So ungrateful. So irresponsible. So unfair. As the initial shock of the first round of the French Presidential elections on April 21 gave way to self-righteous indignation on the part of Socialist Party officials and left-liberal pundits, it was hard to avoid the obvious Brechtian conclusion: the electorate should be dissolved forthwith and a more satisfactory one appointed. After all that had been done for them—35-hour week, mild economic growth, dip in unemployment—and with such a selfless, upright candidate as Lionel Jospin, how could the couches populaires be so infantile, so disloyal? Their scandalous display of indifference or hostility to the Centre Left—expressed in abstentions, or Far Left or Right votes—had left France at the mercy of Fascism. Overnight, the same establishment called with one voice for the French people to support Jacques Chirac, a reeking sack of political corruption who should have been behind bars long ago, as the champion of their liberties—while assuring its electors that this would be the best way to bar a victory of the Right in the subsequent legislative elections. The result was predictable. Chirac, handed a plebiscite, repaid the ‘plural Left’ with a massacre at the polls for the National Assembly. France now has the largest conservative majority for decades.

How did this debacle come about? The sweep by the Right in 2002 does not correspond to any wide or deep shift of opinion in the country at large. Rather, it expresses a crisis of electoral representation that has been spreading throughout Europe, as mass parties wither, an increasing gap opens up between politicians and citizens, and former Social Democrats and Christian Democrats converge around common neoliberal programmes, unleashing centrifugal turbulence on either side of a neutered centrism. In France, these symptoms have been exacerbated by specific national deformities. The rules for public funding of political parties allow a series of more or less empty shells, with barely a handful of dues-paying members, to parade as democratic formations.footnote1 The hybrid constitution of the Fifth Republic, inclining the Presidency either to Bonapartist manipulation or cohabitational fudge, tends to efface any distinction between programmatic orientations.footnote2 But above all, the last twenty years have seen a growing gulf between the fixed direction of official politics, which has been one of astonishing continuity, and the lives and concerns of the majority of the population.

In 1983, as is well known, François Mitterrand, the first President of the Fifth Republic to be elected by the Left—at that time a near-equal alliance of Socialist and Communist Parties—made an abrupt volte-face, abandoning his neo-Keynesian programme in the face of hostility from financial markets, and turning to conventional neoliberal austerity measures. Opposition to the switch of line within the ruling coalition and the country at large was muted, and his new prime minister, Laurent Fabius, pushed through the draconian measures the markets required without too much difficulty. Thereafter, through a decade of alternating governments under Mitterrand, successive prime ministers of both Centre Right (Chirac, 1986–88; Balladur, 1993–95) and Centre Left (Rocard, 1988–91; Bérégovoy, 1991–93) pursued almost identical policies. But from the mid-eighties onwards, no less consistently, the results were regularly rejected by the electorate at the end of every term. When Mitterrand’s reign finally came to an end in 1995, Chirac ran for President in virtual opposition to the Balladur government and his own political party, on a platform of vociferous attacks on laissez-faire and calls for social protection and job creation—the only way to win.

Once in office, however, Chirac promptly reverted to the same pensée unique he had denounced as a candidate. This time, however, his ‘conversion’ to an aggressive neoliberal agenda, and the savage social security reforms of his prime minister Alain Juppé detonated a wave of strikes and mass protests that convulsed France in the winter of 1995.footnote3 At this stage—mere months after the election—the Socialist Party was still suffering from a nauseous morning-after of the Mitterrand years, amid revelations of manipulation, corruption and backstairs connexions that threatened to submerge it in a tide of public disgust. It was in these precarious conditions that Lionel Jospin had been chosen to purge a compromised legacy. Having served as a loyal lieutenant—First Secretary of the PS from 1981 to 1988, and then Education Minister—Jospin could not disavow the whole Mitterrand experience. His solution was to propose his own person as the incarnation of a return to principles: somewhat puritanical, modest, uncorrupt. In a revealing Temps Modernes interview he distinguished the ‘hopes’ of the early Mitterrand years from the ‘psychological’ degeneration of the second term.footnote4 Working within the constraints of power was not the same as giving up one’s beliefs: the PS could still act as a ‘brake’ on the brutality of the global capitalist process, he explained.

Caught off-guard by the mass popular revolt against the Juppé government in the winter of 1995, Jospin skilfully deployed the trope of humility. The memory of the PS in power was still sufficiently fresh to disqualify it from attempting to act now in what might be perceived as an arrogant manner. Denying himself the licence to ‘politicize’ the protest movement, by lending it more than passive support, Jospin managed to position himself as a silent sympathizer, and the PS as the humane alternative to Juppé. A light radicalization of the party’s programme, especially on immigration and the 35-hour week, was followed by the construction of the ‘plural left’—dictated by crude electoral logic on the part of the PS, and yearning for the patina of governmental credibility on that of its coalition partners. This brought the Greens, the Communists, the Radical-Socialists, and the small movement around the former PS notable Jean-Pierre Chevènement under the same umbrella for the legislative elections, which Chirac—in a major miscalculation—called in June 1997. To his surprise, the Left won a narrow but solid majority in the National Assembly. Jospin was installed as unexpected Prime Minister, and five years of cohabitation began.