By Sally Low
PARIS — While the 10th anniversary in May of his election as president was an occasion for glowing eulogies to Socialist Party leader Francois Mitterrand, he and his party's government are now suffering from widespread disillusionment. One month after she was appointed as prime minister, Edith Cresson's popularity had fallen from 43% to 27%, and Mitterrand's ratings had also fallen sharply.
Not only their economic policies but also a number of political scandals such as the Rainbow Warrior affair have discredited them, says Alain Krivine, a leader of the Trotskyist Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire.
The illegal deportation in June of Moroccan political refugee and author Abdelmoumen Diouri, apparently to appease King Hassan II, whose regime has close economic ties with France, was another. In the face of public outrage, the government backed down and allowed him to return to France.
"Now, like in Spain, they are involved in financial scandals. For the bourgeoisie in Europe, such things are a tradition, but they do it with more finesse. These are the new rich. They are not used to managing money and so they behave like children", said Krivine.
Krivine says that the balance sheet of the so-called left in office revealed many similarities with the experiences of Spain and Australia, where Social Democratic parties also held the reins for most of the '80s.
Won on a promise to Changer la Vie, the 1981 Communist-Socialist coalition victory was greeted with great expectations by ordinary people. Except for a short period after World War II, Communist Party (PCF) members had never before held cabinet positions.
During their first two years in office, they granted some reforms, such as one week extra annual leave. The banks were nationalised (with generous compensation). However, by late 1982, the "policy of change" was dumped in the face of a growing trade imbalance.
"They were forced very quickly to respect all the mechanisms of capitalism", said Krivine. "They began austerity policies which meant increased unemployment, attacks on social security and other areas of what they call unproductive spending."
At first presented as a temporary pause in reform, these policies are still in place today. Unemployment has remained high; in 1987 it reached 10.5% and during the following three years of strong economic growth dropped only to 8.9%. By July it was back up to 9.5%, and the country was again in recession.
Illusions have been shattered, said Krivine. In the last elections, abstention rates were often as high as 40% and in some of the so-called red suburbs of Paris over 50%.
"At the same time, this political unease is marked by an upsurge of the fascist parties such as the National Front of Jean-Marie Le Pen." June opinion polls showed 14% support for the NF, the same as for the Green Party. Discontent due to unemployment, exacerbated by the lack of a clear perspective from any of the major parties of the left, has benefited the NF.
Mitterrand, said Krivine, at first used the NF in order to divide the traditional right. Now, to make up for not having any effective policies to deal with unemployment and other social problems, some Socialists campaign on the theme that the alternative to them is fascism.
Immigration will probably be an issue in the next elections. All the major parties have made some concessions to Le Pen's racism. Mitterrand dropped his promise to give migrants the right to vote, saying that the population was not ready for such a step.
In June, Jacques Chirac, leader of the Gaullist Rally for the Republic, made remarks about immigrants driving French workers crazy. The NF has also tried to stir up racism in response to riots in poor suburbs around Paris and some other major cities, where young people, many of them children of migrants, face high unemployment, racism and inadequate education opportunities.
Cresson also joined the "I'm not a racist, but ..." chorus with her promise to clamp down on illegal immigrants.
Krivine said Mitterrand's decision to replace Michel Rocard with Cresson, the first woman prime minister and an avowed left-winger, was a "last gasp" attempt to win back support. He also hoped to weaken a left bloc within his own party around Jean-Pierre Chevenement, who resigned as defence minister because he disagreed with the government's policy during the Gulf War."But the big danger", said Krivine, "is that the two criteria they chose for appearing left were nationalism and defence of the French economy".
One of Cresson's first prime ministerial statements was an attack against Japanese trade practices. While increasing, Japanese goods were just 4.1% of French imports in 1990.
She is now talking of selling minority shareholdings in state-owned enterprises to private investors, despite Mitterrand's 1988 election promise that he would allow neither more privatisations nor more nationalisations.
Important for the future of Socialist Party governments will be the effect of the turmoil in the USSR on the PCF, whose deputies the government often has to rely on for a majority in parliament.
The PCF, one of the last hardline Stalinist parties in Western Europe, is in crisis. During the last 10 years, according to Krivine, it has lost 50% of its electoral support and more than 50% of its members. Members of the opposition tendency, called the "Refondateurs", have demanded a special congress of the party and leadership.
Trade union membership is now less than 10% of the workforce. The two main union federations, the Communist-led General Confederation of Labour (CGT) and the French Democratic Confederation of Labour (CFDT), which lines up behind one faction of the Socialist Party, have served the interests of their parties in government.
Until it left the coalition in 1984, said Krivine, the CGT, the largest and most important confederation, unofficially "gave the order to be very quiet". Afterwards it launched a series of strikes that were often quite ultraleft.
The CFDT wants a regrouping of moderate unions as part of its plan for a new partnership-with-employers-style of unionism. There have also been countervailing moves by some members of the CGT, the CFDT and others to work together for a more united and democratic union movement.