François Mitterrand Gave French Socialists Power at the Price of Their Soul

Forty years ago today, François Mitterrand became the first socialist president of France’s Fifth Republic. But after his early attempt at left-wing reforms was defeated, Mitterrand’s tenure helped turn the Parti Socialiste into a pillar of the political establishment.

Francois Mitterrand surrounded by photographers during the French cabinet meeting at Élysée Palace on May 27, 1981. (PICOT/STILLS/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)

Seven years before the French presidential election of 1981 that brought François Mitterrand to power, Jean-Pierre Chevènement, a member of the left wing of the Socialist Party (PS), published a book titled Le vieux, la crise, le neuf(The Old, the Crisis, the New). According to Chevènement, the project of the PS should not be to “loyally manage the affairs of the bourgeoisie.” He made the following prediction:

If the Left found itself lifted into government, not to carry out its own program, but merely to grapple with the economic crisis, it would probably stay there for a shorter period of time than the social democrats of Northern Europe managed to do under more favorable conditions. It would come out of the experience profoundly discredited and removed from power once again for a generation.

Chevènement insisted that the conquest of the state machine should enable the PS to become “a link between the popular government and the mass movement,” and warned that the French left “will only avoid the pitfalls of embourgeoisement and institutionalization if it recognizes that the mass movement has an essential role to play as a source of pressure and criticism.”

This part of the warning from Chevènement and his CERES (Center for Socialist Studies, Research, and Education) faction proved to be accurate. The absence of powerful social mobilizations did play a part in the shift of the PS government toward more conservative economic policies between 1981 and 1983, after its initial attempts at sweeping reform. As a divided government came under pressure from institutional actors like the Treasury and the Bank of France, there was hardly any force pressing back in defense of popular interests.

Although the French Socialists embraced the neoliberal turn that swept through the Western economies in this period, they didn’t suffer the electoral fate that Chevènement had feared. They managed to occupy the summits of political power from which they had been excluded since 1958, when Charles de Gaulle became the president of France. From 1981 to 2017, when the PS really did collapse, the party was in government for twenty years in total, or four legislative terms out of eight. In France and countries in Southern Europe like Greece and Spain, social democracy recovered a dynamism that it had lost further north.

This remarkable performance, which came at a heavy social and ideological price, was possible in large part because of the leadership of François Mitterrand. Mitterrand was not content merely to rally the forces of French socialism: he offered them a path to the very top of the political system. This had major consequences for the regime of the Fifth Republic in France as well as for the PS.

By studying Mitterrand’s political trajectory, we can better understand the conditions that produced his victory in 1981, and why that victory did not result in a new sociopolitical order. In what follows, we will look at the means with which he sought to conquer power, and the ends that he promoted among the citizens of France.

A Bourgeois Background

François Mitterrand was born on October 26, 1916, in the commune of Jarnac in southwestern France. Mitterrand’s social background did not make him a likely candidate to become the first left-wing head of state in the Fifth Republic. He grew up in a family that was bourgeois, Catholic and conservative, and attended a private religious school. He had a passion for literature and history, and decided to study law in university.

During these formative years, between 1934 and the outbreak of the Second World War, Mitterrand shared the ideas of the nationalist right in France. We can find evidence of this in the time he spent as a militant for the National Volunteers, a youth movement of the ultranationalist Croix-de-Feu organization, and his contributions to the daily newspaper L’Écho de Paris, which was very hostile to the left-wing Popular Front government led by Léon Blum. But the most disturbing episode in his political career came during the war.

After being taken prisoner by the German Army in June 1940, Mitterrand escaped from a POW camp and began working for the collaborationist Vichy regime from January 1942 onward. He gave the Vichy leader Marshal Philippe Pétain his confidence and support, which did not stop him from establishing links with the resistance, to the point of going underground at the end of 1943. According to the historian Michel Winock in his 2015 biography: “Mitterrand was a Pétainiste until a certain date, about which it is difficult to be precise, but also incontestably a member of the resistance.”

Some other figures of the time shared this ambivalence, which has led some researchers to coin the term vichysto-résistants. While there was never any resistance from the Vichy regime as such, some of its supporters did undergo a transformation during the conflict. Without necessarily abandoning their values or their ideas, they drew on those values and ideas selectively in a way that led them to fight in the resistance.

