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1981-1988 - Mitterrand's First Septennate

Socialist François Mitterrand was elected president in 1981, beginning a record 14-year tenure in that office. He saw seven prime ministers and two periods of "cohabitation" (1986-88 and 1993- 95) in which the prime minister was from the center-right opposition. He also saw France's first female prime minister, Edith Cresson (1991-92). Early in the Mitterrand presidency, the victorious socialists, carrying out their campaign pledges, imposed a wealth tax, nationalized key industries, decreed a 39-hour workweek and five-week paid vacations, halted nuclear testing, suspended nuclear power plant construction, and abolished the death penalty. The most notable and lasting achievements of the Mitterrand presidency, however, came in the international arena, where France's major commitment remained the European Economic Community and, especially, improved Franco-German relations, regarded as the key to Europe's integration.

On May 10, 1981, the election of François Mitterrand to the Presidency of the Republic opened a new period in the history of French socialism. It was the first political alternation between the left and the right under the Ve République. The legislative elections of June were a triumph for the PS: for the first time of its history, it obtained an absolute majority in the National Assembly and clearly preceded the PCF, which recorded an unquestionable retreat.

Pierre Mauroy formed a government in which four communist ministers took part. Lionel Jospin succeeds François Mitterrand with the direction of the Party.

Initially, the important measurements in conformity with the 110 proposals of the candidate Mitterrand were adopted (abolition of capital punishment, a slight increase of the minimum wage [SMIC - Salaire minimum interprofessionnel de croissance], the old age minimum and the family benefits, possibility of taking its retirement at 60 years, nationalizations, decentralization, new rights of the workers, etc).

Before globalization seemed to be inescapable and inevitable, French Socialists sought to reestablish the policies of Keynesian reflation and redistribution. The ambitions of Mitterrand and the Socialists knew few bounds, and their efforts to remake the French economy were heroic. Soon after the Mitterrand experiment began, however, it started to unravel, in part because the financial markets did not trust the new French government. So, capital fled France.

The French government responded through strict capital controls, but these constrained the middle class, while having limited impact on the ability of big money to move assets outside of France. The government was then faced with a choice: either it could opt out of the European Monetary System (EMS) and allow the franc to fall, maintaining its policy course while thumbing its nose at global markets, or France could undertake a course of financial austerity, reversing its macroeconomic direction, in order to sustain the value of the franc, given the demands of globalization.

The liberalization of capital markets emerged not from a conspiracy of global financiers or the hegemony of Wall Street, but from a turn towards liberal economics by the French Socialists under François Mitterrand. The shift was based in part on the view that resisting global markets was impossible or too costly - one could not effectively operate the progressive social democratic state against the forces of globalization. The liberalization of capital controls became a pervasive practice and a global orthodoxy, originating not from the projection of American or corporate power, but from the strategizing of a particular set of French Socialist politicians and officials who had been shaken by the Mitterrand Administration's failure at the beginning of the 1980s to use classic tools of governance to effectively control economic fundamentals.

The international economic crisis and the persistent weaknesses of the French companies led the government of Pierre Mauroy to choose, since 1982 and especially in 1983, a policy of "economic austerity". These decisions arose from the fundamental choice of the open economy and European construction. The positive effects of this policy, which privileged the reinforcement of the economy, had little impact. This produced a fall in the popularity of the Socialists, who experienced severe setbacks at the time of the municipal elections of 1983 and European of 1984. This same year, the crisis of private schools contributed to weakening the government and the PS. The PCF more and more clearly criticized the policy of the government in which it took part.

Nuclear energy discussions and policies in France created the impression of France being a haven of unrestricted, efficient nuclear energy policy largely spared protests and legal obstacles, and on the verge of leaving the Federal Republic of Geramny far behind in all sectors of the peaceful uses of nuclear energy. The attitude and the policy of the French socialists after their coming into power in June 1981 seemed to confirm this belief in every respect. However, analyses of the attitudes of various political parties and other socio-political groups in France reveal that the pattern of nuclear opponents and proponents is much more inhomogeneous than in the Federal Republic of Germany. The general trend among the proponents and opponents of nuclear power since 1975 has shown astonishing parallels in the two countries. A very important factor is the complicated situation in the French unions.

French interests in the Middle East revolved around three basic issues: the Gulf war, Lebanon, and relations with Israel. With the exception of the impulsive nature of the relations of the French Socialists with Israel, it did not appear that there was a great difference between the French left and right on any of these issues. Therefore, no conflict over them was to be expected among the president of the republic, the head of the government, and the Foreign Ministry (even if someone from the right took charge of it). Traditionally in France, the president of the republic was the one who had direct authority over the design of foreign policy and the foreign minister executed the details.

The fact that France had an "African vocation," just as French-speaking Africa had a "French vocation," only emphasized the gap between the principles proclaimed by the Socialists and the realities which they faced. The Socialists found Africa to be a terrain which did not suit them and for which 20 years in opposition had certainly not prepared them: local powers who were often authoritarian, and sometimes lacking much respect for human rights, tied to France by a complex of trade and cultural relations; at the official level, a kind of cooperation - or aid - closely related to French interests, both private and public; and finally, here and there, a little world of police agents, secret pullers of strings, and racketeers drawn by the real possibilities for quick profits.

With the election of Mitterrand, the heads of African states were granted their wish to preserve their direct access to the president of the republic. Though announcing that existing agreements would be honored, the French Socialists came to power with the hope of introducing a little strictness into French-African relations: to base aid on "self-centered development" in orderto put an end to the "recolonization" of the dark continent; to take care to warn regimes judged to be too brutal; and, above all, to avoid any familiarity with those heads of state with a tendency to personalize state-to-state relations. And finally, to dismantle certain semi-clandestine networks,and in particular dissolve the "praetorian guards" which Paris had placed atthe disposal of certain African capitals.

In July 1984, Laurent Fabius replaces Pierre Mauroy as Prime Minister and formed a government in which the Communists refused to take part. He laid down a policy which combined modernization and solidarity.

The party Congress at Toulouse, in 1985, represented the ideological and political evolution of the party. The Socialists lost the legislative elections of 1986, but carried out a good score (32% of the votes). François Mitterrand remained president of the Republic and nameed Jacques Chirac with the head of the government. From 1986 to 1988 was is the time of "cohabitation" - the Socialist party was in the opposition.

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Page last modified: 05-08-2011 20:01:56 ZULU