Failures of left in office boosted far-right

By Michael Elms

In 1981, a left government took power in France under a Socialist Party President, Francois Mitterrand.

By the 1990s, almost everything built in the first years of the Mitterrand government had disappeared. The right governed (and from 1986 to 1988, had governed with Mitterrand), and the government’s nationalisations were almost all reversed (in some cases by Mitterrand).

And one of the long-term consequences of the 1981 government was to make the far-right Front National into a major player in French politics.

The old French ruling party around De Gaulle had been discredited since 1968. The revolutionary left, the Communist Party, and especially the previously-moribund Socialist Party (PS), grew. PS leader Mitterrand was able to leverage this growth to batter the PCF into uniting with him around a “common programme” in 1972.

In 1981, the new government abolished the death penalty; nationalised almost the whole financial sector, plus 12 big industrial firms; increased the minimum wage by over 10%; and hired an additional 200,000 civil servants. The retirement age was lowered to 60. In 1982, the government started work on reducing the working week from 40 to 35 hours, with an initial reduction to 39.

Soon the franc came under pressure in international financial markets.

The government opted for a “pause” in the reforms – a pause which would become permanent — and then for an actual reversal of many of them.

When PCF Health minister Jack Ralite imposed hospital charges for patients in 1983, the PCF defended his move (“when you’re at home, you pay for your own meals, don’t you?”). The PCF would finally slink out of government in mid-1984.

The left vote started to fall. Whereas the fascist Le Pen had polled 0.72% in 1974, in 1984 he matched the PCF’s vote, which by then was down to 11%.

The rise of the Front National was not only the result of the betrayals of the left in power. It was also fed by a nationalism embraced opportunistically by the left.

On Christmas Eve 1980, the Communist Mayor of Vitry, Paul Mercieca, thought he would boost his polls by running a bulldozer into a hostel full of Malian migrant workers, which he did. Socialist minister Gaston Defferre thundered: “Illegal immigrants must know that they can be deported!”

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