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1“Property is where the power is.” The famous maxim declared by François Mitterrand in 1972 at the French Socialist Party’s (Parti socialiste, PS) Suresnes Congress was transformed into policy in an almost unprecedented way. Following Mitterand’s victory in the presidential election in 1981, the main industrial groups and key players in the banking sector became the property of the state, converting a historic emblem of the Left into public action. Since that time, however, this expression has had a surprising afterlife. In 1997, a few weeks after the victory of the “Gauche plurielle” in the legislative elections, Prime Minister Lionel Jospin announced that France Télécom’s capital would be opened to investors. In direct contrast to the PS’s program for the legislative elections, this action signaled the beginning of a vast program to transfer public assets to the private sector, the extent of which was historically unprecedented.

2In view of the series of hypotheses presented in the introduction to this special issue, this reversal may seem surprising. Most striking at first is how radical it was, in that it contravened the ideological heritage of the PS and went directly against the pledges made both in the party’s program and as part of the various positions taken during the campaign. It is also surprising in principle since, unlike the traditional promise to implement a measure that ends up being ineffective, this was a reversal not of a “positive” pledge, but of a “negative” one—one to “put a stop to” privatizations. The speed at which this pledge reversal took place was also striking, with privatization actions, be they partial or total, beginning barely two months after power changed hands. Paradoxically, it also took place in a context in which the government, supported by relatively strong growth, sought to implement—at least in essence—significant “progressive” reforms that it had featured in its program (including the 35-hour work week, jobs for young people, and universal health insurance). Lastly, the extent of the policies implemented stands out: at the end of the government’s five-year term, the number of privatizations was the highest ever seen during the Fifth Republic.

3This case of election pledge non-fulfillment may at first seem all the more improbable given that it invalidates several results in the literature on fulfilling campaign pledges. The literature suggests that the probability of a pledge being honored is greater when it is related to maintaining the status quo  [1] and is heavily symbolic  [2]—something that can be assumed when it comes to the public sector. Using a statistical analysis of all OECD countries between 1979 and 1992,  [3] Carles Boix has been able to establish that the management of the public sector correlates with the party variable in two ways: on the one hand, privatization policies are considerably more numerous under conservative governments; on the other hand, the extent of these policies decreases when there are a larger number of parties in the government. And yet the track record of the government of the Gauche plurielle confirms neither of these results.

4To understand how and why the PS’s pledge to oppose privatization was so radically broken, this article aims to replace the usual analytical framework applied to studies that examine whether parties matter with a less macroscopic approach, focused more on the interests and practices of the party actors. The study of pledges has to date not included considerations of how parties are organized or the rationale behind their program production and exercise of power.  [4] The reading proposed here seeks to pay more attention to the status of programs  [5] and the political use of public action issues,  [6] as well as relations between the party “in central office” and the party “in public office.”  [7] This article focuses on the successive configurations of actors invested first in the production of the program and then in denouncing it.  [8] It reconstructs the way in which these configurations condition constraints in negotiations, which are first related to the program and then to being in government. The analysis then shifts to an examination of the “party variable,” traditionally described using the “Left-Right” dichotomy (or a trichotomy if the “Center” is added). However, this classification hides the internal power relations of the PS, which largely explain both the language of the program and the move away from it.

5Situating the pledge made in the program within the context in which it was put forward shows that, in the mid-1990s, a significant portion of the elites leading the PS was inclined to abandon the principle of “neither nationalization nor privatization” established during Mitterrand’s second term. On the whole, they seem to have been open to an industrialist development of the neoliberal framework (requesting private capital to strengthen the competitiveness of large French companies). In this regard, the PS’s program for the public sector reflected not so much a position widely held by the leading elites but instead the contingent establishment of a power relationship that generally benefited a minority faction. Furthermore, the factors that made this initial compromise possible could not withstand the new configuration that developed after the campaign. The government teams responsible for public sector issues decried, in small, successive ways, the pledge that featured both in the program and in the “shared declaration” signed with the French Communist Party (Parti communiste français, PCF). Based on a range of arguments made throughout their term in office, the Gauche plurielle government deployed various tactics that legitimized or avoided the controversy. As a result, the privatization policy pursued became acceptable, leading to the transfer of public capital to the private sector at a level unmatched under right-wing administrations.  [9]

6By tracing the various spaces and sequences of party actions on the public sector, the issue of privatization enables us to examine the conditions that allowed a program pledge to be broken in favor of the preferences of certain PS leaders.  [10] This perspective allows us to study election pledge non-fulfillment by reformulating the dual hypothesis presented in the introduction of this issue, on party “capacity” and “incentives” to make decisions about public action. This instance of a program reversal shows, paradoxically, that “politics matter.” It is particularly relevant because it demonstrates the way in which some socialist leaders found the necessary resources to implement what they preferred over what the party supposedly presented as valid.

Rallying against one’s own program

7The 1970s saw the Left gradually establish a program that connected the Common Program of Government (Programme commun de gouvernement, PCG) with the strategic vision of creating a vast public sector. The reforms following the so-called austerity turn, however, greatly reduced the reference made to this emblem of the Left, “freezing” the negative expression “neither privatization nor nationalization” into its doctrine instead. More significantly, the government’s latest experiences and certain shifts in its doctrine gave the impression that in the mid-1990s, several PS leaders were open to the idea of limiting the scope of nationalized companies. For contingent reasons, the compromise in the program developed in early 1997 on the need to “put a stop to” the privatizations planned by the Balladur government increased the ambiguity of the clear shifts made during previous years. Under these conditions, the campaign period that followed the official release of the PS platform was used by some “modernist” leaders as a rallying period to call into question the pledge officially made and instead introduce a program of reforms more in line with their preferences.

The disintegration of an emblem

8To understand the underlying issues concerning the positions taken on the public sector in 1997, we need to return to the way in which the PS of the 1970s viewed program activity and nationalizations. In 1981, one aim in Mitterrand’s “110 proposals” program was to nationalize the “nine industrial groups indicated in the Common Program and the Socialist Program,” along with that of “completing” the nationalization of the credit and insurance sector. At the time, the explicit mention in the text of two other programs—both endorsed almost ten years earlier in 1972—was anything but formal. It simultaneously signaled the symbolic pre-eminence of the PCG and the strategic role played by the public sector within the Left’s internal negotiations. The program’s configuration in the 1970s was marked by a close intertwining of a high level of party polarization (due to the importance of ideology in internal interactions and external negotiations) and the status afforded to election programs, which had a strategic role that went beyond the situational framework of these campaigns.  [11] In large part, this textual economy hinged upon how nationalizations were viewed. The public sector issue was one of the cornerstones in the negotiations between the PS’s rivals on the Left, especially with the PCF. It is also important not to forget the significant contention and tactical calculations involved in the issue of nationalization both within the PS itself and between the various forces on the Left.  [12] But these debates and, more generally, the positioning of PS economists, were subordinated to the pro-active strategy of the PCG. After the break with the PCG and the victory in the presidential elections, the 110 proposals served as legitimate support for the decision in favor of the “maximalists” (who wanted 100% nationalization) over the “minimalists” (who wanted nationalization limited to 51%).  [13]

9This close relationship between the status of texts, that of the coalition, and that of the issue itself was quickly affected by a series of important shifts. The nationalization of industry and the banks was presented primarily as a way of alleviating the under-investment that was affecting French industry and boosting its international competitiveness, as opposed to a hypothetical desire to “break” with the institutional framework of capitalism. The goal of using public companies as a lab for social experimentation was undermined by the first austerity measures following the austerity turn, due to the fact that these companies were required to be managed much like private companies.  [14]

10In 1988, François Mitterrand momentarily froze the expression “neither nationalization nor privatization” (known in short as “ni-ni” [neither-nor] in French) into the PS’s doctrine. During his second seven-year term, the orchestration of the “single market” by the European Commission (led by Jacques Delors from 1985) gradually focused attention on limiting public deficits and strengthening control of mechanisms for funding public companies.  [15] The need to ferry additional financial resources to fight unemployment, as well as the desire to recapitalize some companies without increasing the deficit (and therefore by seeking private capital) were all goals that were discussed within the Cresson and Bérégovoy governments. A decree dated 4 April 1991 authorized public companies to open up to 49.9% of their capital. The appointment of Dominique Strauss-Kahn as minister of industry and foreign trade widened the rift created by “ni-ni.” Strauss-Kahn had been campaigning since the mid-1980s for partial disposal operations to be used to support the financing of SMEs investing in high-risk sectors, calling for a “sort of state venture capital [risk capital].”  [16] More generally, he stood for an “industrialist” implementation of the neoliberal framework that was less marked by the monetarist ways of thinking that framed Pierre Bérégovoy’s policy, but that sought instead to use private capital to boost the international competitiveness of large French companies. Under Strauss-Kahn’s direction, Crédit Local de France, Elf Aquitaine, Total, and Rhône-Poulenc thus divested a portion of their assets to the private sector.  [17]

