The Dutch banker, a man of impeccable French, listened. For two days the new ministers of the new French government had paraded before him and other businessmen to explain the new socialism. He was being wooed. He was being romanced. He was being charmed. But he was not being sold.
But then, if truth be told, he would not have been charmed had the Reagan administration done the same thing. He admitted as much. He would have sat and listened, as he did through a two-day economic conference here, held in a posh Right Bank hotel where the banquet room is patterned after the halls of Versailles.
It was an opulent setting to discuss the new socialism. The words flowed, the food was terrific. The wine was, of course, good. The only unsatisfactory thing to the banker was the lack of solutions. He found at the conference no answers to the problems that seem to have bound both sides of the Atlantic in a community of mutual misery, high unemployment, high inflation and high interest rates.
Here, though, the French are trying something different. About five months after the Reagan administration came into power with its new conservatism, the Socialists came to power in France. America went right and France went left. The results have been about the same. Despite some grand rhetoric, the Socialists have not been able to put much of a dent in either inflation or unemployment. And despite some even grander rhetoric, the Reagan administration has had much the same record. What it did in inflation, it more than compensated for with higher unemployment.
The banker, properly portly, acknowledged this. He just feels more confortable with American Republicans than with French Socialists. The Socialists, after all, plan to nationalize the bulk of the banking industry and eight other key industries. Already, they have reduced the work week from 40 to 39 hours, and plan to reduce it four more hours by 1985. That, plus the history and traditions of European socialism, has made the business community nervous. And so a procession of key government ministers, including the prime minister, came before them to reassure them that things would not change so radically.
In fact, they heard some of the same sort or rhetoric that they might have heard in America. The Socialists talk of decentralization, of moving decision-making away from Paris. This is their version of the new federalism. They talk, too, of bureaucracies, although to the Socialists the worst bureaucracy of all can be found within stodgy corporations and not necessarily within the government.
But if you came to the conference to hear talk of specific programs, to hear ringing socialist rhetoric, to hear new ideas, to see if the left had the key to turn on employment and turn off inflation, you would have been sorely disappointed. There is to the Socialist program the same quality of wishful thinking that there is to the Reagan program. Ronald Reagan once said that he believed his economic program would work because he had faith in it. A French Socialist could never be as blunt or as brief, but the answer would amount to the same thing.
It just could be that both the right and the left have run out of ideas, or that new economic conditions are simply impervious to old solutions. But where the right and the left still differ is how they perceive the role of government. It was refreshing to hear people who spoke for the government saying in no uncertain terms that the government was there to ensure fairness and equity and justice. No one here believes in trickle-down theories.
Whether in the long run the Socialists will succeed or the Reaganites will succeed or, more likely, none of them will succeed is too early to tell. That's all for the long run. But as someone said, we all eat in the short run and that the Socialists seem to understand.
Minister after minister talked of values, of social justice and equity. The government's role, they said, was to bring this about, not merely to provide the conditions and hope that it happens. Jacques Attali, special counselor to President Francois Mitterrand, put it this way: "We must make sure that Marx was wrong when he said that history will determine values. Values must determine history."
At any rate, until a solution is reached, values are all we have.