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No New Bedfellows

The French election results leave everyone a bit unhappy, but the political scene probably won’t change much.

 The big surprise of the French elections is that the new National Assembly is virtually a carbon copy of its predecessor. The governing majority retains control over 290 of the 300 seats it had in the outgoing parliament. The left opposition, with a gain of 17, now has 201 deputies. This outcome is surprising because for the past 12 months a chorus of political commentators and pollsters has been predicting a dramatic change. Based on voters' declared intention to vote for the left, and on widely expressed dissatisfaction with current governmental policies, the pundits foresaw either an outright victory for the left—a coalition of Communists, Socialists, Left Radicals, or possibly a popular vote majority for the left transformed by France’s two-step electoral system into a narrow defeat in terms of parliamentary representation.

The seers’ conclusions were erroneous, but their logic was not. For on March 12 and 19, the voters did not demonstrate continued confidence in the majority. Rather, they rejected the only available alternative. Since last summer the “united” left—under the impetus of a Communist party fearful that its strength was being drained by the Socialist party that once had been its junior partner—has presented a public display of internal discord and diatribe that made the coalition’s claimed intention to govern together no longer credible. In addition, many moderate voters attracted by the Socialists finally refused to give into the temptation, out of fear of the Communists. This fear certainly was fueled by the center political leaders, but it was stimulated most strongly by the behavior of the Communists themselves.

What will those who supported the left do next time, and meanwhile? And how will the voters who finally opted for what they came to see as the lesser of two evils come to evaluate their decision? Certainly it is unlikely that the center victory will be challenged by an immediate outbreak of social turmoil. The unions responded to the election returns by announcing their willingness to negotiate with the new government—a rather important event since the major unions usually have refused such contact under a stylized “dealing with the enemy” mentality. Furthermore, the mood of the left’s electorate is more one of resignation than revolt. They know that really their own leaders are to blame for the defeat.

So at least for a few months, and probably into next fall, the new government has a grace period during which it could deal with the most urgent economic problems—in particular unemployment—and start to reduce some of the more glaring elements of social injustice such as an unusually high disparity, for an advanced industrialized society, between the income of its poorest and wealthiest citizens. A few halfway-sincere moves in this direction might end the electoral threat from the left for good. But the new government, even if it has the will, probably lacks the capacity to take the necessary actions. The Gaullist party and the Giscardians—parties in the center coalition—apparently agree that broad social and economic reforms are needed. But they disagree on the exact prescription. Without strong solidarity between Gaullists and Giscardians, important changes are unlikely.

Does this mean that the people will revise their choice in the next election? Not necessarily. Future voters, if confronted once again with a choice between insufficient change and Communist participation in government, are likely to make the same decision they just did. Serious deterioration of the economy might alter some opinions as to which of the two evils is more worth avoiding. The other reason the result might change would be a readjustment among the coalitions seeking the people's approval. But even though none of the party leaders seems pleased with the current coalition arrangement, the possibility for changing these seems very slim.

President Giscard d’Estaing, all observers agree, is the big winner of these elections. His governmental majority, in spite of expectations to the contrary, was returned to power. Furthermore, the election result may aid Giscard in achieving his vision of a new, liberal political society. Giscard wants to preside over the establishment of a large center-left governing coalition, composed of the parties that support him already plus the bulk of the contemporary Socialist party. Such a coalition would free Giscard from the constraining hands of the Gaullists, who would be exiled to a sterile opposition on the right. And it would pull Socialists away from the Communists, who would be reduced to a sterile opposition of the left.

The recent elections aided this ambition of Giscard’s in two ways. First, the center right party supporting the President most strongly has begun to coalesce. Bickering and disagreement gave way first to electoral alliance. These cooperative arrangements were successful for all the splinter groups; consequently, the UDF seems on its way to becoming a single parliamentary group rather than simply a confederation to avoid electoral defeat. Second, the Socialists seem ready to move away from the united left strategy that has been the party's bible since 1972. Many Socialist leaders blame the Communists for dashing their high hopes for political power, and already are talking publicly about a new, less constraining relationship with their coalition partner—one featuring separate programs rather than a common one.

