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ON SUNDAY MORNING, December 5, what seemed like a watershed event in recent French political history took place. From all over France people came to participate, and from all levels of society: small shopkeepers, bitter farmers and disillusioned, out-of-work youth. Sixty thousand Frenchmen, according to the organizers, converged on a fairground at Paris's Porte de Versailles. In the post-dawn cold, they disbanded the last of Charles deGaulle's parties, the Democratic and Republican Union (DRU), and thus marked the nominal end to the gaullist era in French politics.
In its place, they founded a new mass movement dedicated to holding the line against the French left--to blocking the chances of France's Socialist-Communist coalition of gaining a parliamentary majority in the next nationwide elections. These former gaullists and their sympathizers dubbed the movement the Assembly for the Republic. At its head they proclaimed a new heir to what one commentator called the French "political strong-man tradition" of Napoleon and deGaulle: a smooth 44-year old operator and former Prime Minister named Jacques Chirac.
The French press called it a consecration. Critics on the French left compared the rally to pro-fascist, personality cult mass meetings. And there were resemblances. When Chirac rose to greet the throng, none of the other leaders of the old DRU party shared the podium with him. When the crowd broke in the afternoon to "elect" a chief for the new movement in voting booths thrown up around the fairground, the electors were presented with only three choices--"for" Chirac, "against" Chirac, or "abstain." One spectator, questioned by a New York Times reporter about the angry but obedient mood of the Chirac boosters, said, "These people exist in all countries. I've seen them in Wallace crowds, in Strauss crowds, and in Madrid two weeks ago at the rally commemorating Franco."
The supporters, grim at the outset but suddenly fired-up as they interrupted Chirac 96 times during his speech, by all accounts called to mind the Frenchmen who have found anti-reform, authoritarian appeals attractive in the past, particularly during the pre-World War II depression. France is again suffering a severe economic crisis; after a decade of industrial boom, the average Frenchman is faced with bewildering jumps in both inflation and unemployment. The "little guy" has become fed up, and Chirac is capitalizing on this despair.
He has two objectives in mind. Publicly, he has stressed the need for a dramatic pitch to hold the disgruntled lower and middle classes in the conservative-to-center fold. Without a concerted "anti-collectivist" campaign, he has warned with a note of alarm over the past year, the petite bourgeoisie will give the Socialist-Communist coalition the seats in the National Assembly it needs in the 1978 elections to control government initiatives.
But Chirac is also playing a shrewd personal politics. By focusing the conservative crusade on his new party, he has launched a direct challenge to the "presidential majority" of current President Valery Giscard-D'Estaing. After resigning as Giscard's Prime Minister in August (largely because of the president's reluctance to declare an all-out attack on the leftist coalition), he has tacitly declared his own political war that can only escalate as the presidential election in 1981 approaches. In pursuit of both objectives he seems ready and willing to stir up dangerous reactionary sentiments.
Although the December 5th rally came off without any incidents of violence, the potential for it was in the air. The night before, Giscard's Minister of the Interior had had police evacuate strikers from the offices of a city newspaper--Le Parisien Libere. A member of Chirac's entourage broke the news forcefully to the crowd, expecting them to realize that the move would cause other papers to strike in sympathy and thus deprive the rally of press coverage. He awaited boos and hisses. But the crowd cheered wildly, excited at the news that police had begun to treat the organized strikers with such strong-arm tactics.
In other words, Chirac is playing with fire. Although by no means a fascist, he has obviously decided to cash in on France's neo-bonapartist tradition of authoritarian appeals and vehement nationalist political drama. Throughout his rally speech, Chirac played on deGaulle's favored theme of "independent nationalism." In a bombastic piece of oratory reminiscent of deGaulle, he called on "free men who want to shape their history with their own hands."
This is precisely the sort of rhetorical appeal that will attract angry and powerless small businessmen, landholders and workers who, because of sociological and economic changes in French society, had begun to swing toward the left. Yet Chirac is no deGaulle, and in whipping up a general reactionary fervor--without producing substantive new responses to those underlying socio-economic conditions--he may lose control of the forces he has roused and eventually find himself the victim of the frustration he has tried to harness.
So far he has yet to come up with proposals that look thematically different from Giscard's. Both Giscard and Chirac came to power on the strength and bankrolls of the big business boom that carried through the last presidential election, and Chirac will not jeopardize the support of France's large capitalists by breaking ranks with Giscard's majority on any serious reform issues. The difference between them will remain in strong-arm appeal; he will oppose the rage of the lower-middle classes against the Giscardian liberalism of the upper-middle classes. To keep his political momentum going, Chirac will have to raise the rhetorical, and reactionary, stakes.
The French left, meanwhile, offers clear programmatic alternatives. Francois Mitterand, the Socialist Party head who ran as the coalition's presidential candidate in 1974, advocates tighter national control of key industries, more pro-worker labor regulations and a revamping of the tax structure. And Georges Marchais, the sometimes abrasive head of the Communist Party, has shed a reputation for strict adherence to Soviet directives and identified himself with the type of Euro-Communism espoused by leaders like Italy's Enrico Berlinguer. How long the two men can continue to play down ideological differences and hold their political alliance together, however, remains unclear. No one can predict how their cooperation will hold up through the 1978 elections and in the face of Chirac's frontal attack.
Yet united or separated, the French left takes its reform proposals seriously. It does not, like a large segment of the conservative block, bounce from one ad hoc formula to the next, backing the political leader who momentarily seems to project the most appealing image. (The support for Chirac provides one more instance of this inconstancy.)
But the failure of traditional economic solutions may in the coming months push more and more of this block to see through men like Chirac and to break this pattern. The municipal elections this spring and the legislative elections next year will tell. Until then, unemployment continues to worsen while Chirac preoccupies the government and the nation with his divisive Assembly. It is the French working people--the very type of men and women who joined together for the December 5th rally--who are paying the price for this political opportunism got up in the guise of "historical drama."
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