We're not quite at the anniversary of François Mitterrand's election yet, but already the media are commemorating the date. I remember it well, and even if I didn't, TV5Monde recently broadcast a (rather bad) film about the énarques of the Promotion Voltaire ("L'École du pouvoir," commentary here by two former members) that featured footage of the liesse at Bastille on election night. Although I was old enough at the time to have known better, I recall a brief moment of enthusiasm at the achievement, enfin, of l'alternance. It wasn't quite Wordsworth's "Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive," at least not for me, but it was a sense that something important was about to change--a sense shared with a great many people I knew.
Things didn't work out quite as expected--do they ever?--but I persist in believing that important changes took place nonetheless. I'm not speaking of any specific policy reforms: policies come and go, and the powerful constraints under which they are formulated and implemented more or less ensure that they will seldom achieve as much as we imagine. But precisely that was in a sense the lesson of 1981 and of the few years that immediately followed. Many on the left had previously dreamed of revolutionary change; few still do. Many on the right had genuinely feared l'alternance and "les socialo-communistes"; few still see the left in that light, even if a larger number still pretend to.
If you view the first clip on the Rue89 site, you'll see a woman alluding to Mitterrand's air of cultivation. I think it's generally underappreciated how crucial that was. He wasn't just la force tranquille; here was a Socialist prepared to enter into an alliance with Communists--there was no other route to power--and yet he was no firebrand; he used language well, he read, he wrote, he could be witty and reflective, even subtle. All this was reassuring to some voters wary of the Socialists' new allies.
Of course not everyone saw Mitterrand in that light. One of my respected mentors, a generation older, to this day retains too vivid a memory of l'affaire de l'Observatoire. For him there was and will always remain something unsavory about Mitterrand. The scandals of his reign, especially l'affaire des écoutes, l'affaire Bousquet, the Greenpeace bombing, the book by Pierre Péan, et j'en passe, only reinforced that belief, and they certainly eroded the respect even of those who supported him.
The larger historical questions remain. One is particularly tantalizing: France turned left at a time when the US and Britain were turning sharply right. This no doubt complicated French policymaking after 1981. But where does it leave France today: better equipped to face the post-crisis environment, or not? What strikes me is that even right-wing policy in France today remains more "social-democratic" than left-wing policy in the US, and certainly than Tory-LibDem policy in Britain. The ferocity of the anti-Sarkozy reaction in France often obscures this point. I say this not in defense of Sarkozy but in defense of France: its "mores," as Tocqueville would say, are more open-hearted, alas, than America's, though the surliness of much French political discourse does its best to disguise the fact that to a large extent the "postwar compromise" remains intact, for all the talk of its erosion by neoliberalism, globalization, et la droite décomplexée.
And speaking of Sarkozy, you may enjoy this clip of the spokesman for "les Jeunes Chiraquiens" circa 1981. Note in particular his attempt to claim that the right combines "generosity," which he allows the left also possesses, with "realism," which he claims the left lacks. "Vous n'avez pas le monopole du coeur," to be sure--but this is my point: in France, the right must make this point repeatedly, while in the US "compassionate conservatism" has been relegated to the dustbin of history. Perhaps it's the Calvinist legacy: why waste compassion on those whose predestination to damnation is demonstrated by their lives' being living hell.