France in the 1990’s Part I
In the mid-nineties, the social and political situation of France presented strong elements of continuity with its previous history and, at the same time, important factors of novelty. Since the 1970s, French society had undergone profound transformations which, together with strong urbanization, had produced an expansion of new productive sectors (especially in the tertiary sector), the expansion of an area of assisted pauperism, the massive increase of non-EU workers, the gradual shift of conflict from social boundaries to more strictly ethnic-cultural ones. The political framework showed, alongside the persistence of the traditional post-World War II political alignments (the moderate right of the neo-Galilists, liberals and Christian Democrats, and, on the left, Front national (FN) led by J.-M. Le Pen.
Although with changed dimensions and changed relations of power between them, the two groupings of the right and the left continued to be made up each of two main parties. The moderate right was made up of the Union pour la démocratie française (UDF) – the result of the merger carried out in 1978 between liberals and Christian Democrats under the leadership of R. Barre – and the neo-Galilists of the Rassemblement pour la république (RPR), born in 1976 in work of J. Chirac.
With an electoral power essentially based on the local notabilato, in the 1980s the UDF had supported a strongly liberal line then diverted, at the end of the decade, towards an approach closer to social democratic demands. Even the RPR, which during the Eighties had registered an electoral strengthening and the loss of its traditional interclass character to the advantage of solid and privileged bourgeois classes, had made a shift to the right with respect to the original Gaullist line to turn towards a cultural conservatism and a substantial liberalism. On the left, the Communist party had by now started a dramatic decline from the early 1980s, while the Socialist party, despite the deep and recurring crises, had by now consolidated itself as the hegemonic political force of the alliance. The electoral growth of the Socialist Party during the 1970s had been the reflection of that profound change in French society which had seen the appearance of new middle classes (teachers, social workers, technicians, middle managers, employees) who, predominantly of a high school level, they replaced the traditional values of conservative ideology with those of a new ‘cultural liberalism’ (freedom in family relationships, tolerance, hedonism, respect for individual autonomy), within the framework of a more general secularization of morality. The non-communist left had found in these new classes, bearers of elements of modernity, a large electoral base which they had joined, especially in the face of the historical decline of the Parti communiste français (PCF), large sections of the popular classes. But from the mid-1980s the country’s continuing economic difficulties, the high unemployment rates, the problems of social integration that the strong presence of non-EU workers brought with it – phenomena that remained substantially unsolved during the socialist governments – caused a crisis of consensus in the towards the Socialist Parties (PS). Large sections of the youth electorate abandoned the socialists in favor of the ecological movement and relevant sectors of the traditional popular base moved to the FN of Le Pen, while serious scandals hit important party leaders involved in corruption cases. The ‘political’ response, which in December 1989 resulted in a law on amnesty for crimes relating to party financing and electoral campaigns prior to June 1989, exacerbated the crisis in relations between the PS (and the party system as a whole) with public opinion and especially with the judiciary, which accused the political class of seriously threatening the autonomy of the judiciary. The racial tensions that exploded in serious forms in the urban suburbs (1990 – 91), the Corsican terrorism that resumed with violence in 1990 and the hostility of part of the French to participation in the Gulf War (January-February 1991) constituted further indictments against the socialist ruling class which, despite the changes made at the top of the government and of the party itself, was unable to halt its decline.
According to Politicsezine.com, the old bipolar scheme had in the meantime undergone a process of splitting, with the appearance on the political scene of the FN, on the far right, and of the ecological movement, on the left, together with other groups born in 1992 as forms of party protest (Autre Europe, led by former UDF exponent Ph. De Villiers, and the Mouvement des citoyens, MDC, born from a split of the PS by J.-P. Chevènement).