After a long, soured romance with socialism, France seems headed back to an earlier love--Gaullism. Although Socialist Lionel Jospin won a surprise lead in first-round presidential voting on Apr. 23 with 23% of the vote, the combined 60% of various conservatives makes it likely that Gaullist Jacques Chirac will succeed Socialist Franois Mitterrand as France's next leader in a May 7 runoff.
No one in France quite knows what "Gaullism" means anymore, 25 years after the death of Charles de Gaulle. For France's sake and Europe's, let's hope that it doesn't mean what it used to. As great a leader as de Gaulle was, his political goals were narrowly nationalistic. He saw Europe as a small, loose Continental club, closed to "outsiders" such as the British. The world needs a more expansive French view, especially with Eastern Europe knocking on the West's economic and political door.
Domestically, de Gaulle was Monsieur Dirigisme. That albatross of industrial policy, computer maker Groupe Bull, grew from de Gaulle's decision in the 1960s that French grandeur required a native-grown data processing industry. It has cost French taxpayers more than $5 billion over the past 12 years to pay for that failed dream. In a delicious irony, Bull is now being partially sold at a pittance to U.S. and Japanese companies. So much for economic nationalism.
De Gaulle might see things differently if he were running France today. Economies have globalized within a new free-market system. Like it or not, France's new regime needs to accept this shift and end statist, protectionist ways that make competitiveness far tougher to achieve. A unified Europe can help France get more clout.
Unfortunately, where de Gaulle was a lighthouse, Chirac is a weather vane. There's a risk that he'll pay too much attention to right-wing nationalists who won 20% of the vote in first-round polling. Along with conservative elements in his own party, they want to reject a European monetary union and any other loss of sovereignty.
As for dirigisme vs. free markets, the issue hasn't even been discussed in the campaign. Many French leaders insist that dirigisme is a ghost of the past. That just isn't so. True, the French have made big progress liberating business. But the new regime needs to finish privatizing industry--in fact as well as in name--by removing all state ownership and influence. It should drop government labor rules that dictate production schedules and keep unemployment high. For example, factories can't operate more than five days a week without government permission in order to protect the leisure time of workers. The government must also begin to cut the stifling role of an elite bureaucratic corps that dominates French political, administrative, and social life.
In an election campaign full of surprises, it's possible that Jospin could win on May 7. Immigrant-baiting conservative Jean-Marie Le Pen, who got a disturbing 15.3% of first-round votes, hints he might back the Socialist. This bizarre French twist stems from a long-term personal feud Le Pen has with Chirac.
Happily, socialism in France isn't what it used to be. That's less clear for Gaullism, whose ranks haven't produced a French President since Georges Pompidou was elected in 1969. If Chirac wins, he would do the world a big service by modernizing his creaking philosophical legacy.