11The calling into question of nationalization—a traditional PS emblem—in the 1990s can also be seen at a more doctrinal level. In a political economy treatise co-signed by François Hollande and Pierre Moscovici, both high-ranking officials and junior executives in the PS, the pair concluded their chapter on the public sector as follows:


The status quo, “neither nationalization nor privatization,” has been unable to resist the ambiguities of the mixed economy. The public sector can be justified in limited cases; but it cannot be static. It has to change, if the companies involved want to join forces, conquer foreign markets, or play their European cards as best they can. Partial or even full privatization, that is, the inflow of external capital, is necessary.  [18]

13More generally, at the end of 1991, the PS’s Grande Arche Congress was used as a means to adjust PS doctrine to the experiences of being in government. The final text recognized the nationalizing heritage of 1981, but rejected the “break with capitalism” on behalf of a “mixed economy” society framed by “the mutual interest that connects entrepreneurs to the national community”:


Public companies need abundant capital to finance their development at a time when budgetary resources are dwindling. As a consequence, public and private shareholders are called upon to support each other.  [19]

15The state thus had to act as a traditional shareholder, managing its capital dynamically. The “formal contract” in preparation for the legislative elections in 1993 extended this doctrinal reversal: the state would potentially nationalize some companies and, vice-versa, “industrial companies or services in the competitive public sector may. . . rejoin the private sector.”  [20] At the level of ministerial decisions, and in doctrinal or program texts, this emblem of the public sector was thus subsumed by the dual imperative of the budget and competitiveness, thereby supporting the view that public capital and private capital were equivalent. “Ni-ni,” which had for a time appeared to be a kind of doctrinal viaticum, had survived.

The program, an agreement with constraints

16In the mid-1990s, the “nationalization/privatization” issue was thus deeply affected by the Left’s experience in government, which made it unlikely there would be a return to the positions defended during the 1970s, in addition to the fact that the most recent evolution involved reducing the nationalized sector. Nonetheless, the PS was led to make a series of tactical adjustments for several reasons. In a context in which the party had been relegated to a small minority in the National Assembly (it lost more than 200 seats during the 1993 legislative elections), PS discourse on public sector issues was again imbued with distinctive reasoning inherent to being in the opposition.  [21] In the 1995 presidential campaign, Jospin announced that he wanted to “bring an end to the privatization program” the Balladur government had put in place.  [22] This program became a favorite target for the PS: between 1995 and 1997, the party’s weekly paper published more than 50 articles on this controversy. Between March and May 1996, the PS conducted a “parliamentary guerilla war” (preliminary questions, requests for referral to committee, amendments, motions of no confidence, and so on) to oppose telecommunications minister François Fillon’s decision to transform France Télécom into a limited company.

17At the same time, the new leadership around Jospin set a “proactive” political line focused on the symbolic restoration of the role of the state, thought to be at odds with Mitterrand’s second seven-year term.  [23] This line was accelerated by the organization of a series of topical conventions in preparation for the future program. In a configuration of the party leadership in which Jospin was driven to stage his rapprochement with the party’s base (the text was voted on by activists), the convention on “economic and social proposals” that took place on 14 and 15 December 1996 gave rise to struggles between the various factions.  [24] The “Gauche socialiste”—represented by Julien Dray, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, and Marie-Noëlle Lienemann—sought to promote a stronger “statist” line than that of the leadership, using everything from early negotiations to the tabling of alternative amendments. The choice by leadership to present these amendments as alternative, and therefore not supplementary to the text to be voted on, allowed them to remove certain orientations deemed too radical. But in return, they encouraged that points in common be found prior to the text being presented.  [25] The procedural framework of the development of the program thus resulted in pulling the text to the left. Lienemann testifies below to some of the workings of these negotiations:


The reality was that when I told Strauss-Kahn—who was, you might say, a cynic—“I don’t agree that an amendment should be made,” he said, “I’m not going to let you get 60% on a subject on the eve of the legislative elections, that would give you too much value.” When I threatened him on a subject on which he knew the party would vote as one for us, well, based on that, he would give in. This was how he accepted the 35-hour work week without loss of salary, that’s how he accepted the story of France Télécom. . . We didn’t really need to fight.  [26]

19The final version of the convention text thus stipulated that “privatizations will be halted and an assessment of their consequences on employment and on the service provided will be carried out.”  [27]

20Opposition to privatization became actively established as a marker of identity, especially given that it was also presented as an election issue: to a certain degree, the strategic choice for a Gauche plurielle agreement required that the PS negotiate program points with the PCF. At their request, the declaration shared by both parties reaffirmed their


determination. . . to defend and promote public services, the public function and policies by renewing and democratizing them. The Right is selling them off. It is privatizing and deregulating them. We are committed to promoting another point of view. For example, with regard to France Télécom, Thomson, and Air France, we propose that the privatization process be stopped.  [28]

22Against the backdrop of a media campaign by union organizations from some companies in the process of being privatized,  [29] the election program presented on 2 May 1997 said:


Safety, education, transportation, health, mail, telecommunications: these public services must be guaranteed for all French people. We believe that “French-style public service” is an example to be followed. We reject the privatization of public services and their transformation into an object for profit.  [30]

24In this regard, the election program emerged not so much as a reserve of resources for the campaign but as a contract with constraints that brought together a set of distinct interests. These elements included clear criticism of the Right’s track record, a desire to symbolically re-arm the party, as well as a need to accommodate the expectations of the activist base and fulfill a minimal contract with the PCF. The PS’s proposal on the public sector was thus seen as a cobbling together of a set of reasons related to that time. Without being completely cynical, the program’s wording reveals a series of localized interests, which gave an air of ambiguity to the doctrinal reversal that took place once the Left took over the government.

One program out of the other: The renegotiation of the pledge to put a stop to privatizations

25Under these conditions, neither topical conventions, nor the program itself, nor even the electoral alliance, held the same symbolic and thus binding impact that the program had had in the 1970s. Accounts by actors from both the PS and the PCF agree in emphasizing that the “shared declaration” brought on by the presidential decision to dissolve the National Assembly showed that the ideology had hardly matured at all. The slogan proclaiming “the stopping of privatization” also masked several ambiguities in PS discourse. While there was clear opposition to privatization, it was never backed up by a pledge to reverse the actions taken by the Right—with the exception of France Télécom.  [31] This hesitation seems all the more evident given that it is especially difficult to find a text that details the PS’s doctrine for this period on the public sector and public services, an analytical distinction that was often carefully avoided. The way the argument was arranged meant that it first responded to issues of management. Less attention was given to combatting the privatization actions of the Right in principle and instead more emphasis was placed on the financial operations these actions involved. In the end, the party effort to put the denunciation of privatizations on the agenda was not accompanied by the publicization of an alternative public action program. In these conditions, the proposal to “put a stop to the proposals” should be interpreted not so much as a pledge that would be “easy” to fulfill but instead as the sign that the public sector was no longer a key issue in the PS’s program.

26This collapse of the old program-based economy contributed to defining the election campaign not as a space in which the program was “rolled out,” but much rather as a period during which it could be renegotiated with terms more favorable to the preferences of certain party members who wanted to open the capital of public companies. This reasoning can be easily seen first in the indecision and then in the shift in PS discourse during the final days of the election campaign. While for two years the PS positions had been in agreement about announcing “the stopping of privatizations” in the event of a victory, at the end of the 1997 legislative campaign there were a series of public speeches by party leaders that challenged the initial positions taken. On 6 May 1997, just four days before the program was made official and less than three weeks before the first round of elections, François Hollande, the spokesperson for the PS, announced in the newspaper La Tribune Desfossés that there was no way that France Télécom’s capital would be touched, and that while the privatization of Air France would be “pushed back,” there would also be no attempt to renationalize companies. Furthermore, for “companies in the competitive sector, which are not competing with an activity in the public interest, where the state’s participation is no longer necessary, we have to be guided by pragmatism. There is a need to maintain a certain flexibility. What is called ‘taking a breath.’”  [32] The “stopping of privatizations” became “we want to put a clear stop to some privatizations.”  [33]

27Initially, these declarations were disavowed by Jospin who, subject to the limitations of his position, refused to deviate from the line he had set. However, on 21 May—four days before the first round of elections, when the pollsters declared the Left’s total to be exactly level with the Right’s, and a victory was possible  [34]Le Monde revealed that “numerous leaders of the PS indeed tend to consider that France Télécom’s public service mission would not at all be undermined if the state were still to own a majority, but no longer 100%.”  [35] Jospin himself “did not rule out that the staff of France Télécom may ‘now agree with the ongoing capital distribution process’ and considered, for the first time, that it would be necessary to consult them.” A few days earlier, in a letter sent on 17 May to the Air France CFDT trade union, the candidate also announced that it “would be appropriate to open [the company’s capital] to minority stakes.”  [36] By the end of the election campaign, it became explicitly clear that the close entourage of the PS candidate had succeeded in dismantling the pledge made in the program and planned to proceed to operations involving the sale of assets, with two objectives: refocusing state expenditures on the companies thought to be most important, and adapting these companies to international competition by allowing them to form alliances with European conglomerates.