In the aftermath of the war, Mitterrand had still not become a socialist, and he was overtly anti-communist. He was elected as the parliamentary deputy for Nièvre in 1946 on this political basis. The same year, he joined a small centrist party called the Democratic and Socialist Union of the Resistance (UDSR), later becoming its president in 1953.

Mitterrand shifted the UDSR’s political orientation in a more left-wing direction, but its great advantage was the pivotal position it occupied in the partisan system. Its support proved very useful in the formation of centrist coalitions that excluded both the French Communist Party (PCF) on the left and the Gaullist Rally of the French People (RPF) on the right. Mitterrand himself held no fewer than eleven ministerial posts during the postwar Fourth Republic.

While serving in government, he developed some expertise in colonial matters. Although the most ardent supporters of the French Empire hated Mitterrand, he did not actually support its dissolution. His position could in fact be described as a liberal, reformist one. As summed up by the historian Georges Saunier, what he envisaged was “the end of colonial violence and the creation of a kind of French Commonwealth, preserving the links between the metropolis and the [colonial] territories with renewed treaties.”

However, as the justice minister in the government of Socialist politician Guy Mollet, Mitterrand remained silent when he launched a harsh policy of repression in Algeria in 1956, responding to the uprising for national independence led by the National Liberation Front (FLN). He agreed to the dispatch of a military force, the transfer of policing and judicial powers to the army, and the execution of forty-five people sentenced to death in the context of the conflict.

The Fifth Republic

In 1958, Charles de Gaulle took power in response to the Algerian crisis and established the Fifth Republic. This meant there was a new political regime for France and, above all, a new electoral order, with a directly elected president rather than a parliamentary form of government. It was a crucial turning point in the postwar era. From then on, two phenomena characterized French political life: presidentialization, with a focus on strong, charismatic individuals, and polarization into two partisan camps.

Instead of being trapped by his background in the Fourth Republic, Mitterrand quickly adapted to the new dispensation. The French Socialists, on the other hand, were in decline, and found themselves torn between various strategies. Their party still bore the name French Section of the Workers’ International (SFIO) from its moment of foundation in 1905.

There were two principal lines of cleavage in the SFIO. The first separated those who had come to terms with presidentialization from those who still clung on to parliamentary-style politics. The second division was between those who favored a Union of the Left that would embrace the Communists, and those who preferred to occupy the center ground.

Like Mitterrand, the Socialist politician Gaston Defferre, who served for three decades as the mayor of Marseille, wanted to adapt to the presidential regime. However, Defferre rejected Mitterrand’s call for a left-wing alliance with the PCF. He wanted the SFIO to follow a democratic-reformist line oriented toward the center, calculating that Communist voters would have no choice but to vote for its candidate in the second round of the presidential election. Defferre first attempted to run for the presidency in 1965, and eventually became the SFIO candidate in 1969, when he achieved a pitiful score: just 5 percent.

The SFIO leader, Guy Mollet, was closer to Mitterrand’s view on relations with the PCF and promoted an ideological dialogue with the Communists. But Mollet did not have the same focus as Mitterrand on the conquest of power. He was mainly preoccupied with preserving the party and did not recognize that the shift to a presidential system had changed the whole dynamic of political competition in France.

Mitterrand saw himself as a unifying figure for the non-Communist left. He considered it vital to build up the latter as a substantial force so that it could unite with the Communists in the election without scaring off the moderate voters whose support would be needed in the second round. Throughout the twists and turns of his political career in the 1960s and ’70s, Mitterrand continued to follow this strategy until it brought him to the highest office.

In the meantime, he built up a stock of political credit. He was an early opponent of the new Gaullist regime, and above all the personal power of de Gaulle. Mitterrand’s own party was divided over how to respond to de Gaulle, and he founded a new organization in 1964, the Convention of Republican Institutions (CIR).

This group brought together dozens of clubs from the center and the left that had flourished at the intersection of political and intellectual life since 1958. The CIR’s goals were to establish a federal Europe, a “modern democratic republic,” and an “economic democracy.” At the time it was established, the CIR did not claim to be socialist, but its members explicitly sought unity of the Left, including the Socialists.

In the same year, Mitterrand published a pamphlet titled The Permanent Coup D’État, which denounced the excessive concentration of power in the hands of one man. He accused de Gaulle of governing in an arbitrary manner, but also of being regressive and fundamentally bourgeois in his outlook. Mitterrand thus combined his critique of Caesarism, a specter that haunted French republicans, with a form of social criticism that spoke to all sections of the Left.

His Portion of Truth

In 1965, Mitterrand saw off the challenge of Gaston Defferre to become the sole candidate of the Left. He forced de Gaulle into a second round by denying him an outright majority in the first presidential vote. De Gaulle won the second-round contest by 55 to 45 percent. This put Mitterrand in a strong position to rally the socialist and republican left as a powerful force that could stand alongside the Communists.

Mitterrand tried to achieve this goal with a political vehicle that proved to be ephemeral, the Federation of the Democratic and Socialist Left (FGDS), which brought together the parliamentary groups of the moderate left, including the SFIO and the Radical Party. But Mitterrand’s clumsy interventions during the events of May and June 1968 in France temporarily blocked his political project. When the SFIO was reconstituted as the Socialist Party in 1969, the CIR did not take part.

This did not stop Mitterrand from declaring his support for the socialist ideal and setting out the credo for a Union of the Left in his 1969 book, Ma part de verité (My Portion of Truth). The ecumenical spirt of this work effectively reduced socialism to an aspiration for justice and a desire to improve economic efficiency. It did not offer any deep analysis of capitalism as a structure of impersonal domination that subordinates both workers and employers to the imperatives of capital accumulation. Whereas earlier left-wing politicians such as Jean Jaurès and Léon Blum had combined materialism with idealism, Mitterrand’s critique of the established economic order was essentially a moral one.

After François Mitterrand’s 1981 victory, thousands descended on the Place de la Bastille.

However, the program of the CIR had shifted toward the Left. In 1970, the movement discussed the idea of a “Socialist contract” for the country whose principal goals would be to bring about greater participation by workers in economic decision-making and a more equal distribution of income. Its stated ambition was to build an economic system that would be unique in Europe — neither a softened version of capitalism nor a collectivist model that would destroy personal freedom. But the CIR combined this radical objective with a gradualist strategy for achieving it over an indefinite period of time.

In a broader sense, Mitterrand laid the foundations of a political approach through the CIR that he would implement a few years later with the Socialist Party as his vehicle. The PS gave Mitterrand the local support bases and activist cadres that the CIR had lacked. In 1971, he achieved his masterstroke by capturing the leadership of the PS at the same time as he joined it. At the Épinay congress that year, he formed alliances with the old chieftains of the SFIO on his right wing and the young Marxist troops of the CERES faction on his left to take control of the party.

Three years later, the dynamism of the party attracted a fresh cohort from the Christian left associated with the CFDT trade-union federation, which supported the goal of autogestion (self-management). Mitterrand brought these elements into the fold through a debate in October 1974 known as the Assises du socialisme. This completed the process of unifying the forces of French socialism into a single organization.

In the 1974 presidential election, Mitterrand ran for the second time after concluding an alliance with the PCF and the Left Radicals. His platform called for the nationalization of key industrial and financial corporations and a reduction of working hours. Mitterrand lost out in the runoff to the conservative candidate Valéry Giscard d’Estaing by a tiny margin — less than 2 percent, or just over 400,000 votes.

Ideology, Tactics, and Personal Ambitions

Over the course of the 1970s, Mitterrand and his allies transformed the PS into an effective modern party that was attractive to new activists and social layers. With Mitterrand as its leader, the PS promised a “rupture with the established order,” opening the way for an alternative, socialist path that that would be much more ambitious than anything on offer from social democracy elsewhere in Europe.

The Union of the Left defined its strategy as a project to go beyond capitalism, based on the construction of a “bloc of classes” between exploited workers and social groups that were denied access to the means of production. When it came to economic questions, the program consisted of three key points: nationalization, democratic planning, and self-management. It also took heed of the demands put forward by new social movements after 1968 — feminist, regionalist, or ecological.

