Mitterrand’s Election

Explain how Mitterrand and the Parti socialiste achieved presidential and governmental power in 1981.

After the presidential election of May 1981, François Mitterrand of the Parti socialiste (PS) became the first socialist President of the Fifth Republic, and in June, at the legislative elections, the party was then handed an absolute majority in the Assemblée Nationale. The factors contributing to this once highly unlikely success are manifold. This essay will firstly consider the extent to which these victories can be attributed to the demise of the Parti communiste français (PCF), and to the emergence of the Parti socialiste as a radical left alternative. It will also evaluate the failings of the incumbent President Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, before finally analysing the impact of the breakdown in relations between Giscard and his once Prime Minister, then electoral rival, Jacques Chirac on the outcome of 1981.

Before considering the decline of the PCF at the hands of the PS, it is necessary to consider Mitterrand’s admission of his then new party’s principal objective, namely to ‘rebuild a large socialist party on the terrain occupied by the Communist Party itself, in order to show that out of five million communist electors, three million can vote Socialist.’ As such, the Parti socialiste entered an alliance with the Parti communiste français known as the Programme commun de gouvernement in 1972. Although the proposals of the Programme commun represented much of what the PCF had stood for previously in terms of radical policy, the PCF, in an increasingly post-industrial French economy with a burgeoning middle class and a workforce shifting towards white-collar, professional jobs, the revolutionary rhetoric and Stalinist approach of the PCF had begun to appear outdated. Moreover, its involvement in the disastrous handling of the colonial wars in Indochina and Algeria, as well as its continued affiliation with Moscow after the brutal repression of the Hungarian uprising, had rendered it more divisive, and had hampered its appeal among left-wing progressives. In its place, as a new party not yet delegitimised by any involvement in the preceding decades of ineffective governance by the traditional political parties, and as representative of a new approach of compromising reform, the PS soon began to reap most of the benefits of this radical left alliance. The growth in its electoral support, from 20.8 percent in the legislative elections of 1973 to 25 percent in those of 1978, hinted at the potential outcome of the elections to come three years later, namely, that the PS had emerged as the credible radical left alternative.

On the level of the candidate, Mitterrand encapsulated this distinction between the PS and PCF, the old and the new, the revolutionary and the reformer. On the one hand, he was an experienced politician who, by this time, had a formidable stature and assuredness. Yet, he was also a charismatic and composed orator. What he represented, ‘une force tranquille’, a slogan of his campaign, represented an accepted – even welcome – more moderate approach, at least in part because his calmness contrasted starkly with what Tony Judt describes as the ‘unlikely and unlikeable jowls of the egregious Georges Marchais’, and his typically impassioned speech delivery. The PCF, still strictly Stalinist and therefore increasingly divisive, particularly in the more moderate realms of politics, was naturally perceived as dangerous to the capitalist status quo. In fact, Judt argues that, ‘the weaker the PCF was perceived to have become, the less likely it was to dominate a hypothetical left-wing government, the more acceptable a Socialist candidate became […] to non-Communist voters.’, including, he notes, voters in traditionally conservative areas in which Mitterrand had enjoyed success in 1974. As a result, by the time the PCF left the Programme commun in 1977, its monopoly of the left had been decimated to the extent that the PS now represented the major party of the left. Judt’s argument that the less significant the role of the PCF, the greater the appeal of the PS, goes some way to explaining the snowballing momentum of support for Mitterrand in the aftermath of this fracturing of the Programme commun alliance which swept him to victory in the presidential election, albeit on a manifesto that still resembled that of the alliance. The initial objective of the PS, then, as laid out by Mitterrand in 1972, was finally realised in June as, together with its allies in the Mouvement des Radicaux de Gauche (MRG), the PS gained an absolute majority in the subsequent legislative elections, garnering 37.8 percent of the vote to the PCF’s 16.1 percent. It therefore seems clear that the collapse of the PCF during the Programme commun era, as envisaged by the Socialists from the outset, and the ability of the PS to then capitalise upon this demise to present itself as the credible radical left alternative, was a major factor in the achievement of presidential and governmental power by Mitterrand and the PS in 1981.

