The French have voted by an overwhelming majority for a sweeping transformation of their society. "Historical" is not too strong a word to describe the task confronting President Mitterrand and a Socialist-controlled parliament. It consists in gradually reducing economic inequalities among the worst in the West to bring France more into line with the social situation in West Germany and the Scandinavian countries.
Should the challenge be met, French socialism would gradually evolve from its present radicalism to a form of social democracy that could ensure a degree of political stability greater than France has known for generations.
Today Mitterrand has more power than any other French head of state in recent history. The left now controls: (1) the executive, (2) parliament, (3) the labor unions, (4) the instruments for mobilizing the masses. Not even Charles de Gaulle, who had labor against him, could muster so much power. Furthermore, Mitterrand has time on his side: he was elected to a seven-year term, parliament for five uninterrupted years.
The big losers in the electoral contest were the center right and the Communists, two alignments that strangely enough need one another to survive. The right feeds on the "communist danger," the Communists on the "capitalist exploitation of the workers." When the Communists lost heavily in the presidential election, the "communist danger" on which the right centered its campaign lost its credibility.
To preserve its identity as the sole representative of the working class, the communist Party (PCF) had made a sustained effort to identify Mitterrand with the right. This line too lacked credibility and proved self-defeating. A large number of PCF members gave it the lie by voting for Mitterrand rather than Communist candidate Georges Marchais.
The center right and the PCF also have this in common: they belong to the past. The main opposition today is the neo-Gaullists led by Paris Mayor Jacques Chirac. Their arguments -- a mixture of slogans such as "gloire," "grandeur," "patrie" -- still appeal to a certain French jingoism, but not as much as in times past.When de Gaulle reminded France -- defeated, humiliated, torn by guilt feelings because of unforgivable episodes of collaboration with the Nazi invader -- of its past glories, his appeals touched a deep chord in French sensitivities.
The French wanted to come to terms with a recent past and the scars it produced. A number of books, films, documentaries, articles have exalted the heroes of the anti-Nazi underground, but have also recounted unsavory episodes like the role of the French police in hunting Jews to be turned over to the Gestapo. A recent film, "Le dernier metro," recalls that there was a time during the Nazi occupation when the German authorities received on a daily average 1,500 denunciations of Jews.
With many French a reason for voting Socialist was not only to look toward the future, but also to disassociate themselves from those social classes that produced the French brand of fascism and collaboration.
The Communist Party under the leadership of Georges Marchais also belongs to the past. No political group can approve unconditionally the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, denounce the projected installation of US- made missiles in Western Europe while finding nothing wrong with the Soviet SS-20 that could disarm NATO installations with one blow, proclaim that performance in Eastern Europe is on the whole positive and at the same time appeal to the masses. The PCF leadership now admits that it made a mistake in abandoning a "Eurocommunist" line (still followed by its Italian and Spanish comrades) for a pro-Soviet one. If, after having changed coats once, they do so again purely for reasons of convenience their credibility will suffer even further.
Because they are weakened by the defection of a large number of voters, Mitterrand no longer needs them to govern. He has included a few Communists in teh government to prevent the party from exploiting eventual Socialist mistakes, but that is a tactical, not astrategic move.
And the Socialists?
If one recalls that all past efforts to set France on a leftward course have failed, their task may prove exceedingly difficult. France must export heavily to survive economically and success is tied to the strength of the franc. Furthermore, widespread reforms might produce a degree of inflation that lowers the standard of living and leads to social unrest. The franc was the rock against which many socialist projects have crashed. The opposition today is predicting and waiting for the collapse of the socialist experiment in order to take over again.
Comparisons should not be carried too far, however. The new Socialists are not the generous but impractical romantics of the past. A number of ministers are graduates from the prestigious "Ecole Nationale d'Administration," a kind of Harvard Business School which has also counted among its pupils Valery Giscard d'Estaing and Jacques Chirac. Many of them have proved able administrators as mayors of some of France's largest cities.
If the Socialists manage without unbearable constraints to reduce inequalities and bring the country's social structures more in line with those in the more advanced European countries a new social democracy might evolve in France which would not only render insignificant the role of the communist Party but also provide an element of stability for Europe and the West as a whole.
Much will depend on how well the government manages the "revolutionary" phase required to bring about the necessary changes. Should it fail in this difficult task, the situation could become worse than before, with all the serious consequences that implies.