28The analysis of the campaign dynamics thus underscores to what degree the gradual linking of the various happenings can be read as the arranging of power relations between actors and, based on this, how this linking led to overturning the content associated with the issue of privatization. Against the background of changes related to the initial expectations of defeat, the issue of privatization was subject to a series of markings that inflected its potential meanings and finally led to its scope being radically altered. First set up as a marker of identity within intraparty arenas, the issue of privatization was then used as a support for the electoral divide, before finally being recast as a program of reforms. In the 1970s, these three markings generally overlapped each other, but in the 1990s, the third was set apart and eventually subsumed the other two.  [37]

29The chain of events that followed the victory confirmed the changes in power relations. Strauss-Kahn was appointed minister of economy and finance,  [38] and Christian Pierret became the secretary of state for industry (the Gauche socialiste had no representative): the composition of the new government thus provided the top positions to the party’s “modernist” faction. As the son of a business executive, Pierret attended Sciences Po Paris (where he opted to study the “private sector economy”) and the French National School of Administration (École nationale d’administration, ENA).  [39] Appointed to the ministry of economy from 1972 to 1976, then to the French Court of Auditors (Cours des comptes) from 1976 to 1978, he defended, as a member of the Center for Socialist Studies, Research, and Education (Centre d’études, de recherches et d’éducation socialiste, CERES), “planist” orientations tainted by self-management (at the time he was an activist at the CFDT). He then abandoned these positions at the beginning of the 1980s. As an elected member of the National Assembly between 1978 and 1993, he sat on the finance, general economy, and planning committee throughout his tenure. He was part of Laurent Fabius’s faction from 1982, shortly before the future prime minister emphasized Mitterrand’s austerity policy. Pierret also claimed to have used the term “austerity” before Pierre Mauroy did so publicly. In 1993, he lost the legislative election, left public service, and became executive vice-president of the Accor hotel group, which he then left to become secretary of state. During our interview, he took a “pro-business” position, pitting it against the “statist prayer wheel,” and justified his appointment based on apparently having resources for mediation that could have facilitated dialogue with representatives from management:


There is a need for a culture that allows for dialogue with company leaders, that allows for accepting. . . We were in an era in which Baron Seillière was the head of Medef: you had to be able to speak to those people, to be understood by them, which is what DSK did, which I also could do as minister of industry; we couldn’t have put in a traditional socialist to do that.  [40]

31This was a valid claim for the ministers in office, and this argument also structured the make-up of the offices that depended on the ministry of economy, finance, and industry.  [41] As during previous experiences of PS government,  [42] offices were generally composed of members who did not belong to the PS.  [43] They often came from the treasury department and were aware of the problems related to European economic integration and the challenge of industrial restructuring. These technical advisers were for the most part inclined to endorse the “modernist” program. In his interview, Pierret mentioned that “a certain way of thinking about state-company relations” was a criterion that had to be met by those in his office:


As far as I was concerned, [it was] a liberal social democracy open to the market. [. . . ] It was an orientation that the members of my office had to share. [. . . ]
Q: Were the members of your office members of the PS or not?
– I have no idea. Some yes. . . I don’t know. Most no.
Q: So the issue was never one of the criteria. . .
– No, no. I knew who were members, but it was a minority, it wasn’t . . When I say I have no idea, I mean it wasn’t a criterion. The criterion was: fundamental agreement about a certain way of thinking about state-company relations.  [44]

33In this context, and if the accounts gathered are to be believed, the pledge to put a stop to privatizations was immediately subject to internal negotiations within ministerial offices.


[Dominique Strauss-Kahn] had gathered his technical advisors for a kind of plenary meeting. He said. . . well, I don’t think I’m revealing a state secret, but he said: “Ok well we were elected based on an idiotic program, we have some excuses, we thought we had no chance of being elected, I myself defended that idiotic program, but now we are elected and we have the program on which we were elected, and that will need to be managed. So it’s my problem, dear sirs, I ask you to do your job, technically speaking, managing the Socialist Party is my area” [ . . . ]. “It will be necessary that we. . . ”—well I don’t know how he expressed it but, in a nutshell: “That we find a loophole in ‘ni-ni’ and actually sell shares in public companies. It’s an important subject, and it will need to be managed. In any case, what is good is that there are 60 million French people who couldn’t give a damn, and that there are only 300 who see this as important and see it as serious, ok the 300 in question are the members of the PS. But that, that’s my problem.”  [45]

35Whereas in 1981, the program had led to significant intragovernmental battles to define the future scope of the public sector, there was now an immediate consensus that united the offices and ministries directly concerned by the files. The various actors could also count on the support of Jean-Pierre Jouyet, the deputy chief of staff in the prime minister’s office and an economic affairs adviser to Jospin. As inspector of finances and a graduate of Sciences Po Paris and the ENA, Jouyet was chief of staff for Roger Fauroux, minister of industry and regional planning in the Rocard government between 1988 and 1991, and had already participated in the capital restructuring of various groups.  [46] Deputy chief then chief of staff for Delors at the European Commission between 1991 and 1995, he can be ranked among the inspectors of finances who, aside from their close party affiliations, seemed from that time to be “in agreement on the fundamental aspects of the neoliberal corpus”—with a particular “interest in balancing public finances” and “support for the process of European integration and the liberalization of international markets.”  [47] Lastly, the configuration of actors can be characterized by a series of simultaneous actions. Through the media, Nicole Notat, secretary general of the CFDT, declared on 3 June that she was in favor of pursuing the opening of France Télécom’s capital (which was initially supposed to happen three days later). At the same time, the management teams of the main public companies involved in restructuring their capital (France Télécom, Air France, Thomson, Aérospatiale-Dassault, Crédit Lyonnais, Société Marseillaise de Crédit, CIC-GAN, Crédit Foncier) all supported the need to continue to work on these files.  [48]

36A composite network of actors thus mobilized in various ways to come to a consensus that combined a marked concern for France’s international competitiveness, the belief in the virtues of the private sector (flexibility, innovation, value creation), as well as the conviction of a duty to “push for change” in the public sector in order to strengthen it. While it is not possible to precisely document the workings of the final negotiations, the many ways actors mobilized to fully support the “modernist” plans led the prime minister, by all appearances, to definitively backtrack on the pledge to put a stop to the privatization program. The general policy speech given on 19 June by the new prime minister to the National Assembly replaced it with a new list of priorities:


The public sector, whether this involves telecommunications, or the electronics, aeronautic, or other sectors, has today become an issue of property. In the absence of any justification of the public interest, we are not in favor of the privatization of this shared heritage represented by large, competitive companies. Nevertheless, we know that some adjustments will need to be made to keep up with the level of the most developed countries in the world and to move closer to other European partners.  [49]

38While the principle of “privatization” (in the sense of the sale of the majority of public capital) was still rejected,  [50] the opening of public capital was announced. The prime minister’s speech avoided the subject of public services and only mentioned public sector companies, restoring a distinction that had disappeared both from the “parliamentary guerrilla war” over France Télécom the year before and from the program’s text itself.

39In sum, the immediate break with the strict letter of the program was made possible due to it being primarily an artifact of the recent history of the change in government and, to a lesser degree, the change in PS doctrine. The program established a temporary and detailed compromise much more than expressing what might be perceived as the structuring framework for Socialist decisions in government. Contrary to a contractualist conception of “permissive” democracy,  [51] the 1997 election cycle can be seen as one used not to promote the official program pledge, but to neutralize it. The erosion of the socialist program-based economy concerning the public sector (that is, the least constraining element of the text and the disintegration of a historic emblem of socialism) authorized certain operators to renegotiate the terms of the program’s pledge during and immediately after the campaign. The thinking behind the composition of ministerial teams was separate from what the program itself contained, and ultimately produced a reform framework that was more structured by previous experiences of being in government rather than by the program’s text.

Making privatizations acceptable

40Breaking with its campaign pledges is not the only thing that makes the Jospin government’s track record unique when it comes to the public sector. The radical nature of this break also needs to be considered (the asset disposal operations were the largest ever completed during the Fifth Republic) by looking to determine what, politically, made this significant divergence from both the program and an emblem of socialism possible. The various explanations of the thinking behind this divergence therefore need to be presented, without however falling into a finalist reading of this track record that would make its unavoidable turn seem normal. Often interlinking, these rationales have three dimensions: the legitimization of the reforms, the domestication of oppositions, and the de-politicization of the issue.

