On March 22, 1981, I watched as Francois Mitterrand was inaugurated as the first socialist president under France's Fifth Republic--the spiritual heir to Leon Blum, who ran the Front Populaire for one remarkable year in the depths of the Great Depression. It was an extraordinary day. One of the close aides to the outgoing, and all but disgraced, President Valery Giscard d'Estaing, confided to columnist Flora Lewis, "It's not just a change of government. It's a little revolution." Indeed, in his inaugural address, Mitterrand called for reconciliation, described himself as "president of all the French," then concluded, "hope was the only victor in the election."
After the traditional drive up the Champs Elysees he placed a wreath on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier beneath the towering Arc de Triomph where an eternal flame burns--then broke from ceremony. As a fine rain fell on the chilled throng of dignitaries, the president turned and moved slowly down a line of 40 representatives of veterans and prisoner-of-war groups, each bearing the French tricolor, embracing them, then pausing for a word. Back at the Elysee Palace, Giscard d'Estaing greeted the incoming president on the steps at the entrance. Then, following a brief discussion, the outgoing president crossed the courtyard, strode through the huge arch and out onto the Faubourg St. Honore, where a car was waiting. The only accompaniment was a chorus of boos from the crowd gathered across the street.
The parallels to today are striking. Mitterrand promised a fresh start for France. He formed the first socialist cabinet in decades, which within a month became a coalition. In a tribute to the dramatic electoral showing by the Communist Party in national parliamentary elections, in what turned out to be a most opportune bear hug, Mitterrand named four communists to his cabinet, building an alliance with a critical wing of the leftist political establishment that had swept him to his startling victory. Within days, a horrified Ronald Reagan sent his vice president, George H. W. Bush, racing to Paris to deliver America's reaction--that the future of Western democracy hung in the balance. Bush was dismissed, effectively, with a (barely polite) Gallic flick of the hand. Communists in France's cabinet were none of America's affair. And Francois Mitterrand embarked on his first hundred days.
Today, with the election of Barack Obama as president, America and the world are probably more resolutely united than at any time since the days of John E Kennedy, or perhaps more appropriately, Franklin Delano Roosevelt--certainly more united than the moment when Francois Mitterrand assumed office in France. There will be few horrified gasps as the nation's fourty-fourth president takes up the mantle of office in the White House--or, effectively, the mantle of a world anxious that a new page be turned in so many corners of our planet. Obama's electoral victory was viewed as a grand gesture by the world's greatest democracy, pursuing long overdue policies of inclusion rather than exclusion. On January 20, he embarks on his first 100 days.
A Hundred Mythologies
Then, as now, there is a mythology about the first 100 days of a new president that transcends all national boundaries. The halo effect of this period seems to impart an almost holy significance, and all but omnipotent powers to those who assume the office--for good or ill. Most often, these days set the tone for the remainder of the presidency. At times, they are used to send a public message, though at times embarked on in haste, they may ultimately be rescinded at leisure.
By the fall of 1981, Mitterrand's socialist administration was in full cry and on November 12, I arrived at noon in the seventh-floor offices of the Baron Guy de Rothschild at the Banque Rothschild. No. 12 Rue de Laffitte had been a storied address in the annals of French banking and finance for two centuries--the street, indeed, named for the great late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century banker, governor of the Banque de France, and (so ironically) radical parliamentarian, whose house served as the headquarters for the French revolution of 1830 which overthrew the Bourbon monarch Charles X. Six weeks before my visit, Mitterrand had announced that the government of France would be nationalizing Rothschild (the bank, of course) and a host of other major private banks that had withstood so many wars and revolutions--Hitler excepted. Baron...