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France: Confrontations with Reality

9 minute read
Jordan Bonfante

Three years of socialism produce a question: “What now?”

Tax-hungry Finance Minister Jacques Delors swoops down from a helicopter to collect the franc used in the coin toss of a soccer match. Intent on projecting French military power abroad. Defense Minister Charles Hernu leads an attack against the tiny principality of Monaco: “Ack-ack-ack!” President Francois Mitterrand interrupts his compulsive globetrotting for a rare visit to Paris and, shuddering at what he finds, hightails away again.

In Socialist heaven, meanwhile, the cherubs are busily filling out their income tax returns when two horned devils from Hades, former President Valéry Giscard d’Estaing and Paris Mayor Jacques Chirac, try to seize power. But in the finale the good Lord Mitterrand in gilded pajamas—aided by winged archangels in silver-lamé union suits—repulses the celestial coup attempt by beating back the interlopers with long-stemmed Socialist roses.

The chansonniers are back. Those uniquely French stand-up political satirists had fallen relatively dormant during the less controversial, more prosperous Giscard era. Now they are thriving as never before and playing to full houses in the Théâtre des Deux Anes and other pocket-size theaters on the garish lower slopes of Montmartre. If the audience claps with delight, it is not at the Socialist government’s heavenly victory so much as at the sight of the great and powerful being ridiculed. “The French have always enjoyed making fun of their politicians,” exults Comedian Pierre Douglas. “Now they’re wild about it.”

As Mitterrand’s Socialist government marked its third anniversary last week, there was plenty of material for the chansonniers. Beyond the demonstrations (commonplace), inflation (slowing), unemployment (rising) and the strains between Socialists and Communists in the ruling coalition (severe), there has been a ripple effect of change across much of the social landscape. Few aspects of French life have remained untouched by the electoral upheaval that gave France its first leftist government in three decades. In areas as diverse as law and education, communications and fashion, business and dining, the France of 1984 bears Mitterrand’s distinct imprint.

Perhaps the most notable feature of Mitterrand’s three years has been the dramatic flip-flop in economic policy: what began as a reflationary spending spree later turned into prolonged austerity. Similar reversals have occurred, though less conspicuously, in many other realms, as the aggressive changes of 1981 and 1982 were revoked or diluted in the face of reality or public reaction. As Culture Minister Jack Lang privately told a Paris publisher, “We had big ideas in the beginning, dreams from all those years in the opposition, but then we were confronted by realities, and we came to understand how difficult it is to govern.”

Some of the Socialists’ biggest ideas were applied in the area of law-and-order. Justice Minister Robert Badinter implemented major reforms, including abolition of the death penalty, dissolution of the feared “state security” courts, and an expansion of prisoners’ rights. But a public outcry over rising crime (burglaries are up 25% since 1981) and resistance among penal administrators have slowed, and in some cases, reversed the pace of liberalization.

The prison population has rocketed from 30,000 to 41,000, overcrowding the country’s jails. “The Socialists are putting people in jail, but they gave an impression of laxity,” says Michel Crozier, a sociologist at Paris’ prestigious Institut d’Etudes Politiques. Undismayed, Badinter goes on promoting reforms. The latest: a proposal to give detained offenders new rights that lawyers are already calling “French-style habeas corpus.”

The noisiest liberalization is a controlled cacophony emanating from the more than 800 private radio stations that crowd the FM radio band. Their size varies from that of Radio Service Tour Eiffel, a 1,500-watt operation that is indirectly backed by Paris Mayor Chirac, to Radio Panorama, operated by a baker and his wife with a 500-watt transmitter in their garage in suburban Vitry-sur-Seine. The private stations have taken an estimated 20% of the audience away from the five established, and at least partly state-controlled, stations that monopolized the air waves until 1982. Surveying everything from religious sermons to gay rights, the raucous newcomers have provided a voice for all manner of minority interests. More important, they have set the stage for a comparable expansion of France’s tightly state-controlled television system. The government has approved a pay-TV channel and, just last week, a scheme for commercial cable television.

The Culture Ministry, which has more than doubled its budget (to $1 billion) since 1981, has been busy promoting Lang’s schemes to expand the horizons of citizens. A new museum and concert hall are being built on the site of an old slaughterhouse in eastern Paris. A large new “people’s opera” is on the drawing boards. Subsidies have kept books relatively cheap and at the same time prevented venerable bookshops from being killed off by discount chain stores. But Lang’s free spending, including an almost completed maison des écrivains (House of Writers) with word processors for budding authors, has neither increased literary output nor raised its quality. Lang’s approach—that a Renaissance cannot be legislated—has yet to be demonstrated.

