Pierre Mauroy: Socialist leader of France in the '80s

 

When Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher were establishing the global mood music of the monetarist, greed-is-good 1980s, Pierre Mauroy sought to make France dance to a different tune. As the first Socialist Prime Minister of the Fifth Republic (1981-84) and first prime minister of the François Mitterrand era, Mauroy pursued a policy of nationalisation, taxation of the rich, increased minimum wages, retirement at 60 and a 39-hour working week.

And yet Mauroy, who has died at 84, was no leftist rabble-rouser. At a time when Marxist abstractions still gripped much of the intellectual and party-political Left in France, he represented a different, more pragmatic Catholic-Socialist tradition. Long before Tony Blair and New Labour, Mauroy rejected "leftist verbalising" and "dogma terrorism" as the enemies of true social reform. He tried to ditch the grandiloquent, tricky Mitterrand as leader of the French left in 1979. He initially opposed all Socialist alliances with the then still powerful French Communist Party.

Despite failing on both counts, he was chosen by Mitterrand as Prime Minister in May 1981 and agreed to appoint Communist ministers to his government. It is one of the great ironies of his career, and the history of French Socialism, that Mauroy remains forever associated, especially abroad, with the unreconstructed, dogmatic leftism of his first years in office.

His government's statist, workerist, free-spending policies had to be abandoned – partly to his own relief – amid deep financial crisis in the spring of 1983. Other more leftist and nationalist voices tried to persuade Mitterrand to continue France's one-nation assault on the zeitgeist of the 1980s by quitting the ERM, the European exchange rate mechanism (forerunner of the Euro).

Mauroy, a passionate European, told Mitterrand that he was unwilling to "drive on icy roads". He and the then finance minister, Jacques Delors, convinced Mitterrand that France must stay in the ERM and switch to policies of financial rigour and privatisation.

An exhausted Mauroy was removed from office in 1984 after he was forced by a street revolt of the middle-class Catholic Right to withdraw a proposal to abolish private schools. He retreated to his native north, where he was already the mayor of Lille (1973-2001).

Mauroy, a proud northerner or "Ch'ti", was a main-mover in the economic and cultural revival of Lille in the 1990s. When he was still leader of the French government, his visiting card read "Mayor of Lille and Prime Minister". Mauroy never returned to national office but remained until his death last week a much-respected, and much consulted, elder statesman of the French and European Left.

Pierre Mauroy was born, the eldest of seven children, in 1928 at Cartignies in the Nord département near Lille. His father was a teacher and his mother a devout Catholic. When he was 11 his family joined the civilian exodus which choked the roads of northern France to flee the advancing German army. After the war he became a teacher but was rapidly swallowed up by full-time political activity. In 1951, he married Gilberte Deboudt, another teacher, who survives him. They had one son.

By 1966, he was the secretary general of the Section Française de L'Internationale Ouvrière, the forerunner of the modern Parti Socialiste (PS). He failed to become the leader of the new PS by one vote in 1969.

In the 1970s he worked at first with François Mitterrand, the PS first secretary, to modernise the party. In 1979 he joined forces with another Social democrat, Michel Rocard, to try to push the party to the reforming right or centre. He failed to oust Mitterrand but was chosen in May 1981 as a "safe pair of hands" to lead the first government of the Mitterrand era. Although often remembered for its failed economic policies, his government was also responsible for social reforms, such as the abolition of the death penalty.

Much in Mauroy's brief career in national government foreshadowed the problems faced by the present Socialist government in France. Like President François Hollande, Mauroy was a man who believed in government by compromise or, critics would say, "muddling through".

In a speech eulogising Mauroy at the Invalide this week, Hollande described him as a man who grasped that "economic rigour" was a "precondition" of reform and social justice. He failed to point out that, Mauroy, probably against his own better judgement, allowed the French economy to drift dangerously for two years before imposing a more rigorous approach in 1983-84. Many of France's economic problems to this day can be traced to that period.

John Lichfield

Pierre Mauroy, politician: born Cartignies, France 5 July 1928; Prime Minister of France 1981–84; married 1951 Gilberte Deboudt (one son); died 7 June 2013.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Life and Style
Fans line up at the AVNs, straining to capture a photo of their favourite star
life Tim Walker asks how much longer it can flesh out an existence
Life and Style
Every minute of every day, Twitter is awash with anger as we seek to let these organisations know precisely what we think of them
techWhen it comes to vitriol, no one on attracts our ire more than big businesses offering bad service
News
Professor David Nutt wants to change the way gravely ill patients are treated in Britain
people Why does a former Government tsar believe that mind-altering drugs have a place on prescription?
News
Norway’s ‘The Nordland Line – Minute by Minute, Season by Season’ continues the trend of slow TV
television
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Arts and Entertainment
art
Sport
Jonny Evans has pleaded not guilty to an FA charge for spitting at Papiss Cisse
football
Life and Style
Kate Moss will make a cameo appearance in David Walliams' The Boy in the Dress
fashion
News
The image released by the Salvation Army, using 'The Dress'
news
Sport
Liverpool defender Kolo Toure
football Defender could make history in the FA Cup, but African Cup of Nations win means he's already content
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Technical Presales Consultant - London - £65,000 OTE.

£65000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Technical Presales Engineer - central London ...

Recruitment Genius: Physiotherapist / Sports Therapist

£20000 - £50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Physiotherapist / Sports Ther...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive / Advisor

£8 - £9 per hour: Recruitment Genius: Sales Executives / Advisors are required...

Recruitment Genius: Warehouse Operative

£14000 - £15000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An opportunity has arisen for a...

Day In a Page

Homeless Veterans campaign: Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after £300,000 gift from Lloyds Bank

Homeless Veterans campaign

Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after huge gift from Lloyds Bank
Flight MH370 a year on: Lost without a trace – but the search goes on

Lost without a trace

But, a year on, the search continues for Flight MH370
Germany's spymasters left red-faced after thieves break into brand new secret service HQ and steal taps

Germany's spy HQ springs a leak

Thieves break into new €1.5bn complex... to steal taps
International Women's Day 2015: Celebrating the whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

Whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

Simone de Beauvoir's seminal feminist polemic, 'The Second Sex', has been published in short-form for International Women's Day
Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

Why would I want to employ someone I’d be happy to have as my boss, asks Simon Kelner
Confessions of a planespotter: With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent

Confessions of a planespotter

With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent. Sam Masters explains the appeal
Russia's gulag museum 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities

Russia's gulag museum

Ministry of Culture-run site 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities
The big fresh food con: Alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay

The big fresh food con

Joanna Blythman reveals the alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay
Virginia Ironside was my landlady: What is it like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7?

Virginia Ironside was my landlady

Tim Willis reveals what it's like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7
Paris Fashion Week 2015: The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp

Paris Fashion Week 2015

The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp
8 best workout DVDs

8 best workout DVDs

If your 'New Year new you' regime hasn’t lasted beyond February, why not try working out from home?
Paul Scholes column: I don't believe Jonny Evans was spitting at Papiss Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible

Paul Scholes column

I don't believe Evans was spitting at Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible
Miguel Layun interview: From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

Miguel Layun is a star in Mexico where he was criticised for leaving to join Watford. But he says he sees the bigger picture
Frank Warren column: Amir Khan ready to meet winner of Floyd Mayweather v Manny Pacquiao

Khan ready to meet winner of Mayweather v Pacquiao

The Bolton fighter is unlikely to take on Kell Brook with two superstar opponents on the horizon, says Frank Warren
War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable