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Mitterrand


Mitterrand, french president
Mitterrand, french president

An able political strategist, Mitterrand had rebuilt the Socialist Party during the 1970s, working first with the Communist Party and then apart from it. His decisive victory in 1981 marked the first major swing to the left since the Popular Front in the 1930s. Even more significantly, it was the first time power had been passed to an opposing party without a major change to the constitution. It seemed that the Fifth Republic was a regime that both left and right had learned to live within.

After Mitterrand’s election, struggle among the major political parties centered not on which one offered the most popular, distinctive vision of the future, but on which one appeared best able to achieve commonly desired goals of economic growth and political stability. Ideological differences between left and right mattered less than before; voters were now looking for competent leadership.

One indication that voters were abandoning traditional ideological causes was a major drop in support for the once powerful French Communist Party in the elections of 1981. The French Communists were unable or unwilling to follow the example of the more successful Italian Communist Party, which broke with Soviet Marxist orthodoxy. The French Communist Party’s refusal to innovate structurally or ideologically led to the loss of the support of many intellectuals and workers. The Communist Party henceforth exerted only marginal political power, although its decline was temporarily masked by the appointment of four Communist Party members to the cabinet of Mitterrand’s first prime minister, Pierre Mauroy.

Mitterrand decentralized power by allowing localities more self-government. He enacted a string of new reform measures that gave workers new rights to bargain collectively, raised the minimum wage, and increased family subsidies and old-age pensions. The death penalty was abolished, and new prisons were built to alleviate overcrowding.

The government nationalized the nation’s major banks, as well as a number of large industries. By 1983 the government controlled 13 of France’s 20 largest companies. In the end, however, these reforms did not add up to a successful economic or fiscal strategy. Deficits escalated and the economy failed to expand under the government’s stimulation, leading to greater unemployment, inflation, and trade deficits. After two years of left-wing euphoria, the Mitterrand regime was losing its popular support, while the right regained strength.

Edouard Balladur
Edouard Balladur

When the Socialists tried to impose controls on state-subsidized, private Catholic schools, they provoked one of the largest popular demonstrations in French history. A new extreme right-wing movement, the National Front, emerged, led by a former paratrooper, Jean-Marie Le Pen. The National Front drew its support chiefly for its anti-immigrant proposals, which proved especially popular among unemployed older males. It won over 10 percent of the vote in some elections. Although the National Front divided the right, the government could not afford politically or economically to continue on its earlier course and began dropping its socialist agenda. Budgets for social programs were slashed, and private industry was favored with tax cuts. The economy improved somewhat, although unemployment continued to rise. Mitterrand hoped to divide the right-wing opposition by introducing proportional representation in elections to national and regional assemblies. The new system, which awarded seats to parties according to their share of the vote, was intended to favor small splinter parties and make it more difficult for stable majority coalitions to form. Mitterrand’s reform allowed the National Front to claim more than 6 percent of seats in the National Assembly in the legislative elections of 1986.

But the left lost anyway. For the first time in the Fifth Republic, the president came from a different part of the political spectrum than did the prime minister and the majority in the legislature. In fact, cohabitation, as it was called, worked more smoothly than some observers had predicted. Mitterrand dealt primarily with foreign affairs, and the new Gaullist prime minister, Jacques Chirac, focused on domestic matters. This arrangement lasted only until 1988, when the Socialists won a slim margin in the legislature after Mitterrand defeated Chirac in the presidential elections. Cohabitation was tried again without much friction in 1993, when the Socialists again lost control of the legislature and Edouard Balladur, a Gaullist, became prime minister.

In 1995 Chirac succeeded Mitterrand as president, but he, too, had to contend with cohabitation after just two years in power. The center-right lost control of the legislature in 1997, and Chirac was obliged to appoint a Socialist prime minister, Lionel Jospin. Cohabitation sharply constrained Chirac’s political influence. He was unable to prevent the left-wing majority from instituting major reforms, including 1998 legislation to shorten the work week from 39 to 35 hours (which took effect in 2000) in an effort to increase employment opportunities. "France" © Emmanuel BUCHOT, Encarta, Wikipedia.

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