In the last two years, a string of elections and the Maastricht referendum have confirmed the rapid realignment of forces on the French Left. The Socialist Party has been brutally expelled from government, at the end of a decade that saw it tarnished and compromised by office and lose tenets and landmarks of its identity. The Communist Party has alternated unhappily between stagnation and decline. The 1980s put an end to the pcfps bipolarity that made the Programme Commun possible. The Euro-elections of June 1994 show a further development: the end of Socialist Party dominance on the Left. The Left has broken up along various fault-lines: the question of the Nation pits neo-Jacobins against Euro-federalists; the social question splits political ecology; while the rate of reform in French Communism adds to the number of groupuscules inhabiting the ‘alternative Left’. The low credit of the political class in general has been favourable to the emergence of a left-wing demagogue, Bernard Tapie. The French Left is a place for convergences and confrontations as it seeks to define a popular alternative to the state of things. Voices call for ‘big bangs’ and new parties, without necessarily entering into dialogue, and it is far from clear if, during this complex process, a way will be found to unite the republican constituency for the decisive presidential election of 1995. And there is a real danger that, in contrast, the Right will find some way of uniting its forces.

Political scientists have liked to divide societies into two types: the society of consensus and the divided society, France belonging to the latter type. In societies such as Great Britain and the United States, the argument goes, conflicts are regulated and tensions appeased through the acceptance of a common rule and the search for compromise. France, on the other hand, is a society torn apart, which cultivates its divisions, and prefers solutions imposed by revolutionary violence to those found through negotiation. Its political life is structured by the division between Left and Right.

And now, according to this schema, France has joined the group of consensual societies. Its past of war, coup d’état and strike action is the stuff of history books. The street-fight has been extracted from political life. The anniversary of the Commune, like the Bicentenary of 1989, interested few people. The old passions of anti-clericalism and monarchism belong to the margins.

The new political geometry was indicated during the prime ministership of Michel Rocard: it was his opening out to the centre that partly explained his season of popularity. The Communist Party and the Front National are portrayed as untouchable extremes, and not as members of the families of Left and Right. For the majority of French citizens, these notions of Left and Right no longer seem to mean much, and the number of sceptics has grown rapidly in recent years: from 48 per cent in March 1988, on the eve of the presidential election, they had grown to 56 per cent in November 1990, and recent polls have put them at 67 per cent.footnote1

Such a geometry can be explained by disaffection with global systems of explanation, linked to distrust of and disappointment with foreign models, especially actually existing socialism, but also by facts of French political life. We can imagine the thoughts of a Socialist voter, let alone a ps militant, who adhered to the party in 1978 or 1980 in order to ‘changer la vie’, who had been promised in 1981 an irreversible break with capitalism, and who then heard, three years later, the prime minister, Laurent Fabius, define as the guiding principles of his government, modernization and unity, praising profit and enterprise. The alternation of Left and Right has demonstrated differences over immigration and privatization, but the old duel between capitalism and socialism is, for the majority of political actors, defunct.