Mitterrand's first term, 1981-88: France embarks on socialism

Term Paper, 2006

17 Pages, Grade: Gut


Paper by Gisela Spreitzhofer

French Politics

December 2006

mitterrand’s first term, 1981-88:
france embarks on socialism

François Mitterrand’s election as president of the French Republic on May 10, 1981 marked the beginning of a new era in French politics. For the first time in the Fifth Republic, a socialist had become head of state. The new prime minister Pierre Mauroy formed a ministry that consisted mainly of socialists. Their power was enormous after winning clearly the majority in the National Assembly one month after the presidential elections, reducing both the communists and the conservatives by half. Mitterrand formed a coalition of socialist and communist parties whose goal was to redistribute power between state and society and within society itself.

Who was the man that had caused this landslide in the French political landscape (Friend 1998:8-21)? While Mitterrand had always been anti-communist, his leftist orientation was far from obvious in the beginning. Born in the small town of Jarnac, Charente in 1916 in a conservative middle class, Catholic background, Mitterrand became a mid-level functionary of the Vichy government during World War II, but served as a spy for the Free French Forces. Disliking Charles de Gaulle, he sympathized with his rival Henri Giraud. In the Fourth Republic he was a centrist moving leftward, holding various offices as deputy and minister.

By 1958, Mitterrand clearly wanted to be seen as belonging to the left. He had become one of the strongest opponents of de Gaulle against whom he lost in the 1965 presidential campaign. In the presidential election after de Gaulle had resigned in 1969 following a failed referendum, only 5% of the voters supported the socialist candidate Gaston Defferre, while the stalinist Jacques Duclos took over 21% of the vote. This outcome shocked the socialists, and they restructured themselves in the Parti Socialiste (PS). Mitterrand became member of the PS and its first secretary on the same day, which brought him the nickname “the foreign prince”. In 1974, he lost his second presidential campaign against Valérie Giscard d’Estaing.

At the beginning of the 1970s, the communists were the largest French party. Both communist and socialist voters shared an aspiration for social justice. Having a keen feel for political and institutional areas (rather than economic matters), Mitterrand realized that splitting the communist party required entering into an alliance with its leaders and adopting their language, for instance of “breaking capitalism”. His task was to prove that the socialists were more powerful than the communists who had always been better at organizing themselves.

The PS was composed of the following competing groups (Hall 1986:193):

- First, the neomarxist Centre d'études, de recherches et d'éducation socialiste (CERES); led by Jean Pierre Chevènement; pro-étatist; favoring large-scale nationalizations, growth with the help of protectionism, and reforms from above.
- Second, the Rocardiens or “second left”; an anti-marxist group who wanted to strengthen the civil society rather than the state.
- Third, a group of social democrats standing in the middle, supporting Keynesianism and redistribution. Mitterrand was part of this group, but once in power he had to make compromises with the others, which explains his government’s uneven policies.

By the end of the 1970s, Mitterrand emerged as the winner of the internal power struggle with Michel Rocard, and he succeeded in uniting the PS behind him by allying himself with one faction after another, leading it to victory in 1981.

This paper’s purpose is to assess the achievements and the drawbacks of the socialist experiment launched by Mitterrand in 1981. I will proceed in a chronological order; thus the first part is dedicated to Keynesian redistribution and its limits in 1981-82, the second will deal with austerity measures implemented from 1982-84, the third addresses Fabius’ modernization efforts from 1984-86, and the fourth will cover the 1986-88 cohabitation period. The fifth part will be devoted to the relationship between state and society under Mitterrand. Finally, some concluding remarks will finish the paper in the sixth part.

1. Socialist Honeymoon and Its Restraints, 1981-82

Immediately after the election, Mitterrand began to implement his promise to cure the ailing economy (Hall 1986:193-195). Instead of listening to some of his advisers who advocated devaluation and protectionism, he wanted to avoid isolating France’s economy internationally. Therefore, he chose to launch a program of “redistributive Keynesianism” in the spring of 1981. France had already a well developed welfare system, but high inflation rates of the late 1970s had increased disparities. Thus, family allowances, housing allocations, health insurance benefits, old-age pensions, and the minimum wage (SMIC) were raised. The work-week was shortened from 40 to 39 hours, and a fifth week of vacation was introduced. Overall, this attempt to reduce unemployment was not very successful; but the rate of growth of unemployment was lowered. Another measure were “contracts of solidarity” between enterprises and the state; for example, the state paid employees aged 55 to 60 a pension of 70% of their previous wages if the company hired younger workers instead. A general early retirement program was put in place in March 1982.

Historians agree that these redistributive measures greatly enhanced the fate of economically disadvantaged groups. France achieved 2% economic growth over two years – a remarkable success, given that at the time growth in most other European economies was stagnant.


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Mitterrand's first term, 1981-88: France embarks on socialism
School of Advanced Internatl. Studies  (School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS))
French Politics
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Mitterrand, France, French, Politics
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MMag. M.A. Gisela Spreitzhofer (Author), 2006, Mitterrand's first term, 1981-88: France embarks on socialism, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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