Monday, January 16, 2006


Last week, the French media headlined the tenth anniversary of the death of François Mitterrand, who passed away on January 8, 1996.

For those not au fait with recent French history, he was President of the Fifth Republic from 1981 to 1995. The Fifth Republic began in 1958, and the center-right held power – the presidency, the National Assembly, and the Senate – for the next twenty-three years running. Mitterrand was the fourth President, and the first on the left: preceding him were Charles de Gaulle, Georges Pompidou and Valéry Giscard d'Estaing. After his election in May, 1981, the National Assembly went "left" in the subsequent legislative elections in June … and modern France changed forever.

Throughout the past week, across the political spectrum from left to right, via the rapidly shrinking center, his 'achievements' were trumpeted anew and his 'scandals' condemned afresh. Statistics were trotted out or fudged, studies were brandished or smothered, and memories were expurgated or repackaged for the umpteenth time. New, improved spin was applied to old events, while personal anecdotes of his two tenures were massaged and modified by the surviving protagonists, both male and female, so as to fill the airwaves and the press. Even vocabulary from the past resurfaced: Mitterrand was frequently called 'an uncle' (un tonton) to the French: the word tontonmanie means "Mitterrand lovers" or "Mitterrand groupiethink". This last week was definitely filled with tontonmanie - as well as a reinvigorated tontonphobie.

Amerloque was unsurprised to note that another of Mitterrand's nicknames, le florentin, ("the Florentine", in reference to Renaissance political manipulators such as Niccolo Machiavelli and Lorenzo the Magnificent) somehow didn't receive as much airtime. Ah, nostalgie, quand tu nous tiens !

A blog such as Amerloque's is, alas, not the place to learn in depth about 'the Mitterrand years', for two main reasons.

First of all, too much occurred. Amerloque's compression of fifteen or so eventful years into several paragraphs, no matter how well intentioned, just wouldn't cut the historical mustard and, moreover, would probably end up being unfair to everyone, most especially to readers. Hard choices as to what to include would have to be made, and, perhaps inevitably, some important or innocuous happenings would be overemphasized or shortchanged. So much took place, with so many ramifications today and tomorrow, that sheer intellectual accuracy would require pages and pages of explanation, commentary and footnotes, so as to nuance each proffered opinion and avoid falling into simplistic, black and white pronouncements.

Second, it's simply too soon to draw up an honest and balanced assessment of what Mitterrand – and 'his' Socialists – did for France, both in positive and in negative terms. Certainly one can focus on a given issue – abolition of the death penalty, for example, or the Rainbow Warrior affair, or the implementation of the Maastricht Treaty, or daily astrology in the Presidential palace, or alleged dumbing down of education, or architectural megalomania – and draw conclusions. However, certain institutions in the France of today are still being annealed in the fires set with some impetuosity during the Mitterrand era, while others, in their turn, are being steadily enfeebled in those very same flames, which dance and subside daily in varying degrees. Even the current Wikipedia entry about Mitterrand is prefaced with the ominous caveat "The neutrality of this article is disputed." Indeed … 'Fools rush in where angels fear to tread,' goes the old saying: so Amerloque, being neither, ventures nowhere therein.

This is not to say, however, that a bit of useful exegesis about the 'Mitterrand years' cannot be offered. When looking back at the Mitterrand era to comment or criticize Amerloque is sure that he is prone to as much fuzziness ("fog, indistinctness, mist, murk, vagueness") as any French person. Amerloque, a guest in France, lived through those years here; some things do stand out, when looking back. Depending on the day and the season, there was the genuinely outrageous … and the downright reasonable. There were proposals of profound wisdom … and of shallow foolishness. There were events and ideas glorious … and, alas, vainglorious.

Amerloque will simply offer one quick anecdote from the Mitterrand years to those current American expatriates who wonder why it is that 'there are so many demonstrations in France' and why French people 'allow it' or 'are not upset by it'. Sometimes the American expat even asks 'what good do they do ?'. Set aside 1968 and its famous demos for a moment – that was some time ago ! The power of 'the street' to weigh on an issue in France was never demonstrated so amply within recent living memory as during the Mitterrand years.

One of Mitterrand's – and the Socialists' – proposals immediately upon assuming power in 1981, along with various nationalizations, was the closure of all private schools in France and their permanent integration into the public school system, l'Education Nationale. Needless to say; a goodly percentage of the population, having voted against the left, disagreed with this project and began to make its opposition known as soon as the government, under Prime Minister Pierre Mauroy, indicated that it would pursue the issue energetically. Proposal followed proposal and review followed review, chez les politiques … and the increasingly worried private schools (les écoles libres, i.e., "free schools") finally deemed that the time had come to react. Led by the Roman Catholics, they decided to show the Socialist government that, should it continue in the same vein, serious and lasting social malaise would result. They chose to ratchet up the pressure as the final version of the education bill neared completion.

Demonstrations began locally, in medium sized towns in Brittany and the West, both regions of France that are traditionally anti-central government. In October, 1983, a pro-private school demonstration attracted 100,000 people in Nantes; this brought about the desired attention in government and media. The parents and schools buckled down to the task, things became much more organized (the nascent Minitel turned out to be a useful tool to complement the landbased telephone: no cellphones or home PCs or internet back then !) … and, on March 4, 1984, in Versailles, a bastion of private education west of Paris … 800,000 defenders of private, non-governmental schools took to the streets. Dozens of automobiles, buses and trains brought in demonstrators from all over northern France, who were housed overnight with likeminded families. The government took notice but did not change its plans - at least in public.