Before the French left had even come to power, there were already several strains on the coherence of its vision. The historian Mathieu Fulla argues that Mitterrand was pursuing a strategy “on a knife’s edge.” His party needed to display its radicalism in order to overtake its Communist competitor but without losing its credibility in the eyes of the wider electorate. As Mitterrand once put it when addressing the left wing of the PS: “Collectivization is all very well for a party congress, but not so good for an election campaign.”

This led to an eclectic mixture of economic paradigms, across the spectrum from Marxism to Keynesianism, that were not always blended together well. It also gave rise to many blind spots in the economic project of the Left, which helps explain the comparative failure of the “Marxo-Keynesian” policy carried out in 1981–82. The PS conceived its project of social transformation in essentially national terms, at a time when the French economy was already strongly internationalized.

Production and employment would continue for the most part to depend on private capital, while French firms would have to confront foreign competition, if only within the framework of the European common market. In the short term, the project of boosting employment and reducing inequality — watchwords for Mitterrand’s presidential campaign — relied on typical Keynesian methods, at a time when that economic paradigm seemed increasingly fallible in both practice and theory.

There were also widely divergent views about the programmatic vision of the PS among the various factions that structured the party’s internal life. Personal rivalries and tactical considerations then overlaid these doctrinal debates. For example, the followers of Michel Rocard, who went on to serve as prime minister under Mitterrand, did not understand the concept of autogestion in the same way as the CERES faction. The latter accused the former of using it as an excuse for reformist capitulation, downplaying the need to overturn capitalist economic structures by using state power.

In ideological terms, Mitterrand was unquestionably closer to the Rocardians than he was to CERES. However, Rocard himself had presidential ambitions, and thus had no hesitation in denouncing Mitterrand’s alleged “archaism” on such questions. It was an exaggerated charge, but it encouraged Mitterrand to bring CERES back into his camp in 1979, after excluding it for the previous four years.

By doing so, he isolated his rival Rocard at the price of hardening his ideological stance — albeit in a way that was merely tactical. When Mitterrand ran in the presidential election of 1981, his platform of 110 proposals was less radical than the party program Jean-Pierre Chevènement had drafted.

He defeated the incumbent, Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, in a runoff by 52 to 48 percent. The Socialists also won a majority of seats in the subsequent legislative election and formed a government with Pierre Mauroy as prime minister. They opted to bring the PCF into their cabinet with four posts, although backing from the Communist deputies was not essential for the PS. Supporters of the Left greeted the results with euphoria, harking back to the golden days of the Popular Front victory in 1936.

From Ambition to Austerity

There was a certain originality behind the economic policy that the new government carried out in 1981. It combined a boost to consumption, with the sharpest reduction in income inequalities since the general strike of 1968, with a substantial enlargement of the productive state. The French public sector became one of the biggest among the advanced capitalist economies. But there was no question of giving power to the workers or detaching the French economy from international competition.

It was not a propitious time for a left-wing economic experiment. Between 1979 and 1982, Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan, and Helmut Kohl came to power in London, Washington, and Bonn, respectively. France soon faced a counterattack from the forces of capital, with a balance-of-payments crisis, speculative attacks on the franc, inflation, and a decline of corporate profitability. Eventually, the Socialist government began implementing austerity measures, which it made definitive with the so-called austerity turn of 1983. This brought the reduction of inequality to an end. It also produced a lasting hike in unemployment while boosting the wealth share of those who held capital.

As was the case elsewhere in Europe at the time, the shrinking economic space for a social-democratic policy by parties like the PS led to the adoption of neoliberalism rather than socialist radicalization. By 1983, Mitterrand had been so successful in his project of surpassing and marginalizing the PCF that the Communists no longer had the resources or the credibility to offer an alternative.

The CERES faction in the Socialist Party itself did not support economic deflation, but it did not advocate a truly socialist policy, either. After resigning from the government, Chevènement called for a “civic awakening” that would build a “nation based on solidarity and entrepreneurship,” capable of “producing more and better.” He wanted France to leave the European Monetary System (EMS) so it could devalue the franc and give industry a boost.

Mitterrand opted to stay in the EMS and carry out a strategy of competitive deflation. The French social state was not expanded in an anti-capitalist direction. Instead, it became a kind of social anesthetic, compensating for the ills produced by a neoliberal order.

Lacking a strong economic doctrine of his own, Mitterrand preferred to maintain the link with Germany and tie France to the construction of the European Community. Having failed to invest a third way between Soviet-style collectivism and classical social democracy, he made European integration the great project of his presidency. This became a new field for the exercise of Mitterrand’s leadership and gave him a positive horizon.

He helped bring about the appointment of Jacques Delors, his government’s finance minister between 1981 and 1984, as head of the European Commission in 1985. Delors, a product of the Christian trade-union movement in France, was an early defender of austerity, and expressed his delight that the Left had finally decided to “rehabilitate companies and their directors.” Over the course of a decade, he used the idea of a European market to promote the unification of the old continent.

Under his leadership, three major treaties were pushed through: the Schengen Agreement in 1985, allowing for the free movement of European citizens; the Single European Act in 1986, which led to the creation of the single market; and, finally, the Maastricht Treaty in 1992, which paved the way for a common European currency. Mitterrand himself campaigned for Maastricht in the French referendum campaign. These became the pillars of a pan-European structure. That structure established the priority of economic competition over whatever interventionist tendencies social-democratic leaders still harbored, and permanently blocked the fantasies of “Euro-Keynesianism.”

Ambiguous Legacy

The conversion of French socialism to a tempered variety of neoliberalism, mixed with social concerns to set it apart from the post-Gaullist right, is not the only legacy of Mitterrand. After 1981, France became a country where the death penalty was abolished, and where there was real progress for the rights of women and sexual minorities. His government also did away with special courts and released local authorities from supervision by the central government.

Above all, the Mitterrand strategy normalized the idea of the Left and Right alternating in power under the Fifth Republic, after a right-wing monopoly of power that had lasted for twenty-three years. This also meant that the PS itself was won over to the system of the Fifth Republic and became a pillar of that system for almost four decades.

Of course, Mitterrand reveled in his role as a republican monarch. He used all the privileges of his office and even abused them — for example, when he ordered the wiretapping of prominent figures. The most terrible consequence of Mitterrand’s preeminence in foreign and military affairs stemmed from his insistence on backing the Rwandan government that was ultimately responsible for the genocide of the Tutsis in 1994.

He also cultivated an air of secrecy around his health and the double life that he led, with a secret family whose existence was not revealed to the French public until much later. He enjoyed the courtly atmosphere that surrounded his person.

However, Mitterrand did keep his promise to reform the majoritarian electoral system for the French legislature and make it more proportional. As soon as the French right returned to power in 1986, it rolled back this reform, and the post-Mitterrand political class has never restored it despite having multiple opportunities to do so. To this day, the system of national representation gives a highly distorted picture of what people have actually voted for.

Mitterrand’s successors have made the Caesarian features of the French political regime even worse. While he was president, Mitterrand had to coexist with a right-wing parliamentary majority, because the presidential and legislative elections were not held on the same timetable. Lionel Jospin, the Socialist prime minister from 1997 to 2002, synchronized the presidential term with that of the National Assembly, with the election for president taking place before the legislative poll.

This has considerably strengthened the dominant role of the presidency in a system that already gave France’s head of state exorbitant powers. Since 2002, the party of the winning presidential candidate has always romped home in the parliamentary election that followed.

François Hollande became the first Socialist president since Mitterrand in 2012, but proceeded to alienate the left-wing electorate, however moderate, over the next five years. The PS went down to a spectacular defeat in 2017, when its candidate placed fifth with just over 6 percent of the vote.

The collapse certainly fit into a broader pattern of crisis for Europe’s social-democratic parties. But the scale of that collapse symbolized the failure of a generation of PS politicians whose careers were hatched during the Mitterrand years. Instead of critically examining the limits and ambiguities of Mitterrand’s career, they channeled all their energy into the social, political, and European order of the Fifth Republic, losing any trace of originality along the way — and ultimately losing any appeal to voters, too.

But that was their responsibility more than it was Mitterrand’s. He did not bequeath any notable ideas to the French left. Nor did his government “change life, here and now,” as the title of a Socialist anthem from 1977 put it. Instead, Mitterrand offered the Left a flawed but lasting experience of power, setting it on a path that his successors went on to follow, wrongly and stubbornly, until the final collapse.