16 MAY 1981, Page 7

The gamble that worked

Sam White

Paris The French electorate has long been skilled in playing Russian roulette with itself. This time, however, there was a bullet in the barrel. There can be no doubt that what assured Mitterrand's victory in the second round of the presidential elections was the votes or abstentions of the 30 per cent of those who voted for Chirac, Debre or Mme Garaut in the first. In short, it was a large segment of the Right which let him in. A study of the vote in the first round leaves no doubt in the matter. This showed that the combined Left, in all its not quite 57 varieties, polled a total of 47 per cent whereas the combined Right obtained 49 per cent. If we restrict the Left vote to the two principal parties of the Left, that is to say Socialist and Communist, then we arrive at a total of a bare 42 per cent. Whatever else, last Sunday's result showed that it is not so much a swing to the Left as a swing away from Giscard. All this is important, since it has a direct bearing on the immediate future, confusing as it may appear. With Mitterrand's victory, we go from presidential elections to a parliamentary one in six weeks' time. Here Mitterrand will need an even bigger margin for victory than the one which propelled him into the Elysee —something like 54 per cent instead of the 52 per cent he received last Sunday. There is a good chance that he may come close to doing it.

The fact that the election will take place in the wake of his own triumph will be a distinct advantage to hurl, and the appeal to vote 'logically' will be a strong one. He will certainly win a great many seats, and probably halve Communist representation in the new National Assembly in the process. The Communists will simply have to take what is coming to them mad put as good a face on it as they did in the aftermath of Mitterrand's own victory. There will be no need for an agreement on a common policy to do that, and the earlier Communist threat of large-scale strikes is an empty one. There is the question to what extent he would be dependent on Communist support. Even that may turn out to be easier to solve than now appears likely. They could only turn a Mitterrand government out by joining with the Right in voting a motion of censure.

Abstention would not do the trick either, for under Fifth Republic rules, a motion of censure has to be carried by a majority of all Inscribed Deputies and not merely those who vote. They would in all likelihood be reduced to the situation of Chirac in the last legislature who attacked the government but dared not overthrow it. Comforted by the impotence on his Left, Mitterrand may also derive reassurance from divisions among the opposition. In the aftermath of Giscard's defeat, the former majority is in disarray. The wounds inflicted on it by Chirac's savage anti-Giscard campaign are now exposed, and it is doubtful if they will heal in the six weeks before the parliamentary elections. In fact, it looks as though gangrene will set in before that period is up. Who will lead the opposition campaign? 'I will', said Chirac within minutes of last Sunday's result being announced. 'Me', said Giscard in a communiqué a little later.

Finally there has been a bitter declaration by Prime Minister Barre blaming Chirac for the defeat. This quarrel will grow in the weeks to come as more and more Giscardiens give vent to their feelings. Come the new parliament, and a disunited opposition may be almost as easy to play upon as a disunited majority was for Giscard in the old one. The idea that a hostile parliament will necessarily be fatal to Mitterrand is a mistaken one, In any case, just as Giscard was prepared to live with a Left majority if the Left had won the 1978 parliamentary elections — he warned then that he would be powerless to block Socialist legislation — so Mitterrand could roll with the punches and bide his time. He could under the Constitution dissolve parliament again after a 12-month interval, and this time he would do so on an issue of his own choosing and one calculated to be popular in the country. Mitterrand used to be a fierce critic of De Gaulle's constitution. He has been converted to it and no doubt sincerely. Tailor made for the General, it is also tailor made for him.

Working against him in those fateful six weeks, however, will be the growing press ure on the franc and a spurt both in inflation and unemployment. It is difficult to "see what he can do about any of these in the interim period before his own government takes over in two weeks time, except to insist that M Barre pours out the reserves in support of the franc. As it is believed that one of his government's first acts will be to introduce both strict exchange control and a• prize freeze, the temptation to increase prices will be overwhelming. Other measures, such as the nationalisation of the remaining private banks and ten major industrial cartels, will no doubt be introduced gradually and after prolonged consultation. Similarly the rise in the basic wage and the reduction of working hours may be a prolonged process involving union negotiations with individual firms. Meanwhile, lay-offs in anticipation of such measures are already beginning. It would be interesting to know just what contacts Mitterrand's men have had with bankers and industrialists in an effort to reassure them. That some such contacts have been made is known. What is not known is their extent and their success or lack of it.

The Mitterrand camp is rich in former ENA graduates, top civil servants, economists, industrialists, and a banker or two who would be highly skilled in carrying out such a mission. I refer to men like Michel Rocard, the former Common Market Commissioner Pierre Chesson, the economist Pierre Uri, the former head of Renault Pierre Dreyfus, and the banker Jacques Delors. Perhaps they have already been partly successful, for one of the striking features of the recent election was that although Mitterrand's victory was widely tipped, there was no marked flight of capital.

In foreign policy nothing much will change, I believe, except a more realistic relationship with Moscow and possibly a curtailment, temporary in nature, of arms sales to the Middle East. Apart from that, the Paris-Bonn axis will remain as firm as ever, and the relationship with Britain on Common Market issues as prickly as ever, I should mention in passing that two major prophets have been toppled as a result of last Sunday's vote. One is Alain Peyrefitte, who declared in 1970, 'If we don't do anything stupid, we shall be in power until the year 2000', and the other Andrd Malraux who predicted round about the same time: 'Soon there will be nothing between us and the Communists'. I should add that no one on the Socialist side really believed that Mitterrand would win except Mitterrand himself. Right up to the last moment, the polls, which made Mitterrand the winner, also said that a majority of those who said they would vote for him did not believe in his victory. In any case, I take my hat off to Mitterrand for winning his battle after a long struggle against all the odds. Whatever the future of his presidency, he has won his historic gamble that the Socialists would replace the Communists as the major party of the Left.