Meeting with A. Bergougnioux: Mitterrand in the conquest of power

On Tuesday, April 10, 2012, theThucydide association was organizing a History cafe on the conquest of power by François Mitterrand, with the historian Alain Bergougnioux as a guest. The latter, former collaborator of Michel Rocard, Catherine Trautmann or Michel Sapin, taught at Science Po and is also president of the University Office for Socialist Research (Bear). Today he runs the Socialist review, and published among others The Socialists. Stereotypes (Cavalier Bleu, 2011), and (in collaboration with G. Grunberg), French socialists and power. Ambition and remorse (Hachette, 2007). Report for Histoire pour tous.

May 10, 1981, another time

To understand François Mitterrand's victory in 1981, Alain Bergougnioux insists on the difference in context with 2012. We are only at the beginning of the crisis that began in the 1970s (the oil shocks), and the political context is different. : no Le Pen, few Greens, a still powerful PCF, ... On the side of society, we note a desire to break out of a certain conservative straitjacket, despite the progress made at the start of Giscard d'Estaing's seven-year term (Veil law , for example). But if we go back to the 1960s and 1970s, which is essential to understand the rise of François Mitterrand, the differences are even more obvious.

1958-1965: François Mitterrand on the quest for legitimacy

In 1958, A. Bergougnioux said of the left that it was " down ". General de Gaulle has returned, the Socialists are associated with the Fourth Republic, the Communist Party is still powerful but, in the context of the Cold War, it is difficult to imagine him elected by the French. The historian thus affirms that at the time of the institutional reforms of the years 62-65, "The right is one step ahead".

Indeed, the left is faced with several problems. The institutions first: should it accept them (this is still the case today with the temptations of a Sixth Republic)? Next, what to do with the PCF? And, as a continuation, how to bring together the non-communist left? During the 1960s, several strategies clashed: the PCF took advantage of the relaxation in the Cold War to, with Waldeck Rochet, reintegrate into French political life, and he was the first to propose a common government program with the rest of the left. Another strategy is that of Pierre Mendès-France, who rejects the new institutions (notably the election of the President of the Republic by universal suffrage), and wants a return to parliamentarism; he thus refuses to stand for the 1965 election. For his part, Guy Mollet's SFIO wants to re-parliamentaryize the Fifth Republic, while proposing a dialogue with the Communist Party, but pushing the possibility of alliances to the point of non-Gaullist right… A complex strategy to put in place. If Michel Rocard's party is still too weak, he has a desire to rebuild the left from below and social struggles. Finally, Gaston Defferre launches with The Express "Mr. X's campaign," and for his part is campaigning for a center-left alliance, excluding the PCF by prior agreement. It is a failure, which benefits François Mitterrand. The latter did not have much going for him in 1964, he weighed little politically, and he even drags a sulphurous reputation. He defends an alliance with the Communists from the first round and takes advantage of several factors: both the PCF and Mollet do not want to go to an election they see as a massacre, and De Gaulle underestimates him. Against all expectations, François Mitterrand put the general on a waiver, and reached 45% in the second round. The new institutions, and particularly universal suffrage, gave legitimacy to the candidate, who became the central figure in French political life for the next thirty years.

1965-1971: Mitterrand conquers the Socialist Party

The honorable defeat of 1965 put François Mitterrand at the heart of the French left, but nothing has yet been won. As throughout his career, the future President of the Republic must be skillful, while undergoing the unforeseen. And, according to A. Bergougnioux, May 68 is one, which destroys Mitterrand's political strategy, forcing him almost to return to zero! However, he can again count on luck. In 1969, Gaston Defferre, in tandem with Mendès-France, tried to regain control of the Presidential elections with a center-left strategy different from that of Mitterrand. The failure is bitter, with only 5.5% of the vote! And as Rocard's PSU does not do better, François Mitterrand is once again posed as a recourse for the non-communist left. This allowed him to win - by little - over his rivals at the Epinay Congress in 1971: Mitterrand then became the First Secretary of the Socialist Party, still with his strategy of uniting the left.

1974: "the victorious defeat"

Around a program for " change the life ", and personalities like Chevènement, the new boss of the PS reforming the party, with a new generation and a renewed militant appetite. It also benefits, indirectly, from the May 68 effect: the leftist stalemate was confirmed in the early 1970s and there was a desire to break away from conservatism. D more the PCF is favorable to a common program of government, because believing itself even more powerful than its ally of the moment.

France at the time was then still in the post-war boom, the left is still seen as coming out of the CNR, and change is essentially: strengthening the State and the public sector, nationalizing, carrying out a Keynesian economic policy, liberalizing morals, decentralization, breaking the ORTF,… There are, however, major agreements with the Communists, in particular membership of Europe or NATO, but the will to move forward is the strongest for the moment. This is confirmed by a progression in the legislative elections of 1973 and, if François Mitterrand finally fails against Giscard in 1974, some see it as a "victorious defeat", as the gap is small. But other problems then arise ...

1974-1981: a conquest of power between skill and luck

The 1973 elections saw the Socialist Party gain ground over the PCF, which is also concerned about its loss of hegemony over the labor movement. Tensions grew between Mitterrand and Marchais, and the common program was broken by the Communist leader in the fall of 1977. The 1981 presidential election was therefore far from over. But François Mitterrand manages to combine skill and luck. First, he definitively dismisses his rivals within the Socialist Party by defeating Michel Rocard in Metz in 1979; A. Bergougnioux speaks of a "Primary before the hour". Then he decides to stay the course, to be "Unit for two", and to lean on both the PCF's inconsistencies and the divisions of the right. The latter suffered from the Giscard / Chirac war and a difficult climate: the crisis began to take hold, and the social tendency was to reject right-wing conservatism.

The victory of May 10, 1981 is therefore the fruit of a long political and personal process on the part of François Mitterrand, who was able to base himself on his skill, his personality, his opportunism, but just as much on favorable circumstances, more simply. luck, a factor too often underestimated in presidential destinies. And Alain Bergougnioux concludes thus: "The way in which we conquer power is never independent of the way in which it is exercised".

The socialists, received ideas, by Alain Bergougnioux. Blue Rider, 2010.

French Socialists and Power: Ambition and remorse, by Gerard Grunberg and Alain Bergounioux. Plural, 2007.

The Cafés Histoire website.

Video: President Reagans Remarks at Arrival Ceremony for President Mitterrand on March 22, 1984 (January 2022).