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FRANCE: A Schizophrenic Campaign

5 minute read

Despite center-right warnings, the voters still lean left

With elections only a month away, France’s bleak wintry landscape was suddenly abloom with bright billboards last week. The most striking campaign poster was one showing a sturdy tree with a caption calling for CONFIDENCE IN BARRE. The tree referred to a celebrated comparison made by Premier Raymond Barre, who had likened his efforts to boost the French economy to nurturing a tree. “Obstinately but durably, the tree grows little by little,” Barre assured French voters. On the other hand, Socialism and Communism blow in like a “typhoon,” wreaking havoc in the whole forest.

According to the polls, however. many Frenchmen regard a leftist victory in the March parliamentary elections as a welcome breath of spring rather than a fearful typhoon. A survey appearing in the newsmagazine Le Point this week shows that 52% of the electorate would vote for the leftist parties as against 44% for the center-right. One top Gaullist leader even believes that the left might well reach 55% by election time. If that happens, Socialist Leader Francois Mitterrand would almost certainly become Premier—and France would face the possibility of having Communists in Cabinet posts for the first time in 30 years.

France’s business community was showing signs of profound alarm at the prospect. Capital investment has come to a virtual standstill because of business worries about the sweeping nationalization programs advocated by the Socialists and Communists in their ill-named (the two parties still differ greatly as to the details) Common Program. Two weeks ago, the franc took a dizzying plunge on European money markets as a result of what Barre termed “psychological factors explained by political uncertainty.”

Although the franc rallied last week, it continued its headlong flight abroad. Mitterrand claimed that 500 billion francs ($100 billion) have been illegally exported to Switzerland. Though the claim was exaggerated, more and more apprehensive citizens were getting their money out of the country or hoarding gold—the Frenchman’s historical hedge against political uncertainty. Most popular were the one-kilo ingots (currently worth $5,738), which fit nicely under mattresses, and the small $62 Napoleon d’Or and minuscule $46 demi-Napoleon coins, which can be conveniently secreted—and transported —in the traditional sock. In the past month, bidding for gold has brought the price to a near record $188 per oz. on the Paris market.

It is difficult to assess why so many voters favor a leftist victory, which almost certainly will lead to political instability, heightened social tensions, troubled international relations and economic deterioration. Indeed, in many ways, France is better off than most of its European neighbors. Under the guidance of Economist Barre, France’s rate of G.N.P. growth has been higher than West Germany’s during the past year. Inflation, at 9%, is lower than Italy’s 12%. Unemployment has been brought down to 4.6% from 5.5% last August. When the conservative Paris daily Le Figaro asked a sampling of citizens if they were satisfied with their way of life—income, jobs and housing—63% responded affirmatively. Questioned about what sort of political and economic system they wanted to live under, 46% favored France’s present market economy, 15% expressed a preference for American or Swiss free enterprise systems, while 21% liked West Germany’s social democracy. Only 6% were tempted by Soviet or East European Communism.

If the electorate was schizophrenic, so, in a way, were France’s main political parties. The split between Communists and Socialists on how to update the Common Program has not been papered over. Mitterrand has said that he will invite the Communists to form a coalition government if the left wins a parliamentary majority, but there is evidence that the Socialist rank and file is displeased at such a prospect. When the leftist weekly Le Nouvel Observateur asked Socialist voters what sort of government they wanted after the elections, only 28% opted for a pact with the Communists, while 64% favored a Socialist government without Communists. Moreover, 32% said they would be willing to accept an alliance with the center-right—a proposal that Mitterrand rejects absolutely.

Last week Communist Party Boss Georges Marchais backed away from his threat not to participate in a Socialist government. Fearing that his party would be swamped by the Socialists—the latest poll gives the Communists 20% of the popular vote as against 28% for the Socialists—Marchais had warned last month that he might refuse to support the Socialists. Last week Marchais was claiming that the Socialists had promised him “six or seven” Communist ministers in any government that Mitterrand might form. When Mitterrand denied such numbers had been discussed, Marchais retorted that “it is a lie to pretend otherwise.”

Meanwhile, President Valery Giscard d’Estaing and Paris Mayor Jacques Chirac were patching up their differences. Responding to Chirac’s criticism that he had not been putting his full presidential weight behind the Gaullist leader’s tireless campaigning, Giscard made a major speech backing the Gaullist effort. Although Chirac has repeatedly accused Giscard of conspiring to shove his 550,000-member party aside in favor of three small non-Gaullist parties, he has moderated his tone. At week’s end Chirac led a huge rally in Paris that was designed to inspire fresh hopes among members of the center-right coalition. Radiating a confidence not shared by many of his followers, Chirac appeared on television beforehand to assert that his Gaullist party would prove to be the presidency’s “most solid, loyal and faithful source of support.” But Giscard may need far more than those assurances if the center-right is to catch up with the left’s lead in the crucial weeks ahead.

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