Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

Sphinx again

Ten years after his death, France’s only socialist president remains an enigma. Denis MacShane looks back on Francois Mitterrand’s legacy

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France’s longest serving president and, so far, its only socialist president died 10 years ago. His reputation remains low. The failures of his second term as president from 1988 to 1995, his long death agony, the discovery of a second family hidden from the public, and the continuing incoherence of the left in France combine to keep the Mitterrand legacy cast in negative terms. The European left prefers to keep Mitterrand locked away in the iron coffin of socialist leaders we prefer not to talk about.

On the 10th anniversary of his death the time has come for some revision. It is not the long-dead Mitterrand who was to blame for the defeat of the socialist Lionel Jospin in the presidential contest in 2002. The five years of a socialist majority in the National Assembly from 1997 to 2002 saw Jospin and his ministers trying to renew France. But they were unable to create a dynamic of either social democratic reformism, in the Nordic model, or embrace post-statist economic modernisation like Britain or Spain. Divided on almost every issue since 2002, the French left remains trapped in the cul-de-sacs and comfort zones of denunciation, rather than building a new majority for victory.

In 1981, by contrast, Francois Mitterrand achieved a remarkable breakthrough. Despite Paris being home to much of the 20th century theory and literature of progressive, anti-capitalist, anti-American politics, the plain fact is that the French left were absolutely useless at winning and holding power. Mitterrand’s genius was to convert the French socialists into a serious party of power. His reputation as ‘the Sphinx’ was well earned when, in 1981, he double-crossed the French communists after a fake alliance which gave him the voting strength to win, burying European communism in the process. It was not just the presidential victory but the coat-tail win of a majority in the National Assembly that allowed the French left to show it could govern the country.

The Mitterrand victory came at a decisive moment in economic history. In the United States and in Britain, the newly resurgent right was ultra-aggressive in tearing up the post-1945 contract. The Chicago model of capitalism was well-known in French history. It is the period known as the ‘Enrichessez-vous’ years between 1830 and 1848, in which only wealth-accumulation mattered. Thatcher-Reagan mantras of latter-day ‘Enrichessez-vous’ seemed to sweep all opposition (notably the pre-Clinton and pre-Blair US and British left) to one side. But then suddenly, in 1981, Mitterrand arrived, with an economic programme of nationalising banks and key companies.

In contrast to the mandarin management of British state industries, Mitterrand installed a bunch of 40-year-old elite-trained professionals and told them to go off and win markets for France. The classic French state industry is Electricité de France. It now has profit-making subsidiaries in 52 countries, including Britain, unlike the broken-backed British energy industry after the inefficient privatisation of selling to Sid.

If his economic policy moved to the left, his foreign policy placed France at the heart of transatlanticism. It is too easily forgotten that, when Argentina invaded the Falklands, the neo-conservatives of US foreign policy, like Jeanne Kirkpatrick, quickly forgot their commitment to democracy and sided with their fascistic chums in the Argentinian junta. Mitterrand did the opposite. He was the first leader to phone Margaret Thatcher on the Saturday morning after the invasion to pledge total French support, including revealing all the technical secrets of the feared Exocet missile.

He followed this by rebuking the fading German social democratic government when Willy Brandt and Helmut Schmidt temporised after the communist rulers of Poland suppressed Solidarnsoc. As reflex anti-Americanism moved millions in Britain, Germany and Italy to march and camp against the US decision to bring cruise missiles to Europe, to counter the threat of new Soviet missiles aimed at European capitals, Mitterrand went to the German Bundestag and told the German left: ‘The demonstrators are in the west, the missiles threatening Europe are in the east.’ It was a life line to Helmut Kohl and Margaret Thatcher and a contemptuous snub for a key belief of the European left – that America is always wrong and its enemies can always be excused.

But Mitterrand’s most important move was to ditch a crude belief in socialism-in-one-nation when he rejected the sirens of protectionism who urged him to devalue the franc massively and put up trade barriers, when the combination of over-generous social promises and insufficient fiscal receipts called into question the continuation of the 1981 programme. Mitterrand accepted modern economics and kept faith with Germany, which would have been profoundly destabilised by a major French devaluation or barriers to imports into France, as urged on Mitterrand by the nationalist left and communists.

It was the decisive moment in European construction which marked the key turn to an open Europe and, in due course, to the single market and the Euro. These were the consequences of the French decision to break with the protectionist and isolationist politics that then, as today (see William Hague’s amazing rants against the French and the Germans), are highly seductive to the left and right.

There was the transformative achievement of regional devolution and a marvellous flowering of French culture, which Mitterrand, a man of history who spent more time reading European classics than official papers, backed throughout his presidency. British right-wing commentators can write their anti-French clichés without getting out of bed. Yet none seem to ask what have been the decisions taken by government that make France the EU’s most spectacular country to visit, live and eat in. British ministers suggest that immigrants into Britain should learn English. One day, the French will make the same requirement of all the know-all Brits with their second homes in France. But it is much easier to be a Conservative Francophobe if you cannot speak or read a word of the language.

The negatives of Mitterrand are too long to list. The cynicism, Rainbow Warrior, phone-tapping MPs, and a failure, shared with Margaret Thatcher, to understand what happened when the Berlin Wall fell. From a narrow party point of view he gave up on any theory or practice of modern democratic socialism. But the European Union we live in owes more to his decisions than any taken by a British prime minister. The invocation of social justice by the new Tory leadership shows that, while Thatcherism is now buried, Mitterrand lives on.

He was born in 1916, the same year as Harold Wilson and Ted Heath. The complaints that Mitterrand did not effect reforms that made France as dynamic as China or the better performing sectors of the US economy are ahistorical. Mitterrand abolished the death penalty and reduced inequality. American presidents have made different choices. That’s all. But, given his time and context, Mitterrand achieved as much as any post-war leader in Europe. He was still president of France on the eve of Tony Blair becoming prime minister. Today’s European left still sees all the faults and failure of Francois Mitterrand. History will make a more generous judgement.

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Denis MacShane MP

is a former Europe minister. His biography of François Mitterrand was published in 1982, and in 1985 he wrote a Fabian pamphlet, French Lessons for Labour

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