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New Left Review I/171, September-October 1988


George Ross and Jane Jenson

The Tragedy of the French Left

In 1981 the French Left came to power for the first time in decades. Here was a Left which had never made peace with the consumer capitalism of the postwar period. The Communists, lesser partners in the new governing coalition, remained committed to the socialist transformation of France. The Socialists, themselves a mixed bag of political factions, scorned the meliorism of European social democracy and advocated a rupture with capitalism. More radical than any other comparable movement, with a programme proposing extensive reformist changes and endowed by the electorate and the Constitution of the Fifth Republic with institutional strength, the French experiment bore watching. Might not these parties, pursuing a tradition of Gallic idiosyncrasy, manage to ‘exit the crisis from the Left’? The French Left’s experiment with radical reformism was abruptly abandoned in 1983–84 after but a brief trial, with results which were in many ways worse than the familiar social democratic retreat from rhetorical promises. By 1986, when the parliamentary majority elected in 1981 was defeated, one Left had exited the stage and another one, very different, had entered. The first Left’s most dedicated and militant elements were marginalized. The Socialists had abandoned their earlier radical posture and adopted a technocratic, non-class approach to the management—albeit ‘with a human face’—of French capitalism.

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