Moving beyond “the obligations resulting from a ‘pledge’”: The forms of legitimization of an “industrial policy”

41One of the most striking aspects of the policy pursued after the Left’s victory was the speed at which the reversal took place, especially in the case of France Télécom. Prepared during the final days of the campaign, this reversal nonetheless required various forms of symbolic and institutional legitimization. Ten days after the general policy speech, an article by Pierret in the newspaper Libération[52] as well as a closed-door meeting between Strauss-Kahn and the Socialist group in the National Assembly  [53] first hinted at the decisions that would shortly follow. At the same time, Michel Bon, head of France Télécom, Nicole Notat, secretary general of the CFDT, and Jacques Delors called for an opening of capital.  [54] In July, Michel Delebarre, a member of the Senate close to the minister of economy and finance, wrote a report given to the prime minister on 5 September 1997, which proposed orientations likely to guide the government’s action.  [55] Aside from a few distinctions with the law of June 1996 (involving in particular the change in status of the company’s staff), the meaning and substance of the report can be summarized as aligning the orientations to come with the explanatory statement presented under the Juppé government. The report was explicitly aligned with the change in status adopted by this government:


The mission statement does not call into question the modification made in 1996 on the status of France Télécom as a limited company. The mention of the data and principles clearly stated in the “Mission Statements” seems essential to us in the opening of this report in that they clearly indicate that it is not the intention of the government to revisit the transformation that took place on 31 December 1996 of turning [France Télécom] into a limited company.  [56]

43The reasons behind this break with the election pledge are even explained later on in the report, when it proposes moving beyond


the limits that, in July 1997, seemed to be imposed on the political debate concerning France Télécom: the rejection of any opening of capital, on the one hand; and the obligation (which would result from a “pledge”) to consult with employees concerning the future of France Télécom, on the other. How have we arrived at such a summary of the debate on the future of France Télécom, which has led some to reject any change that would in some way infringe on these two “principles”? It is because we have an ambitious view for the future of France Télécom that we have to refuse to allow the debate to be reduced to only the “rejection of any opening of capital” and a “referendum among employees.”  [57]

45Aside from the fact that the report represented a further step away from campaign statements (the “referendum” was now excluded) and even set aside the idea that the refusal to open capital had resulted from a “pledge,” the report essentially aims to legitimize, at the parliamentary level, the political position endorsed at the ministerial level, as confirmed by Pierret in our interview:


At the beginning, we thought it was necessary to help this company evolve, following the Delebarre report, which had presented the possibilities for change, which was a social-democrat inspired report, well balanced [. . . ]. And with this open, and modern, report in hand, we were able to make the changes [. . . ]. France Télécom was at the beginning, in October 1997. The date shows we had less trouble at that time than we would have had if we had waited longer.  [58]

47In fact, the unions seemed to be hardly united: only the CGT, the SUD-PTT federation of France Télécom, and the FNSA opposed the report (the CFDT, FO, and the CFE-CGC all supported the plan for the opening of capital). The day of protest organized on 30 September drew less than 20% of strikers (compared to 31% in June 1996). In October 1997, the government sold 23.2% of its capital, for 6.5 billion euros.

48The recent legitimacy given by the election victory, the timing of the France Télécom issue during the middle of summer, the “blow” of the report, and the low turnout at union protests all contributed to making it possible to break with the most emblematic component of the campaign’s pledges.

49Timing also made it possible to neutralize the Communist component of the government. As minister of transport, Jean-Claude Gayssot was responsible for the Air France case. In early June 1997, Christian Blanc, the CEO of the company (a longtime friend of Michel Rocard), publicly revealed his desire to fully privatize the company.  [59] Gayssot and his office were subjected to two contradictory dynamics: on one side, because of the positions they took during the election and their known proximity to the unions, the stopping of privatization policies was one of the official conditions for their participation in the government;  [60] on the other side, they were restricted by the early nature of the controversy that pitted them against the CEO of the company. When Strauss-Kahn introduced a new shift in the program, this time through the declaration of the general policy (in front of a group of company leaders at the forum L’Expansion, the minister announced, in late June, that full “privatizations” were planned), Gayssot had to amend his initial positions, eventually stating that “nothing is excluded from consideration so as to allow for the development of airline companies such as Air France.”  [61] Lucien Marest, then Communist adviser to the minister, spoke of the power relations at that time.


– We were facing a CEO who was threatening to quit. It would have been a scandal.
Q: Did this possibility bother you?
– I think that it was fully in our interest for us to not make waves. Especially in this ministry, led by a Communist minister, we were not interested in having an immediate confrontation on nationalization issues, be it political, ideological, or austere. Politically, we had no interest in that.
Q: Why?
– Because, to cut to the chase, there was a shitty problem, and the shitty problem was with the Communist minister [. . . ]. Air France was no small fry. So we decided to have a discussion with the CEO of Air France, but not telling him: “Move along, there’s nothing to see. Christian Blanc you have this position, well, we’re taking it and good day to you.” We tried to see where discussion was possible. And so opening the capital was among these options. To show that the discussion was not completely closed.  [62]

51In September, the principle for a partial privatization of the company was adopted, in spite of the sensational resignation of the CEO, who rejected the idea that only a minority stake of the capital should be released. In the midst of this decisional game, and contrary to what statistical comparisons might lead one to think, the fact that the government was a coalition played a decisive role, but in a way that was favorable to the “modernist” camp. The election victory provided this camp with the benefit of legitimacy and became a resource for them, while for the Communists it was more of a limitation.  [63]

52These general timing-related characteristics were also connected to different forms of rhetorical and symbolic justifications of the policy implemented. The narrative  [64] of this policy was translated into a euphemism. At the PS party conference in 1988, the prime minister made the following statement:


This government does not intend to pursue a policy of privatizations. It is pursuing an industry policy.  [65]

54In fact, the “privatization commission” which, since 1986, had been responsible for setting the value of assets sold and determining release arrangements, was renamed the “Commission des participations et des transferts” (Commission on Investments and Transfers). The removal of the most offending vocabulary was accompanied by language that aimed to present the “changes” in the public sector as a way of ensuring its survival. Questioned by a PCF MP following the opening of France Télécom’s capital, Strauss-Kahn concluded his presentation by indicating that this action was intended to “strengthen the public service.”  [66] The government’s effort to distinguish itself from the Right, when it could no longer make use of differences in substance, also required the respective abilities of each of the majorities to promote, as it was being resold, the state’s public heritage. The counterexample of Thomson Multimédia, which the previous majority had planned to sell for the symbolic sum of one franc, was widely used to showcase the left-wing government’s sound management.

55These various discursive actions were supported by institutional mechanisms aimed at better framing the acceptance of the adopted policy. In July 1997, Pierret took the initiative to establish and personally participate in two working groups that brought together Socialist parliamentarians responsible for considering issues related to public service and a competitive public sector.  [67] The breakfasts organized each Tuesday morning between Jospin and the group were another way of ensuring consistency in the relationship between parliamentarians and the government. Strauss-Kahn himself regularly appeared before the Assembly to justify his decisions. “The minister of the economy, whenever he had an announcement, would be there to explain why, how, and how much it would bring in,” recalls Dominique Baert, who at the time was the special rapporteur for the Assembly’s finance committee and was close to Strauss-Kahn.  [68] In 1998 alone—a period in which the sales of assets were at their highest—there were 28 addresses from the ministry on these subjects. An analysis of the addresses made by Socialist members shows, on the contrary, that their action on these matters was fairly weak: while there were 250 Socialist members, by far the majority group in the National Assembly, there were only 28 addresses made by the group for the entire term (compared to a similar number for the Communist group, who only had 36 members, and the same for the Radicals, Citizens, and Greens group [33 members]). While these addresses may reveal some members’ concerns (17 addresses can attest to this), these concerns were largely connected to local issues—typically, the number of jobs affected by a particular decision. No addresses during the term sought to compare the overall public sector policy adopted with the pledges made during the campaign.

The domestication of internal oppositions

56There was of course some opposition, but it was limited and not expressed to either the government or the Assembly. Within the party, it was generally marginalized. During the first two years, the journal of the Gauche socialiste regularly published criticism of ministerial choices. An entire issue was dedicated to the France Télécom case, in which the movement put forth its arguments: the opening of capital was a first step in the privatization process that would lead to a high number of job cuts; the public status of the company did not stop it from producing satisfactory results (position on the world market, operational self-sufficiency rate, prices, profitability); the operator thus had nothing to fear from the competition, nor did it need to be listed on the stock market to obtain funding, nor did it require cross-shareholdings with its partners.  [69] These criticisms were presented during the congress in Brest in November 1997 but remained limited: the movement received a low score (10%). With few representatives in parliament (only the MP Yann Galut made two addresses critical of the disposals of capital in 1999), no adherents of this movement held a ministerial portfolio before 2000.

57This positional asymmetry was even greater in the specialized sectors of the PS. While they were in power, the party’s economic committee, not particularly active during that period, operated more like a conveyor belt for the government’s strategy, with the members of the offices intermittently presenting the various reform projects. The national secretariat for public services, which had played a key role in organizing the “parliamentary guerrilla war” with regard to France Télécom, was no longer heeded, in spite of their regular publication of critical notes. In an interview, the national delegate for public services at the time, Pierre Bauby, a former staff representative for the CGT, expressed a feeling of dispossession.


The experts, the members, can say what they want, including the national secretaries, but it all happens elsewhere. It was taken over by the technical departments, those from the ENA, who well... Me, I reacted when Henri Weber was manager [of the Party Training sector]; there was a proposal to make a training brochure on public services. And he answered: “It’s too strategic an issue, we aren’t doing it.” I found his response. . . frank but at the same time, good. [. . . ] The texts, I have a pile this high! [. . . ] But look at France Télécom and so on, in that period it was happening elsewhere. . . The real decisions were being made elsewhere.  [70]

59The same observation was made by the French national secretariat for businesses, which co-ordinated the work of the various socialist business groups (groupes socialistes d’entreprises, GSEs) operating in a range of business sectors (EDF, France Télécom, RATP, SNCF, and so on). As a marginal group within the PS, its representatives had to “let themselves be raped”  [71]—in the words of Jérôme Delpech, a former member of the offices of both Pierret and Strauss-Kahn, which received the aforementioned representatives. Charles Cala, who was first the manager of the PTT GSE and then chairman of the La Poste GSE, expressed it differently:


Q: How would you summarize the influence of the GSEs between 1997 and 2002?
– As a descent into hell? Or rather, no, there is an English word, you know: “fading.”You know, when you disappear into the fog, when you melt away and become fog yourself. . .  [72]

61This relegation was not only due to the ministries taking over the decision-making process. It also indicates the positioning of the direction of the PS, which could be better aligned with the government when there were no fundamental disagreements on these topics (unlike tax policy, for example). In our interview, Stéphane Le Foll, then the chief of staff for the first secretary, indicated that “issues of industrial policy and opening of capital were not talked about.”  [73] The longitudinal analysis of the PS’s weekly newspaper shows how mentions of “privatization” disappeared after the party came into power.

Chart 1. Change in the number of occurrences of the word “privatization” in L’hebdo des socialistes

tableau im1

Chart 1. Change in the number of occurrences of the word “privatization” in L’hebdo des socialistes

62However, an analysis of the most strategic texts for that period demonstrates the efforts to incorporate party positions into government doctrine. In a paragraph on the connections between “the state and business,” the final motion put forward by Hollande during the Brest Congress in November 1997 reveals the following ideas:


The PS, lacking a clear doctrine, determined itself on an ad hoc basis too often. No doubt, a system in which the state alone marshaled companies like a battle corps is no longer necessary in the age of globalization. [. . . ] This industrial strategy is much greater than the issue of knowing what percentage the state holds in certain companies in the competitive sector, so long as it effectively plays its shareholder role. [. . . ] In its decisions concerning Air France [or France Télécom], the government is bringing about a type of partner economy that combines public and private capital for the benefit of clearly identified industrial projects.  [74]

64The final motion for progress thus involved a symbolic revaluation of the role of the private sector, which was in line with what the Grande Arche Congress had established six years earlier. This attempt at aggiornamento could also be seen a year later, as part of the national convention that bore the title, “Which Company for Which Society?” The text, submitted for a vote by activists and from which Julien Dray (a member of the initial drafting team) disassociated himself, was approved with 154 voting for it and 13 abstentions at the National Council on 17 November 1998. It redefined the scope of the state and followed the outline presented in the government doctrine. Hollande explained it as follows:


This convention allowed us to clarify our doctrine. It had greatly changed during recent years, to the point that it was combined with a rather awkward pragmatism. [. . . ] We agree to the opening of the capital of public companies in the competitive sector when, and only when, it can be justified by alliances with industry. Concerning the disposal of assets that through history have become part of the public heritage and no longer have any reason for being there because they do not compete with any activity in the public interest, we recognized that this may take place.  [75]

66The convention on business was thus an endeavor to convert socialist values to the “modernist pragmatism” implemented at the government level, by supporting a rhetorical strategy that was meant to align the privatization policy with the main symbolic references of the PS.  [76] This direction created a supplementary institutional resource to facilitate pursuing public capital disposal policies.

From depoliticizing the issue to avoiding blame

67In hindsight, two elements can be highlighted about the Jospin government’s track record on the public sector: its novelty compared to other left-wing governments, and its extent, even when compared to those of right-wing governments. The Gauche plurielle was the first French left-wing government during which the number of public sector companies decreased, from 2,510 at the end of 1997 to 1,570 at the end of 2001.  [77] Moreover, Jospin’s term was one in which the number of companies in the hands of the state had never been so low. With 31 billion euros in revenue, it was the Jospin government that benefitted the most from privatization operations (without even including the sale of minority stakes).  [78] Of the 21 companies included in the privatization law passed in 1993 under the Balladur government, more than a third were privatized under the Jospin government (Société Marseillaise de Crédit, CNP Assurances, CIC-UIC-GAN SA, Thomson CSF, Thomson Multimédia, Aérospatiale-Matra, Crédit Lyonnais, and Banque Hervet).  [79] In 2002, of these 21 companies, only Air France, SNECMA, and Caisse Centrale de Réassurance remained. The share of public employment as part of total employment fell by more than 20% between 1996 and 2001.  [80] The French National Institute of Statistics and Economic Studies (L’Institut national de la statistique et des études économiques, INSEE), noted at the time that the presence of the state in the industrial, banking, and insurance sectors was “now symbolic.”  [81]

68But the significance of this track record contrasts with the way the policy was discreetly implemented. In April 1996, a group of associates of the Socialist members of the National Assembly wrote a text called, “Privatisations: Chirac-Juppé bradent en douce” [Privatizations: Chirac-Juppé Are Selling Surreptitiously].  [82] One of the arguments put forward involved denouncing “privatization by decree,” viewed as a “blank check given to the government.” In fact, it was no different from “Jospinian” privatizations. The opening of France Télécom’s capital did not require any particular regulatory amendments given that the decree of 13 January 1997, enacted by the Juppé government, already authorized the state to proceed with the transfer of a minority stake of its capital.  [83] In particular, in the months after the first files were opened, the government decided not to review the privatization law of 1993, which provided for the sale of the capital of 21 companies. Consequently, the sale of the assets of GAN SA, Thomson-CSF, Thomson Multimédia, Air France, Aérospatiale, and Crédit Lyonnais  [84] were all done by decree, regardless of whether or not it was a majority stake. This set of rationales echoed the way in which Pierret approached his reform strategy, as he indicated in our interview:


So long as I could make these changes without making waves, either among the Socialist group in Parliament, the Socialist groups in the Senate and the Assembly, or among the Greens or the Communists, I had carte blanche to. . . be sufficiently diplomatic for things to get done without drawing criticism. That is, most of the time, without drawing excessive attention. And that way, we were able to make the changes, through contact with union organizations, with local officials. [. . . ] With a consensus reached and the goals specified, without any fanfare, press releases, nothing, we were able to make changes that, if they had been presented in a public forum, flags snapping in the wind, would have immediately become a political issue. [. . . ] We were those who, in the history of the Republic, privatized the most. No one noticed; even though it was done in broad daylight, it wasn’t hidden! But we arranged it so that everything went well.  [85]

70This desire to not politicize an issue that had earlier been very divisive was successful partly because of the fragmented nature of this overall policy—each decision referred back to particular cases and local power relations.  [86] Some operations were also divided up over time: a year after the first block of France Télécom’s capital was put on the market, the public share of the company fell to 62.34%,  [87] then to 55% in December 2000. In particular, this kind of fragmentation interacted with other aspects of the government’s agenda. In retrospect, 1998 appears to be the period when the highest number of public companies was sold—including since 1988  [88]—but it also corresponded to a stage during which the political and media attention was focused on preparing for passing the 35-hour work week legislation. This period was also marked by a return to growth (1.4% in 1996, 2.3% in 1997, and 3.6% in 1998). The media’s agenda was thus disconnected from the business sector’s privatization agenda (Chart 2).

Chart 2. “Privatizations” in the media agenda (1997-1998)

tableau im2

Chart 2. “Privatizations” in the media agenda (1997-1998)

Source: Number of mentions of the key words “Jospin” and “35 heures” and “Jospin” and “privatisations” in Le Monde, Le Figaro, Libération, Les Échos et La Tribune; database: Europresse (L’Humanité is not included in the database for this period).

