The election of Francois Mitterrand as president of France ought to surprise no one, in France or abroad. The results of the first round of voting foreshadowed on the outcome on May 10. The change at the Elysee Palace is an event the consequences of which no one can foresee, but which will inevitably shake the equilibrium in France and in Europe.
The second round of the presidential election requires a third, presumably elections to the National Assembly on June 21 and 28. From now until then, the government formed by Mitterrand will make various popular and symbolic gestures -- an increase in the family benefits, and so forth. The political future of the country depends on the composition of the next National Assembly. Perhaps the French voters, a bit uneasy about the arrival of a Socialist in the presidency, won't return a Socialist-Communist majority to the Bourbon Palace. But it's more likely that the third round will confirm the pattern of the second.
In most of the election districts, the Socialist candidates will come in ahead of the Communists. Whether or not Mitterrand promises Georges Marchais seats in the Cabinet, the Communist Party can hardly refuse to exercise republican discipline, otherwise known as withdrawing in favor of the strongest candidate of the left.
In this scenario, the Socialist Party would return in triumph to the National Assembly, a dominant party comparable to the Gaullists in 1962 after the end of the Algerian War. Mitterrand would have a free hand to impose his full program. Indeed, in putting to a vote the reform of the voting procedure -- the substitution of proportional representation for the present majority vote in two rounds -- he would play a trump card against the Communists. In the event of a Cabinet crisis provoked by the tension between the Communists and the moderate parties, he could dissolve the National Assembly without fearing defeat in the election.
But if there were a National Assembly without a majority of the left, the president would have to undertake an unprecedented experiment -- with another discussion in view. The president of the left would work with a parliamentary majority of the right.
Mitterrand has now attained, by sheer stubbornness, the goal that he set himself: first, to create a Socialist Party capable of outrunning the Communist Party and attracting one or two million of its voters; then to govern as a leftist, possibly allied with the Communist Party and yet sufficiently strong to have no anxiety about this partner and enemy. It remains to be seen whether his program as a candidate, and the platform of the Socialist Party, meet the needs of the economic situation and the common interest.
It's legitimate, I think, to distinguish in Mitterrand's program between the structural measures that concern the country's economic and social regime and, on the other hand, those measures that address the present state of the economy and the crisis.
To the first category belongs the nationalization of a dozen of the big industrial groups and all the privately owned banks. This proposal, ritually repeated in every election campaign since 1973, seems to me to be destitute of any significance or purpose for the Socialists themselves. It testifies to the obsolescence of the Socialist party's thinking. In France, the government already wields such authority over business managers that nationalization is superfluous; on the contrary, the disruption that would be inevitable in the transfers of title would compound, to no useful purpose, the difficulties of the transition.
For the future, much depends on the manner of the nationalization. It is utterly irrational to eliminate a private sector in the banking system, since it is necessary to maintain a degree of competition. It is irrational to nationalize the industrial groups that constitute the cutting edge of the national economy. But the dimensions of the damage will depend on the way that the government chooses to go about it.
The other category of measures includes stimulating the economy by increasing social transfer payments and wages, especially the lowest wages. The idea that broad and lasting economic growth can be achieved by increasing purchasing power and adding more bureaucrats seems to me, as a policy, so primitive that it is hardly capable of serious discussion.
To be sure, for some months this generosity would create an atmosphere of euphoria. The first warning of trouble would come from the deficit in the country's balance of payments; then public uneasiness about the currency, and the acceleration of inflation, will force the apprentice sorcerers either to beat a retreat or to impose controls both on foreign trade and domestic prices.
Here again, much depends on the way in which the program is imposed. It is based on a logic that exists only in the imagination of the president and his counselors. That logic assumes, so far as one can follow it, a return to an economic growth rate of 5 to 6 percent. Let up hope that experience teaches the president a few primary economic truths that he never learned during 20 years in the opposition.
Beyond that, although Mitterrand's diplomacy necessarily cannot differ essentially from that of his predecessor, the defeat of Valery Giscard d'Estaing is a blow -- possibly fatal -- to Chancellor Helmut Schmidt, already besieged by one fraction of his Social Democratic Party. Willy Brandt and the Socialist International, as well as those British newspapers least well inclined toward France, never concealed their preference. The stability of our country and the Paris-Bonn axis irritated a good many Europeans who do not wish France particularly well.
Let us hope that Francois Mitterrand, despite all his promises, will deceive those who, in Great Britain and elsewhere, are already rejoicing at the weakening of France.