Three months later, in June, 1984, the masterfully organized pro-private school forces put two million demonstrators simultaneously into the streets of Paris. The government threw in the towel. The bill was shelved forever … and several weeks later, Mauroy was sacked by Mitterrand (as was his Minister for Education, Alain Savary), to be replaced by Laurent Fabius.

Adult French people are aware of how the private school demonstrators made the government back down. It is a part of the French collective memory, as are the truckers' strikes not so long ago. Under the last Socialist Prime Minister, M. Jospin, even the gendarmes and the police demonstrated in protest. In France, if enough people take to the streets, in a sustained manner, the government will cave in. The French know that, and the expat, ever so quick to judge – perhaps because he or she has only been here a few years and has had no access to the collective memory - would do well to heed the lesson.

In addition, as time passes, perceived reality takes over from reality. In France today, there is increasing soul-searching and breast-beating about events in France, the French social model and the role of France in the world. Edouard Balladur, a former Prime Minister, once termed it déclinisme (which could be rendered here as "defeatism"). Alain Duhamel, that keen and lasting weatherman of the French political scene, has railed against les mousquetaires du déclinisme ("the defeatist musketeers"). The current Prime Minister, M de Villepin, scathingly referred to les déclinologues ("the experts in defeat") in his recent New Year's wishes to the press. They are not wrong … yet in Amerloque's view they see only one side of the coin, and not necessarily the side that the average French man or woman observes. The statistics that the politicians and the international organizations and the media amass and quote don’t mean too much at the end of the day, politically speaking, if they don’t reflect the perceived reality – i.e., the reality of the average French man or woman simply trying to make ends meet, to raise a family, to hold a job, to live a life.

The French remember Mitterrand - and his successes and failures. A French man or woman over, say, forty years old, remembers the pre-Mitterrand era, too. He or she remembers what the situation was prior to the election - and how it changed under Mitterrand. He or she imagines what it could have become, had other choices been made by Mitterand and the Socialists – or if Mitterrand hadn't been elected, or if he hadn't been elected twice. People recall yesterday, when it was, in fact, better – on that perceived individual level. They say to their children, or other members of the family, 'Ah, it used to be this way, years ago … remember ? it was much better, eh ?'

In some cases, it can be argued that it was better 'then', both in reality and on that perceived individual level. France has become a consumer culture (it wasn’t, before the Mitterrand years). Did the French see this consumer society coming ? No. Were they asked about it ? No. Were other things explained to them beforehand ? No. (By ‘other things’, Amerloque simply means private TV and radio, changes in advertising, employment law, consumer credit laws, social entitlements, immigration, the school system ... nationalizations and subsequent privatizations of public services ... dozens and dozens of changes over the past years, a great many of them initiated during Mitterrand's terms as President).

Some of the problems in today's France come directly from the Mitterrand years, as do some of France's successes. For the moment, the French collective memory seems to be focused exclusively on the black and the white of those years, and not on the gray. A part of the current déclinisme, echoed by the media and many opinionmakers for their own ends, thus can be attributed to what Mitterrand and his Socialists did and didn't do - but only a part. What remains to be seen is how much attention is paid to the lessons offered to today's France by the Mitterrand years.


Text © Copyright 2006 by L'Amerloque


Blogger Jean said...

Once again, Amerloque, you have produced a banquet of food for thought. Its interesting to see the French "esprit critique" turned not only toward France's recent history, but toward their own process of self-examination and self-critique. Mitterand will have a complex and disputed legacy. And it will be misunderstood in most quarters in the US.

12:10 PM  
Blogger Tom said...

In English, one might look at Ronald Tiersky, "François Mitterand: The Last French President" (2000) and David Bell, "François Mitterrand: A Political Biography" (2005).

8:39 PM  
Blogger Pumpkin Pie said...

You have made a very interesting post. For someone like me, that is just putting all this French history together, it is nice to have some of it explained so well here. Let's face it...I did not learn so much about French modern history during my school years in Ameirca. Thank you for such a well thought out post.

BTW I love that the French demonstrate! It is much better than sitting around complaining.

3:15 AM  
Blogger ParisGuy said...

Good to see some nice text in english about the french society ... something so hard to find in this country ... tx for sharing Amerloque.

7:03 AM  
Blogger benoit said...

I was born in 1976, and actually I can harly believe that just after Mitterand's election in 1981, some people buried their values, fearing of the russian tanks that would come around in a few time !!!

You're right, France has so changed in so few years...anyway the consumer society was already settling up. By the way, about that era,you have to read "les années Reiser" : it's a collection of Reiser's seventies work -he's the best french underground cartoonist ever-, and it ends in 1981...

1:35 PM  
Blogger blabla said...

I can't find a confimation of that but wasn't it "USA today" which was talking in 1981 about possible curfew in France and other threads because communists had reached the power ?

2:50 AM  
Blogger Moms' Style said...

As always, un grand merci, for your thoughtful essay about the Mitterand years. And now I will have to study the era ... any suggestions? Sources can be in French or English.

And thank you very much for linking to my page. I have neglected it terribly. I resolve to begin psting three times a week and I will add a link to your page.

7:43 PM  
Blogger tcheni said...

A short time after Mitterrand's death (to everyboy : two t and two r in Mitterrand, you'll see, very funny to type on a keyboard) ma tendre et douce (who by the way was not yet ma tendre et douce) had to have an injection, in this very particular part of the anatomy where the back looks like the moon (thanks Brassens). When the Doctor asked "which one? right or left?", she answered : "oh moi, vous savez, depuis la mort de Mitterrand..."
That's what I call a real Tontonmaniac.

9:26 AM  

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