71While during this first period, the set of highly symbolic reforms contributed to “drowning out” the various operations involving the disposal of assets, the deadline of the presidential election nonetheless caused changes in the opening of capital policy. The schedule of disposal operations point to R. Kent Weaver’s analysis, according to which the proximity of elections can condition how planned reforms are carried out.  [89] The configuration of the period was similar to a form of “sanction avoidance,” with the goal of neutralizing any costs that a measure expected to be unpopular could incur. Overall, based on data from INSEE, the number of sales of companies thus went from 471 in 1998 to zero in 2002 (Chart 3).

72This change resulted from various types of factors (a decrease in the number of companies that could be privatized, the stock market entering negative territory after 9/11, and so on); but the political variable carried a lot of weight, as confirmed by a former member of the offices of economy and industry.

Chart 3. Change in the number of privatized companies under the Jospin government

tableau im3

Chart 3. Change in the number of privatized companies under the Jospin government

Source: Répertoire des entreprises contrôlées majoritairement par l’État des entreprises contrôlées majoritairement par l’État (INSEE).


The first half of the government’s term was a period, I would say. . . of opening, moving in the direction of what Dominique Strauss-Kahn and Christian Pierret clearly wanted, what I would call a straightforward approach to economic issues. Because there was growth, because there was cohesiveness among the plural majority, because, because of the World Cup, because of whatever you want. [. . . ] With regard to the prime minister’s offices, with regard to subjects involving doctrine, for me there was clearly a gradual retrenchment because we were shifting to the second part of the term.  [90]

74In February 2001, as Pierret, Fabius, and François Roussely (company chairman) planned to support the transposition of the European gas directive with the opening of Gaz de France’s (GDF) capital to foreign investors, several Communist MPs publicly expressed their hostility to the project. In the press, the secretary of state for industry had to acknowledge that


a few months ago, the situation was more open than today, simply because the elections are approaching [. . . ]. This is an extremely disappointing situation, because it involves the industrial future of a company that I always guaranteed would remain public. The government has not given up, but it is simply becoming increasingly difficult to push forward the idea of opening GDF’s capital. Personally, I will continue to fight for this opening to take place.  [91]

76This form of “blame avoidance” was not implemented systematically: between October 2001 and March 2002, at the beginning of the presidential campaign, the minister of the economy, Laurent Fabius, organized the sale of 49% of the capital of Autoroutes du Sud de la France (ASF) and its listing on the stock market. However, it seemed clear that the rapidly approaching presidential election influenced the negotiations over the two public service companies, both of which had a high ratio of union members. Even though in January 2002, the heads of both GDF and Électricité de France (EDF) sought to open their capital, the government eventually decided not to touch the status of the two operators.  [92]

77In the program presented by Jospin during the presidential campaign, however, this blame avoidance took on a more ambiguous form. While Strauss-Kahn and Fabius explicitly indicated the possibility of opening the capital of the two companies over time (there was a mention of potentially selling shares of EDF to finance the “social” part of the candidate’s program), the text in the program spoke of them in neutral terms without naming the companies directly:


There will also be a need for our public companies to form alliances in order to develop internationally. This is in the national interest: industrial policy objectives will guide our decisions. We will of course seek out the consensus of employees on any desired changes.  [93]

79At least on the issue of the public sector, the Socialist program of 1997 would have been less helpful in shaping later government action that it helped to develop. . . the Socialist program promoted in 2002.

80* * *

81The political science literature regularly speaks of a dual discrepancy between, on the one hand, the party identity of a government and the track record attributed to it and, on the other hand, the content of an election program and what the government accomplishes while in power. The analysis of the policies involved in opening public capital under the Jospin government could be extended to reconsider the scenario that most often underpins them, namely, one related to the hypothesis of crippled activism (due to multiple external constraints, the Left-Right divide was unable to fully develop public actions). In this case, this extension takes the form of a double heuristic shift.

82The first shift involves the perspective adopted by this special issue on the link proposed by statistical analyses between politics and policies. While the dual hypothesis of the “motivations” (or interests) and “capacity” (or resources) of legislators to “keep their promise” seems to be too inclusive to operate by itself, it does however invite a more methodical unpacking of what is usually rendered invisible in large-scale statistical comparisons. Indeed, a qualitative and contextual approach has three related benefits: it allows for a less statistical use of factors that may have had some effect; it invites a more inductive, and thus more extensive, reading of these factors, including from ideological, institutional, and technical perspectives, as well as sociographic, calendar-related, and symbolic ones. Lastly, the approach tested in this article has led to a better understanding of the combative relations that set the various actors against each other, and the rearranging of these combative relations depending on the various sequences of events. It is only in these conditions that we can understand why the case of the opening of capital under the Jospin government falls so radically outside of established analyses of public sector policies: examined at a macro level as an identifiable effect of the Left-Right divide, the “party variable” hides more than it reveals in the puzzle that is the non-fulfillment of election pledges.

83In line with this, the second shift involves the need for better articulation between the sociology of public action and the sociology of political parties. For while the “party variable” does not explain the Jospin government’s track record (no more than the “coalition variable” does), we are also unable to look to—or cannot only look to—“external constraints” from outside the party to find the source of this rationale for the non-fulfillment of election pledges. Such a reading would in fact require making two assumptions that would not hold up under analysis: the first would involve conceiving the articulation between parties and public policies as being based on a sequential pattern that is too rigid (a party adopts a program before its government representatives are able to determine that it is unworkable); the second would involve interpreting the program as a transparent window into party preferences, while it most often portrays an internal power relationship at a certain point in time. In this regard, connecting the sociology of public action with the sociology of parties involves not only taking account of the multiple types of constraints representatives have to use to cobble together a government, but also seriously considering the ways programs are mobilized from a sociological perspective (what do the actors do when they make a program?) and being more attentive to the combative space in which these programs are put into action.

84It is within this analytical framework that we can reconstitute the rationales that would explain the non-fulfillment of election pledges, and thus propose an alternative way of reading “promissory” periods compared to how they are most often understood. A policy program on the public sector is not univocal but has three distinct dimensions—it simultaneously expresses a marker of identity, support for the electoral divide, and a project of reforms. These three dimensions have been combined in various ways over time. While election programs in the 1970s subsumed these three dimensions, in the 1990s, they were generally separated from one another: the public sector became less prominent, less strategic, and less consensual. The official 1997 pledge to “put a stop to privatizations” was not the expression of a precisely developed and cohesively supported doctrine. Rather, it laid bare a series of symbolic and tactical transactions between the party’s historical heritage and its government heritage, between the various intra-party factions, and between the party and its coalition partners. It was this state of the program’s configuration that allowed some leaders to present the campaign not as a period in which the program was handled as a resource for the election or even as a text to be defended, but as a space in which this program could be renegotiated and inflected. While the decisions after the party took power were not automatic (they were not all written ahead of time, rather they were contested and were not linear), they did essentially harden this dynamic. To a certain degree, this election pledge’s non-fulfillment existed prior to it being put into action, which paradoxically supports the idea that “parties matter.”

85Viewing the shifts in the political preferences of PS leaders through the lens of the PS’s internal power relations leads to a hypothesis that would appear to be valid for more than just the Jospin government. Indeed, Hollande’s term seems to confirm that, in certain respects, when the Left is in power, the experience has not so much been a regime of austerity caused by the neoliberal context. Instead, the Left’s modernist faction has viewed its time in government as providing access to a set of resources (dominant positions, regulatory instruments, symbolic technologies, and so on) that fosters particular program orientations—orientations that, by all accounts, cannot always be adopted within the scope of party democracy.


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    Pepper Culpepper, Quiet Politics and Business Power: Corporate control in Europe and Japan, Cambridge, UK, Cambridge University Press, 2012; Christophe Bouillaud, Isabelle Guinaudeau, and Simon Persico, “Parole tenue? Une étude de la trajectoire des promesses électorales du président Nicolas Sarkozy (2007-2012),” Gouvernement et action publique 3(3), 2017, 85-113.
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    Carles Boix, “Privatizing the public business sector in the eighties: economic performance, partisan responses and divided governments,” British Journal of Political Science 27(4), 1997, 473-96.
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    Silja Häusermann, Georg Picot, and Dominik Gerring, “Partisan politics and the welfare state: recent advances in the literature,” British Journal of Political Science 43(1), 2013, 221-40; Isabelle Guinaudeau, “Toward a conditional model of partisanship in policymaking,” French Politics 12(3), 2014, 265-81.
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    See, for various approaches to the program form, Karim Fertikh, Mathieu Hauchecorne, and Nicolas Bué (eds), Les programmes politiques: Genèses et usages, Rennes, France, Presses Universitaires de Rennes, 2016; Karim Fertikh, “Le genre programmatique: Sociologie de la production des programmes partisans: l’exemple de Bad Godesberg,” Revue française de science politique 64(5), October 2014, 905-28.
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    This analysis follows the most recent studies which, from a historical or political science perspective, seek to move beyond the limits of the cultural history of political parties by abandoning commenting on “ideologies” that are often hypostasized. This allows for a better understanding of the concrete make-up of economic positions of political parties. See especially Matthieu Tracol, “Faut-il appliquer les ‘110 propositions’? Le Parti socialiste et les droits nouveaux des travailleurs” in Fertikh, Hauchecorne, and Bué (eds), Les programmes politiques, pp. 217-30; Mathieu Fulla, “The ‘economist’ in politics: French socialist experts of the 1970s,” Revue française de science politique 66(5), October 2016, 773-800; Martin Baloge, “La représentation des intérêts fiscaux: mobilisation et défense des groupes sociaux par les parlementaires en France et en Allemagne” in Alice Mazeaud (ed.), Pratiques de la représentation politique, Rennes, Presses Universitaires de Rennes, 2014, pp. 245-60.
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    Peter Mair, “Party organizations: from civil society to the state” in Richard Katz and Peter Mair (eds), How Parties Organize: Change adaptation in party organizations in western democracies, London, Sage, 1994, pp. 1-22.
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    For a comparable analytical framework, see Karim Fertikh, “Trois petits tours et puis s’en va... Marxisme et programme de Bad Godesberg du Parti social-démocrate allemande,” Sociétés contemporaines 81(1), 2011, 61-79.
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    The material used for this article includes ten semi-directed interviews with some of the most relevant actors (supporters, cabinet members, and a secretary of state), the systematic study of the PS’s internal newspaper and that of the main minority group, the study of texts from conferences and conventions about the period, the analysis of the party’s internal documents and of presentations by members in session, a set of ministerial speeches as well as a press corpus that includes opinion pieces and economic articles published between 1995 and 2002, created using the Lexis Nexis database and drawing on Le Monde, Le Figaro, Libération, L’Humanité, La Croix, Les Échos, and La Tribune. I would like to thank Isabelle Guinaudeau for allowing me to supplement the initial corpus.
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    On the analysis of collegiality as a norm of the PS, see Carole Bachelot, trans. Jean-Yves Bart, “A government of peers? Collegiality at the top levels of political parties: the case of the Parti Socialiste in France,” Revue française de science politique 62(3), June 2012, 383-407.
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    See Danielle Tartakowsky and Alain Bergounioux, L’union sans unité: Le programme commun de la gauche, 1963-1978, Rennes, France, Presses Universitaires de Rennes, 2012; Fertikh, Hauchecorne, and Bué, Les programmes politiques.
  • [12]
    Mathieu Fulla, Les socialistes français et l’économie, 1944-1981: une histoire économique du politique, Paris, Presses de Sciences Po, 2015, pp. 338-40.
  • [13]
    Michel Margairaz, “Les nationalisations: la fin d’une culture politique?” in Serge Berstein, Pierre Milza, and Jean-Louis Bianco (eds), François Mitterrand: Les années du changement: 1981-1984, Paris, Perrin, 2001, pp. 344-84.
  • [14]
  • [15]
    Élie Cohen, “Représentation de l’adversaire et politique économique: nationalisation, politique industrielle et Acte unique européen,” Revue française de science politique 43(5), October 1993, 388-806; Bruno Coquet and Jacques Le Cacheux, “Les privatisations dans la perspective de l’intégration européenne,” Revue économique 47(6), 1996, 1333-50, here 1347. Legally, the European Commission was not authorized to require privatizations. But it used policies for the opening of capital or privatizations as evidence to determine the legality of state aid, in a context in which markets were gradually opening up (communications, energy, and so on) which fueled competition for public operators.
  • [16]
    Philippe Messine, “Nationalisations, dénationalisations. . . des contes fantastiques,” Le Monde diplomatique, March 1986, 5-7. Translator’s note: Unless otherwise stated, all translations of cited foreign language material in this article are our own.
  • [17]
    Françoise Fressoz, “Privatisations: le gouvernement veut avancer avec prudence,” Les Échos, 3 September 1991.
  • [18]
    Pierre Moscovici and François Hollande, L’heure des choix: pour une économie politique, Paris, Odile Jacob, 1991, 311.
  • [19]
    Text reproduced in PS Info: Spécial responsables 492, 2 November 1991, 93.
  • [20]
    Anonymous, “La dernière mort du ‘ni-ni’,” Le Monde, 26 May 1992.
  • [21]
    Christian Le Bart, Le discours politique, Paris, Presses Universitaires de France, 1998.
  • [22]
    Speech given at a business sector national conference, reprinted in Vendredi, 240, 8 March 1995.
  • [23]
    Alain Bergounioux and Gérard Grunberg, L’ambition et le remords: Les socialistes français et le pouvoir, 1905-2005, Paris, Fayard, 2005, 436-37.
  • [24]
    Thierry Barboni, “Les changements d’une organisation: le Parti socialiste, entre configuration partisane et cartellisation (1971-2007),” Ph.D. diss. in political science, supervised by Jean-Claude Colliard, 2010, Université Paris I Panthéon-Sorbonne. On the different uses of deliberative procedures in party organizations, see Rémi Lefebvre and Antoine Roger (eds), Les partis politiques à l’épreuve des procédures délibératives, Rennes, France, Presses Universitaires de Rennes, 2009.
  • [25]
    On the symbolic constraints internal to party deliberation, see Yves Poirmeur, “Emblème, repère, enjeu: le social au Parti socialiste” in Daniel Gaxie (ed.), Le social transfiguré: Sur la représentation politique des préoccupations sociales, Paris, Presses Universitaires de France, 1990, pp. 55-109, here p. 57.
  • [26]
    Interview with Marie-Noëlle Lienemann, leader of the Gauche socialiste and member of one of the three groups responsible for writing the preparatory texts for the 1996 conventions, Paris, 9 June 2010.
  • [27]
    National convention of the Socialist Party, “Nos propositions économiques et sociales,” text printed in L’hebdo des socialistes 300, 15 November 1996.
  • [28]
    “Déclaration commune du Parti socialiste et du Parti communiste français,” Le Monde, 2 May 1997.
  • [29]
    This was the case, for example, of the unions of the Thomson group, who directly addressed the various political parties. See Babette Stern, “Les syndicats des groupes privatisables interrogent les partis sur leurs intentions,” Le Monde, 7 May 1997.
  • [30]
    Socialist program for the legislative elections of 1997, “Changeons d’avenir: nos engagements pour la France,” reprinted in L’hebdo des socialistes 19, 9 May 1997.
  • [31]
    Favilla, “Privatisations et socialisme,” Les Échos, 2 March 1997.
  • [32]
    Dominique Seux, “Privatisations: les socialistes ont du mal à se faire une religion,” Les Échos, 7 May 1997.
  • [33]
    Emphasis added by the author.
  • [34]
    Nicole Gauthier, “La fin des sondages laisse la droite en tête,” Libération, 19 May 1997.
  • [35]
    Laurent Mauduit, “Les socialistes sont soucieux d’afficher le réalisme de leurs propositions,” Le Monde, 21 May 1997.
  • [36]
    Service Entreprises, “Les principales prises de position des socialistes,” Le Monde, 5 June 1997.
  • [37]
    For a more detailed analysis, see Rafaël Cos, “Les glissements d’une offre programmatique sectorielle: les ‘privatisations’ dans la campagne socialiste de 1997” in Fertikh, Hauchecorne, and Bué (eds), Les programmes politiques, pp. 99-112.
  • [38]
    After his first term at the ministry of industry, in 1994 he co-founded the Cercle de l’Industie [Circle of Industry], a lobby of French manufacturers positioned at the European level, with Maurice Lévy, former head of Renault, and served as vice-president until 1997.
  • [39]
