A Modern French Republic

A MODERN FRENCH REPUBLIC, By Pierre Mendes France, Hill and Wang, 205 pp., $3.95

Pierre Mendes France has been, with the possible exception of Charles de Gaulle, France's most imaginative statesman since the war. Stiffled under the Fourth French Republic (his energetic government was overthrown after only seven months) and shut out of the Fifth (he was voted out of his parliamentary seat in the Gaullist landslide of of December, 1962), he sets forth here his proposals for the "modern" republic which must emerge after the Gaullist "interlude."

Mendes argues that the essence of "modern" politics is the accurate reflection of the desires of various social-economic groups. France's failure to erect a political structure reflecting the drastic changes in French economic life since the Second World War has condemned her to a politics of personality in which "a president is sold like a brand of cigarettes or toothpaste."

His answer to the problem is to inject a dose of economic corporatism into a political framework which has traditionally revolved around ideological issues. In addition to the popularly-elected National Assembly, Mendes would see a second house composed of the representatives of labor unions, professional organizations, and consumer groups. Corporatism has been unpopular in France since the efforts of the wartime--and collaborationist--Vichy governments in that direction; but Mendes contends that corporatism is dangerous only when it is given complete control of the state, or when the institutional structure fails to register changes in economic realities.

Such a plan, however, has several difficulties, which Mendes chooses to ignore. One is the dominant role of the Communist Party in French labor. Long-time followers of a "hard" line, the French Communists would be unlikely to put the strength of their trade-union arm, the Confederation of Labor (CGT), strongly behind such a system, for fear of weakening their independent position. A second is France's highly complex and fluid corporate structure, a consequence of its late industrialization and as-yet-unreformed anachronisms in the agricultural sector. Until the gradual unification of a national market is complete, corporatism will face rough going in practice.

Mendes split some years ago with the Radical Party--a party of small producers, of generally libertarian and laissez-faire attitudes; reading his suggestions, one wonders how he and the Radicals ever got together in the first place. His view of the state is strongly planiste--he sees the state as exercising wide responsibilities in both public and private sectors of the economy. He would have electoral campaigns fought on explicit and detailed programs of state planning. Only when the electorate has a firm idea of the intentions of the candidates is democracy truly operative; and only in this way can the influence of personality in politics be reduced.

These fears on the personalization of French politics seem to have been borne out by a recent development; the present Socialist candidate for the Presidency, Gaston Defferre, has refused to detail a platform on the ingenuous ground that "all promises are demagogic."

Mendes' analysis is often one-sided; like most technocrats, he underestimates the durability of emotional and ideological factors in politics and their often-positive value in rallying national energies. Yet France has traditionally been over-concerned with ideology to the detriment of her economic development; and such suggestions have an important corrective value. Whether or not they will have much practical effect in a country where politics is viewed as a form of protest rather than of affirmation is another question.

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