The waning of France's Gaullist tradition

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THE latest elections may well represent a decisive turn in French political history. The main loser is not an individual party, but a tradition dating back to President Charles de Gaulle. De Gaulle, founder of the Fifth Republic, felt and proclaimed he was France. He echoed Louis XV: L''etat c'est moi -- I and the state are one and the same thing.

His followers have imitated him in this identification, to the point of feeling the country was theirs by right, the socialists mere intruders, and the Socialist Party government void of any legitimacy. Their statements and the press supporting them reflected strongly this point of view.

A partial explanation for this attitude is that the conservatives who ruled France for 23 years, up to the advent of a Socialist government in 1981, were all formed by de Gaulle's schooling. The second President, Georges Pompidou, had been de Gaulle's premier; the third President, Val'ery Giscard d'Estaing, his finance minister; Giscard's two premiers, Jacques Chirac and Raymond Barre, respectively de Gaulle's minister of agriculture and appointee to a European organization in Brussels.

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The harsh lesson the most recent elections have taught de Gaulle's followers is that theirs was but a dream. The time when they could persist in the illusion of identifying with France was over.

Responsible for the evolution were what the French call ``cohabitation'' and a significant shift in the Socialist Party.

``Cohabitation'' means that for the first time since the establishment of the Fifth Republic the president and the premier will belong to different, competing parties. In the past, the premier was simply the executor of the president's policies.

The Constitution is not very clear about their respective roles, which may lead to confusion and tension in the future. Today, however, French politicians must learn the meaning of the term cooperation. The evolution of the Socialist Party could contribute to the change in attitudes.

Not long ago the strongest party on the left was the Communist. The Socialists' role in the country's political life was quite limited, their share of the voting seldom reaching beyond 5 percent.

Since Fran,cois Mitterrand became the Socialist leader, the ratio has gradually reversed. By 1981, the Socialists had gained enough strength to win the national election with Communist support. Communist contribution proved small but indispensable to gaining a majority.

So long as the Socialists remained allied to the Communists, they failed to represent a viable alternative. De Gaulle's heirs on the right attacked them on that score: No party tied to the Communists could be considered legitimate. The very close ties between the French Communists and the Kremlin tended to reinforce conservative claims.

After shaking off the Communist hold, the Socialists gradually shifted from the aim of a radical transformation of society to one of improving the existing structures while interpreting the laws in a more humanistic sense. The Socialists had become in fact social democrats.

Thanks to this socialist evolution, and the communist weakening, for the first time in 23 years France has a valid alternative to the conservative right. Socialism can no longer be viewed as a historical accident, a mere break in Gaullist political continuity. The right no longer has a valid argument for denying socialist legitimacy.

Since the right will no longer be able to rule unchallenged, but will be forced under the Gaullist Constitution to share power with a Socialist president, this can only accelerate a process much as occurs elsewhere in Western Europe, such as West Germany, where conservatives and social democrats alternate in government.

The main lesson of the election is that France does not belong to any particular party. The distinction is no longer between those who consider they have a God-given right to rule and usurp, but between two legitimate groups.

This may well represent the end of the de Gaulle heritage, and France will be the better for it.

Mario Rossi reports for the Monitor on European and Mediterranean affairs.

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