the capitalists. They said that “Mitterrand’s victory throws a monkey-wrench into their [the capitalists’] austerity drive.”

In what sense does Mitterrand’s victory represent a change for the working class? And is this change necessarily an improvement for the French workers?

How Did Mitterrand Win the Election?

First of all, did the election represent a radicalization? Mitterrand won over Giscard D’Estaing, the right-wing candidate, with a shift of less than a million votes, and these votes came from a shift to the center, not to the left.

The voting shift that put Mitterrand over the top was from the petty bourgeois milieus, not the working class. The shift came from two different sources. The first was the ecologist movement which has been active in recent years in France on the political level. And second, at least some of the electorate that had voted for one of the right-wing candidates, Chirac, on the first round, refused to support Giscard on the second round. The French electoral system provides for a run-off between the top contenders. So some of Chirac’s supporters voted for Mitterrand.

Mitterrand won such votes because of his appearance of moderation, and his stance of independence from the CP to whom he didn’t guarantee ministerial positions in his government before the election.

We can also see the shift to the center if we look at the votes of the CP and those of the revolutionaries on the first round. The revolutionaries’ vote stayed around the same as in past elections, while the CP’s vote declined by 5%. The CP’s votes shifted to the center in support of Mitterrand. Thus the election indicated not a shift to the left, but a shift to the center.

Is the SP-CP Government a Government of the Working Class?

The SWP implies that the SP-CP government is a workers’ government because it is made up of the parties that represent the working class. But is it a workers’ government? And how is it different from the one of Giscard?

In terms of the state apparatus itself, nothing has really changed at all. Of course, Mitterrand has chosen new ministers for his cabinet. But this is the task of any new bourgeois government. And the state apparatus in France remains exactly the same as before. There is still the same army, police, court and jails and the same government functionaries. And we see nothing to indicate that they have changed their attitude toward the workers. And we also see how carefully Mitterrand must tread with the state apparatus in making even moderate suggestions for changes.

For example, Mitterrand, in his election program, raised the idea of changing compulsory military service from one year to six months. He may have covered his change of position on this, by referring to the danger of increasing the unemployment if it were implemented. But it’s clear that Mitterrand dropped the idea as soon as it was opposed by the generals, who were not at all content to see this kind of a change in their army. Military service will stay at a year.

We saw that same change with Mitterrand’s pre-election claim that he was going to stop the H-bomb tests in the Pacific. That is, he said this until the military said they disagreed, at which point Mitterrand quickly gave in and announced that the tests would continue as of before.

And What about Mitterrand’s Economic Program?

One of the main things cited by the American extreme left, and the American bourgeoisie, about Mitterrand’s government is his proposed nationalizations. The left describes these as socialist measures. But the already existing nationalizations represent two times the number contemplated by Mitterrand’s government. If they were socialist measures, then De Gaulle must have been a socialist, because a big part of the nationalization of French industry took place under the first government of De Gaulle. Today, as in the past, the “socialist” government of Mitterrand, when it proposes to nationalize a company is proposing to pay compensation to the owners. In fact these nationalizations are just another way for the government to aid the bourgeoisie and turn over government funds to them, funds which were taken from the workers in the form of taxes.

Take the example of Dassault, the big airplane and defense manufacturer. One of his companies is about to be nationalized for the third time. Some of his companies were first nationalized in 1936 under the Popular Front government. He remained as a director of his former company and was also compensated for the nationalization. In 1945, he was named director of another nationalized company. While he was director, he was busy creating his own factories out of the funds that the government had paid him. Later his development of the Mirage jet was financed entirely out of public funds. Dassault has made a fortune several times over from the nationalizations of his plants. He was one of the first to come out and tell the other French capitalists that they had nothing to fear from Mitterrand and nationalizations. In fact, maybe they have something to look forward to!

In addition to the nationalizations, other measures of Mitterrand’s directly assist the bourgeoisie. Mitterrand, like his predecessor, has been handing out large sums of money in the form of subsidies to French industry. He has proposed 15 billion francs more in various aids and subsidies over what Barre, Giscard’s prime minister, proposed for this year alone. And even more money has been released in the form of loans, regional development funds, modernization and job creation funds, plus tax exemptions.

