Vichy without tears

The Death of Politics:
February 24, 1995

They order this matter better in France." Such sentiments have become prevalent among certain elements in the British political class. It is the apparent purpose of this book to cast doubt upon this view. I say "apparent purpose" since it is only when we come to the four pages headed Conclusion that this is made overt.

The trouble is that (as often happens with a first book) John Laughland, an Englishman teaching at the Sciences Politiques, has tried to put in too much. He has also written in a hurry so as to keep up with the shifting French political scene. It therefore falls to the reader to disentangle the separate strands in a book which is lacking in structure, but which is well worth reading.

Looked at one way the book is part of the voluminous recent literature analysing the career of President Mitterrand, on the whole to his disadvantage. Laughland's conclusions on the right-wing and Vichy nature of Mitterrand's apprenticeship do not differ substantially from those recently arrived at by Pierre Pean. What is more germane to his thesis is his examination of Mitterrand's record as president, his lurch from the leftist imagery and action of the early years of the presidency to the much more conventional attitudes of the later period both when his prime ministers were socialists and during the periods of "cohabitation" with right-wing centrist governments. Here he makes full use of the writings of Mitterrand's collaborators, in particular the diary of Jacques Attali. With his journalistic connections Laughland also makes use of the French press despite the fact that for both legal and prudential reasons it is at no time the best mirror of French politics.

Laughland is particularly good at showing the extent to which in foreign policy Mitterrand has often made egregious blunders through a sheer failure to understand what was going on outside France. On fundamental matters of defence, he has shown himself able to resist the inherent pacifism and anti-Americanism of the French socialists who have formed the core of his support, just as he rallied to support Britain over the seizure of the Falklands by the Argentinians. But when the contours of Europe began to be altered because of the weakening of the Soviet Union from the mid-1980s, Mitterrand's vision became uncertain. He felt more at home with the Cold War map; distrusted the weakening of the ties that bound together both the Soviet Union itself and the Warsaw Pact; showed sympathy for Jaruzelski and none for Gorbachev; applauded the 1991 attempted coup (until its failure became clear) and was hostile to Yeltsin and to east European reformers in general. Above all the significance of the coming down of the Berlin Wall eluded him; he did not believe that German unification was imminent and found it hard to reconcile himself to its consequences. Given the choice, like de Gaulle, Mitterrand likes to play the Russian card and hence opposes the entry of Russia's western neighbours into either Nato or the European Union. A little Europe, in fact the Franco-German partnership writ large, is what he leaves to his successor - Vichy without tears.

The other principal concern of Laughland is to show how the Mitterrand years have accentuated some aspects of French political life already inherent in the Gaullist regime, and traceable by historians of the Tocqueville school to earlier centuries. Laughland is not at his best in philosophical flights and does not seem altogether well grounded in either French or for that matter British constitutional history. But fortunately he gives a vivid account of the facts and scandals that have come to the fore in the Mitterrand years. To begin with there has been a further increase in the centralisation of French government and its domination by the head of state rather than the prime minister and his cabinet, still less parliament. In France, parliament is dead for all practical purposes.

More significant still is the amalgamation of the political with the administrative class. Much fuss is made in this country at the moment about the growth of patronage, in particular of ministerial and prime ministerial patronage, but compared with what is available to a French president, it amounts to very little indeed. Furthermore the recruitment of what can best be styled the French ruling class has been narrowed socially and educationally. Access to the main arms of government - central, provincial and even local - has increasingly depended on having been to the right Paris lycees, to the Grandes Ecoles or to the Sciences Politiques and the Ecole Nationale d'Administration - ENA. Compared with this, the so-called Oxbridge Conspiracy hardly counts.

It is against this background that the role of corruption must be judged. In Britain a great fuss is made if a minister who has contributed to a denationalisation is ever employed by the new privatised companies. In France pantouflage is a matter of course. The boundaries between private and public hardly exist - consider Air France. Moreover, French political parties ingeniously tap the public purse by an arrangement of rake-offs from public contracts. Some of this money ends up in private goods, hence some of the ongoing scandals and their repercussions in ministerial arrests and suicides. The diffusion of decision-making to lower levels, which is one of the boasts of contemporary France, merely multiplies the opportunities for venality.

In Italy - as indeed in Spain - some corrective has been applied by the magistracy. In France some brave souls have tried to use the law to check or publish corruption. But so far they have had little success. In France the courts are instruments of the administration not vehicles for asserting rights. Dicey is much mocked nowadays for his rejection of administrative law on the French model, and his preference for the common law and its remedies; and we do not lack those who would like to see continental bills of rights and juges d'instruction playing a role in our affairs. French experience shows that where advancement in the police and the judiciary depends upon the favour of le pouvoir, it is all too easy to choke off inquiry.

Here we have decided that the intelligence services should have some form of political oversight other than that provided by ministers. In France the huge machine of the Renseignements Generaux, which can be used to keep track of anyone and is wholly at the disposal of the president, is bound to raise suspicion. There are too many unexplained and convenient deaths.

Other examples of matters where the British criticise their own failings and forget how widespread are the problems they deplore, are well illustrated in Laughland's compendium of French failure. The British Library is a horror of bad planning and financial overshoot, but what about Mitterrand's library plans? The Arts Council and the Millennium Commission get into trouble - what about the grand fiasco of the Bastille Opera?

But what matters most are still the international implications of the French position. Clearly the French want by hook or crook to land Britain with the social chapter, choosing to remain oblivious of the fact that France's scale of social provision coupled with a minimum wage has resulted in almost unbearable levels of youth unemployment and very high unemployment generally, as the result of the franc fort. British commissioners at Brussels and other Britons employed there are expected to take and do take "community" views. The French who are sent there are simply told to carry on with their pursuit of French interests. Brussels is an outpost of the French political elite; what else could it be?

Lord Beloff is honorary professor, department of international relations, University of St Andrews.

The Death of Politics:: France under Mitterrand

Author - John Laughland
ISBN - 0 7181 0028 X
Publisher - Michael Joseph
Price - £18.99
Pages - 324pp

Please login or register to read this article

Register to continue

Get a month's unlimited access to THE content online. Just register and complete your career summary.

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments