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French election expected to pit President against Parliament

``We'll lose,'' says Bernard Montergnole, a Socialist candidate. ``But I'm still confident.'' ``We'll win,'' replies Jean Folco, an opposition Gaullist candidate. ``But I'm worried.''

Are the statements just a bit of Gallic wit, a peculiar French paradox? Not at all.

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As the campaign for the March 16 parliamentary elections moves toward a climax, the Socialists seem certain to lose their majority. But they are confident that they have changed French politics by evolving into a solid social democratic party and establishing themselves as one of two permanent forces of government.

And while the alliance of two opposition parties can confidently predict they will win the most votes, it remains unclear how much they will be able to accomplish with their victory. The parties -- the neo-Gaullist Rally for the Republic and the moderate Union for French Democracy -- seem uncertain whether to work with Socialist President Fran,cois Mitterrand or to fight him.

Political uncertainty seems the likely result.

Ever since its founding by Gen. Charles de Gaulle in 1958, France's Fifth Republic has rested on twin pillars: a strong presidency and majority rule in Parliament. Strong left and right blocs replaced the multi-party factionalism of the Fourth Republic.

This rigid, if stable, framework is now crumbling. A consensus on major issues among both the Socialists and the conservatives has replaced ideological stridency. A new system of proportional voting, replacing the winner-take-all system, promises to produce a Parliament with myriad parties where no party has a majority. Above that confused fray will stand Socialist President Mitterrand, whose term lasts until 1988.

These conclusions stem from a week-long visit in the Grenoble region. For a hundred years, Grenoble has been an economic, social, and political trendsetter. As Claude Muller, author of a municipal history, says, ``We're France's pioneers. We point to the path to France's future.''

That path now appears to point toward the center. In the 1960s and 1970s, Grenoble served as the setting for the country's most daring socialist experiment. In 1965 a brash young nuclear engineer named Hubert Dubedout brought together professors, scientists, and entrepreneurs under the Socialist banner and won the mayor's office. As he consolidated power, he took away more and more votes from the communists.

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In office, Mr. Dubedout tried to construct a more ambitious, vigorous, and generous society. Over time, however, the Socialist dream in Grenoble turned into a nightmare. After the oil-crisis and the onset of the recession, money for grand social projects dried up.

By the time Mitterrand came to national power in 1981, neither France nor Grenoble could afford the radical, reflationary measures once advocated by the Socialists. Austerity became the key word; unproductive workers were fired, social funding was cut, taxes were raised.

``The left deceived us,'' says Pierre Frappat, author of ``Wounded Grenoble,'' a book about the downfall of the Dubedout. ``It promised so much and couldn't carry out its promises.''

In the 1983 municipal election in Grenoble, the conservatives took advantage of this Socialist malaise. Shedding their crusty image they turned to young, dymanic politicians such as Jean Folco, and rode the growing public wave of enthusiasm for ``Reaganomics,'' preaching lower taxes and more free enterprise.

Once in office, the new conservatives were more moderate. They spared social programs. Instead of cutting taxes, they just kept them from rising further. And instead of privatizing municipal services, they only decentralized management.

``The public wouldn't stand for radical measures,'' explains Mr. Folco. ``They are tired of ideology.''

Sensing that message on a national scale, the Socialists have begun to regroup. In 1970 Mitterrand promised to make the Socialists the largest party of the left. In that year his party won less than 5 percent of the vote nationwide. In the 1981 presidential and legislative elections, the Socialists won an outright majority. (Over the same period the communists fell from 23 percent to 12 percent.)

After coming to power, the Socialists faced many difficulties. Although many members never approved of the austerity measures, most are reconciled to it, especially now that the economy is improving. Through their trials the party remained firmly behind Mitterrand.

Candidate Bernard Montergnole says the Socialists could once again win a majority in Grenoble. Nationally, the Socialists hope to score well enough to make them the biggest single party in Parliament, ahead of the Rally for the Republic. With 30 percent of the delegates, Mitterrand has hinted that he could cobble together some sort of center-left coalition that includes the Socialists, perhaps in a minority government. No one knows how this would work, as France has never before been in this position. And with 30 percent, Mitterrand would have little trouble carrying out the last two years of his term.

``Power has taught us realism,'' says Mr. Montergnole. ``We have shown that facts, not ideology, rule. We have reconciled the nation with good economics and business. We have instituted certain social benefits which no one questions.''

Their achievements are enough to make the two conservative parties squabble. Recent opinion polls show them winning 48 percent, enough for a majority. But should they govern with a Socialist President? That question divides them.

Behind all this is a bemused electorate. Opinion polls indicate that as many as a quarter of the registered voters still are undecided. And in a country normally passionate over politics, those polls indicate that record numbers may not vote.

``People are uninterested because they feel the opposition has already won,'' says author Pierre Frappat. ``Yet they are undecided because, unlike in past campaigns, they are not being offered two different visions for France.''

For these reasons, Gaullist Folco worries as he approaches a sure victory. And Socialist Montergnole seems relatively unconcerned as his party approaches sure defeat.

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