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Regal image propels French President's rising star. The rising popularity of Francois Mitterrand is the political story of the summer in France. But that does not mean he is a shoo-in for next year's presidential election. The President is keeping everyone guessing about whether he will be a candidate. And if he does run, some analysts predict his popularity will not hold once he enters the political fray.

By Jane SasseenSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / August 20, 1987


What a difference a few years can make. In l984 Socialist President Francois Mitterrand was perhaps France's most disliked president, barely polling support from one-quarter of the population.

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Voters blamed Mr. Mitterrand for throwing the economy into a tailspin with his Socialist policies. When parliamentary elections were held in spring, 1986, the electorate turned instead to the Conservatives' dynamic, free-market policies, and President Mitterrand, as head of state, had to appoint Jacques Chirac Prime Minister. This was the first time any French head of state was forced to appoint a member of the opposition as the head of government.

Today, Mitterrand is one of the most popular French leaders since World War II, regularly winning approval ratings of more than 55 percent.

He has emerged as a reassuring ``grandfather of the nation.'' If the presidential election were held today - they are due in the Spring of next year - he probably would poll 54 percent of the vote compared with 46 percent for Mr. Chirac.

But, Raymond Barre, a conservative former Prime Minister who refused to join the ``cohabitation'' government, also has benefitted from Chirac's decline. In the latest polls Barre has pulled almost even with Mitterrand.

Mitterrand's resurgence could mean big change for the French political landscape. If he does win a second seven-year term (he entered office May 1981) he probably will call for new National Assembly elections. Currently, his Socialist Party holds just 38 percent of the seats.

No one here expects a Mitterrand government to return to the aggressive Socialist policies of the 1980's. But it no doubt would back away from Chirac's strong commitment to opening the French economy as well as his drive to denationalize and deregulate the French economy.

In part, Mitterrand has benefitted from the turmoil that has wracked Chirac's right-wing coalition government. Every time Chirac has a problem, Mitterrand's popularity gets another boost, says Claude Imbert, the editorial director of Le Point magazine.

Chirac has faced major setbacks over the last year, including strikes by students and transit workers, the defeat of a proposal to alter France's immigration laws, and a resurgence of terrorism.

His right-wing coalition also is fragile. Francois Leotard, Chirac's Minister of Culture, provoked a major storm this spring when he announced he would not support Chirac as the conservative presidential candidate next year.

``The further down Chirac falls, the further up Mitterrand climbs,'' says Olivier Todd, the former editor of the newsweekly L'Express.

He stays far removed from the day-to-day fray of politics, appearing to be above the dirty business of running the government. It is an image particularly appealing to the French, who have traditionally liked dominant, patriarchal leaders.

Charles de Gaulle accentuated the trend when he rewrote the constitution in 1958, creating a near imperial Presidency. Ironically, Mitterrand spent much of his political life battling de Gaulle. Yet, he has come to personify the larger-than-life President better than any French politician since the General.

In short, Mitterrand has turned himself into a sort of modern-day, democratically elected king.

``Mitterrand even has the air of a traditional monarch. If he put on a powdered wig, he'd look just like Louis the 14th,'' says Philippe Moreau-Defarges, an analyst at the French Institute of International Relations.