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Mitterand, the Reelected Master of Manuever

May 15, 1988|William Schneider | William Schneider is a contributing editor to Opinion

PARIS — There were no great issue differences between the two contenders. The candidate of the left, Francois Mitterrand, stood for stability in foreign affairs and the economic status quo. The candidate of the right, Jacques Chirac, stood for the status quo in foreign affairs and economic stability. This month's French election was a bit of a bore.

It could hardly have been otherwise: Mitterrand, the incumbent President, was seeking re-election to a second seven-year term. Chirac, the incumbent Prime Minister, has been in charge of the government for the past two years. As it turned out, Mitterrand was re-elected by a comfortable 54% majority. Big deal.

Actually, to the French it is. In 1981, Mitterand became France's first Socialist president. Now he is the first president of any party re-elected to a second term. French politicians talk about "a political earthquake," even "a new republic."

France is experiencing a change in political coalitions. That is not so exciting. But it is happening without a political crisis. And that, for France, is a new experience indeed.

The Fifth Republic was created by Gen. Charles De Gaulle in 1958, in response to the Algerian crisis. France was being torn apart and French politicians were unable to manage the crisis. So De Gaulle created a new constitution with a strong president--himself--and he proceeded to resolve the conflict.

In the United States, we do things more simply. When we bogged down in Vietnam, the solution was to throw out the "ins" and put the "outs" in. Democrats under Lyndon B. Johnson got us into the war, so we replaced them with Republicans and Richard M. Nixon in 1968.

The principle is called alternation of power. It means if you don't like the way things are going, elect the other side. We do it all the time. Now the French are getting the hang of it. France is breaking out of the ideological mold that kept its politics frozen for 200 years. French politics is becoming less doctrinaire, more opportunistic. In other words, more like U.S. politics. France now has a Burger King on the Champs Elysees and a U.S.-style President in the Elysee palace.

Mitterrand, like his archrival De Gaulle, is a consummate opportunist. Both had contempt for political parties and tried to govern through personal coalitions. De Gaulle was supported by a coalition of conservatives and centrists who considered themselves the "natural party of government." They ruled France for 23 years, under three presidencies.

By 1981, the French wanted change. To get it, they created an opposition. First, they elected a Socialist president. Then they figured out a way for the left to govern without being influenced by the communists. In the ensuing parliamentary election, the Socialist vote went up sharply (from 25% to 38%), while the Communists lost support (from 21% to 16%). The message: We want to put the ins out and the outs in--but we don't want to give the country to the reds.

As president, Mitterrand has shown breathtaking political dexterity. He was even beneficiary of his own misfortunes. When first elected, he named four Communists to the Cabinet, as payment for their electoral support. Mitterrand's initial radical left policies--sharp increases in public spending, a nationalization program--made a mess of the French economy. Mitterrand then did an about-face, adopted an austerity policy and drove the Communists out in 1984. After that, the Communist vote collapsed--10% in the 1986 parliamentary election, 7% in last month's presidential primary. In effect, Mitterrand used his own mistakes to discredit the Communist Party.

Then, for his next act, Mitterrand did the same to his right-wing opponents: He embraced them, then discredited them. The 1986 elections produced a slim parliamentary majority for the right. The French constitution--a hybrid of a presidential and a parliamentary system--makes the prime minister and his Cabinet responsible to the Legislature. Many observers predicted a constitutional crisis: How can you govern with a president of one party and a Legislature controlled by the other? " C'est ridicule. "

" C'est n'est pas ridicule ," said Americans. We do it. More often than not, we have a Republican President and a Democratic Congress. What's the big deal? Well, imagine if the Democratic Congress had to elect a prime minister and a Cabinet, and they had to govern in collaboration with a Republican President. Ronald Reagan as President. House Speaker Jim Wright of Texas as prime minister. " C'est pretty ridicule , n'est pas ?" That is more or less what France ended up with after the 1986 elections.

Only President Mitterrand refused to allow a constitutional crisis. He acceded to the voters and appointed Gaullist leader Chirac as prime minister. The president retreated from the day-to-day affairs of government and let the prime minister run the country. In other words, he gave Chirac just enough rope to hang himself.

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