In 1958, the coalition of Gaullists and spokesmen for Algérie française routed the French labour movement without serious effort. This defeat, which has strongly stepped up what political scientists call ‘depoliticization’, gave free scope to Gaullist initiatives for quite some time. The elimination of the Algerian problem, which might have shaken up French social structures, led in fact to a strengthening of the Fifth Republic. Since then, the Gaullists in power have gone as far as to cut back the right to strike, to refuse the workers in the public services many more-than-justified pay-rises and then, since the end of 1963, they have put into operation a programme of economic and financial ‘stabilization’, whose declared aim is to halt wage-rises. Prime Minister Georges Pompidou—unlike any leader under the Fourth Republic—can now permit himself to say that his government is against reducing the profits of the large capitalist concerns. Politically, the authoritarian character of the régime has grown more acute, without the anti-Gaullist parties being willing or able to offer any serious resistance. Reform of the administration and of the system of municipal elections has been pushed through Parliament with almost no blockage: reforms meant to reinforce, if not actually fix for eternity, the domination of Gaullist organizations.
The various attempts to re-invigorate the left opposition to the régime must be seen in this light. Among these attempts, Gaston Defferre’s decision to run for President has certainly aroused the most interest. Launched by left-wing circles outside the labour movement (L’Express), his candidacy has shown itself from the start to be swimming with the tide, to accept a whole gamut of political forms grown up during the Gaullist period. As his ‘brains-trust’ counsels, Defferre sees himself not so much as the spokesman of the socialist opposition as the incarnation of a French Kennedyism: concerned by the most crucial problems of French society but without any real will to reform. He has declared that he will maintain the constitution of the Fifth Republic—i.e. a presidential régime with authoritarian tendencies—subject only to a few minor changes and, from the start of his campaign, he has been mainly preoccupied with voters to the right and in the centre. As a result, it was quite natural that Defferre should make concessions to anti-communism
This strategy may have seemed modern and realistic but it had one very grave weakness: it underestimated the strength of the traditional workers’ parties and it overestimated the chances of creating a current of opinion outside the labour movement. Moreover, it ran directly against the grain of the whole evolution of the sfio, for whom the problem of relations with the Communist party had grown urgent since it crossed into opposition to the Gaullist régime at the end of 1962. Forced to rely on the communists to hold its positions during the cantonal and municipal elections, the sfio could not be content just to ask for help from the communists. In the circumstances, it had to envisage a public dialogue with the Communist party in order to justify its shift of alliance to the voters. Today, in most instances, it is allied with the cp against the Gaullists and the right, whereas a few years ago it was a question of alliances with the right against the communists. Briefly, the sfio had to refurbish its image as an opposition party and to rediscover some of its anti-capitalist vocabulary and slogans if it wanted to survive as a social-democratic party expressing the socialist traditions found among the French masses. In contrast, the plan Gaston Defferre seemed to be the first step towards the formation of a large, Democratic party, vaguely left-wing but without any precise ideology and mainly reconciled to capitalism. Consequently, it was inevitable that the organizers of the sfio, headed by Guy Mollet, should look very unfavourably on Defferre’s candidacy and, to begin with, should make little effort—putting it mildly—to help it on its way. At first, Defferre seemed unabashed; he thought it would be enough to get the endorsement of the Special Socialist Congress before the presidential election, but he was soon made to realize that he could do very little without the sfio apparatus and that his financial backers and his supporters from the neo-capitalist and ‘modernist’ left did not represent a sufficiently settled and solid base in the French political scene. So he was recently obliged to arrange some sort of compromise with Guy Mollet and to stress the ‘socialist’ and anti-Gaullist aspects of his campaign. In a speech he made at Sisteron (Alps) in June, be even hinted that he was ready to modify his electoral platform and to discuss it with various sectors of the left.
Obviously, this change does not eliminate the equivocal elements in his stand, but it does strengthen the position of the sfio apparatus. To the communists, Guy Mollet can show the advantages of a possible accord on a sfio-cp programme, which, even if it was concluded on the fringes of the presidential election, would allow the Communist Party to rally behind Defferre without losing political face. To Defferre and his friends, he can stress that he is the only person capable of overcoming the stubborn hostility of the communists and settling the uncertainty over their final course of action. Besides, this role of Mollet’s—as arbitrator—need not be limited just to the presidential election, since the desire of the communists to escape, at all costs, from their political ghetto makes them very undemanding as to what kind of an agreement with the sfio they come by. Even if the policies put forward by the
Of course, it is still open whether this growing unity on the left will have any positive results. It is more than likely that the supersession of the traditional left divisions will bring about a regroupment of left voters and, to some extent, favour the wage struggles of the trade unions, but there is nothing to show that it will be able to generate popular enthusiasm and thoroughly shake up the French political scene (as it did in 1934–36). The unity being prepared is neither complete nor sincere and it is weighted with mental reservations and tactical precautions. The masses cannot be sure that mobilization will bring tangible results rather than disappointments as in 1938 and 1947. Besides, they feel in a confused way that their organizations will not let them aspire higher than to a centre-left, anyway unlikely to make more than minor changes to the status quo. The left partner in the coalition, the Communist Party (leaving aside the psu because of its special problems) showed at its last congress that it saw its political renaissance in terms no more bold than an opening to the right, without any changes either in its monolithic organization or in its leaden bureaucratic spirit.
The French labour movement needs to transform its programme and its methods of combat. But there is still a long way to go.
(Translated by Helene Lackner)