WHEN Francois Mitterrand successfully ran for the French
presidency in 1981, one of his campaign posters showed the somber
Socialist candidate against the backdrop of a rural church. The
message was clear: For a better, more "moral" France, put your
confidence in me.
Eleven years later, as France prepares to vote in regional
elections next month, Mr. Mitterrand's Socialist Party has enlisted
Bernard Tapie, a flamboyant entrepreneur and owner of the Addidas
sports-equipment multinational and the Marseille soccer team, to
head its candidate list in the Bouches-du-Rhone region of southern
The juxtaposition highlights one of the changes that France and
its politics have experienced in the decade since Mitterrand took
office. They are changes that a worn and unpopular Mitterrand,
elected until 1995, may not survive.
*The great left-right divide that has defined French domestic
politics since the French Revolution more than two centuries ago
has disappeared, erased by generalized middle-class living
standards and economic policies dictated increasingly at the
*The left's decade in power has eradicated its image as a "moral
force" capable of building a better country. The resulting
disillusionment has sent a growing number of the more-motivated
French voters in search of "new" alternatives - including the Green
movement and the extreme right - and created legions of abstainers.
*In a twist of irony, France in the Mitterrand years has
experienced a sea change in its perception of money. Long
considered something to be hidden, money in the 1980s lost its
shameful connotation for most French and became increasingly
associated with such positive concepts as growth and better living.
"A decade ago we elected as president a man who made no secret
of his disdain for money, for the conjunction of private money and
power, and today Mr. Tapie is a baron of the Socialist Party," says
Pascal Perrineau, director of Paris's Center for Studies of French
This rehabilitation of money and related concepts of profit and
entrepreneurship make possible a political career for Tapie -
something unimaginable 10 years ago. Even more striking, it marks a
rupture with the country's deep Roman Catholic roots in favor of
the Protestant influences of northern Europe.
Politically these changes have devastated the French left.
A "profound transformation" has swept the French political map,
replacing the "coherent" left and right with a collection of at
least six forces - the Socialists, Communists, and ecologists
generally on the left and Centrists, Gaullists, and Jean Marie Le
Pen's National Front (FN) to the right, says Philippe
Moreau-Defarges, a political scientist with the French Institute
for Foreign Relations. But none, he adds, can claim to represent a
majority, even with traditional alliances.
One reason observers here are awaiting the March regional
elections with great anticipation is that they will be the first
national test of French voters' thinking since June 1989. …