Mitterrand Is Elected to the French Presidency Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

François Mitterrand’s electoral victory brought to power a president from the political Left for the first time since the Fifth Republic was established twenty-three years earlier. After France faced economic troubles early in his presidency, Mitterrand’s policies became increasingly moderate.

Summary of Event

In 1981, many people believed that François Mitterrand’s electoral victory was a watershed event that would inaugurate a long period of political dominance by the parties of the Left. Following the euphoria of his first year in power, however, severe economic difficulties forced the government to the political center. Although Mitterrand remained president for two full terms, his Socialist Party and other left-wing parties experienced electoral decline, and he left office in 1995 without accomplishing the structural changes that he had advocated. Presidency, France Presidential elections, France Elections;France [kw]Mitterrand Is Elected to the French Presidency (May 10, 1981) [kw]Mitterrand Is Elected to the French Presidency (May 10, 1981) [kw]Mitterrand Is Elected to the French Presidency (May 10, 1981) [kw]Mitterrand Is Elected to the French Presidency (May 10, 1981) [kw]Mitterrand Is Elected to the French Presidency (May 10, 1981) Presidency, France Presidential elections, France Elections;France [g]Europe;May 10, 1981: Mitterrand Is Elected to the French Presidency[04490] [g]France;May 10, 1981: Mitterrand Is Elected to the French Presidency[04490] [c]Government and politics;May 10, 1981: Mitterrand Is Elected to the French Presidency[04490] Mitterrand, François Barre, Raymond Chirac, Jacques Delors, Jacques Giscard d’Estaing, Valéry Marchais, Georges Mauroy, Pierre Rocard, Michel

By 1981, Mitterrand was a veteran politician with an impressive record. One of the leaders of the French Resistance in World War II, he was an influential member of eleven cabinets during the Fourth Republic (1946-1958). In the election of 1965, he gained great stature when he forced President Charles de Gaulle Gaulle, Charles de to submit to a second ballot. Elected first secretary of the new Socialist Party (PS) in 1971, Mitterrand skillfully mediated differences between the party’s left wing and its moderate reformist factions. His strategy was to seek a Union of the Left that included the French Communist Party (PCF), and in 1972 the PS and PCF agreed to the Common Program, which envisioned nationalizing many private businesses and increasing social programs. In the presidential election of 1974, Mitterrand was narrowly defeated by the candidate of the Right, Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, with a vote of 49.1 percent to 50.9 percent.

During his seven-year term of office, Giscard’s policies were moderately right of center. As explained in his book of 1976, French Democracy, Giscard wanted to promote a “liberal” capitalism with fewer class differences and more emphasis on social justice. He was able to reduce the voting age to eighteen, and he tried, but failed, to convince the parliament to pass a capital gains tax and a less restrictive abortion law. Giscard made a costly political blunder in 1980, when he became the first Western leader to meet with Leonid Brezhnev Brezhnev, Leonid after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Many people disliked Giscard’s aloof, monarchial style of leadership.

There was widespread dissatisfaction with the economy during Giscard’s presidency. In the two decades before the 1973 oil crisis, the French had become accustomed to an uninterrupted growth in the standard of living, and the new international challenges made it impossible to satisfy public expectations. After 1976, Prime Minister Raymond Barre pursued a deflationary policy which emphasized the free market and a restriction of the money supply. The austerity of the Barre plan was painful and only partially a success. While purchasing power increased by 24 percent during Giscard’s presidency, by 1980 inflation had grown to almost 14 percent while unemployment stood at 7.5 percent.

Prior to the election of 1981, coalitions of both the Left and the Right were increasingly fragile. There was a growing split between Giscard’s organization, the Union for French Democracy (UDF), and Jacques Chirac’s followers, the Rally for the Republic (RPR). Likewise, in 1977 the Socialists and the Communists could not agree on the terms of their Common Program, and the PS-PCF alliance came to an end.

As specified in the French constitution, the presidential election of 1981 took place in two stages, with the first ballot scheduled for April 26 and the second ballot slated for May 10. The campaign officially opened on April 9, when the Constitutional Council announced ten candidates for the first round. The four major candidates were Giscard, Mitterrand, Chirac, and Georges Marchais. Giscard defended his policies of the last seven years and called for moderate reforms, including an expansion of youth training programs and a lowering of the retirement age. Chirac endorsed a program of reducing governmental spending and limiting regulations on business. Mitterrand advocated a watered-down version of the Common Program, including nationalization of ten unspecified industries, creation of new jobs in the public sector, a workweek of thirty-five hours, and an increase in the minimum wage and family allowances. Marchais wanted to go further than the Socialist agenda, and emphasized increased taxes on profits and capital. On April 26, Giscard and Mitterrand received the largest number of votes, with 28.3 percent and 25.8 percent, respectively. This meant that the two would face each other in the runoff election two weeks later.

