Mitterrand and Moon
*The author is a senior editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
History often repeats itself. The first year of Moon Jae-in’s presidency reminded me of former French President Francois Mitterrand, who was in power 37 years ago. Because I was a Paris correspondent during his presidency, from 1981 to 1995, I closely observed his socialist experiment, and I discovered an interesting point while comparing him to Moon. The two leaders’ paths overlapped completely, transcending the time and space of their governments.
Mitterrand won the presidential election as the candidate for the Socialist Party (Parti Socialiste) on May 10, 1981. It was the first victory of a center-left leader in 23 years since the fifth republic was launched with a presidential system. Having vowed to cut ties with capitalism, Mitterrand immediately introduced radical reforms. He raised the minimum wage by 15 percent, reduced working hours to 39 per week, approved five weeks of annual paid leave, guaranteed laborers’ participation in management and hired 200,000 new public servants.
He nationalized 30 financial institutions and communications and aviation conglomerates and reinforced social security measures by increasing household and family subsidies and pensions. He created the Insertion Minimum Revenue (RMI), which ensured a minimum level of income for the unemployed. He also introduced a tax on the wealthy. It was a radical move to reform the establishment at once.
Moon’s first year is nearly identical to Mitterrand’s presidency. Moon increased the minimum wage by 16 percent and reduced working hours to a maximum of 52 a week. He marches toward a system in which employees can participate on the board of a public company. Childcare subsidies and a basic pension for the elderly have increased. The campaign to reform conglomerates, aimed at industrial restructuring, and the tax on the wealthy by increasing corporate and income taxes are also reminiscent of Mitterrand. Some may wonder if Moon is just copying the Frenchman’s policies.
Mitterrand’s dream of socialism, however, collapsed in less than two years after he faced reality. Worsening unemployment, the pressure of inflation, fiscal deficit from distribution without growth and discontent of the middle class stopped him. In the face of public resistance, he gave up his socialist policies without reservation and turned radically to a conservative market economy.
Moon’s experiment is also struggling. The performance report on his economic policies is poor. The unemployment rate is the highest in 17 years, and the same obstacles that halted Mitterrand are also stopping Moon. He has to endure the criticism that his government will face a catastrophe if he continues paying welfare benefits with tax money.
The philosophies of the two leaders share one common value. They both reject the idea of greedy capitalism and unlimited competition. Mitterrand resorted to the slogan “Changer la vie” or “Change life” and Moon promotes a radical change in the way the economy is running. The two leaders believed that increasing the income of the poor through artificial redistribution of wealth would resolve imbalance and stimulate consumption and the economy. Mitterrand called it modified socialism. Moon calls it income-led growth.
Mitterrand’s socialism is a completely different concept to Marxist socialism, based on the abolition of private property and class struggle. Moon’s “people-centered economy” is linked to Mitterrand’s humanism of labor. It is unreasonable to compare Moon’s philosophy with the leftist populism of Latin America and socialism of North Korea.
In a world dominated by neoliberalism, socialist spirits are still valuable. In 1980, France’s national income per capita was $13,000 and that of Korea was only $1,700. Today, Korea is a member of the “30-50 club,” which has a $30,000 national income per capita and a population of over 50 million. It is a different economic environment from that of France 30 years ago.
Nobody calls France a socialist country because Mitterrand’s government took a little bit from the rich and powerful and gave a little to the poor. If Moon does the same, the essence of Korea’s market economy won’t be shaken.
Moon now enters the second year of the presidency. There is no way forward if we do not try the path not taken. He must abandon his ambiguous slogans and seek consensus and understanding for his “socialist experiment.” If he does that, there is a chance of success. Whether this experiment will be remembered as the Moon Jae-in philosophy or as an empty idea will soon be determined.
Right now, Moon must make a decision. It takes true courage to give up on your plans if you realize that something is not right. After Mitterrand’s failure, France’s Socialist Party struggled for years and it barely exists today. A sloppy socialism is deadly and tragic, but that does not mean that there is no room for Moon’s philosophy.
JoongAng Ilbo, May 11, Page 31