After the French Election: Hopes and Dangers

Against the Current, No. 70, September/October 1997

Susan Weissman interviews Daniel Singer

THE SOCIALISTS VICTORY in the French parliamentary election extends a recent trend in Europe, where thirteen out of fifteen countries now have labor or social-democratic governments. Suzi Weissman, an editor of Against the Current and host of the program “Beneath the Surface” on KPFK, Pacifica radio in Los Angeles, interviewed Daniel Singer, European correspondent of The Nation magazine and author of numerous books on Europe. A pre-broadcast tape was transcribed by Eli Naduris and edited by ATC.

Suzi Weissman: The socialists have won in the recent French election. If this European election trend had taken place in the early 1950s at the height of the Cold War, the U.S. government and its foreign policy and intelligence agencies would probably be having a conniption fit–with Labour governing in Britain, Socialists in France and Italy, and Communists again as junior partners or allies.

As Clinton hails the Marshall plan, the European Recovery Act of 1948, we should remember that one of its requirements was that France and Italy kick the communists out of cabinets. But that, as we say was then, and this is now.

Daniel Singer is my guest today on “Beneath the Surface.” He’s the European correspondent of the Nation, a frequent lecturer and contributor to other journals as well, including Monthly Review. His most recent book was Is Socialism Doomed: The Meaning Of Mitterand; and he’s working on one called Whose Millennium?

Daniel Singer: I’m very glad to be back.

SW: So what about this trend in Europe, and should the left be excited?

DS: Well, we should be excited; but as usual hope and dangers come at the same time. We should look at it quite coolly and ask ourselves what it’s all about. In that sense I would say the French election is more significant than the British one.

We can look at it in the context of the general situation in Western Europe, where an attempt is being made–has been made for the past three or four years to impose upon Europe the American model.

When I say “the American model” I don’t mean the “American dream” of yesterday or of the postwar period, when Europe was looking up in ecstasy to America and seeing that land of milk and honey–or rather of the refrigerator, the car and so on.

Now what we are being offered as the American model is, if I can say so, the American nightmare: It means you can’t have a national health service, you can’t have a decent minimum wage, you can’t have job security, you have to give up all the conquests and all the achievements which the labor movement won in the thirty years of unprecedented postwar capitalist prosperity.

Now that is being quite easily accepted by the western governments and even by the mainstream parties, but there is a popular resistance to that trend. This started in Italy, when the right-wing Berlusconi government tried to restructure oldage pensions. That touched off the biggest demonstrations in Italy.

Then you have, and I will come back to it–I think it is at the heart of the French situation–you have what I call the French winter of discontent, that period at the end of 1995 when Paris was paralyzed by strikes and provincial towns were shaken by mass demonstrations bigger than any since the war, even bigger than in the famous students’ and workers’ insurgency of 1968.

SW: So is the crucial difference between France and Britain the fact that [the French Socialist party leader] Jospin comes to power on the backs of this historic working-class battle of the winter of 1995?

DS: I’m coming to that. What I’m trying to say is that you have on one side more or less the acceptance of this austerity. What was being said is that you have no alternative. You remember the name given by Maggie Thatcher that has been for the last ten or fifteen years the motto of the western world, we should tell the world that “tina” stands for “there is no alternative.” T-i-n-a was the nickname given to Maggie Thatcher because she was always saying that.

Not only Maggie Thatcher but everybody has been saying: If I say there is no alternative therefore you have to accept it. You may not like it, it may not be paradise, it may be purgatory or whatever, but in our deregulated world this is the society from which there is no exit. It is no longer the Soviet Union but our capitalist system that is the hell from which there is no exit.

I am putting at the heart of this thing the French winter of discontent, because I think maybe even historians would take it as an ideological turning point. It was a pleasure that the louder our pundits and our preachers were repeating “you have no alternative,” the bigger the movement grew.

This movement was saying: We don’t want the future that you are offering us and our children, whether we have an alternative or not. That’s a beginning, you see: You have to have a “NO!” like that before you start looking for an alternative. But it is true also that the movement of all the European left hasn’t presented, hasn’t built, hasn’t had time or hasn’t had the capacity to offer that alternative project.

Therefore you have to take the French situation as a mixture of two things: On one side that government really was the child of the Mitterand era, accepting as fact that the only thing that you can do is to try to run the capitalist society.  But at the same time what you have is a popular movement from below which says, we don’t want to accept that.

Now, let me qualify a little more what I’ve been saying.  Mainly: we have a period in which I personally think there is no longer room for the reformist management of the existing capitalist society, which for social democracy was really “success” in the accepted new meaning of the term.

That could be done to some extent during the thirty years of unprecedented prosperity, what Eric Hobsbawm calls the golden age of capitalism, what the French call the thirty glorious years.

SW: What others could call at first capitalism with a human face and then austerity with a human face?

DS: Whatever–it was at least working. Now the situation is that there is less hope for that. In fact, the left-wing governments are being told that what you must do is not even the normal management of capitalist society, but the counterreformist management of that society.

