The heavy lid of the Mitterrand years

January 19, 1996

Asked in 1974 if he would vote for Mitterrand, Jean-Paul Sartre replied: "The problem is not to replace . . . I forget his name . . . ah, yes! Pompidou with Mitterrand. Mitterrand will be the Pompidou of the 6th Republic. The problem is to ensure neither Pompidou nor Mitterrand has a chance to be elected leader . . ."

Today, sociologist Catherine Levy echoes the opinion of many leftwing French intellectuals when she says a "heavy lid" came down in the Mitterrand years, as intellectuals who had supported the Left as it came to power failed to react (or were ignored if they did react) when it moved steadily towards a middle road in the name of economic realism. Added to the decline of Marxism and the end of hopes of Third World revolution, Mitterrand socialism appeared ironically to finish off the social activism of the French intellectual.

Yet at the start of the Mitterrand era, intellectual euphoria was the order of the day. On May 10, 1981, the day of Mitterrand's presidential victory, many French intellectuals believed they were coming in from the cold after the anti-intellectual decades of Gaullism. No one better epitomised that belief than former revolutionary internationalist, philosopher and writer Regis Debray, who became a presidential advisor.

"I rallied to the state in 1981 with the naive idea that institutions are there to escape what Hannah Arendt called 'the futility of individual life'," Debray recalls in his forthcoming book Loue soient nos Seigneurs. Une education politique. Debray was finally to break with Mitterrand at the start of his second mandate in 1988.

After the 1981 legislative elections, an unprecedented number of academics and teachers took over the parliamentary seats and cabinet portfolios that had been the preserve of the solicitors and doctors of the Right. Culture minister Jack Lang, the most eulogistical of the academic-politicians, wrote that the French had "breached the frontier of May 10 . . . broken out of the snares of obscurantism and given enlightenment a chance''.

The bricks and mortar of this new life of the intellect were not long in coming - the Bastille Opera, the Cite des Sciences at La Villette, the Grand Louvre, the Arab World Institute, the Cite de la Musique and the grande Arche de la Defense. The last and most costly of Mitterrand's monuments to the intellect, the new national French library, will open in two years.

Public research got steadily better funding under successive Socialist governments. In 1988, education and particularly the universities became Mitterrand's last big social commitment, receiving unprecedented state funding to match soaring student numbers. One of the Left's targets for reform, the grandes ecoles, escaped not only unscathed but were further entrenched in their elitist model. Another target also escaped reform - teachers, researchers and academics successfully resisted all attempts to introduce pay on merit.

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