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Is It 1981 All Over Again?

Is It 1981 All Over Again?
 Bruno Tertrais
Senior Fellow - Geopolitics, International Relations and Demography
 Joseph de Weck
Senior Fellow - Germany

Remember 1981? It was a turning point in history. In London, Prince Charles married the so-called "commoner" Diana Spencer, effectively breaking the UK’s class ceiling. In Washington, Ronald Reagan became US President, unleashing the global free-market revolution. And in Paris, the French elected François Mitterrand as their first socialist President in modern history.

Why write about 1981 today? Mitterrand’s surprise election more than 40 years ago could provide a template for a win by far-right Marine Le Pen at this year’s presidential election. There are, in fact, six parallels that can be drawn. It is important to note that the following comparison in no way concerns the substance of Mitterrand’s program in 1981 and Le Pen’s today. It is rather the electoral dynamics and drivers that we seek to compare. 

First, just as this year’s second round stand-off between Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen, the 1981 run-off vote was a rematch. Valéry Giscard d’Estaing and Mitterrand had already battled head-to-head for the presidency in 1974. Mitterrand even topped the first round in 1974, but lost to Giscard in the second round.

Second, it was incumbent Giscard who won the first round in 1981 with 28.3% of the vote against challenger Mitterrand with 25.8%. Sometimes the second-placed candidate in the first vote can really overtake the frontrunner on decision day.

Third, as is the case for Le Pen today, 1981 was Mitterrand’s third presidential candidacy. By being persistent, Mitterrand was able to sway centrist voters. The same can be said for Le Pen in 2022, albeit to a lesser extent. Moreover, like the once-alarming Mitterrand in 1981, Le Pen has been around for so long that for many she doesn’t seem that frightening anymore.

Experience also helps, of course. Mitterrand became better at campaigning with each of his successive campaigns. Le Pen is still not a great orator, but she has improved. She makes fewer blunders than she once did, and has become better at hiding, or at least softening, her hostile attitude. Contrary to 2017, when she tried to imitate Donald Trump by appearing aggressive and outrageous, she understands that she needs to act more stateswomanlike to stand a chance of winning. There is no doubt that Le Pen has practiced the art of TV debating since her disastrous face-off with Macron between the two rounds of the 2017 election. 

Fourth, in 1981, Mitterrand won because he was up against a very unpopular incumbent. Normally, there is a structural majority for the center-right in France’s electorate. Candidates from minority voter groups, such as the left or the extreme right, only have a chance to win if they can get centrists to abstain or join them by playing the "everything but the incumbent" card. If Le Pen would win, it has to be now. Polls indicate that votes of abstention for a presidential election could reach all-time highs. This is her one shot. 

Fifth, the 1981 elections were essentially a debate about class. The privileged voted for Giscard. The lower classes voted for Mitterrand. In comparison, subsequent presidential elections were less a matter of class. Low-wage earners started to pivot to Marine Le Pen’s father during the 80s. The left became increasingly bourgeois. It is no coincidence that the figures of the bourgeois bohème and gauche caviar were invented in the 80s. Presidents Jacques Chirac, Nicolas Sarkozy and François Hollande thus made high scores across the class divides. But this is changing once again. The defining feature of the 2017 elections was that it was overwhelmingly the privileged who voted for Macron, while the lower-classes supported Le Pen. Early polls suggest this has once again been the case this year.

A Le Pen victory evokes a feeling of "jumping into the unknown" that is strongly reminiscent of 1981. 

Sixth, and perhaps most importantly, a Le Pen victory evokes a feeling of "jumping into the unknown" that is strongly reminiscent of 1981. Remember that the Left had been out of power for decades when Mitterrand was elected. At the time, communism was still a thing and the prospect of a Socialist-Communist alliance made many heads spin. It is no exaggeration that many of the French bourgeoisie were concerned that their country was going to fall into the hands of the Soviet Union.

The thought of a Le Pen victory also conjures up memories of Mitterrand’s early presidency, when he aimed to use fiscal and monetary policy in order to achieve socialisme à la française. This did not go well for long. Similarly, Le Pen’s economic program would put her on a collision course with Brussels, Frankfurt and capital markets. Le Pen could not direct monetary policy and devalue the Franc as Mitterand did, but her fiscal policy plans are enough of a concern on their own.

