The irony of Europe's two biggest internal political changes today is that while Poles are risking their very lives in trying to free themselves from the restraining grip of socialist government, Frenchmen, by their free votes, have taken the opposite course.
The overpowering consensus of an economically prostrate Poland seeks an end of the central government's supremacy, even if that tempts Soviet intervention. Prosperous France, discontented with the natural distribution of its wealth, asks government to be a leveler.
This 1981 tale of two countries could end in a double tragedy. Poland's quest for personal liberty ultimately may reap steel and blood from its superpower neighbor. France's periodic dalliance with socialism, limited in the past by rapid failure, may be extended so long this time by the rigidity of the Gaullist constitution that the nation's social and economic systems become profoundly disordered.
The ironic contrast deepend with the French decision to take into the Cabinet four communists, members of an anti-democratic party that deplores the process under which they have entered government. In Poland a free election would turn out the Communists, a privilege denied the Poles by Leninism, which prohibits genuine opposition parties, and by the Brezhnev Doctrine, which prohibits any rollback of European communism's borders.
Actually, the French Communist Party is at an all-time low. That permitted the election as president of Socialist Francois Mitterrand by minimizing fear of communist influence in his government.
In truth, those four communists in minor cabinet posts are far less important then the doctrinaire Marxism reflected by many socialists in the Mitterrand regime, including the president himself.
The decision to nationalize France's big private banks and 10 other industries represents Mitterrand's dogmatic socialism resembling a dogmatism Poles see at the heart of their own economic misery. All but the Communist Party hacks in Poland believe state-owned enterprises must devolve to local worker control and ownership -- in effect, denationalization.
Polish sentiment against state ownership is but one of many signs that 35 years of the Marxist-Leninist system there has failed politically. In particular, Polish youth look west, not east, for their goals.
That is partly caused by removal of travel restrictions by the Polish regime in recent years. Young Poles have seen the crammed shops of Copenhagen, Frankfurt and Paris and compared that with bare shelves in Warsaw (as well as the meager offerings in Moscow). The young travelers have seen firsthand that, contrary to communist propaganda, Western prosperity is not accompanied by oppression of the masses. p
Polish youths, born and indoctrinated under communism now look on the interwar period of 1919-1939 not as the reactionary interval depicted by their schoolbooks but as two decades of true independence and relative economic stability. This helps explain the cult that has developed around Marshal Josef Pilsudzki, Polish strongman of that interwar period. Pilsudzki T-shirts, buttons and photos are sold on the Warsaw University campus.
France's political turbulence, in contrast, is not caused by economic malfunctioning. The French economy is robust, one of Europe's strongest. But France remains burdened by a class-ridden society despite its revoluntionary tradition. Behind Mitterrand's election was more envy of the rich than concern for the poor.
Even French conservatives concede a clear electoral mandate for redistribution of income away from the rich. Although Mitterrand's industrial nationalization poses a restructuring of the French economy more basic than that mandate, redistribution of income in itself suggests massive policy changes: greater taxation of wealth, higher social welfare spending, more government regulation. That policy mix, as shown by recent experience everywhere, guarantees inflation and stagnation.
Nor is it likely to be temporary. This is France's fourth socialist government in the 20th century. Each of the first three fell of its own inadequacies after two years, but Mitterrand's surely will not. Charles de Gaulle's Fifth Republic gives him seven years as president with five years of an absolute Socialist majority in the General Assembly. That is why capital started flowing out of France in anticipation of the election.
One final ironic link in the dangerous paths being traveled by France and Poland is the avowal of greater support for Polish reformers by the new French government than by its conservation predecessor, in keeping with the old Western socialist dream of democratizing Eastern Europe's communist regimes. The French leaders seemingly do not understand that proponents of change in Paris and Warsaw are moving in opposite directions this fateful summer.