On the other hand, the UDF coalition still is fragile. The electoral coalition probably will continue to function in the parliament itself, but it may not result in a fusion of the parties. Total assimilation into a new party dominated by the Republicans—Giscard’s party of origin—would require a significant change in mentality for some of the smaller parties in Giscard’s camp. Furthermore, the President has to live with the powerful RPR and its leader, Jacques Chirac. Chirac’s Gaullist party remains the biggest vote getter and also the largest parliamentary group. Compared to the results of 1973, the Gaullists have been weakened, but only very slightly: a loss of 20 seats still leaves them with 153 deputies. A united UDF group around Giscard probably will have at least 130 members, a number no longer dwarfed by the Gaullists in the majority coalition. But any legislation Giscard wants adopted will have to meet with the Gaullists’ approval. Of course this approval may be somewhat easier to obtain from Gaullist deputies who remember that one of the points of discord between their leader Chirac and President Giscard was over the timing of the legislative elections. Jacques Chirac wanted an early dissolution of the National Assembly. Since it appears that the center-right victory only occurred because the Socialists and the Communists were given time to tear apart the winning combination they had prepared, many Gaullist deputies may reflect that their personal election success is due to Giscard not heeding Chirac’s advice. But then gratitude is not a pronounced virtue of politicians.

In fact, the Gaullists may feel even freer now than before to exercise their veto power in the assembly. Previously, they had to worry that Giscard might dissolve the parliament over their lack of support, and that in the ensuing elections—labeled as destroyers of the coalition—they would be demolished. Now the threat of dissolution is no longer realistic. Having triumphed unexpectedly, Giscard cannot run the risk of new elections, especially ones provoked by his own governing coalition’s inability to work together. Consequently, in order to govern, the President will need the Gaullists’  support, which certainly is not unconditional.

The Gaullists’ dilemma is that they are unable to leave the governing majority, because they have no other place to go. So they are reduced to the role of a support group with some veto power but little capacity for initiative. The only way out of this dilemma is if Jacques Chirac becomes President of the Republic. This would have been a greater possibility if the left had won the election. Tensions between the left-controlled assembly and President Giscard might have forced Giscard to resign and call a presidential election. This possibility having been eliminated, Chirac's chances are severely reduced.

The Socialists are the big losers of these elections. But there is at least one crumb of comfort: the longstanding Socialist goal of electoral superiority over the Communists has been achieved for the first time since the end of World War II. The Socialists now must choose among three possible strategies: a continuation of the union of the left; a looser electoral alliance with the Communists but an independent program; or a third-force coalition with the Giscardians. The most active segment of the Socialist party is the left-wing CERES group, which has the support of about one quarter of the membership. They are strongly attached to the common program, believing that this is the only way to reduce the strength of the Communist party and simultaneously permit a real government of the left. The past election season gives some support to this position. The Communist behavior toward the Socialists not only discredited the party among the general population, but also caused internal dissention. To profit from these tensions, the Socialist party must remain committed to the union of the left.

The President would welcome the Socialists into a third-force coalition with the Giscardians. But such a coalition would be a renunciation of everything the party has stood for in recent years. It would require an inordinate degree of opportunism. And since even individual “right wing” Socialists have resisted the temptation to obtain power by changing sides, a collective decision of this nature is unlikely.

The only other possible strategy for the Socialists is the one that seems to be emerging—a more or less independent program bolstered by electoral agreement with the Communists. Such a line represents a compromise between the bitterness Socialists feel about the Communists’ recent behavior and the fidelity they retain toward the principles of the left.

The Communists have achieved their goal of denying victory to the Socialists. But this triumph has been expensive: the party's share of popular support has decreased; the credibility of its de-Stalinized image has diminished; and significant tension has developed within the ranks. Party members came to believe in the union of the left and the victorious governing coalition it would produce. The diatribe by party leaders against their Socialist partners combined with the rapidity with which a new agreement was signed after the unsatisfactory results of the first round of voting raised questions about whether the leadership really wanted victory. The problem for the Communists is that they really do not have any alternative except to continue in any kind of coalition the Socialists wish to have. To dissolve all bonds with the Socialists means a return to the ghetto. The party could survive this isolation, but would not benefit from it.

A realignment of the parties on the model of Giscard’s dream of a center-left coalition might have benefits for everyone. Citizens looking for reform without the risks of a Communist-dominated regime surely would support a Socialist-Giscardian coalition. The Gaullists would be released from the constraints of an alliance which dramatically restricts their freedom to maneuver in return for an inordinately small amount of influence. The Socialists, after 20 years of opposition politics, would finally get a share of the power and the glory. And the Communists would have the opportunity to dominate the entire left opposition to the governing majority, as they do in Italy. But however much such a new arrangement might please all parties concerned, it appears more likely that, for a while at least, they all will remain stuck with the bedfellows they already have chosen.

William R. Schonfeld is an associate professor at the University of California, Irvine currently on a research fellowship at the Center for Organizational Sociology in Paris. 

This article appeared in the April 1, 1978 issue of the magazine.