In 1981, a radical left government took power in France. Heading up a coalition of the Socialist and Communist Parties, the new President, Francois Mitterrand ,brought the left in from the cold and promised to “Change Life, Here and Now”.
While the workers cheered, many capitalists quailed: the Franc crashed at the news.
The election seemed to herald social changes in France and beyond, and for some, the first steps towards establishing socialism in the West.
But by the 1990s, almost everything built in the first years of the Mitterrand government had disappeared. The right governed (and from 1986 to 1988, had governed with Mitterrand), and the government’s nationalisations were almost all reversed (in some cases by Mitterrand).
And far from effecting a long-term shift in French politics to the left, one of the long-term consequences of the 1981 government paradoxically, was the transformation of the far-right Front National into a major player in French politics.
In 1968, a vast workers’ movement revolted against the corrupt and stifling conservatism of Gaullist French society. The establishment around De Gaulle rode the crisis out by calling an election and making concessions on wages. But for the following 13 years, Gaullism tottered, discredited; while the revolutionary left, the Communist Party, and the previously-moribund Socialist Party (PS) grew.
The PS in particular grew rapidly: by 1981 it was polling higher than the PCF which had dwarfed it in 1968 (and still did, in membership); and the more PS-aligned union federation CFDT grew relative to the Communist-led (and larger) CGT.
Mitterrand was able to leverage this growth to batter the PCF into uniting with him around a “common programme” in 1972.
Mitterrand had declared himself in favour of revolution. But underneath he was a machine politician: conventional, and opportunist. He had served in Guy Mollet’s 1956 government. For Mollet, he had done the job of repressing the movement for Algerian independence: overseeing 45 executions; supporting the escalation of the war; and being in daily telephone contact with the French torturers in Algiers.
In 1981, the new government set about carrying out its programme. One of its first acts was to abolish the death penalty. They went on to nationalise almost the whole financial sector, plus 12 big industrial firms. They increased the minimum wage (SMIC) by over 10%, and hired an additional 200,000 civil servants. The retirement age was lowered to 60. In 1982, the government started work on reducing the working week from 40 to 35 hours, with an initial reduction to 39. When Mitterrand’s government proposed sweetening the deal for employers by allowing them to impose more flexible working patterns on their workers in return for paying for a reduction in working time, workers themselves intervened in the debate, with powerful strikes in engineering, car plants and supermarkets. The government headed off the strike wave by backing down on flexible work contracts, but would return to the theme later.
Under Allende’s socialist government in Chile, a militant movement for workers’ control of industry had driven the government on to undertake a whole series of nationalisations “in law” after the workers had taken them over, or nearly taken them over, “in fact.” Blum’s Popular Front government of 1936 found itself blown forward by the winds of a vast strike movement.
But here the dynamic was different. Mitterrand’s government was using the levers of state to carry out a programme of reforms, but jealously guarded its independence from the workers’ movement in the streets below.
A mixture of capital flight and increased workers’ spending power combined with international financial crisis, a rising dollar and contraction in the German economy, put inflationary pressures on the Franc.
Some of the ministers on Mitterrand’s left proposed continuing the reforms. They advocated strict capital controls to curb capital flight. But instead the government opted for a “pause” in the reforms – a pause which would become permanent. This became known as the “austerity turn”. In June 1982, the government declared a four-month wage freeze. As the austerity measures mounted, with huge tax increases on workers and consumers, the CGT and the CFDT pronounced their support for the “pause”. When PCF Health minister Jack Ralite imposed hospital charges for patients in 1983, the PCF defended his move (“when you’re at home, you pay for your own meals, don’t you?”).
In 1983, 1,900 jobs were cut at the Peugeot plant in Poissy. Workers occupied the plant in response: the CRS riot police were sent in to clear them out.
In March 1984, the government approved plans to cut 21,000 steel jobs. In Longwy, 150,000 demonstrated, betrayed by the left parties that had helped them in their strikes only six years before. Mitterrand was burned in effigy. The PCF was reduced to saying, lamely, “We are in the government and we are for the workers.” They would finally slink out of government in mid-1984.
Mitterrand’s project unravelled. Having accepted the need to “fight inflation” in order to win back capitalists’ confidence and their investments, the government found itself forced to pursue austerity measures in earnest: there was no halfway house between winning capitalists back round, or seizing their money. The government let firms fail, or sack their way to profitability.
The results at the next elections were predictable: the left vote started to fall. Whereas the fascist Le Pen had polled 0.72% in 1974, in 1984 he matched the PCF’s 11% vote.
The rise of the Front National wasn’t accidental. It was not only the result of the betrayals of the left in power. It was also fed by a nationalism embraced opportunistically by the left. When workers struck at a Renault plant in 1983, Mauroy made a speech complaining about “immigrants being agitated by groups… that have no connection with French social reality”. On Christmas Eve 1980, the Communist Mayor of Vitry, Paul Mercieca, thought he would boost his polls by running a bulldozer into a hostel full of Malian migrant workers, which he did. The act was defended by the British Stalinist newspaper the Morning Star as a blow struck against “a dumping operation”. Socialist minister Gaston Defferre thundered: “Illegal immigrants must know that they can be deported!”
The reformist left betrayed workers in the hopes of winning over capitalists, of using technocratic means to reconcile the two classes and get their working-class supporters “back in their box”.
They tried to shore themselves up, using racist demagogy as a way of pandering to base prejudice instead of organising, educating and elevating a movement to defend their project. The result was the rise of a serious fascist party in France. There is an urgent lesson here for the Corbyn movement.