François Mitterrand is congratulated by supporters following his election to the French presidency.

(AP/Wide World Photos)

In a television debate of May 5, neither candidate was considered to have gained a decisive advantage, but there was agreement that Mitterrand improved over his performance of four years earlier. In order to win, Giscard badly needed the support of the RPR, but Chirac gave him only a lukewarm endorsement, saying that everyone should vote “according to his conscience.” The Left appeared to be more united than the Right, and Communist leaders instructed their followers to vote for the Socialist candidate. Mitterrand announced that if elected he would dissolve the National Assembly and hold elections to gain a majority of the Left, but he refused to say whether he would include Communists as members of his cabinet.

In the vote of May 10, Mitterrand prevailed with 43.15 percent to 40.22 percent. In response, Mitterrand’s supporters held jubilant celebrations that were compared with the liberation of Paris after World War II. Many observers were surprised with the outcome, which represented the first substantial change of power in the history of the Fifth Republic.


Within two days of the election, French stocks lost an average of 20 percent, but moderate Socialists, especially economist Jacques Delors, assured investors that nationalizations would be based on fair compensation. The stock market rebounded on May 13. Installed as president on May 21, Mitterrand evoked socialist traditions but used a conciliatory tone aimed at calming fears of the center-Right. Taking office, his first major action was to announce that his prime minister would be Pierre Mauroy, a centrist leader of the SP, and the new cabinet included moderates such as Delors and Mitterrand’s major rival, Michel Rocard. Mitterrand quickly scheduled elections for a new National Assembly to take place on June 14 and 21. In these elections, the Socialist Party won an absolute majority, and with this unprecedented triumph by the Left, Mitterrand predicted a “break with capitalism.”

During Mitterrand’s “state of grace,” he and Mauroy got the Assembly to pass an economic program based on his campaign platform, including nationalizations, an increase in spending on social programs, and 100,000 public-sector jobs. By June of 1982, however, a combination of deficits and inflation forced Mitterrand to reverse course and begin a program of austerity. Thereafter, his policies became increasingly moderate, and in the presidential election of 1988 he ran on a platform of modernization, national union, and compromise.

By the end of Mitterrand’s second term in 1995, most of the radical reforms of 1981-1982 had been reversed, and it appeared doubtful that there would be a repeat of such experiments in the foreseeable future. Although France had not become a socialist country, Mitterrand and the Socialists did demonstrate that they could be responsible in managing a capitalist economy. Ironically, Mitterrand’s most enduring legacy probably was his purging of the revolutionary ideology from the PS, so that it conformed to the model of reformist Social Democratic parties elsewhere in Europe. Presidency, France Presidential elections, France Elections;France

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bell, David S. Mitterrand: A Political Biography. Malden, Mass.: Polity Press, 2005. Well-written account of Mitterrand’s life and career, with excellent discussion of how he came to power.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Friend, Julius. Seven Years in France: François Mitterrand and the Unintended Revolution, 1981-1988. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1989. A readable summary of Mitterrand’s early policies and why he was forced to change direction.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">McCarthy, Patrick, ed. The French Socialists in Power, 1981-1986. New York: Greenwood Press, 1987. Excellent collection of articles, with chapter 1 devoted to the election of 1981.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Machin, Howard, and Vincent Wright. “Why Mitterrand Won: The French Presidential Elections of April-May, 1981.” West European Politics 5 (January, 1982): 5-35. Presents detailed analysis of the election, including many voting data.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ryan, W. Francis. “France Under Giscard.” Current History 80 (September, 1981): 201-205, 228-229. Useful summary of the policies of Valéry Giscard d’Estaing before 1981.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Singer, David. Is Socialism Doomed? The Meaning of Mitterrand. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988. Presents a stimulating thesis about the impractical postulates of socialism.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Tiersky, Ronald. François Mitterrand. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2000. Excellent biography traces Mitterrand’s changing philosophical outlooks.

Chirac Takes Office as President of France

Categories: History