Conservative France Celebrates a Socialist President

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If it’s May 10 in France, it must be François Mitterrand Day. Not officially, of course (while the nation has named a library, an embankment of the Seine, and other venues after the late president, it hasn’t gone so far as to honor him with an actual public holiday. Yet…). But anyone passing through France or perusing its national media today will be unable to escape the tributes, anecdotes, reflections, critiques, debates, special editions and general hype marking the 30 year anniversary of Mitterrand’s 1981 electoral storming of the Elysée—the first (and still only) time a French Socialist claimed the presidency the right and center have otherwise monopolized.

Just how ubiquitous has the Mitterrand-mania become? All French dailies and weeklies are featuring Mitterrand nostalgia as big acts or lead stories. Even le Figaro (known as “the Pravda of the French right” for its zeal in singing only glories of ruling conservatives) has joined the circus despite itself–running a front page editorial protesting “Too Much Is Too Much”, and two inside articles recounting what they claim were the late president’s worst errors (an effort one would have expected Figaro to break out a special edition, or possibly a book for). From the opposite end of Partisanville, the Socialist Party is flogging an iPhone application that allows users to hear Mitterrand’s most famous sound bites with a shake of their handset. Look for that one to knock “Angry Birds” out its number one global ranking in the weeks and months to come…Of course, Americans regularly huddle to hail the presidency of Ronald Reagan, while Brits have made commemorating the rule of Margaret Thatcher into a national sport. So why shouldn’t the French look fondly back on the man who was arguably their most influential international leader since de Gaulle? Plus, that Mitterrandian glance backwards seems even more appropriate (and hopeful. Desperate, even…) these days. With just a year remaining before France’s next presidential election, it now appears the left actually has a shot of winning the biggest prize in French politics again. Current conservative President Nicolas Sarkozy is not only deeply unpopular—and getting more so as he continues making divisive gestures to the extreme-right—but polls indicate a majority of voters hold him in such strong, personal disregard that he’s unlikely to advance past the initial round of the contest for the run-off final. That’s too significant a prediction of unprecedented incumbent failure just 12 months from the presidential election for Socialists not to start imaging 1981 vintage success all over again.

Perhaps because of that, even the large minority of people who aren’t crazy about Mitterrand—and may not be dying to cast a vote for his eventual successor as Socialist presidential candidate—seem to be feeling a surge of nostalgia over the 30 year anniversary of his win. And with the 2012 election on the horizon, it’s hard not to suspect a lot of voters currently basking in France’s Mitterrand glow may be doing so to ignore the nation’s dismal present by looking to the past for a sign of possible future change.

But “possible” is a crucial term here. French Socialists have been torn apart by internal ambitions and self-defeating leadership rivalries ever since Mitterrand relinquished his ruthless, iron fisted control of the party—and of power—and stepped out of public life towards his rapid death in 1996. If they want to relive history beyond the current commemorations of 1981, French Socialists will have to allow Mitterrand’s spirit and discipline to inhabit them between now and the May, 2012 elections. Otherwise, they risk seeing Sarkozy prove once again that he possesses more of the late president’s political mastery and will in victoriously unifying his fractured support base behind him than latter-day Mitterrand disciples do.