Aside from the 2.2 million unemployed (9.8% of the work force), the middle class has been hit hardest by Mitterrand’s economic program. The main reason is that the tax bite has increased 15% to 20% for many middle-income families. They are now paying higher levies on everything from rented cars to boat insurance and, for some 2 million with annual incomes of more than $20,000, a 5% to 8% surtax on their earnings. As a result, many people have been spending rather than investing their savings.

Patterns are also changing among the wealthy. Cleaning women’s wages are down because more households are doing without help. The hostess in Paris’ well-heeled 16th arrondissement still appears in the latest Chanel outfits but has given up sit-down dinners for 40 in favor of buffets for ten and less expensive champagne (Veuve Cliquot instead of Dom Perignon). The elderly count in Provence dwells in one wing of an otherwise shuttered château he hesitates to sell because of the government’s “wealth tax” of up to 2.5% on assets over $400,000.

In the gilt-edged world of horse racing, Socialist moves have cut two ways. At first the punitive new 75% top-bracket income tax rate accelerated a flight of French thoroughbreds to the U.S. and Ireland. But since then the racing fraternity has been gratified by thoroughly Socialist interventions: the government sank a $2 million subsidy into buying 80% of a prized French stud named the Wonder to keep him inFrance.

The economic squeeze has had other unexpected consequences. Superchefs like Paul Bocuse were apprehensive when the Socialists imposed a 30% tax on business entertainment, but three-star restaurants are thriving as never before. “There was a downswing the first year,” says Frangois Benoist, owner of Chez les Anges hi Paris. “But business recovered, and now is better than it’s ever been.” One possible reason: tighter currency export controls have prevented well-to-do French from spending their money abroad and compelled them, as it were, to eat it at home.

Businessmen have been affected in contradictory ways. They have been hit hard by higher labor costs, more union rights and severe constraints against layoffs. But, paradoxically, businessmen are suddenly starting to enjoy an unprecedented respectability, thanks largely to the Socialists. French people of all classes have traditionally looked askance at the pursuit of commerce and made businessmen feel socially inferior. Now, as part of its zealous austerity-minded campaign to revive investment and encourage new, advanced industries, the government has been extolling free enterprise. Mitterrand himself has formally endorsed “the right to make a fortune.” Captains of industry like Schlumberger’s Jean Riboud are featured heroically on the covers of traditionally leftist magazines. As Sociologist Crozier notes, former Premier Raymond Barre “tried to teach respect for business, but no one listened. Now that the Socialists are doing the same thing, it is beginning to have an impact.”

The Socialist era has brought to the fore a new generation of personalities, like Christine Ockrent, 39, the clear-eyed and bob-haired anchorwoman on the evening news for Antenne 2. Ockrent, who has the added allure of having previously worked for CBS, is not a Socialist. But she epitomizes, if anybody does, what one woman writer accurately calls the Socialist ideal of the contemporary Frenchwoman: independent, progressive and athletic.

Then there is Serge July, 41, a veteran of the 1968 student revolt who sports pink polo shirts at the office and who has turned a former radical tract, Liberation, into an increasingly respected daily. July has thrived by broadening Liberation’s coverage to include everything from gossip to science and by criticizing the government from a new angle, the maverick left. Journals molded in opposition, like the daily Le Monde and the weekly Nouvel Observateur, have lost readers while groping for new identities. But established conservative dailies like Le Figaro have held their own by thundering against the Socialists. The government has introduced a bill to restrict the number of publications under single ownership, a move widely seen as a vendetta against Le Figaro Publisher Robert Hersant, who owns three national and twelve regional dailies.

The Mitterrand years have brought what is known as the Socialist Look: corduroy suit, curly hair and clear Ray-Ban glasses. Variations on this modish theme are worn by Premier Pierre Mauroy (Ray-Bans), Culture Minister Lang (curly hair) and Socialist Party leaders like Lionel Jospin (both). But like many other characteristics of the new regime, such trimmings have been modified by time, the responsibilities of office and better tailoring.

The years since 1981 have created a special feeling in the national atmosphere—nothing very tangible, but something that is simply there, making itself felt with a twitching sensation at the nape of the French neck: an ill-defined uneasiness. It is best described by a civil servant who had been well disposed to the government but now complains, “With these Socialists, you can never relax.” Too true. There is, every day it would seem, in the headlines or in the streets, another surprise or controversy or public problem, either at home or abroad. In a country that for more than a decade had been fairly tranquil, even predictable in its pillowy wellbeing, this has come as a disquieting psychological change for many people.

It gives the chansonniers plenty to do. And it gives the neighbors who pause around Lily Gaillardon’s newspaper kiosk on Place de la Contrescarpe on Paris’ Left Bank plenty to talk about “Everybody does it,” Lily says. “They pay for their paper. They look at the headlines, and then they say, ‘What now?’ ”

—By Jordan Bonfante/Paris

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