However, it must also be acknowledged that the victory of one side in such an election can also be attributed to the shortcomings of its opposition, and to their ineffective response to external economic factors, for example. Thomas Christofferson states that, ‘from the beginning of the campaign, unemployment had been the key issue’. Yet, post-election polls of the French electorate show that 44 percent believed that incumbent President Valéry Giscard d’Estaing had lost due to his failure to address this very problem, while his unpopularity was also reflected in the fact that 29 percent said that Mitterrand had won because it was the only way to get rid of Giscard. In that respect, it could be argued that the outcome of the 1981 elections was as much a consequence of the unpopularity of Giscard as it was the appeal of Mitterrand and the PS. Addressing the failures of the Right to win in 1981, Tony Judt suggests that Giscard was not able to reach out to voters across the political spectrum as right-wing Presidents of the past, namely de Gaulle, had mastered with regard to left-wing voters, or as Mitterrand had shown in 1974, as discussed above. Moreover, Giscard was known to be a micromanager and his authoritarian supervision of government had seen him lose the faith of his own cabinet ministers as well as his support base. In the post-election polls, 13 percent of the French electorate suggested that his loss was principally the result of his aloof and monarchical style of governance over the course of his presidency. Nevertheless, and in spite of the criticism levelled at him, Giscard had had a 20 per cent lead over Mitterrand in the polls going into the final six months before the presidential election.

Giscard’s unpopularity was to be compounded, however, by a new party, the Rassemblement pour la République (RPR), expressly established by his former Prime Minister, Jacques Chirac, to combat the presidential power enjoyed by Giscard. Chirac, who had resigned as Prime Minister citing those very same concerns about his monarchical, authoritarian supervision of cabinet affairs, for example, decided to run for the presidency, to target his campaign against Giscard rather than Mitterrand, and, in doing so, he split the right-leaning vote, decimating the huge, aforementioned lead that Giscard had had in the months before the election. In the first round, Chirac garnered 18 percent of the vote (compared to Giscard’s 28.2 percent and Mitterrand’s 43.4 percent), before refusing to endorse Giscard in the second round. Chirac’s opposition to Giscard was such that a poll conducted by SOFRES in 1981 found that 47 percent of Chirac’s supporters had a ‘good opinion of the Socialist party’, with 26 percent claiming that they would be satisfied if Mitterrand won, if only to spite Giscard. Such was the virulence of the campaign that, in the second round, some 30 per cent of Chirac’s supporters either voted for Mitterrand or abstained, whereas, on the Left, this division was far less apparent, and some 92 per cent of communists, who had previously quit the Programme commun alliance due to irreconcilable differences, supported Mitterrand. In fact, Judt suggests that PCF sympathisers may have begun to think about voting tactically to the extent that a vote for Marchais – even in 1981 – was perceived to be a wasted vote, prompting many to vote for Mitterrand even in the first round. As the electoral breakdown above suggests, this fracturing of the right-wing vote cleared the path for Mitterrand to win the presidential election. Then, in the legislative elections of June, there was an unusually high abstention rate of 30.14 percent (up from 18.29 percent in 1978), which Christofferson attributes to the 62 percent of abstaining right-wing voters who, satisfied by Mitterrand’s election at the expense of Giscard, refused to elect a right-wing legislature to challenge the newly elected president. These striking statistics highlight once again the unpopularity of Giscard’s presidency, and the desperation – even of many on the Gaullist right – to see him replaced at all costs, even by a Socialist. As such, it could certainly be argued that it was the failures of Giscard, and the subsequent challenge of Chirac, that facilitated the Socialists achievement of power in 1981.

In conclusion, the victories of Mitterrand and of the Parti socialiste can be attributed to three major factors. Firstly, the PS lured the floundering PCF, reeling from its disastrous involvement in mainstream politics, into an allegiance in which it would erode their support and manipulate its demise, appealing at once to the more radical elements of its electoral base through a radical program reminiscent of the PCF’s principles to date, and to more moderate left-leaning voters through an arms-length relationship with the PCF and a starkly contrasting public image through the composed orator and assured politician Mitterrand and his promotion as a ‘force tranquille’. With the PS stealing a march on the PCF, it then promoted a more appealing approach to dealing with the problem of unemployment, for example, which been the principal concern of the French electorate, and an issue that Giscard, the incumbent president, had failed to address sufficiently. Perhaps the greatest factor, and the turning point in the electoral race, however, stems from the split vote on the right. In response to Giscard’s authoritarian supervision and micromanagement of his government, his once Prime Minister, Jacques Chirac, resigned and established a new party targeting his presidential campaign against that of Giscard. Having failed to progress to the second round, Chirac then refused to endorse Giscard in the second-round run-off, and such had been the vilification of Giscard by his campaign, that as much as 15 percent of his traditionally right-wing support base then abstained from voting for Giscard, with another 15 percent even voted for Mitterrand. Furthermore, this fracturing of the right-wing vote not only cleared the path for Mitterrand to sweep to victory in the presidential election of May, but also in the legislative elections a month later. The contentment of Chirac’s supporters with the defeat of Giscard brought an unusually high abstention rate among right-wing voters, allowing the Socialists and their allies to attain a majority in the Assemblée Nationale. The Left, by then, had earned a level of political power unparalleled in its Fifth Republican history.


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