President Francois Mitterrand of France is prisoner of the contradictory nature of his country's politics. The price for France may prove a heavy one. Mitterrand's stated aim is to lead France into the era of high technology. He believes that unless France achieves the capacity to compete with the United States and Japan, its future is in jeopardy. He realizes also that he can only succeed in a European context.
The essence of the problem, therefore, is that for France foreign policy and domestic politics intermingle.
Free to carry out his own foreign policy, Mitterrand is subject to severe constraint domestically. Turbulent internal politics could determine whether his Socialist Party and consequently his foreign policy have a future. And there is an uncertain future, indeed, for his party now that the Communist members of his coalition have left the government.
This domestic background to his foreign policy has serious consequences for Mitterrand in his search for a way to a future of high technology for France.
Synchronization with the rest of Europe being a precondition, Mitterrand realizes that Europe's future structure is tied to the future of Germany. If West Germany opted for neutralism as a hoped-for step toward reunification, the European Community would collapse and so would NATO. France's intimate collaboration with Bonn aims at containing the trend.
Mitterrand's domestic program requires a degree of European integration, but the old Continent, Mitterrand believes, has no future outside the Atlantic Alliance, which must be defended against Moscow's attempts at intimidation.
Mitterrand's foreign initiatives are not being contested, not even by his conservative opponents. How could they do otherwise, considering the support extended by such conservative statesmen as President Ronald Reagan, German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher?
But when Mitterrand's target is that his foreign policy be a prerequisite to his domestic program, the right and the Communists counterattack.
Both have arguments because many mistakes were made. The nationalization of banks and a number of industries was precipitate and unwise. It cost the government huge amounts of money that could have been better spent and discouraged investments in new enterprises. The policy has since been reversed, but the damage was done.
Costs of production in agriculture are far too high. There are too many small farms in France, unable to compete with neighboring countries where much larger units are being exploited by more modern methods. But farmers represent in France a very vocal, often violent political force that no government can ignore.
Modernization in industry, such as should have been undertaken decades ago, necessitates the closing of unproductive sectors, thus increasing the level of unemployment. The Communist-dominated General Confederation of Labor misses no occasion to exploit worker discontent, while at the other end of the political spectrum the Nationalist Party of Jean-Marie le Pen has gained 11 percent of the votes at the recent European parliamentary election by advocating as a solution to unemployment the expulsion of all foreign workers.
And the former alliance with the Communists and the presence of a far-left wing in the Socialist Party led the government to forget the need to compromise on issues that further divide a country traditionally split between irreconcilable extremes. One such example: the attempt to exercise control over private, mainly Roman Catholic schools. These polemics distract from more urgent matters.
Mitterrand would succeed if he managed so to transform the French industrial structure that it became competitive with high-technology countries. Theoretically, the French are even better situated than the Germans in this respect because they could start from scratch.
Here is where the vicious circle in which Mitterrand is caught may prove fatal. Without a solid domestic base he cannot operate effectively at the European level, while the problem of France can only be solved in a European context.
The West needs a strong France. And France will not be strong unless it modernizes along the US and Japanese models.