    In the interview, however, he says that before preparing for the entrance exam, he considered continuing his studies at Stanford Graduate School of Business. His socialization at school reveals that his interests were already wavering between service to the state and the private sector.
  • [40]
    Interview with Christian Pierret, Paris, 8 July 2010.
  • [41]
    Several of them worked for both ministers.
  • [42]
    Pierre Birnbaum (ed.), Les élites socialistes au pouvoir: Les dirigeants socialistes face à l’État, 1981-1985, Paris, Presses Universitaires de France, 1985; Frédéric Sawicki and Pierre Mathiot, “Les membres des cabinets ministériels socialistes en France (1981-1993): recrutement et reconversion. 1/ Caractéristiques sociales et filières de recrutement,” Revue française de science politique 49(1), February 1999, 3-30.
  • [43]
    Thirty-one percent of those working at the ministry of economy, finance, and industry were graduates of the ENA (French National School of Administration), making it the ministry with the highest number of former ENA students. According to Luc Rouban, it was also among the four least “politicized” ministries, in the sense of being directly affiliated with a party. See Luc Rouban, “Les cabinets ministériels du gouvernement Jospin 1997-2002,” Revue administrative 57(339), 2004, 230-48.
  • [44]
    Interview with Christian Pierret. For Pierret’s chief of staff (also a technical advisor in Strauss-Kahn’s office), work at the office involved an approach that was “fairly open-minded on economic and industrial subjects, France within Europe, in a market economy, and it being beneficial for France to have high-performance, innovative, and dynamic companies” (interview with Jérôme Delpech, Paris, 10 July 2010). It is no coincidence that many of the staff members at that time who were partly involved in capital disposal policies (as technical advisors, chiefs of staff, or deputy chiefs of staff) immediately joined the private sector afterwards.
  • [45]
    Interview [anonymous], civil administrator and technical advisor in the offices of both Pierret and Strauss-Kahn, Paris, 21 July 2010.
  • [46]
    Nathalie Bensahel, “Thomson: exit la vente, bonjour le meccano,” Libération, 12 July 1997.
  • [47]
    Bertrand Blancheton, “Les inspecteurs des Finances et les sciences économiques au xxe siècle” in Fabien Cardoni, Nathalie Carré de Malberg, and Michel Margairaz (eds), Dictionnaire historique des inspecteurs des Finances, 1801-2009, Paris, Comité pour l’histoire économique et financière de la France, 2012, p. 438.
  • [48]
    Service Entreprises, “Les syndicats réclament au gouvernement l’arrêt des privatisations,” Le Monde, 5 June 1997.
  • [49]
    Lionel Jospin, “Discours de politique Générale,” reprinted in L’hebdo des socialistes 26, 27 June 1997.
  • [50]
    Political discourse, to either accuse or justify, has always played on the ambiguity of the term “privatization,” whether one views it as a process (the opening of capital being seen as a step that precedes the public’s future minority holding) or a statistical reality (the state’s capital stake at less than 50%).
  • [51]
    Jane Mansbridge, “Rethinking representation,” American Political Science Review 97(4), 2003, 515-28.
  • [52]
    Nathalie Bensahel and Édouard Launet, “Pierret face aux urgences industrielles,” Libération, 26 June 1997.
  • [53]
    Anonymous, “L’ouverture du capital de France Télécom en débat au gouvernement,” La Tribune, 27 June 1997.
  • [54]
    Anonymous, “Delors pour l’ouverture de capital de France Télécom et la privatisation d’Air France,” Les Échos, 23 June 1997.
  • [55]
    Michel Delebarre, “Sur les enjeux d’avenir de France Télécom,” report presented to the prime minister, the minister of economy, finance, and industry, and the secretary of state for industry, September 1997.
  • [56]
    Ibid., 2.
  • [57]
    Ibid., 5-6.
  • [58]
    Interview with Christian Pierret.
  • [59]
    Pierre Kerlouegan, “Air France: navigation à vue,” Le Figaro, 3 June 1997.
  • [60]
    Anonymous, “Les marchandages secrets de Robert Hue,” Le Figaro, 3 June 1997.
  • [61]
    Anonymous, “Strauss-Kahn ouvre la porte à des privatisations,” La Tribune, 27 June 1997.
  • [62]
    Interview with Lucien Marest, responsible in 1997 for relations with the political parties for the PCF, then special adviser to Jean-Claude Gayssot at the ministry of transport from 1997 to 2002, Paris, 16 June 2010.
  • [63]
    One year later, in September 1998, a declaration by the National Bureau of the PCF was alarmed about certain operations (TMM, the Aérospatiale-Matra merger, France Télécom), but posited that the Communists “have broken with statism and foresee other management methods for national companies” and “also no longer consider the opening of capital to funding other than public as taboo” (Anonymous, “Privatisations: pour le PC, l’ouverture du capital des entreprises publiques n’est plus taboue,” La Tribune, 7 September 1998).
  • [64]
    Claudio Radaelli, “Logiques de pouvoirs et récits dans les politiques publiques de l’Union européenne,” Revue française de science politique 50(2), April 2000, 255-75.
  • [65]
    Speech by Jospin, reprinted in L’hebdo des socialistes 50, 6 February 1998.
  • [66]
    Presentation by Dominique Strauss-Kahn at the National Assembly, printed in the Journal officiel de la République française (JORF), 2 October 1997.
  • [67]
    Anonymous, “Secteur public: le PS crée deux groupes de travail,” Les Échos, 3 July 1997.
  • [68]
    Interview with Dominique Baert, Wattrelos, 15 July 2010.
  • [69]
    “Dossier France Télécom,” À Gauche: Données & Arguments 658, 25 September 1997.
  • [70]
    Interview with Pierre Bauby, Paris, 20 July 2010.
  • [71]
    Interview with Jérôme Delpech.
  • [72]
    Interview with Charles Cala, Paris, 24 August 2010.
  • [73]
    Interview with Stéphane Le Foll, Paris, 19 July 2010.
  • [74]
    “Réussir ensemble,” majority motion brought by Hollande, reprinted in L’hebdo des socialistes 31 (supplement), 8 September 1997.
  • [75]
    Speech by Hollande, reprinted in L’hebdo des socialistes 82, 17 November 1998.
  • [76]
    Other parallel speeches repeated the government’s rhetoric at the party level: “A real industrial policy preserved the state’s heritage and formed large competitive groups,” stated a tract reprinted in L’hebdo des socialistes 87 (15 January 1999). “Since 1997, the public and financial sector has been modernized and strengthened,” announced a press briefing by Vincent Peillon and Alain Bergounioux (L’hebdo des socialistes 107, 4 June 1999); etc.
  • [77]
    Hervé Loiseau, “1985-2000: quinze années de mutation du secteur public d’entreprises,” Insee Première 860, July 2002, 1-4.
  • [78]
    “Le gouvernement Jospin est celui qui a le plus privatisé,” (accessed 20 December 2016).
  • [79]
    Insee Résultats, Économie, no. 12, December 2003.
  • [80]
    Répertoire des entreprises contrôlées majoritairement par l’État (RECME) au 31 décembre 2007, Paris, Insee, 2008.
  • [81]
    Loiseau, “1985-2000.”
  • [82]
    “Privatisations: Chirac-Juppé bradent en douce,” Vendredi, 19 April 1996.
  • [83]
    Olivier Fauqueux and Emmanuel Guillaume, “Transformation en société anonyme et ouverture du capital: la métamorphose juridique de France Télécom,” La semaine juridique, 26 March 1998.
  • [84]
    See, respectively: JORF, decree no. 97-1168 of 22 December 1997; decree no. 98-422 of 29 May 1998; decree no. 98-952 of 26 October 1998; for full privatization, decree no. 2000-700 of 26 July 2000; decree no. 98-1112 of 9 December 1998; decree no. 99-94 of 13 February 1999; and decree no. 99-192 of 12 March 1999.
  • [85]
    Interview with Christian Pierret.
  • [86]
    It could be argued that a more limited focus on the various companies concerned would nuance the ease with which this policy was able to be carried out.
  • [87]
    With 35.7 billion euros in gains, at the time it was the largest stock market operation by volume ever recorded in Paris. In a context in which the government was seeking to limit the deficit, it is unlikely that the share price was not included in ministerial equations.
  • [88]
    Loiseau, “1985-2000.”
  • [89]
    R. Kent Weaver, “The politics of blame avoidance,” Journal of Public Policy 6(4), 1986, 371-98.
  • [90]
    Interview with Jérôme Delpech.
  • [91]
    Renaud Czarnes, “Le gouvernement envisage de retarder l’ouverture du capital de GDF,” Les Échos, 27 February 2001.
  • [92]
    Séquence Entreprises, “EDF, Gaz de France, La Poste, SNCF, France Télécom: cinq cas différents,” Le Monde, 24 January 2002.
  • [93]
    “Je m’engage,” Jospin’s program for the 2002 presidential election.

The left-wing coalition “Gauche plurielle,” led by Socialist Prime Minister Lionel Jospin between 1997 and 2002, was the government which developed the greatest number of privatisation policies in the Fifth Republic. However, this finding contrasts with statistical analyses, according to which the number of privatisation policies is negatively correlated to a left-wing and/or coalition government. In an attempt to shed light on this contradiction, this article suggests, however paradoxically, that “parties matter.” Analysing the way programmes and manifestos were used within the Socialist Party allows us to show that the outcome of the “plural left“ coalition government was conditioned less by purely external constraints than by shifts within the Socialist Party itself.


  • political platforms
  • privatisation
  • electoral campaign
  • Socialist Party
  • public policy
  • France
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