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.

What the French Left lived in the 1980s was the final act of a tragedy. As in all tragedies, its conclusion was not inevitable. The logic of postwar capitalist accumulation did not dictate it, as contemporary liberal reductionism claims. Nor was it foreordained because of social democratic treachery or Stalinist perfidy, to rehearse the Left’s own favourite reductionisms. The steps to the tragic outcome of the 1980s must instead be seen as a series of mistaken organizational choices which deepened contradictions. Like all tragic characters, the leading organizational actors, the Parti Communiste Français (pcf) and the Parti Socialiste (ps), had fatal flaws predisposing them towards dangerous options. The important thing, however, is that there were alternatives which, had they been chosen, might have changed the logic of events.

We will begin our essay with the unorthodox dramaturgical device of presenting the later acts of the tragedy first, reviewing the dismal record of the Left experiment in its first sojourn in government between 1981 and 1986. Here we witness not only a catalogue of policy failures but also, more importantly, an accumulation of large barriers to any future successes. These barriers prefigure the analyses and initiatives which President Mitterrand and Prime Minister Michel Rocard are now undertaking with the second Socialist government, elected in 1988. In Part II, we discuss the beginnings of the French Left’s modern drama in the 1950s and 1960s. At this early point, the French Communist Party is the hero making the mistaken choices which set the rest of the play in motion. Part III shows how these earlier choices set up a complex duel between the pcf and the Socialists in which the Communists, trapped in a situation beyond their capacities to shape in the aftermath of May–June 1968, lost their ability to control the ps’s most problematic tendencies. Part IV discusses the penultimate actions of major characters in the later 1970s which set the stage for the denouement of the play. Our conclusions assess the new politics of the French Socialists and the much-weakened Communist Party with the 1990s on the horizon.

Despite the radical rhetoric and bold promises surrounding the first electoral victory of François Mitterrand, 1981 was never meant to be 1917. The French Left experiment of 1981–86 was undertaken `contre courant, at a moment of international capitalist crisis, and would deserve to be judged successful had it moved seriously towards greater democratic control over the economy, democratization of French life and a more progressive posture in international matters. In what follows we will show how far it failed to achieve even these modest goals. In fact, what turned out to be the French Left’s major ‘achievement’ in these critical years was its own transvaluation in less radical directions, as the important elections of 1988 made clear.

The programme to democratize the economy contained a series of familiar propositions. There would be extensive nationalizations in the core, market-oriented monopoly sector which, combined with major changes in industrial relations, would allow enhanced popular control over the economy. Greater popular involvement, together with new elites in nationalized corporations and politics, would foster a national mobilization of research, policy intelligence and energy. This, in turn, would give France a significantly more dynamic and balanced international economy and allow reconquest of the domestic market. New, and better distributed, economic growth would then permit an expansion and democratization of social programmes.

The vision was classically social democratic, derived from the belle époque of such visions, the 1940s.footnote1 It had its peculiarly Gallic, and somewhat contradictory, twists, however. For example, there was a large quantum of statist and Jacobin optimism that change could be legislated and decreed from the centre under the indispensable leadership of more moral, more intelligent people at the helm. In addition, it was assumed that the 1981 election and legislative reforms to promote greater participation and industrial democracy would release a flood of popular enthusiasm to push the project forward.

A burst of reformist activity rarely seen anywhere in advanced capitalism since 1947 began immediately following the 1981 election. There were nationalizations on an unprecedented scale, plus reforms to strengthen union and worker rights on the shopfloor. The government began a bold redistributive scheme of demand stimulation. Social programmes were reinforced and certain new measures such as early retirement and work-sharing were introduced. The promotion of research and development, culture, gender equity, and education received new attention and bigger budgets.