Saturday, October 14, 2017

The French Presidential Election (1974)

From the July 1974 issue of the Socialist Standard

Spring 1974 in France and the presidential election gets the full “American” treatment. To regale the electors there are live television debates, whistle-stop helicopter tours and pop stars singing for their favourite candidate. Opinion polls come and go and one even looks beneath the show-biz facade by finding that approximately 2 per cent, of voters in their twenties are happy with things as they are. And when we get down to the real nitty-gritty, the issues are the familiar ones: inflation, housing, pensions, taxes and unemployment. Such problems, of course, each of the dozen contestants must faithfully promise to put right at the first possible moment.

The two who survive the first round are François Mitterand, the left-wing champion of both “Socialist” and “Communist” parties, and Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, Minister of Finance and politically a Liberal. What follows is a tooth and nail affair, a battle of wits with no quarter given or asked and incomparably high in entertainment value.

Mitterand, the railwayman’s son, plays on his humble background and consequent understanding of the needs of working people. Giscard, the rich aristocrat, deplores his opponents’ claim to a monopoly of compassion and proclaims himself “a man of heart as well as privilege”. Needless to say, both candidates, in their promises, cater for all sections of the community, from immigrants to pensioners from small traders to women. Both pledge change, prosperity, social equality and all the other familiar vaguenesses which trip off politicians’ lips at election time.

In the end Giscard, by the narrowest of margins, wins through. Perhaps it’s his “red scare” campaign that’s worked ? But if so, only just and next time he’s going to find it even more difficult to convince people that a tame Communist Party finger in the government pie represents a genuine Soviet-style threat to “individual liberty” and “democracy”. Again perhaps the French people, looking at Britain’s experience, are genuinely haunted by the spectre of “collectivism” (as Giscard labels Mitterand’s heavy nationalization plans). But the simplest and most likely explanation is that Giscard has proved the slightly superior showman, the better image-projector as they say these days.

Shadow of De Gaulle
What now? Well, a cast-iron certainty is that many of the new president’s pledges of social reform will be broken. Partly out of the usual need of capitalism’s rulers to adopt to economic and political conditions beyond their control. But also because Giscard will not wield anything like the same degree of personal power as his predecessors, Pompidou and De Gaulle. De Gaulle enjoyed a kind of Churchillian prestige amongst the majority of deputies in parliament and this earned him their almost unquestioning obedience. Hence he was able to rule France almost as a dictator over a period of 11 years. If he sometimes “bent” the constitution, he did so with the full compliance both of those deputies and of the voters who had elected them. At the end of that time (1969) these self-same deputies and voters cried “enough” and. showing where the power really lay, consigned their dictator to the political scrapheap. Pompidou was prudent enough to cotton on to the remains of his master’s personal prestige and, with the official tag of the -ism named after him, he too had parliament very much in his pocket.

Giscard will have a far thornier time of it. A member of the small Independent Republican Party, the poor relation of the ruling coalition, he commands nothing like the same parliamentary support or esteem as Pompidou or De Gaulle. De Gaulle’s faithful followers remember Giscard’s back-stabbing volte-face in 1969. After serving the General for a decade as Finance Minister, he turned round and opposed him in the referendum which ended his career. In these elections he has further antagonized those deputies (a large minority in the house) who call themselves Gaullists by pitting himself against (and beating out of sight) the official Gaullist candidate, Jacques Chaban-Delmas.

No great love for Giscard but fear of a left-wing success rallied most of these deputies to his cause in the run-off. He will have to tread warily in the time to come if he is not to suffer the humiliation of parliamentary vetoes to his measures. He will find it doubly difficult to satisfy these “supporters”, as they themselves are no longer united except in name, and in practice represent a whole range of different expectations.

Iron Necessity
Finally nobody, not even his enemies, denies the new president certain talents and advantages. He is highly intelligent, speaks English well and has a close personal friendship with the new German leader, Herr Schmidt. This bodes well, say some. He will rule France wisely, communicate easily with Britain and America and work in unison with West Germany. Hence a new era of harmony and cooperation, both at home and abroad. The reality of the matter is quite different. Anyone seriously thinking that such attributes in a politician can make a worthwhile impact on the jungle of problems created by the ups and downs of the world market is in for some severe disappointments. Monsieur Giscard d’Estaing will soon find out, like so many before him, that capitalism imposes like an iron necessity on its administrators the most unpalatable constraints and limitations.

The French electors too will find out that the “choice of societies” M. Giscard d’Estaing said they were voting for was in fact a choice of different tinkerings with the same society. That society is capitalism. When Giscard’s private free enterprise brand of it fails to satisfy them, as it unquestionably will, perhaps next time they will turn to François Mitterand’s state-controlled variety of the same thing. One thing is certain. As long as they continue to support parties and politicians agreeing to administer this society, they will see no basic change in their conditions of life. Only when they have the understanding to introduce a Socialist community of  voluntary work and free access, can they look forward to their full share in the wealth of the world. Then they will have made the real “choice of societies”.

The Trotskyist Vote Interpreted
Trotskyists of all shades will be jubilant with the 649,414 (2.69%) votes cast for their two candidates in the first round of the French presidential election. This means well over half a million workers ready to take up arms for a Trotskyist revolution. Or does it? Before young Lefties gets too excited, let's take a closer look at those figures.

Arlette Laguiller polled 595,370 (2.33%) votes and Alain Krivine 94,044 (0.36%). Both candidates, following the usual Trotskyist policy, invited their supporters to transfer second round votes to the United Left representative, François Mitterand. Now an opinion poll breakdown of the likely destination of these votes showed that, although the vast majority of Krivine’s supporters were following his advice, only some 60% of Laguiller’s were doing the same. The remaining 35- 40% were set to vote for the so-called right-wing candidate, Giscard d’Estaing! 

What happened ? Well most of Laguiller’s supporters were women attracted not by her Trotskyism but by the modish Women’s Liberation side of her platform. In the run-off those genuinely interested in reforms for women went on to vote for the candidate they considered was offering the most in that sphere (and they both seemed to be offering an equal bundle). Those who had simply cast a vague kind of protest vote for Laguiller (and first rounds are well known for protest votes) turned, like most of their male compatriots, to one of the two “respectable” candidates who made the greatest personal impression upon them.

The “pure” Trotskyist, Krivine, with his 90 thousand, collected less than half as many votes as in the 1969 presidentials.* And even this cannot be considered as an accurate measure of the support for Trotskyism, as on low percentage votes a good proportion are cast by chance or in error. While continuing to let themselves be taken in by the traditional capitalist parties, the French working class at least has the good sense to reject the far more dangerous nonsense aired by the followers of Trotsky.
Howard Moss

*Then he polled 236,263 (1 per cent.).

No comments: