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High Anxiety

The French Await An Uncertain Future

By Brian L. Zimbler

On the Left: Division Thwarts Victory

The party leaders "refused to compromise, and now we are in danger of being defeated."

-a 19-year-old student from Marseilles

On The Right: Take The Money And Run

"If the left arrives in power, I might take my money and leave the country"

-a businessman from Brittany

PARIS--The French are becoming increasingly uneasy. Even their New Year celebrations last week betrayed signs of growing tension: bombings marred holiday shopping in Paris, and a series of strikes closed Michelin and other factories in the provinces. Despite the new malaise, people maintained traditional festivities and gaiety on New Year's Eve and strangers embraced at midnight along the Champs-Elysees, as they have in past years. But beneath all the foie gras, champagne and confetti ran an undercurrent of uncertainty and concern about the 1978 parliamentary elections. Now less than ten weeks away, the impending vote may decisively influence the future course of France.

The French malaise stems from the sharp division between the right and left, with neither faction assured of winning at the polls in March. Internal bickering on the left, and increasing public dissatisfaction with the economic programs of the ruling center-right coalition, has left the election's outcome in doubt. As a result, French nerves are becoming frayed. The national political drama once simply excited people, but now the plot has become too complicated, the actors have confused their lines, and the audience is tired. "J'en ai marle" ("I'm fed up with it") is the most frequently-heard comment concerning politics. Only extremists retain unwavering loyalty to their causes, while most Frenchmen find themselves increasingly disaffected with the parties they support. And nearly everyone worries about the prospect of political critis this spring.

French anxiety takes several forms. For the political right, uneasiness has been a way of life in recent years. The Gaullists and the business community, led by Jacques Chirac, entered into partnership with moderate President Valery Giscard D'Estaing upon his election in 1974. Ever since, however, they have looked askance at many of Giscard's liberal policies and reform attempts. Chirac's political ambitions, plus the Gaullist fear of Giscard's mildly leftist tendencies, provoked a split between the center and right which culminated in Chirac's election as mayor of Paris last spring. But by summer, a greater fear of the outright Marxism of the Communists led Chirac and other rightists to fall back in line with Giscard's ruling coalition.

What the rightists, and some moderates, fear most is the prospect of a victorious coalition of the left bringing communists into the governing majority for the first time in more than 30 years. They hold that such an event would lead to instability in Europe, weaken NATO and bolster Communist parties in other nations, particularly Italy and Spain. More important, they dread implementation of the Common Program of the Left, a 1972 plan for sweeping political and economic changes in France, including nationalizations of hundreds of companies. "Those nationalizations would destroy our economy," a conservative businessman in Brittany explained last week. "If the left arrives in power, I might take my money and leave the country."

Supporters of the left display as much uneasiness as their counterparts on the right. They decry the "austerity measures" which Prime Minister Raymond Barre has been carrying out in an attempt to stimulate the French economy without fueling inflation. Instead, they favor proposals of the Common Program, which promises increased benefits and services for workers, raises in salaries and wages, and worker participation in industrial management. But the future of the Common Program is in doubt, because of bitter fighting between its adherents. The Union of the Left, a coalition of Socialists, Communists, and the tiny Leftist Radicals party, shattered dramatically last September 23 when the parties failed to agree on certain details of the Program. As a result, the Socialists and Communists have stopped working together, and the Communists are now openly competing for Socialist votes. The divisive issue of how many corporations would be nationalized under leftist rule prompted the final break. George Marchais, secretary of the Communist Party, demanded as many as 1500 nationalizations. He finally whittled this figure down to 729, but Francois Mitterand, chief of the Socialist Party, wanted to keep the actual number of nationalized companies as low as possible. White collar workers and managers comprise about one-third of the Socialist's Constituency, and Mitterand has to tailor his policies to their support. The Socialists held firm to their limit of no more than 227 nationalizations, and the coalition collapsed.

Commentators have speculated that the disagreement over nationalization only masked other real differences between the parties, and served as an excuse for Marchais to avoid domination. But whatever the reasons for the split, its results are frustration and displeasure for supporters of the left. United, the leftist parties stood on the verge of taking power. They control a 53 per cent majority of the electorate, according to recent surveys, and by cooperation the left could capture a controlling majority in the 487-member National Assembly. But failure to form a solid coalition dooms the leftist parties to defeat. Because of the intricacies of the "scrutin majoritaire," the French electoral system, center and right parties could combine to beat out a divided left in the runoff elections.

So French leftists now fear that they have been cheated of their chance to rise to power. They are alternately annoyed with Marchais, with Mitterand, or with both. Hard line Stalinists, of course, were glad to see the breakup of the leftist coalition, since they prefer ideological purity to compromise. But many Communists and Socialists are more interested in power than in ideology, and they were upset by the deliberate refusal of the left to combine for victory at the polls. Criticism forced Marchais to embark last month on a $2 million campaign to convince the party faithful that he was right to part company with the Socialists; and Socialists are appealing to Mitterand to reach some new understanding with the Communists before voters head for the polls in March.

As the largest leftist party in France (with 30 per cent of the voters solidly behind them), the Socialists are less troubled by the split than some of the Communists. They reason that Marchais eventually will have to compromise with Mitterand if he wants to enter the government, but they retain a sense of acute disappointment, especially after the heyday of last summer which convinced everyone that France would have a government of the left in 1978. "We had everything going for us last spring and summer," a 19-year old student and Socialist Party member from Marseilles explained last week, "but then the party leaders made mistakes. They refused to compromise, and now we are in danger of being defeated."

For the moment at least, French politics have reached a stalemate. The left cannot cooperate in order to implement its reforms; the right is in danger of losing control of the government if public economic woes bring the left to power. Both sides are worried about the future and uncertain whether they will be able to win at the polls in March. At present, it seems unlikely that the left will come to even loose agreements on policy before the elections. Mitterand extended an olive branch to Marchais last week when he stressed that his party and the Communists did agree on many aspects of the Common Program; but Marchais responded in a party summit yesterday by calling for "formidable battle" against the Socialists. A number of factors, not least of which was Mitterand's meeting with President Carter last Friday, have served to anger and alienate the Communists, preventing compromise.

Meanwhile Giscard D'Estaing is doing all he can to hold together the center coalition which currently governs France. In his New Year's message to the French people, Giscard called for a new spirit of "unity." "If only the lads of France could join hands together," he pleaded, asking for a national commitment to reconciliation. Clearly, Giscard would like to draw both Gaullists and Socialists back to the center, and rebuild the same coalition which brought him the Presidency in 1974.

But the prospects for clear-headed compromise, national unity or reconciliation seem dim. Blue collar workers throughout France are resentful of many aspects of the current "Barre plan," especially the freezing of salaries in an attempt to stop the wage-price spiral. They are demanding cost-of-living increases, and their anger at Barre and "austerity" is increasingly virulent. (A nation-wide strike aimed at Barre in early December proved eminently successful.)

At the same time, supporters of the right have turned growingly insistent on their own views, and appear threatened and repulsed by the left. They oppose even some moderate reforms demanded by the workers, and are asking for reflationary stimulus by the government to help expand the economy. Politics remains polarized: the center is becoming a shaky margin of retreat from the explosive extremes of right and left.

When the elections are over, the worries of the French will be translated into realities. No one knows what shape the government will takes after March, but most observers expect increasing instability. Two new political novels have recently appeared in the book stalls in Paris, highlighting the situation. One, "The 180 Days of Mitterand," describes the rise and fall of a leftist government following the elections. The other, "The 180 Days of Giscard D'Estaing," describes an equally swift victory and failure for the currently ruling center coalition. The tragedy of modern France is that either occurrence appears equally likely, at present.

Of course, there is still a glimmer of hope for France. Perhaps the politicians will be able to strike a bargain of reconciliation and compromise; perhaps the economy will improve, and event which would certainly moderate political divisions and tensions. But Frenchmen are all too aware of the potential dangers that lie ahead. As the mood of impending crisis began to spread and darken last week, the newspaper "Le Figaro" counseled courage and moderation: "Let us stop hating and stop being afraid."But one must wonder, given the current political atmosphere, whether the French are willing, or able, to follow this advice.

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