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Scene 1: The Rue de Solferino is a long winding street near the Eiffel tower that houses the Scoialist Party headquarters, sandwiched between a bakery and an apartment building. The night of the second round of the historic legislative elections on June 21, the crowd in front was thick and the mood festive. The Socialist Party, for the first time since its creation, had just won an absolute majority in parliament. For those present, this confirmation of France's "left turn" a month earlier--the election of Francois Mitterand as president--transformed a feeling of alienation into one of confident belonging. Yet above all, the Socialists were careful. "We'll have fun tonight and that's it," said one party member. "Tomorrow we must face the reality of governing."
Scene 2: A tired smile adorning his face, Pierre Juquin eyed the television cameras. He was reading the official post-election declaration of the Communist Party. "We are happy to have shared in this great victory for the Left," he said. Around him, snickers were easily audible. The Communists had, in fact, lost almost half their representatives to Parliament [from 86 to 44], suffering a setback that many feel will be lethal for their present leaders. As if in confirmation, Juquin had seemingly replaced Party chief and media star Georges Marchais as official spokesman. Among France's Communists, symbolism like this is never coincidence.
Scene 3: Michel Poniatowski, the corpulent former minister of the interior known to friend and foe alike as "Ponia," was taking part in a televised debate before the legislative elections. As defeated president Valery Giscard d'Estaing's confident "political hitman," Ponia is not popular. When he affirmed, "Giscard is now France's only hope; the Socialist project is doomed to failure," his discourse was punctuated by loud laughter and catcalls from the audience; debate moderator Jean-Marie Cavada asked for silence. Ponia struggled on, but Cavada interrupted with more election results to announce. "I have the figures from former justice minister Alain Peyrfitte's district," Cavada said. The T.V. studio became silent in anticipation of learning the fate of a man called a "fascist" by many on the left. In Seine-et-Marne, Alain Peyrfitte has been defeated by..." Cavada's next words were drowned out by thunderous cheers.
THAT THE SOCIALIST wave reached its peak in France on June 21, 1981 is a view not likely to be contested by the history books. By taking 289 of a possible 491 seats in Parliament, the Socialist Party can now boast outright possession of the legislative in addition to its recent acquisition of the executive branch of the government. A half-century battle by the oft-divided Left has finally, and convincingly, been won. For members of the new opposition, it is time for soul-searching and question-answering.
Most observers blame economic woes for Giscard's defeat and the subsequent Socialist domination of the Parliamentary elections. Trained as an economist--which he never let the French forget--Giscard had little excuse for 14 per cent inflation and chronic unemployment.
Yet there are more reasons than France's economic troubles. From World War II on, France has lived under the shadow of one man: Charles de Gaulle. Since the General's death, the Gaullist legacy has continued. While not, in the strictest sense, a Gaullist, Giscard seemed to many to be trying to fit the mold. By the end of his seven-year term, he had evolved from a liberal reformer to an authoritarian figure who fancied himself King, not president. In Mitterand, the French opted for a more humane and less threatening figure.
In retrospect, the Socialist tidal wave in the legislative elections makes sense. Voters, whether to the Right or Left, believe it is better to have a Socialist representative who, at the very least, will be heeded by a friendly government, than an outcast conservative. What is more, thanks to years of preaching from the Right, the French feel that the legislature should reflect the executive so that the latter can implement its policies as smoothly as possible.
Still more important, the actions the new Socialist government undertook in the month preceding the elections served to reassure and please many voters. By naming a moderate cabinet including highly touted finance minister Jacques Delors and anti-Communist Prime Minister Pierre Mauroy, Mitterand demonstrated that he is far from the ardent revolutionary his opponents portrayed him to be. And by raising the minimum wage 10 per cent, opening discussions on the 35-hour week and making loans more readily available to small-and medium-size firms. Mitterand proved he keeps his promises.
As for the Right, its negative campaign claimed only one victim: the Right itself. Giscardists and Jacques Chirac's Gaullists painted a picture of doom for Socialist France that was more forgery than masterpiece. The electorate did not buy it. The left, said the voters last month, has earned a legitimate chance to govern. Let us see what happens.
Today, the Left's--and the nation's--euphoria is beginning to wear off. Slowly, the enormity of France's "new revolution" is being digested. Mitterand's decision to include four Communists in his new government, subtle gambit to diminish still further the power of the latter group, may backfire. And everyone realizes that the Socialists have been given a true mandate, with only themselves to blame in case of failure.
Perhaps the situation was best summed up in an exchange between Rightist Christian Bonnet and Socialist Lionel Jospin. said Bonnet: "First France changed pilots and now it has changed planes." Added Jospin: "You're correct, but you forgot to say why. The pilot paid no attention to the passengers and the seats were uncomfortable." The metaphors now give way to reality. Will the plane fly?
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