To make his attitude clear, Mauroy, Mitterrand’s prime minister said, “I hope that the corporations understand our determination to help them...”

They don’t have the same determination to help the working class. In his election campaign, Mitterrand promised to deal with the problems of unemployment and inflation. He proposed the 35 hour work week, the creation of 210,000 public sector jobs, and a raise in the minimum wage.

Now the government is telling the workers that the 35 hour work week can’t be realized until 1985. All that is possible today is a work week of 39 hours. Mauroy has advanced the idea of a division of hours instead of layoffs. But along with this, he is proposing the division of wages. So the workers may get their shorter week, but along with it, they will also get a shorter pay check.

As for the creation of jobs, Mauroy is now proposing to create only 55,000 jobs in 1981 and 61,000 in 1982. This is already a big retreat from the 210,000 that was promised. And it is no answer at all when the unemployment level as of October is 1,800,000.

Mitterrand has been praised by the left for raising the minimum wage 10%. Of course, Giscard, when he took office, also raise the minimum wage 8%. Apparently, the difference between a socialist and a bourgeois politician is 2%. Mitterrand’s increase brings the minimum up to only about $3.00 an hour. This is hardly very encouraging when you remember that inflation is running at 13.7%.

Certainly the blame for the economic ills of France can’t all be put on Mitterrand. But it is clear that his current policies not only will not improve the situation, but will continue to make the workers pay for the economic crisis. For example, the government of Mitterrand has already raised prices on the state-owned industries of gas, electricity, railroads, tolls, stamps and cigarettes. And it’s obvious that increasing government spending on the corporations guarantees that inflation will continue to go up. And in fact, it has: from June to August it has gone up another 4.8%.

Mitterrand may claim that his program is aimed at helping the working class. But the reality shows that it is helping the bourgeoisie to weather the economic crisis on the workers’ backs.

Why Does the Bourgeoisie Accept the SP and CP in the Government?

The problem that today confronts the bourgeoisie is how to deal with the economic crisis as cheaply and efficiently as possible. Their answer is an austerity program that forces the workers to pay the cost of the crisis for them. And this program can be enforced as easily – perhaps more so – by a government of the left as by one of the right.

Over the years, the French bourgeoisie has not often trusted their government in the hands of the SP. And even less have they accepted the CP in the government: the only exception was a brief period in the 1940s.

The bourgeoisie has never completely trusted the CP no matter how hard the CP has tried to prove itself worthy of this trust. It understands that the CP at best has torn loyalties, and it is under a great deal more pressure from the working class than the SP is. The CP must try to strike a balance between appearing responsible to Moscow, the working class and the French bourgeoisie – a hard act at best.

The mistrust of the bourgeoisie goes back to the origins of the CP. The CP was created in the 1920’s at the call of the Bolsheviks as part of the creation of the Third International. These origins are far distant, and the links the CP had with the U.S.S.R. became those with the Russian bureaucracy. Now, however, even these links are being gradually weakened, the more that the CP has become integrated into the political life of France. It has its own base in the most important sections of the working class, and its own electoral constituency. At the same time, the links have never completely been broken, and this fact probably discomforts the French bourgeoisie a little.

More importantly, the CP has real reason to go beyond what the bourgeoisie wants, in order to keep the confidence of the working class. It must produce a certain amount of results for the workers. And it must prevent itself from being outflanked on its left by the revolutionaries. This forces the CP to give the appearance, and even actually carry out, a certain militant activity, especially when it is in the opposition. There is always the possibility for the CP to put itself at the head of a movement, and by doing that, even without willing it, to encourage the growth of that movement.

The age of reforms is over, and the bourgeoisie no longer feels able or willing to give the working class the kind of share to buy it off, that it could afford in the heyday of the social democracy. If it is willing to allow the CP in, it is also ready to put it out again very quickly.

