Magazine article The Nation

Co-Existentialism in France

Magazine article The Nation

Co-Existentialism in France

Article excerpt

Co-existentialism In France

Although Sartre may be out of fashion, political co-existentialism is the main subject of speculation in Paris. Francois Mitterrand is being described as if he were, to borrow Carlyle's quip, the president of the Heaven and Hell Amalgamation Society. But the word "coexistence,' with its implication of conflicting systems, conveys the wrong impression. What is at stake here is the fitting of France into the Western pattern, the Parisian version of consensus politics. As there is no constitutional precedent for this match between a Socialist President and a conservative Assembly, or even clearly defined rules, assessment is not easy. Enough time, however, has elapsed since March 16, when the Socialist reign ended without a bang, to survey the scene and ponder the prospects.

Because the electoral swing to the right was expected, it was overshadowed by two events that presented more of a surprise. The first was the "respectable' right's attainment of only a narrow majority. To scrape together a majority of the National Assembly's 577 deputies, the 155 neo-Gaullist followers of Jacques Chirac and the 131 members of the Union for a French Democracy, partisans of Valery Giscard d'Estaing and Raymond Barre must rely on five independent conservatives. The second was the relatively good showing of the Socialists, who, with their center-left allies, captured 32 percent of the vote and 216 seats in the Assembly. The respectable right would have had a huge lead if it hadn't been for the switch to proportional representation and if the neofascist National Front hadn't managed to get 10 percent of the vote. With thirty-four deputies, Jean-Marie Le Pen is now the star performer in the Palais Bourbon, the seat of the National Assembly. At the opposite end of the spectrum, the Socialists' good performance is attributable to the almost total disappearance of the Green and New Left candidates, whose followers deserted them rather than waste their votes, and to the further decline of the Communists, whose showing--10 percent of the vote and thirty-five deputies--was disastrous.

All this in no way affects the big shift in the balance of electoral power from left to right. In the parliamentary poll of 1981 the left defeated the right by 12 percent of the vote. Now the right has the same edge (55 percent to 43 percent). It could be argued that what matters after an election is the number of deputies in the Assembly, not the balance of electoral forces in the country. That argument, however, misses the peculiarity of the current French situation and the constraints this balance places on the veto powers of President Mitterrand.

The government of Jacques Chirac, deriving its strength from the majority the conservative alliance holds in the National Assembly, is supposed to carry out the normal executive functions--to run the country. Yet it is also supposed to cooperate with the President, who, himself elected through universal suffrage, is no figurehead. He signs international treaties, has his finger on the nuclear trigger and watches over the proper functioning of the institutions of government. About once a week he presides over the formal meetings of the Chirac government, and his signature is required for its bills to become law (whether and when he can refuse to sign is now a matter of dispute). Last but not least, the President can appeal directly to the people, either by dissolving the National Assembly and holding a snap election or by resigning and precipitating a presidential one. No wonder that among Chirac's first bills is a measure designed to abolish proportional representation in favor of the former majority system, which, assuming the present mood of the electorate continues, would result in a landslide for the right.

Against this backdrop the tactics of the protagonists are easier to see. Mitterrand's term ends in 1988. He must wait and see if the other side blunders by passing some unpopular measures. …

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