France: Socialist chic has turned to disillusionment

Most of Paris's chic and trendy were there, sauntering through the Espace Pierre Cardin at the foot of the Champs Elysees, enjoying avant-garde paintings and gardens filled with sculpture.

It was the opening of the 39th Salon de Mai, an art show with the pointed political message of celebrating the worker's May 1 holiday.

Just under a year ago (May 10, 1981), many of these fashionable people had danced in the streets celebrating the election of Francois Mitterrand, France's first leftist president in a quarter century.

But today the mood has changed. As one designer-dressed woman whispered: ''Ask anybody here -- they won't admit they voted for Mitterrand even if they did.''

The chicness of the Socialist experiment has all but disappeared. Disillusionment has replaced intoxicating excitement, a fact clearly demonstrated by the Socialists' recent setback in local elections. Frenchmen disturbed by seeming incoherence

Polls show that the majority of France's 54 million people now disapproves of the government's policies of vast social and economic reform. Frenchmen are disturbed by the seeming incoherence of the government and by the continued shakiness of the country's economy, beset by high inflation and unemployment.

Still, a definitive judgment of the Socialist experiment cannot yet be delivered. Despite the problems facing his government, President Mitterrand is an able politician and he remains personally popular. The same poll that has only 37 percent of Frenchmen approving his policies shows Mitterrand beating Valery Giscard d'Estaing again if the election were reheld today -- and by a bigger margin.

Moreover, the nightmare many conservatives predicted from a leftist government has not materialized. In the past year, France has experienced no mass industrial disorder, no financial crisis, no indications of imminent mob rule.

Indeed, the transfer of power from right to left has proved a liberating if unsettling, experience. Conservatives created the constitution of the Fifth Republic and had ruled for so long that democracy in France no longer seemed to mean the periodic transferring of power known in other Western countries. Giscard departure unleashes celebration

President Giscard d'Estaing's stiff regal manner accentuated this feeling. The pent-up desire for change was so strong, yet so seemingly impossible, that his departure unleashed a spontaneous night of celebration and several months of honeymoon for the Socialists.

That honeymoon is now over. It is especially over for those many Frenchmen who turned to the left not out of a desire to see a socialist France, but for change. In interpreting its victory as a mandate for sweeping nationalizations, tax restructuring, abolition of the death penalty, and a huge work-sharing program, the Mitterrand government has undermined any hopes it might have for forging a broad-based consensus for its policies.

In fact, today not only is there no consensus, there is disillusionment. Business is disillusioned, fuming under the weight of heavy new taxes and nervous about the future. Labor, the Socialists' natural constituency, is disillusioned, infuriated by the government's initial attempt to cut wages as well as the work week, and its recent attempts to reassure business by cutting corporate taxes.

Even in the government there is disillusionment. The long and tenuous alliance between the Socialists and their governing partners the Communists, is again frazzled. The Communists have criticized the Socialist ''gifts'' to business. On the Polish issue the Communists have adhered to a strict pro-Moscow line while the Socialists have sided with Solidarity. Socialists themselves divided

To make matters worse, the Socialists themselves are divided into bickering factions with differences over foreign policy, economics, and the speed of social reform. And much of the squabbling has been in public.

Last month Justice Minister Robert Badinter and Interior Minister Gaston Defferre clashed in a public dispute over police powers. The conflict was especially embarrassing since security has become a touchy issue here after several recent terrorist incidents and attacks on policemen.

The economy, though, has been the major source of Socialist internal division. Radicals are pressuring Mitterrand for fast change. They want further increases in the minimum wage and more worker participation in industrial decisionmaking, even if this alienates business and raises inflation. Moderates counter that the economy cannot stomach more government spending while suffering from double-digit inflation, and that business will not invest if there are further changes.

So far, Mitterrand has tended to side with the moderates, shelving some of his more controversial plans. Business taxes have been reduced; and in the end it was decided to maintain the work week at 39 hours until the end of 1983, making it unlikely that the Socialists will achieve their goal of a 35-hour work week by 1985.

Other reforms have also been canceled or put off. Unions are not going to be tolerated in the Army as originally envisioned, and mandatory military service is not going to be cut to six months. Mitterrand's campaign promise to rid France of private schools (mainly Roman Catholic) has been put on the negotiating table -- where it will probably rest for a long time. Grand decentralization plan postponed

Most important, the Socialists' grand plan for political decentralization has been postponed. If seriously done, the transfer of financial and administrative decisions out of Paris to the regions would have transformed this intensely centralized and Paris-dominated society. The laws for the change have been drafted, but are now scheduled to be spread out over three years.

What the government cannot delay or put off is tackling the dominant issue of the economy. It is staking its reputation on relaunching the economy and, above all, on cutting unemployment. So far the results have been neither disastrous nor very encouraging either, and analysts' long-term outlook ranges from uncertain to gloomy.

Despite incentives to the private sector to create jobs, and despite government plans to create 61,000 public sector jobs, unemployment continues to rise. It was already at 7.5 percent a year ago when the Socialists took over. It is now creeping toward 9 percent, or about 2 million jobless.

Inflation was clipping along at about 14 percent during the last year of conservative rule. Even though inflation has been in decline elsewhere, Socialists are taking satisfaction in having kept it at the 14 percent level.

From a psychological point of view, the government's efforts to instill business confidence have been most sharply undercut by the continuing weakening of the franc. A strong franc had been one of the legacies of the previous government. But already the franc has been devalued once, and it will probably have to be devalued again this summer.

In self-defense, the Socialists blame the weak franc on a strong dollar and high US interest rates. But this explanation hasn't convinced most French businessmen, who blame the high inflation rate - and the Mitterrand program. French businessmen won't invest

Consequently, despite the recent concessions, French businessmen are not investing. Corporate investment is reported to be down by about 7 percent, and businessmen continue to complain that high taxes, increased workers' wages, and social benefits make the climate too uncertain to invest and create new jobs.

Likewise, the Socialists' zeal to help the worker has not gained labor support either. The workers' annual paid vacation was raised from four to five weeks without much of a hitch. But when the government tried to persuade workers to take a pay cut in concert with the proposed reduction of the work week from 40 to 39 hours, most of the unions balked. Mr. Mitterrand intervened and ruled that 40 hours of wage should be paid for 39 hours work. This stripped the measure of its idealistic element to share work and thus create jobs.

Such reversals have hurt the government's image, leading to criticism about the government's ''incoherence.'' In March's local elections, which the Socialists had called a vote of confidence, they received only 29 percent of the vote, their same tally as in 1976. Mr. Mitterrand himself called the result a ''setback.''

But if the Socialists have been staggered, they have not yet been knocked down. Not only has Mitterrand proved in the past to be a remarkable political survivor, but his personal stature has grown while in office. Around the world and at home, he is now perceived as an able statesman.

Even his detractors admit he has shown courage. He was the first French President to visit Israel. He has led his European counterparts in accepting the modernization of American missiles, and he has unflinchingly condemned the Soviet Union over Afghanistan and Poland.

The question now is whether Mr. Mitterrand can demonstrate the same statesman's skills to shore up his government's strength at home.

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