Nonetheless, there are equally six important limits to the 1981 analogy.

First, even in 1974, Mitterrand was very close to winning against Giscard. In the second round, Mitterrand lost with only 49.2% of the vote. By contrast, Le Pen lost with 34% of the vote in 2017. The far-right Le Pen thus has much more ground to make than the left-leaning Mitterrand did at the time. 

Second, Mitterrand’s 1981 election came as a surprise to most. Even after the first round, only 21% of the public expected Mitterrand to win, against nearly 57% who expected Giscard to be re-elected.  It is now clear that commentators, including the two authors, have largely underestimated Le Pen’s chances of winning a run-off election. This time, however, the French appear to be rapidly realizing the gravity of the new situation. In a poll from April 8, 57% say the presidential race is too close to call.

Third, while the Paris establishment thought a victory would be unlikely till the end of 1981, many polls between the two rounds were forecasting Mitterrand to beat his incumbent. Today, on the other hand, polls are still forecasting a lead for Macron. Some reassurance can also be drawn by the fact that in 2017, pollsters overestimated Le Pen’s score by a couple of percentage points. Let’s see what the polls have to say on Tuesday. 

Today, on the other hand, polls are still forecasting a lead for Macron. 

Fourth, Giscard was an economic liberal, social progressive and pro-European with a reputation for arrogance. Sound familiar? Sure, but while Macron would certainly not win France’s nomination for the Eurovision song contest, his popularity ratings are quite good. The aristocrat Giscard was in a distant sphere of his own, especially when it came to engaging with the public. Macron certainly thinks no less highly of himself, but he manages to listen to and engage with people at times, as was highlighted by the Grand Débat during the Yellow Vest protests.

Moreover, Giscard had a huge credibility problem due to l’affaire des diamonds. Two years before the 1981 campaign, media reported that Giscard had been gifted diamonds by the Central African Republic dictator Jean-Bédel Bokassa. This event led many citizens to believe that Giscard was corrupt. Today, Macron is struggling with what some have called "McKinseyGate", a debate about the alleged excessive use of consultancies by Macron’s government.

However, whatever the merits of "McKinseyGate", it is certainly not as juicy of a story as l’affaire des diamonds. Socialist 1981 campaign posters depicted Giscard with flashy diamonds in his eyes. Giscard campaigned for re-election with the lowest popularity ratings of his entire term. By contrast, Macron’s approval ratings are near the highest level they have ever been, and above those of his immediate predecessors at the end of their mandates. Perhaps more importantly, Macron is passionately hated by a part of France’s population. The Yellow Vest protests even featured guillotines to decapitate Macron puppets. Yet, his disapproval ratings remain better than those of Le Pen.

Fifth, in contrast to Giscard, Macron has a positive economic record to defend. Unemployment has dropped from 9.5% to 7.4% in the last five years. On the other hand, during Giscard’s 1974 to 1981 term, unemployment rose from 2% to 6%.

What about inflation? Inflation rates were in the double-digit territory for much of Giscard’s term, rising particularly steeply after the second oil shock in 1979 that was sparked by the Iranian revolution. History is seeming to repeat itself. Today, it is another external geopolitical crisis - Russia’s invasion of Ukraine - that is fueling inflation. However, France’s inflation was at 5.1% in March, which is nothing to the 13% Giscard was confronting during his campaign for reelection.

Sixth, today’s political scene is different,and more complex. After his presidential win, Mitterrand allied himself with the Communist Party. This allowed him to gain a majority in parliament in June 1981, and ultimately neutralize the rival party to his left. Le Pen would have no obvious majority in the ensuing parliamentary elections, although the six weeks separating the two votes would almost certainly revamp the French political scene. 

Overall, the 1981 election offers many parallels to today, but also some important differences. On balance, the odds seem to be in Macron’s favor. But the French have been surprised once before. In 1941, the literary critic Emil Cioran wrote,"France can still unleash one last revolution. Before France has definitively exhausted its potential for social renewal, la populace will triumph, and have its big moment." Romanian-born Cioran was adored by the French because he was even more pessimistic than the French themselves. Let’s hope it stays that way.


Copyright: Eric Feferberg, Joël SAGET / AFP

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