But while it may worry about certain risks in putting the SP and CP in the government, it also has the reassurance of their past histories. Both parties have shown themselves to have turned their backs long ago on revolution, and they have shown themselves willing and able to carry out the policies of the bourgeoisie, especially in those critical times when the bourgeoisie found its own parties less effective.

The SP has made clear that its only goal is to hold political office. It has played little role in social movements, and recruits on a completely reformist, electoral and often anti-communist basis. It has shown itself as willing to be allied with the right as with the left.

Mitterrand, who joined the SP in 1971, built up its electoral machine around himself. He long ago proved where he stood for the bourgeoisie. He has served in 11 different right and left government between 1947 and 1958. During this time, he and members of the Socialist Party defended the interests of French imperialism in Indochina against the Vietnamese people, and in Algeria against the Algerian people. The memories of the SWP are extremely short when they say that “Mitterrand’s election will give encouragement to workers and peasants in the colonial and semi-colonial world, too.”

And equally, Mitterrand and the SP have both demonstrated their willingness in the past to attack the working class. For example, during the strike wave of 1947 and 1948, the government, which included Mitterrand and SP ministers, attacked the strikers with the police and the army.

The CP also has made a proof to the bourgeoisie of its loyalty. For example, during the period of the Popular Front, and then later in the 1940s under De Gaulle, it showed that it was willing and able to sacrifice the struggles of the working class in return for its rightful place in the government.

This time the CP is giving an additional guarantee for the bourgeoisie: to be in the government, the CP has had to agree to be the weaker partner. It has been forced to accept Mitterrand’s terms. While there were those who argued that putting the CP in the government was another proof of Mitterrand’s radicalism, it is safe to say that the opposite is the case. When the CP is in the government, it cannot be in the opposition, and thus is deprived of its ability to appear on Mitterrand’s left as a critic. Instead, as a loyal member of the government, the CP is bound to defend and support the SP’s governmental policies. Thus the CP can help to discipline the working class and get in the way of the workers’ militancy by calling on the workers to be responsible like the CP.

We have already seen a small example of this when the Communist Minister of Transportation convinced the French air controllers not to support PATCO because it meant taking an action against the wishes of the French “workers” government.

So the possible risks for the bourgeoisie are far outweighed by the advantages. The SP and CP in the government are better able to demand sacrifices, and to discipline the working class, than Giscard or Barre. So far, Mitterrand’s track record of the last few months seems to justify this belief.

The CP and the SP carry the hopes of the working class. Mitterrand and the SP do because the workers saw them as the only real hope to defeat Giscard and have a left government; and also because they still maintain certain actual ties to sections of the working class: through the CFDT (French Democratic Workers Confederation) to the technicians and white collar workers, and also to the government functionaries and other sections of the petty bourgeoisie. And the CP carries the hopes of the workers because of its network of devoted militants, organized through French industry in the more militant and larger union, the CGT (General Confederation of Workers). It has thousands of militants who sell its newspaper, hand out its leaflets and participate actively in the life and struggles of the working class. Even with its loss of votes it still has 4 million voters and most of them are workers. In spite of its betrayals of the working class it has maintained a certain militant image. Certainly it is viewed by the majority of French worker militants as their party.

The bourgeoisie is ready to use these ties, the hopes of the workers in these parties, their illusions in the government, to make the workers agree to pay the cost of the crisis.

Parties of the Working Class, but for the Bourgeoisie

The CP and SP are workers’ parties only in the sense that they have a working class membership, a working class electorate and the confidence of the working class, at least up to a point. Politically they stand opposed to the interests of the working class. In fact both their programs and their history show that the only real interests that they defend are those of the bourgeoisie. Perhaps when there is a right-wing government in power and they are in the opposition, at times they can take the side of the working class and even in the case of the CP lead its struggles. But this is hardly the case when they are in the government themselves and must run the bourgeoisie’s state to serve the bourgeoisie. In fact today Mitterrand and the SP-CP government are carrying out the program of the bourgeoisie better than Giscard could because they have the trust of the workers which Giscard never had in the same way.