Laurent Fabius (born 1946) was the Socialist wunderkind of French politics in the 1980s. He was not yet forty when President François Mitterrand named him prime minister in 1984 and gave him primary responsibility for producing an economic recovery.
Laurent Fabius was born on August 20, 1946, in Paris. Like many French politicians of the left as well as the right, he was a product of an elite, rigorous schooling. He was a graduate of institutions that are training grounds for academics (Ècole Normale Supérieure), bureaucrats(Ècole National de l'Administration) and future leaders (Institut d'Etudes Politiques). Like most of the leading lights of French politics at that time, he began his career as a civil servant with Council of State. In fact, as prime minister he was still technically on leave from the council, to which he could conceivably return when he left office.
While still in the early stages of his bureaucratic career, Fabius developed close connections with Socialist Party secretary François Mitterrand and his entourage. By 1974 Fabius had officially joined the party, which was then achieving greater success in elections under Mitterrand's helm. During the late 1970s he became one of Mitterrand's closest personal advisers, often serving as the spokesperson for the senior Socialist politician and the party as a whole. Fabius served on the party's steering committee beginning in 1977 and was one of the coordinators of the 1981 presidential and legislative elections that brought the Left into power on its own for the first time since the Popular Front of 1936; Mitterrand became the Fifth Republic's first Socialist president.
Fabius had been establishing his own electoral career during this time as well. From 1977 to 1981 he served as deputy mayor on the municipal council of Grand-Queville, a town of about 30,000 in Normandy. In 1978 he ran for and was elected to the National Assembly from Grand-Queville's district in the Seine-Maritime department. He was reelected in 1981, but in compliance with the French constitution had to resign his seat in parliament when he was named to Prime Minister Pierre Mauroy's first cabinet. By 1981 Fabius had developed a reputation as one of France's brightest young politicians, especially for his firm grasp on economic problems. Despite his youth, he was someone the Socialist elders in general, and Mitterrand in particular, were turning to for difficult and even delicate assignments.
In Mauroy's first cabinets Fabius served as minister for the budget (1981-1983). Later he took on the even more challenging ministry of industry and research (1983-1984). In those jobs Fabius was given the primary responsibility for reviving the lagging industrial economy and overseeing a strategized shift from a "smokestack" to a "high technology" base for the economy as a whole. The task was a difficult one indeed and a plan certainly regarded with suspicion by the electorate: the country's industries were instructed to become more competitive in world markets, while the government attempted to deal with increasingly dissatisfied labor unions.
Upon taking office, the Socialists had nationalized France's banks and instituted other measures in an effort to reverse a long economic decline, but this led to difficulties and an austerity program went into effect in 1983. As the decade continued, the economic slump and problems with the unions continued. But President Mitterrand increasingly came to the conclusion that Fabius was the only person with the economic and political skills to reverse the decline under the Socialist government. He therefore replaced Mauroy with Fabius on July 17, 1984.
Fabius served as prime minister for two years. One of his most controversial decisions was the 1985 agreement negotiated with the Walt Disney corporate empire to build a theme park in France; there was great public outcry against it. But Fabius would be charged with a far more serious transgression some years later when he was replaced following the 1986 elections. During the interim time, he served as President of the French National Assembly from 1988 to 1992 (he had consistently won re-election from his Seine-Maritime district), and in 1992 was tapped to serve as secretary of the Socialist Party (Mitterrand's one-time post). However, by now the party was severely fractionalized, and it was hoped that under Fabius's guidance it might re-emerge as a united front, and that he would then run for President. It was known that Mitterrand himself favored him as his successor.
Charged with Manslaughter
But in the early 1990s a scandal grew of monstrous notoriety. It became known that in 1985, the blood distributed to hemophiliacs by the French ministry of health was contaminated with the HIV virus. The scandal called into account the government's procedures for testing blood products, and why certain precautions were not followed. Over 1,200 hemophiliacs in France became HIV-positive as a result, and 300 had died. Fabius and his then secretary of state for health, Edmond Hervé, and minister for social affairs Georgina Dufoix, came under fire. It was in part due to the public statements made by the Hervé and Dufoix that public outcry became vehement enough for the Court of Justice for the Republic to place all three under examination for manslaughter.
In Fabius's case, he faced charges as the leader of government at the time. Though it was understood he was not directly to blame, his statements also aroused furor and may have stalled his political career and presidential ambitions indefinitely in the public eye. He remains a strong force within his party, however: he continued as president of Haute Normandie's regional council, was again reelected to the National Assembly in 1993, and in 1995 was named leader of the Socialists in the National Assembly. He is the author of several books, including La France inégale (1975), Le Coeur de Futur (1985), and Les Blessures de la Vérité (1995).
Further Reading on Laurent Fabius
Little is available in English specifically regarding Fabius. None of his books have been translated into English. For a good overview of the Socialist Party and the generation of activists of which Laurent Fabius was a part, see D. S. Bell and Byron Criddle, The French Socialist Party: Resurgence and Victory (1984); and Denis MacShane, François Mitterrand (1982).