The election of a Socialist, François Mitterrand, as President of the French Republic on 10 May 1981 aroused hopes in a European left that by the end of the seventies had to console itself as best it could. Mitterrand himself was, indeed, a Fourth Republic war-horse, a patriotic politician of the French radical republican stamp, who had been Interior Minister at the start of the war in Algeria. However, the French Socialist Party (ps), reorganized under Mitterrand’s leadership in 1971, seemed a relatively fresh, bright and bold newcomer. Often critical of the compromises of ‘social democracy’, willing to govern in coalition with a particularly uningratiating Communist Party, the ps enjoyed an image to the left of its fellow-members of the Socialist International. Italian Communists hoped that the French Socialists could provide the bridge between themselves and the Social Democrats of Germany and northern Europe in the construction of a coordinated ‘Euroleft’. After its landslide in the legislative elections following Mitterrand’s victory over Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, the French Socialist Party held an absolute majority
These hopes were soon shattered as Mitterrand, his external affairs minister, Claude Cheysson, and other official spokesmen of the new Socialist government began to echo Reagan administration positions on nato rearmament. Cheysson promptly scuttled France’s longstanding role as Moscow’s privileged Western contact by announcing during a visit to Washington on 6 June 1981 that ‘so long as Soviet troops are in Afghanistan, you can’t expect there to be normal relations between France and the ussr’. Germans discovered Mitterrand’s position on the Euromissiles in an interview in the 8 July 1981 issue of Stern magazine. ‘The Soviet ss-20 and Backfire bomber,’ said the French President, ‘are upsetting the balance in Europe. I cannot accept this and I grant that there must be a rearmament to catch up and restore balance. From then on, there should be negotiations.’ At that time, the Reagan administration itself did not dare say publicly that Pershing-2 and cruise missile deployment should precede negotiations aimed at achieving a balance of forces. The French Socialist was actually taking the lead (verbally) in championing the necessity of nato Euromissile deployment.
For quite some time, the left wing of the French Socialist Party associated with Jean-Pierre Chevènement’s Centre for Socialist Study, Research and Education (ceres) preferred to say, hope and perhaps even believe that Mitterrand’s ostentatiously pro-nato stance was temporary and tactical—a way of calming American apprehension over his inclusion of Communists in the government and other domestic audacities. Not only ceres but also much of the central current of the ps, the ‘Mitterrandistes’, were taken by surprise by the close alignment with Washington on East–West security issues. Yet scarcely any debate developed among Socialists. Electoral victory had left the rather small party somewhat overextended with the new responsibilities of office, absorbed in domestic problems and in no way prepared to challenge Mitterrand’s conduct of foreign affairs. Such challenge would be useless, anyway, in the Fifth Republic designed by General de Gaulle to give the President unfettered control of international policy.
Foreign policy by its nature is the most secretive part of public affairs. Governments may deceive their own population in the course of deceiving foreign adversaries, and the elaborately created illusions may be dispelled only much later, by historians, if ever. Acutely aware of this reality, many politicized people on the French Left were slow to pass judgement on a government they basically supported, in relation to such a seemingly obscure and complicated issue as the Euromissiles controversy.
Mitterrand’s ten years as leader of a new Socialist Party, with a rhetorically daring left wing and a programme for governing in coalition with the Communists, tended to make people forget that his whole past showed him to be a convinced Atlantiste—that is, a firm believer in the necessary primacy of France’s ties to the English-speaking democracies. This did not prevent him, before he became President, from expressing certain doubts about Alliance strategy. In a 31 July 1980 interview with Michel Tatu of Le Monde, Mitterrand said that ‘the Alliance rests on a fiction: American intervention in Europe in the event of Soviet aggression.’ ‘The American theory of graduated response,’ he added, ‘does not in my view make sense.’ Those who chose to do so could read into these remarks a promising independence from American strategic thinking, although in fact neither of those criticisms would come as a surprise to American strategic thinkers.