French marriage of convenience
John Ardag h
Paris The polemics aroused by their revamping this month of their Joint Programme show once more what utterly different animals French Socialists and Communists still are. So if they do win next March, after this interminable election campaign that is stultifying France, how on earth will they govern?
Visits to the rival party HQs are instructive. At the PCF's towering glass-and-steel box in the eastern slums, you enter by a side-door past security ramps, down a tunnel into a vast bunker-like foyer with concrete walls adorned only by posters exhorting la lutte. There is scant jollity. The rare bourgeois around are disguised as prolos, tieless in buttoned-up grey shirts. As for the PS, its cosy head office in the smart septiente is now a sought-after club for the bandwagon-jumping beau monde, and the exuberant optimistic confusion has a `Club Med' quality. Everyone is terribly well-educated: debby secretaries call each other `camarade' in Marie-Chantal accents before going home to Mummy and the Louis XV. The rare prolos are disguised as bourgeois.
Given the gulf of class and outlook, the mutual suspicions are no surprise and I found leaders of both parties eager to voice them. `These Socialists!' said a PCF central committee man, `they betrayed us in '38 and '47, they voted for Petah, they fought the FLN in Algeria, they signed the capitalist Treaty of Rome, and now they're Plotting a deal with the neo-fascist Schmidt behind our backs. How can we trust them?' Equally it is astonishing how little daily human contact there is between these supposed allies. The leaders seldom meet, save for formal bartering as this month. True, a handful of intellectuals hold exchanges; but at grassroots the PCF militants tend to stay within their cells and shun discussion. A Socialist scientist told me, `In our labs, I have friendly links with my Communist colleagues but we don't talk politics. If I try, they seem unable to do more than recite l'Humanite at me too tedious!' Even the free-thinking ultra-Marxist left of the PS, the Ceres, has little truck with the PCF Which it finds far too hidebound.
Some bridging of this human gulf may aow be emerging thanks to the March local elections, which have thrown the two parties into coalition for the first time in hundreds of town councils. This offers them some chance to get to know each other. But, so far, relations in most councils are strained. Where the PCF holds the whip tband, it imposes its will and consults the PS 0 the minimum; where it is the weaker
partner, it often contests and obstructs and in some towns has refused to vote the budget. A portent for post-March 1978?
The PCF has 'now outwardly liberalised 'many of its policies and dogmas — but has it changed its inner nature, secretive and iron-fisted? Many PS leaders are sceptical: 'These ingrained mentalities and methods are hard to after', said one. Some PCF-watchers believe that even the break with Moscow is an electoral tactic, reversable when the moment suits. We shall see.
Yet it is vain to' suppose that the two parties' ill-matched marriage of convenience will crack before March: each wants power, each needs the other. So, in their current updating of the Joint Programme, they will somehow contrive to work out suitably vague textual compromises, to fudge over their very real policy differences. The PCF will also strike as hard a bargain as it can, for it is in a tight corner. Its renewed polemic against Mitterrand since May is a patent last bid, before the elections, to regain some initiative in face of the PS's huge popular advances. And more: I learn that at these secret talks the PCF is trying hard to pin the PS into guaranteeing it a 'fair share' of power — for its nightmare is that it could be swamped and pushed aside by its larger partner. So it wants a public commitment now to its receiving a fair number of senior ministries. And it is seeking% amendments to the industrial sections of the Programme that would strengthen the organic power of the unions — hence, notably, of France's leading union, Confederation Generale du Travail, which it subtly dominates. Many Socialists have long feared that the PCF could one day be tempted to compensate for its political weakness by deploying its strongest weapon, COT mass action, so as to put pressure on a Socialist-controlled Government. And latest PCF moves tend to confirm that this may be the plan — as in 1947-8. But it could backfire, for less than half of COT members are in fact Communist, only one French worker in four is unionised, and most workers seldom like being manipulated for political strikes.
Mitterrand's strategy, in power, would be at once to contain and conciliate the PCF. If, as is probable, the PS and Radicals get 60 to 70 per cent more votes than the PCF, this should give them three times more seats, under the distortions of a non-PR system. Mitterrand should thus be well placed to call the tune. at least if he continues his present firm line and is able to control his own Leftist fringe. He would also loyally and rapidly set in train certain agreed measures that the PCF regard as crucial
priorities: nationalisations, narrowing of differentials, -etc. This could keep the PCF happy for a while. And yet. . . there are so many other major issues over which it is hard to see the allies not coming to blows sooner or later. To quote a two: — The PS has courageous plans for devolution to the regions, and other forms of decentralisation, which it believes will answer deep French aspirations. The PCF pays lip service to this, but at heart remains Jacobin and etatiste.
— The bulk of the PS is warmly pro-EEC and (discreetly) pro-NATO. The PCF today has become more nationalistic than de Gaulle.
In sum, the outlook for France looks bleak, as voters face a Hobson's choice. After nineteen or so years of Gaullism /Giscardism, France now gravely needs the kind of alteration of government that is normal in almost every true democracy. If the Majorite does scrape home again in March, there will of course be many a sigh of relief— from Doughty Street to the Pentagon. But the popular bitterness and frustration could well fuel explosive unrest making the awaited Thatcher/Scargill corrida look like kids' stuff. My own view, as a non-Socialist, is that the social-democrat PS, for all its contradictions, has many excellent men with noble reformist ideas and thoroughly . deserves its chance — but what of its Communist albatross? At best, there seem to be three faintly hopeful scenarios that might emerge from a left victory. One, that a sharing in the practical tasks of government could very gradually wean the Communists away from their rigidities and make them genuinely open and democratic: Mitterrand is said,to regard this as a fiftyfifty possibility in the long term, and worth the try. 'Better the PCF with us than against us, causing trouble,' said one of his aides. Two: the PS /Radicals might emerge strong enough to rule on their own a recent secret poll puts them now at 37 per cent, which could mean 50 per cent of seats. This would have many advantages bu.1 would not solve the Communist problem. Nor, it is true, would a third and attractive scenario now being canvassed. This is that the present pre-electoral cleft of France into two blocs could, later, give way to a more fluid situation in practice, in the next Parliament, with the Socialists sometimes relying ad hoc on Centrist support for projects blocked by the PCF. And this under the benign patronage of Giscard still at the Elysee. The Socialists at present treat the idea with scorn and horror, for obvious electoral reasons: 'What?' Michel Rocard told me, `A return to Guy Mollet-type wheelerdealing? That would be suicide.' Yet, who knows? — the men around Mitterrand might later come to view things differently, in face of PCF tactics — as many already know in
their hearts. It could be the only way to rescue the French from a destructive polar isation that is imposed by crazy political structures and does not correspond to what ordinary people actually want.