Clearly drawn differences within the French government over the pace of implementing Socialist reforms suddenly have broken out into the open after months of polite, behind-the-scene skirmishes.
A public confrontation between Finance Minister Jacques Delors, who is urging a "pause" in pushing for the reforms, and Prime Minister Pierre Mauroy, who has vowed to plow ahead full speed, has lifted a cloak of quasi-secrecy from a debate that has been waged inside the Socialist government almost since its inception in June.
It pits Delors, the Cabinet's most prominent advocate of caution toward French business, against a prime minister who recently decided to force the pace of change by ordering some Socialist reforms implemented by decree rather than waiting for laws to be voted by parliament.
The exchange reflects a basic difference within the ruling Socialist Party between a majority determined to put the entire Socialist platform into effect with the shortest possible delay and a minority convinced that the French economy can ill afford too strong a dose of Socialist medicine in one gulp. French political analysts predict that, with the clash now in full public view, President Francois Mitterrand will have to come down for one side or the other before a television appearance he has scheduled within the next two weeks.
Mitterrand, currently on a trip to Algeria, has in past tests between competing factions of his government come down most often on the hard-liners' side, explaining on one occasion that if Socialist reforms are not carried out swiftly they may never be.
This was particularly true in his endorsement of Mauroy's decision to nationalize France's 36 major private banks and eight key industrial groups all in one blow. Delors, a respected economist who has held posts in previous governments, had argued along with Planning Minister Michel Rocard for a more cautious approach designed to soften the impact on an already hostile business community.
Similarly, Delors and his moderate allies in the Cabinet reportedly expressed strong reservations about the record $17 billion budget deficit Mauroy's government decided upon to stimulate the economy and reduce unemployment. In both cases, the debate was kept within the government despite rumors that Delors and Rocard had threatened to resign after their strongly felt advice was rejected by Mauroy and Mitterrand.
But on Sunday Delors told a radio interviewer: "My personal opinion is clear. We should make a pause in announcing reforms. On the other hand, we should carefully carry to fruition those that have been decided."
Indicating he had fully measured the impact of his clear separation from government policy, Delors also said:
"I serve the state. I take my risks. I am ready to start again at zero. I am ready to cross the desert again if necessary. I believe that when one serves the state, one should not keep one's self too much to the left or right, think about one's career. One should say what he thinks. And I assure you that I am heard, even if I am described as hard to get along with within the government."
This was interpreted as an indication that Delors realized his open opposition to the swift pace of Mauroy's reform attempts could lead to his being asked to resign. In addition, he accompanied his remarks with acerbic criticism of government officials, whom he did not name, who he charged allow themselves to be carried away by their own rhetoric.
"There are two styles possible in France," he said. "There is the one that consists of holding declarations close to reality. This is the one I support. And there is the other style, which is very Mediterranean and which, by the way, gives France magnificent orators. It consists of speaking three kilometers away from reality."
Although he was not named and actually comes from Lille in northern France, not "Mediterranean" southern France, there has been press criticism of Mauroy for announcing reforms, such as a series of employment measures and business loans, without having taken enough time to work out the thorny legislation and administrative steps necessary.
In any case, Mauroy responded the next day during a visit to the southeastern city of Grenoble.
"The reforms and changes announced by the president of the republic and wanted by Frenchmen will be carried out," Mauroy said. "We are resolved to carry them out without acceleration or precipitation, but permanently and continually. For the reforms are a condition for the transformation of French society, and therefore for success of the government's policies."
This was seen as a direct rebuke to Delors, refusing explicitly his suggestion of a pause. It was followed by a Socialist Party declaration in Paris saying the party is "satisfied with the rhythm" of government action, underlining Delors' minority position within the party structure.
The policy differences reflect differences in perspective. Delors and Rocard are known to be concerned that a frontal attack on French business could disrupt the economy so severely that the government will have trouble making its reforms stick. The four Communist ministers and what is believed to be an overwhelming majority in the Cabinet, however, endorse Mitterrand's judgment that it is better to move fast to benefit from the momentum created by the Socialists' victory last spring.
Some members of the strong Socialist parliamentary majority, in fact, have complained that things are moving too slowly, citing attempts to delay reforms by drawing out parliamentary debate and business reluctance to respond to Mauroy's programs.
Their stands often reflect sentiments from the party faithful eager to see swift change after so many years in the opposition.
"When I hold political meetings in my district, I am attacked," said Michel Berson, a Socialist parliament member from the Paris suburbs. "They all want to known, where is the change? What is happening?"