Greenpeace Affair Tarnished Fabius : French Political Star’s Meteoric Rise and Fall

Times Staff Writer

On the last day of 1985, Laurent Fabius, the 39-year-old premier of France, turned up at the mountain training camp of the French national soccer team in the Pyrenees.

“Next year, the World Cup (soccer tournament) will capture the attention of all France,” he told the team. “It is normal that the government should come and say, ‘We’re with you.’ ”

It was the kind of happening that, only a year ago, would have made the front pages of French newspapers and forced Fabius’ political opponents to shake their heads in frustration over his deft way of attracting attention. This event, however, was barely noticed.

Although Fabius is not being treated quite as a has-been in France these days, he no longer excites the media the way he once did. And a growing number of political analysts believe that his future is limited.

The rise and the fall in the premier’s popularity have both been spectacular. In a surprise, President Francois Mitterrand, hoping to burnish the image of the fading Socialist Party, appointed the young Fabius to head his Cabinet in July, 1984. The choice, at first, seemed politically masterful.


Opinion polls continually put Fabius far ahead of both Mitterrand and the Socialist Party in popularity. In April last year, the respected Sofres polling organization reported that 59% of the French people had confidence in their premier.

That was his high point, though; the slide began after that. By the end of the year, the confidence rating was down to 41%.

There is now very little chance that Fabius will keep his post after the French parliamentary elections in less than two months. The Socialists are expected to be decisively defeated, losing their majority in the National Assembly by a wide margin. That would force Mitterrand to select a premier from the parties of the center-right.

Even if the Socialists upset all the predictions and keep parliamentary control, many analysts believe that tension between the president and the premier is so great that Mitterrand would still replace Fabius, although with another Socialist.

And while Fabius is still regarded as one of the leading contenders for the Socialist Party nomination for president in 1988, his prospects seem to be diminishing there, as well.

In many ways, the French have trouble trying to understand Fabius and to fit him into a niche.

He is Socialist but is far from ideological. He has a reputation for cleverness but makes obvious and foolish political errors. He came to power on a record of almost blind loyalty to Mitterrand but is clearly trying to show his independence.

He comes from a wealthy Jewish family that converted to Catholicism after World War II and brought up its children as fully assimilated French Catholics. Yet, Fabius is married to a Jewish woman, one active in Jewish causes.

Three political events have undermined his standing in the last six months.

The first was the Greenpeace affair, which began in July when French intelligence agents sank the Greenpeace ship Rainbow Warrior in the harbor of Auckland, New Zealand, causing the death of a photographer. The scandal damaged Fabius in an odd way.

Many analysts here assume that the order to sink the ship before it could try to disrupt French nuclear testing in the Pacific came out of Mitterrand’s offices.

But neither the press nor the opposition in France has much stomach for attacking the institution of the French presidency. Both were ready to halt their attacks on the government if lesser officials could be blamed. As a result, the Greenpeace affair died soon after the government punished Defense Minister Charles Hernu and the intelligence chief, Adm. Pierre Lacoste, for ordering the sinking.

The job of publicly punishing Hernu and Lacoste was left to Fabius, who dismissed Lacoste, forced the resignation of Hernu and, in a television interview in September, accused both, especially Hernu, of responsibility for the criminal act.

Impression of Ruthlessness

Since many French believed that Hernu was a scapegoat, they were irritated by Fabius’ performance. In their eyes, the premier came through as ruthless and underhanded.

The second problem arose in October. Fabius, fresh from an oratorical triumph at the Socialist Party Congress in Toulouse, took on Mayor Jacques Chirac of Paris in a nationally televised debate. Chirac, a former premier who is leader of the right-wing Gaullist party, hopes to win control of enough seats in the next Parliament to force Mitterrand to name him premier in March. His ultimate goal is the presidency in 1988.

Thus, the television debate was looked on as a possible dress rehearsal for the presidential campaign of 1988.

Fabius, expected to outperform Chirac, turned shrill and aggressive during the evening, two qualities that the French do not like in a president. A calm and reasonable Chirac looked far more presidential by the end of the debate. It was a disaster for Fabius.

Jaruzelski’s Visit

A final difficulty came in December, when Mitterrand, in a change of policy, invited Polish leader Wojciech Jaruzelski to visit him at the Elysee Palace in Paris. Mitterrand justified his act by citing the need for tough realism in foreign affairs, but it was a difficult visit for the Socialist Party, with its long record of bitter opposition to Jaruzelski, enforcer of Polish martial law, to accept.

Fabius did not accept it. He stood before the National Assembly and, in reply to a question, reminded the deputies of his long opposition to the actions of Poland’s Communist government.

“And,” he added, “why hide it? The visit to France of the Polish chief of state--no matter how short--has troubled me personally.”

It is not clear whether Fabius acted out of a deep sense of morality or out a feeling that the time had come to put a gap between himself and the unpopular Mitterrand. Whichever, his public confession was the most open display of conflict between a president and a premier in the 28 years of France’s Fifth Republic.

Mitterrand received the news while flying to the French Caribbean islands of Martinique and Guadeloupe. The president and his aides were reportedly furious, and there were rumors that Fabius might be asked to resign. In the end, however, the president made a public statement of confidence in his premier.

A Party Divided

From a political point of view, Fabius did not gain anything from his open defiance of Mitterrand, and he scored few points for sticking fast to his beliefs on a moral issue. Instead, fellow Socialists were angry at him for dividing the party so near election time, and many French found it odd that a premier would have such a difficult time supporting his president.

Mitterrand did not boost Fabius’ status with a story he told at a reception in Pointe-a-Pitre, Guadeloupe. Surrounded by journalists asking if he had been bothered by his differences with the premier, Mitterrand replied that the week’s events reminded him of an experiment that had been carried out in the United States.

There were two monkeys, Mitterrand recounted--one that received an electric shock at regular intervals, the other that received the same shock, but only irregularly and occasionally. “Guess which one suffered more?” the president asked.

The French journalists who crowded near Mitterrand to catch his words were not sure exactly what he meant. However, most guessed that the tale was intended to picture Fabius as lacking the experience to handle the great pressures of state. It was far from a pat on the back for the troubled premier.