French Socialists, who swept to power six months ago determined to make a "tranquil revolution," have instead become locked in an increasingly rancorous battle with skeptical businessmen backed by the rightist opposition.
The confrontation has generated an atmosphere in which France's most prestigious and sober newspaper, Le Monde, recently published a front-page analysis headlined: "Civil War?" Although the war has been fought only with words so far, it demonstrates that positions are hardening on both sides as the government comes face to face with those who most oppose its reforms.
"The tension reflects a real division," said Michel Berson, a Socialist member of parliament from the Paris suburbs. "The reaction of the right is a class reaction. What is going on is a class battle."
Prime Minister Pierre Mauroy has shown growing irritation at businessmen's slowness to respond to his appeals for cooperation in combatting unemployment and nationalizing major industries and banks. He and other Socialist leaders have begun to voice suspicion that the resistance is in part a deliberate effort to undermine his economic recovery and employment programs.
"They are betting on our failure," Berson said in an interview.
Most frustrating has been Mauroy's inability so far to reverse the rise in unemployment, the number one economic issue during President Francois Mitterrand's election campaign. Since his victory May 10, the number of unemployed has risen by more than 100,000 to top 2 million.
The rise had been expected. Not even Mauroy's most ardent supporters believed he could turn the situation around in six months. His adviser for social affairs, Bernard Brunhes, predicted the 2 million figure in a background conversation with reporters two months ago.
Its announcement nevertheless drew attention to Mauroy's difficulty getting his programs out of ministry offices into the factory at least fast enough to slow the increase. A poll last week indicated that more than half of French medium and small businesses have no plans to invest and more than 80 percent have no plans to hire new workers.
Another poll said that, despite Mauroy's incentives and exhortations, 79 percent of executives queried said they have changed nothing in their hiring policies. A computer specialist at Thompson, the giant electronics firm just nationalized, said several experts in his department are working on temporary contracts because, although they are needed, company policy still is to avoid hiring new employes.
A special program launched by Mauroy to increase government aid to employers who agree to hire new workers, called "solidarity contracts," has drawn only two serious nibbles of interest. Both come from town halls, one of them Lille, the northern French town whose mayor is Mauroy himself.
Reflecting impatience -- their own and that of Socialist militants -- Mitterrand and Mauroy announced last week that the government plans to carry out a series of substantial changes by decree rather than by normal legislation that implies delay for parliamentary debate.
The procedure drew special attention as a sign of government resolve because, as opposition leader, Mitterrand often had criticized the same short cut when it was practiced by previous governments as an attempt to frustrate parliamentary control.
"We are responding to the legitimate impatience of Frenchmen," Mauroy explained, "and to the urgency of the situation."
The decrees will regulate cuts in the legal work week, an increase from four to five weeks' paid vacation and, among other things, a drop in retirement age to 60. All are designed mainly to create more job positions by reducing the amount of work done by each employe.
Although the steps were popular campaign promises, the main effort to combat unemployment has centered on stimulating the economy through a postwar record $17 billion budget deficit now being voted and swift increases in the minimum wage and such government payments as unemployment insurance, pensions and family welfare checks. Although in effect for several months, these steps have failed to generate new economic activity, and hiring, as fast as Mauroy had hoped.
Opposition politicians and business leaders, sometimes in apocalyptic terms, have blamed the sluggish response on the Socialists, charging that their nationalizations and increased taxes have so soured an already bad business atmosphere that executives fear to act.
"Really, a lot of steps are particularly disturbing," said Yvon Gattaz, new head of the French National Business Federation. "Sometimes, the government speaks reasonably and asks businessmen to participate in its efforts to develop business and favor investment and employment. This is language we understand perfectly well. But we do not understand steps taken, at the same time, which hit hard at businesses."
Among the steps taken are nationalization of eight key industries and the 36 major private banks and imposition of sharply increased business, income and wealth taxes. In addition, plans to give workers a larger voice in management of their factories have aroused fears that traditional management-labor relations will tilt toward unions and rob executives of authority.
"If you believe the polls, 83 percent of executives do not foresee any hiring," said Emmanuel Hamel, a member of parliament from the Gaullist opposition party, Rally for the Republic. "This is because they fear that they will be forbidden one day from letting people go, even if their business loses money."
As an example, businessmen point to a change in course by the just-nationalized Rhone-Poulenc group of chemical and textile plants. Although nationalization takes effect Jan. 1, Rhone-Poulenc, in response to government pressure, already has shelved plans to close several unprofitable textile factories.
The nationalizations, easily passed in the Socialist-dominated parliament, aroused bitter opposition on principle from rightist political groups and the business world, further contributing to hostility between government and business leaders. Despite promises from Mauroy and his ministers that they intend only to direct national economic strategy without meddling in day-to-day operations, businessmen remain convinced that state control will inevitably result.
"What is favorable to the free-enterprise spirit is the broadest freedom," said Gattaz. "The more you try to channel the freedom, even with the best intentions, the more you suppress it without realizing it. I think therefore that the government is going to discourage free enterprise a little."
This refusal to accept what Mauroy has called an extended hand has generated visible resentment among Socialist leaders. The tone hardened further two weeks ago when one top banker made an end run -- legal but devious and embarrassing -- around nationalization laws even as they were being debated in parliament.
Finance Minister Jacques Delors, one of the government's more moderate members, was reported to have shown fiery anger at the maneuver by the Banque de Paris et des Pays-Bas, or Paribas, to sell its Swiss affiliate to save it from nationalization.
The bank director, Pierre Moussa, had pledged at first to help the Finance Ministry defeat an attempt by Paribas stockholders to buy the affiliate through a Swiss company, Delors said. But the affiliate nevertheless was snapped up before the government had time to organize a reaction and Delors charged that Moussa had engineered the entire operation.
Mauroy, also angry, accused the banker of having "the spirit of an emigre." This was a reference to royalists who emigrated to Germany to resist the French Revolution of 1789. Budget Minister Laurent Fabius, more down to earth, had a charge filed against Moussa accusing him of participating in illegal transfers of money out of France.