In other words, as a government of the left, you’re ordered to take away from the people their welfare state, the various conquests that they have achieved. Now if you take a situation like the British one–that’s where I was making the contrast–the “New Labour” government [of Tony Blair] comes in comes in accepting that “there is no alternative.”

But now take the French case. This long background, I think, was necessary to underline the whole complexity and the interest of the French situation is that you have the two things at the same time.

You have a new government which, unlike Blair in Britain, would like to reestablish reformist management of that society, to say we can’t have such unemployment and so on; we can’t allow the dismantlement of the welfare state.  But at the same time you have a movement from below, and that is very significant…

SW: Let me interrupt you for a second, because you’ve given us a whole lot to go through. I think the most important thing from your introduction is, on the one hand, that the electoral results may be less important than the mood that they reflect. In France the Socialists come to power even though that same party with Mitterand managed as the reform party of capital…

DS: Not even the reform party, that’s the whole problem–that there is no scope for the reform.

SW: True, Eurosocialists in the ’80s implemented austerity. [This refers to the behavior of social-democratic governments in France, Spain and Sweden–ed.] But I think there is something different in France than in Britain, where Blair came to power promising nothing, but people perhaps were tired of the Conservatives, or perhaps thought that with Labour there might be more room to press for their demands–opposite to those that are required by the Maastricht treaty and the euro.

[Editors’ note: The euro is the planned common European currency. For a discussion of the politics of the British election and Tony Blair’s “New Labour,” see “The Arrival of Britain’s Clinton” by Harry Brighouse, ATC 69.]

In France, though there is another difference in that Jospin and the Socialist party come from entirely different traditions, from the British Labour Party. Does it mean anything that Jospin is a former member of a Trotskyist group, or is he simply a manager as you said of the policies that are necessary for the day?

DS: I know it’s true that he had a Trotskyist background in his youth; I wouldn’t attribute too much to that. On the other hand he comes from a different background because the French situation, the French background is a different one, you see, even though quite a lot of people were thinking that this background had been destroyed by Mitterand.

Let’s say what is the background in France: It is the belief and the tradition that you can change lives by changing society through collective political action. That was something in the French intellectual climate due to the fact that children at school were learning that the events of 1789, 1830, 1848, 1870 all were cadets of revolution of radical change.

That was the reason why, for a very long time, it was always believed that if you have an election in Germany it’s a question of a change of government, but if you have an election in France–until 1981 everybody believed that’s going to be change of regime, especially if a Socialist government comes in with Communists as allies.

In 1981 Mitterand [leader of the Socialist party who won the presidency and applied austerity measures–ed.] came into office and it didn’t behave that way. Therefore a lot of people are saying the great achievement of Mitterand is to have brought France into consensus politics.

You can illustrate that by a word in French that doesn’t exists in English: “alternance.” Alternance simply means that the rightist government follows the labor government, that the Democrats follow the Republicans and the other way around.

SW: The alternating of power.

DS: But we didn’t previously have that in France, you see, because one always assumed that in France there was an alternative, that is to say in France and in Italy, unlike in Britain and in Germany, one assumed that if the left came into office it would offer an alternative.

That problem arises again now. But it arises because of the movement from below, not because of anything that this government promises or that it has in its program. Its program is changed and relatively moderate, with what is being expected in this deregulated globalized world of ours.

And the big question is, to me: Can a government which comes on a moderate program, under pressure from what the movement from below does, change its projects, invent new solutions and change?  That’s what we are going to see; that is what we don’t know.

There is a great difference between now and 1981. In 1981, in principle. the government of the left was much more radical than it is now. But it didn’t come after, as you said, a social movement–it was Mitterand who was going to do it for us–and in fact it abdicated.

Today nothing is being taken on trust, there is no euphoria, there is no period of state of grace in which the government can do anything that it wants. It is being watched from the very start. The unions, the associations, the various groups dealing with the homeless, with immigrant rights and so on are coming and asking immediately: “What are you going to do?”

You could illustrate that on the very night of the election results, the Socialists were celebrating in a rather elegant club which is called the Maison d’la mericlatin. Actually they had to close the doors after a certain time, because immediately outside you had the people–some unionists, some people from associations dealing with immigration, some of the homeless–coming on one side to celebrate the victory over the right but at the same time reminding the left, you promised certain things, you’ll have to keep your promises.

The global forces are not something that comes from heaven, the global forces are not because technological progress or the existence of the computer imposed that on our societies. They are the product of the structural crisis of the capitalist system, which occurred roughly in the mid ’70s.

As a reaction to this crisis certain measures were taken. Let’s say it was not the computer that decided that you have all this tremendous movement of capital; it was action through which, consciously and on purpose, and including even the leftwing governments, the system lifted all restrictions on movements of capital.

It’s certainly true–and very important–that if you start radicalizing your policy on a national level you have fairly rapidly to move on to at least the European stage with a more radical policy, and that these policies have to be sufficiently attractive to be contagious and to spread.

