February 18th, 2021

François Mitterrand's Austerity Turn

The Rise and Fall of the French Road to Socialism

The history of French socialism is filled with famous and heroic dates: 1789; 1848; 1871 1936; 1968. But less well remembered is another date of great significance: 1981. It was in May of that year that the French left achieved its greatest electoral triumph of the postwar era, with the election of Socialist Party (PS) leader François Mitterrand as President of the Republic. That victory, which came after a quarter century of uninterrupted conservative rule, raised hopes for a new departure in French politics. Mitterrand’s election manifesto, the 110 Propositions for France, embodied the sweeping reform agenda he had promised since ascending to the leadership of the PS a decade earlier, when he memorably capped his speech at the Party’s 1971 Congress with a thunderous call for a “rupture” with capitalism. As head of the PS, Mitterrand’s decision to pursue an electoral agreement with his long-time his rivals from the Communist Party (PCF), which resulted in the 1972 “Common Program,” was both a milestone for the postwar French left, and an important step in his own rise to the Élysée Palace.

Mitterrand’s election in the spring of 1981, and the subsequent triumph of the left in parliamentary elections which followed immediately afterwards, led to the formation of a government under Prime Minister Pierre Mauroy that was more radical than any France had seen since Léon Blum’s Popular Front in 1936. For the first time since the start of the Cold War, Mauroy’s cabinet included four communist ministers.

 Full Article

February 18th, 2021

Objective Constraints

An interview with Anicet le Pors

Anicet le Pors is a French communist party politician who served as a member of the French Senate from 1977 to 1981, and Minister of Civil Service and Reforms from 1981 to 1984.

Maya Adereth: Tell us about your early political development.

Anicet le Pors: I was born into a family from the north of Finistère, known as “the land of the priests.” It’s a region that has lived under the influence of Catholic Church for centuries. My parents emigrated to Paris in 1929, and I was born in 1931 in the 13th arrondissement. My early political involvements were deeply influenced by Catholicism; my first trade-union membership was at the CFTC (French Confederation of Christian Workers), and I subscribed to several magazines in the tradition of liberation theology. I joined the CGT, which in 1955 was the largest trade union in the country. In 1958 I joined the Communist Party, the day after Parliament endorsed the Gaullist Constitution of 1958. I did so in defiance, against the Constitution of the Fifth Republic.

I changed my profession precisely as the left was ascending to power. At that time the Communist Party came up with an ideological innovation headed by Professor Paul Boccara called State Monopoly Capital- ism (Capitalisme Monopoliste d’État “CME”), which was a revival of Lenin’s idea of the integration of the state with monopolized capital. According to this theory, this integration is what enables capitalism to stave off the falling rate of profit. It was described at the time as over-accumulation-devaluation of capital.

This was an important ideological breakthrough in the mid-1960s which found its full expression in the 1970s. I was a well regarded economist in the Ministry of Finance and active in the Economic Section of the Central Committee of the French Communist Party. But these qualities made me “unusable” until the Communist Party had me elected Senator in 1977 in Hauts-de-Seine. Thereafter Georges Marchais asked me to work on his speeches directly with a view toward the 1981 presidential election. I sat on the Central Committee from 1979 to 1981, working with Georges Marchais and Charles Fiterman. The left won the elections of 1981 at the price of an internal rebalancing of the comparative political weights of the Communist Party and the Socialist Party. That is how François Mitterrand finally got elected— by weakening the Communist Party. Despite the unfavorable circumstances we carried on. We worked a lot on the Common Program of 1972, but there were tensions between the parties that were not easily resolved. The results of the 1981 presidential election were very contradictory: we were weakened at the very time when we were called to power. Those were the circumstances of the time.

With François Mitterrand in office, we had a smaller presence in the government than we were entitled to. We should have had six ministers, but we only got four: Charles Fiterman, myself, Jack Ralite for health and Marcel Rigout for vocational training. The euphoria lasted less than a year because Thatcher was elected in 1979, Reagan in 1980 and Helmut Kohl in 1982, meaning that the major developed capitalist countries had elected people with unquestionably liberal policies that cut across all the social democratic ambiguities that had existed before.

 Full Article

February 18th, 2021

Confronting Globalization

An interview with François Morin

François Morin was technical adviser to Jean le Garrec at the State Secretary for Public Sector Expansion from 1981–1982 and an adviser to Prime Minister Pierre Mauroy.

Maya Adereth: What kind of society did you envision when you first became politically active?

François Morin: When I was finishing my PhD thesis in Algeria, I spent two years reading Capital. And to this day, I think Marx has many insights into the nature of power relations in contemporary society. But when I returned to France, my supervisor, Henri Bartoli, encouraged me to situate Marx’s insights within a practical framework. I went to the Chambre Syndicale des Agents de Change, where I began studying the shareholder structure of large banking and financial enterprises. To my surprise, I understood nothing of what was in the files. So I spent years learning to penetrate this world of accounting and finance. In 1974, I published my first book, The Financial Structure of French Capitalism, which allowed me to participate in ideological debates surrounding the left’s Common Program. When the left gained power in 1981, I was asked to advise Pierre Mauroy on bank nationalizations, and from 1985 to 1994, I served as an adviser and member of the Council of the Banque de France. In my new book, I recount the unique period between May and September of 1981 and the internal government debates which took place. On the one side were hardliners who advocated a strong break with liberal globalization and a nationalized French economy. On the other hand were reformists who argued that it was necessary to account for the changing global context in which policies were being made. The reformists were more cautious about expanding the public sector through nationalizations.

MA: What were the characteristics of the French economy that you outlined, and how did they shape the contours of this early debate?

FM: The debate within the left was hardly rooted in the realities of the French economy. Structurally, the French economy had undergone significant transformations in the 1960s and 70s, primarily through the consolidation of large corporations. For some, this corporate consolidation represented an alliance of domestic capital that was necessary to prevent the advance of foreign capital, particularly from the United States. The employers alliance consisted of Paris-Bas and its allies in banking, industry, and nationalized insurance companies. On the other side was the Suez Group, also composed of banking and industry, which saw the prospect of an alliance with American capital as an enormous opportunity. This was the position of Giscard d’Estaing, then President of the Republic. The conflict between the Gaulish RPR and Giscard Re- publicans represented the divisions between the banking and financial elites in the country.

On the left, the issue was less about globalization, and more about increasing state influence over these consolidated corporations. These companies significantly shaped public life, and yet the public had no influence on them. This was the motivation behind nationalizations.

 Full Article

February 18th, 2021

Party Unity and Renewal

An interview with Roger Martelli

Roger Martelli is a historian of the French Communist Party.

I officially joined the Communist Party in November 1969, but I became a communist in May 1968. I was in a preparatory class at the Lycée Thiers in Marseilles, and I made friends with communist militants when we occupied our lycée that summer. By the time the Common Program was signed in June 1972, I had been a member for three years, and my political experience revolved around the Organization of Communist Students. I was in the communist students directorate and was appointed member of the national board of the student’s union, the Union Nationale des Étudiants de France (UNEF) in the spring of 1971. UNEF was split between the communists and the Trotskyists, so my appointment demonstrates the degree of democratic decision making we practiced at the time.

At heart of the split was a question of who would control the organization. We hated the international communist organization—Youth Alliance for Socialism (which Jean-Luc Mélenchon participated in at the time).

 Full Article