Paris — After 23 years of right or center-right rule, France has decided -- clearly and unequivocally -- to give the Socialists an opportunity to try their hand at government.
The May 10 election of Francois Mitterrand to the presidency has now been followed up by a landslide victory for the Socialists in the National Assembly.
Virtually for the first time this century, the voters have handed a single center-left party an absolute majority. If computer projections turn out accurately -- they were giving the Socialists 290 seats in the 491-seat assembly at time of writing -- the Socialists will be able to rule France without coalition partners.
They will be able to forge ahead with their plans for social and economic reforms with few glances over their collective shoulders at the devastated opposition parties.
Despite scary last-minute campaigning by the conservatives aimed at stemming the Socialist tide, the outgoing majority of former President Giscard d'Estaing and Paris Mayor Jacques Chirac are expected to gain only 150 seats -- just over half their previous parliamentary representation.
The Communists, too, have suffered a severe setback. They lost many of their traditional strongholds to Socialist opponents and were left with a projected mere 43 seats -- also roughly half their previous representation. Clearly, the Mitterrand Socialists will not need to rely upon Communist support to hold their own in parliament -- although they may yet, for tactical reasons, decide to include one or two token Communists in the Socialist-dominated Cabinet.
Without the need for Communist backing, President Mitterrand can now embark with confidence on his preferred course of moderate, democratic Socialism. This will include some modest further nationalizations of major banks and industry, increased social benefits, the gradual introduction of a 35-hour week, a progressive rise in the minimum wage, and some changes in the tax structure likely to hit hardest at the rich.
However, although his Socialist Party has held together unexpectedly well throughout both presidential and legislative elections, there is clearly a major risk that Mitterrand's party may find it hard during the next few years to avoid breaking into its traditional moderate and left-wing factions.
The conservatives, who had resigned themselves to a Socialist president, fought hard in the past six weeks since Mitterrand's election to persuade the French people that Socialist proposals would ruin the country economically. However, as promised during his presidential campaign, Mitterrand introduced a series of reforms in the past three weeks. The overwhelming support granted to the Socialists indicates that the majority of French people are willing to go ahead with Mitterrand's program.
In previous years, many French people assumed that the Communist Party was the best focus for their yearnings for reform. In their heyday, the Communists were able to muster 20 percent of the French vote. But now the Socialists appear to have successfully usurped the role of reformer.