But we shouldn’t give to our listeners the impression–because it’s the job of so many other stations to do that–that this is something that comes from heaven, something imposed by technological progress.

No, this is one way of running the capitalist system and dealing with its crisis, and it’s being used after all as the weapon, as the political weapon. Previously it was the glory of the market that was said to be imposing this. But since people don’t like the glory of the market then they are told, if you don’t like it you have to lump it because it is like that.

But it isn’t like that, one can react against it; and since it is not something supernatural, something metaphysical, not imposed by technological progress but by political action, therefore political action can undo it, or do it or use it in a different direction…

SW: In France there is still the possibility of illusion in the government. And that’s what I’m asking you, and worried about. Will the tremendous militancy tend to move the French Socialist party to the left, or will it eventually lead toward jettisoning the party as leaders do with other social-democratic parties, like Blair turning the Labour Party into “New Labour”?

DS: It’s even more complicated than that. Starting with the joke about the New Labour party in Britain, it has been said the only good thing about it is that they betrayed beforehand–therefore there won’t be any disillusion after.

But jokes apart, you see in France the problem is that it is a coalition. The Socialists won but they won, in fact, together with the help from the Greens and with the help from the Communist party and so on; and not only that but as a result of a great social movement.

I think the difficulty is that this social movement did not find its own political expression, because it lacks for the moment a project, a vision of a different society, and the way in which it is going to move into that. Can it invent that? While it proceeds? That is the big question.

Now I don’t know whether you wanted to ask me other questions, but there is another thing that one has to mention. As I said earlier, together with hopes come the dangers. One of the reasons that even the Socialists themselves know that they have to deliver something, and that if they don’t there’s going to be trouble, is that French people have been rejecting one government after another.

There’s one very simple reason. American correspondents say how fickle these French people are. NO. The people are asking, they’re saying, we don’t want what you’re offering us. And successively you have the left-wing government, which disappointed, and the right-wing government which went on with the same policy and disappointed.

If the left is going to prove bankrupt once again, if it doesn’t deliver this time, then you have waiting in the wings something that we haven’t mentioned at all.

One of the signs of that election was that on the first ballot you had the xenophobic National Front of Jean-Marie Le Pen, which again made some progress–it moved up to 15% of the vote.

If we don’t offer progressive rational solutions, then there are reactionaries with irrational ones, and scapegoats to offer up. That is the great danger of which everyone is aware.

SW: So basically you are posing the alternative that is quite stark. Either the social movement moves ahead and comes up with an alternative that it can force on the government or accomplish through its own actions, or it could very well be feeding the ultra-right, xenophobic reaction.

DS: That’s if we are looking at it historically. To begin with, there are all sorts of things that will happen, immediate tests that you are going to see. The first is the question of the Renault works that were going to be closed. The left said during the electoral campaign no, it won’t close them. Will it put the pressure on Renault and compel it not to do so?

You’ll have plenty of tests like that. I don’t think that you can invent a project and so on so quickly. But can the movement to some extent push a relatively moderate government–but a government which would like to run capitalism in a reformist fashion–can you push it beyond that so that it starts inventing a new society?

One argument that all the critics have, I think–the American correspondents and writers are writing lots of silly things–is that they’re angry with France. They call this election a “reaction” and looking backward, for the very simple reason that it is not obeying their model.

It is rejecting TINA, this idea that there is no alternative. But at the same time the critics have got one point, when they say you’ll have to invent something different. And it has always been to me the dilemma of the socialist movement that it is fighting within the context of an existing society, but has to provide answers that go beyond the context of that society.

If it doesn’t fight within the framework of society, it will be a sect. At the same time it also has to think of the solutions that go beyond that society. That is something that Western Europe has to invent, a problem that is not only for us. Should we make any progress in that action, it will be opening the way not just for France, not just for Europe but for you as well as for us and for the world at large.

SW: Basically you’re saying there is no national solution for France, and even though the French workers have mobilized and the electorate has supported them in rejecting the model, France is part of Europe. Now do you see any moves afoot to make a wider, at least European-wide response?–let’s say French workers allying or affecting in some way Belgian, British, German, Italian workers?

DS: There have been signs, but I would slightly qualify what you have said. Once again you are historically right but the problem is, I think, that the movement still hasn’t effected any radical transformation. I think change in Europe must still start at the national level.

In the United States, you can’t imagine a labor movement that will be limited, let’s say, to Arizona or to Massachusetts. It has to extend to the United States at large. We haven’t reached quite that stage in Europe yet. The movement still has to start on the national stage, but then it has to move beyond.

There are signs that an internationalism is being thrust upon a nationalist movement in Europe. But as the Chinese would say, We’re living in very interesting times, with the dangers but also with great new vistas and possibilities. Whether they’ll be spoilt or exploited we don’t know.

When I was writing my last the last piece for the Nation just before the election, I ended by saying either we are going to deplore that the left has missed the occasion or we are going to start worrying about the victory of the left. Now we have to start worrying about the victory of the left. That’s much more pleasant.

ATC 70, September-October 1997