Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Letter from France on the Eve of the Presidential Election

Menton, France: In my French class in Menton, the small city on the Cote d’Azur that is snug up against the Italian border, the usual discussion about France going to hell is starting up once again. (While on sabbatical, I have spent the past five months here working on writing projects and taking French classes.)

For the most part, the political sentiments in my classes lean to the right. A couple of our teachers are convinced that France is in crisis and that perhaps it is spiraling into terminal decline. I have grown accustomed to this lament about France, having heard it for the past twenty years from men and women, young and old, right-wing and left-wing, in all parts of the country. France’s culinary heritage is being destroyed by the rise of fast food, people say. In France, no one is allowed to act as though they have money, I am told. This plaint, which comes from right-wingers in Menton, is accompanied by the conviction that the French prefer not to work, that they pine for early retirement and desire a life in which they enjoy the country’s ample social programs.

When I respond to these laments and rants by insisting that France is far from collapse, I provoke a sulphurous reaction. “France is a communist country deep down,” claims one older woman who was born abroad but has spent most of her life here. A young woman who lives in Menton and works as an au pair for a rich English family agrees with this assessment. She thinks the communist tendency is pulling France down. Both women see the frequent strikes in France as evidence of this continuing communist power. The fact that the mainstream right-wing has been in power at virtually all levels of the French government for the past five years does nothing to ease their fear that the French have a deep attachment to the Russians. There’s no point alerting them to the fact that the Russians, who are no longer Communist, are running an experiment in Mafia-capitalism that is giving capitalism a bad name. And I’m afraid that pointing out that France has a lower unemployment rate than at any time in the past twenty-five years, the sort of thing the right-wing prime minister, Dominique de Villepin, says on television every night, would convince them that I am a Moscow agent.

I have learned that in arguments of this sort the introduction of facts into the conversation, far from promoting calm, inflames the dispute still further. It makes sense. Facts are stubbornly concrete. Used in an argument, the person with the facts enjoys an edge, as though he is trying to elevate himself above the others. Besides, one man’s fact is another man’s lie.

Those on the political right in Menton---the left is almost non-existent---draw on a stream of ideas and emotions that extend all the way back to the French Revolution. They are the descendants of the counter-revolutionaries of that day and the more than two centuries that have passed since then have done nothing to cool their ardour. Their fear of “the people”, la canaille, as their ancestors called them, is at the very centre of their world view. This fear takes many forms---anxiety about dirt, disease, pick-pockets, unions, immigrants, the young, the unemployed and people who receive social assistance. In these sentiments, the French counter-revolutionaries I have met in Menton have been reinforced by Brits, Americans, Italians, Swedes and Russians who share elements of their timorous outlook.

There was the English woman, who lived in a beautiful Italianate villa on the Boulevard de Garavan. Over tea and cookies, she remarked that she no longer felt at home in London where she claims to have heard more Russian than English spoken on the streets. She and her husband, who retired at the age of fifty, took breaks from time to time to travel to Languedoc to even more sumptuous digs where this family of three---they had a twelve year old daughter---gamboled in a mansion with twenty-five rooms.

The French presidential election---first round voting takes place on April 22---brings to the fore all the grumbling that is so much a part of this country’s political discourse. Pared down to its essentials, the election is a showdown over two distinct societal models.

The model favoured by Nicolas Sarkozy, the candidate of the mainstream right-wing UMP, is neo-conservatism (called liberalism in France) dressed up with a few ruffles of Gaullism. Of all the leading candidates in the history of the Fifth Republic, Sarkozy is the one who is most hostile to the French model with its emphasis on social solidarity as an offset to the market. Sarkozy is a political activist who aspires to more than merely living in the Elysee Palace, which seems to have contented Jacques Chirac for much of the past twelve years. Sarkozy wants to be France’s Margaret Thatcher, a leader who will sweep away the culture of wage and salary earner solidarity in favour of a hard line free enterprise system.

Not coincidentally, because what Sarkozy wants for the country is so out of tune with what France has been, he is stridently insistent on wrapping himself in the tricolore. He is far from being the first leader in history to use racial and religious differences in the population to try to break the solidarity of the working class. But he is doing it with a blend of intelligence, cunning and ruthlessness that sets him above the run of the mill practitioners of this dark art.

As the former minister of the interior who ran the country’s police forces until he left the cabinet a couple of weeks ago to campaign full time, Sarkozy uses fear of the angry young offspring of North African immigrants in the suburbs as his bludgeon. Rekindling the memories of voters about the riots that started in a suburb of Paris and spread to similar mean quartiers across France in the autumn of 2005 is something Sarkozy never fails to do. He received material aid in the form of a melee at the Gare du Nord, a Paris railway station, a couple of weeks ago. The fracas erupted when police challenged a young man for failing to purchase a rail ticket. Other youths sided with the young man and violence erupted between the youths and police officers who charged them wielding night sticks.

Since that evening, politicians have been visiting the Gare du Nord as though it is a beleaguered bastion on the front lines in the battle to save France from the “racaille” (scum) as Sarkozy has called them. Sarkozy accused the French left of siding with those at the Gare du Nord who do not buy their tickets and of being guilty of “moral failure”.

Sarkozy has recently pledged that if elected he will establish a Ministry of Immigration and National Identity. This juxtaposition of immigrants and supposed threats to France’s national identity is the latest can of kerosene Sarkozy has thrown on the fires of xenophobia that are already burning brightly.

Simone Veil, a survivor of the Nazi extermination camps, and a former cabinet minister in a government of the right, has expressed her concern about the idea of such a cabinet position. She supports Sarkozy, but his proposal has set alarm bells ringing in her mind.

Veil does not goes as far as to assert that Sarkozy is “winking” in the direction of Jean-Marie Le Pen, leader of the Front National, who is also a candidate for the presidency. It is difficult, however, to avoid the conclusion that Sarkozy is doing exactly that, making a gesture that will bring him as many of Le Pen’s votes as possible in the second round of the election on May 6. In the presidential election in 2002, Le Pen shocked France and the world by running second to Jacques Chirac in the first round of voting, allowing him to appear on the ballot in the second round against the President. This time Le Pen is not expected to fare as well, but his willingness to reach into the gutter in his attacks on immigrants is never to be underestimated.

What is certain is that Sarkozy will require most of Le Pen’s first round voters to win in the second round. And because Le Pen’s voters are generally alienated from those in power and Sarkozy has been in power for five years, the calculation is that throwing them exclusionist red meat will entice more of them to come to his side.

Segolene Royal, the candidate of the Socialist Party is the chief spokesperson for the alternative social model. She speaks for the tradition of social solidarity, the idea that France ought not to become a market society. She also speaks against exclusionism and for the proposition that those who reside in France belong in France whatever their origins. Royal’s campaign was marred in the early going by a series of gaffes on foreign policy issues including one on the issue of Quebec sovereignty. Lately though, she has been campaigning with a surer touch. Her message that the right has been in power for five years and that discontents should be laid at their door is hitting home. She is sharpening her political attacks on the thin-skinned Sarkozy who only seems fully at home when in the midst of a phalanx of uniformed policemen. She has kept her cool in the debate on national identity and has scored points on the political opportunism involved in the way Sarkozy wraps himself in the flag.

The advantage of the Socialist candidate is that she speaks for the strongly held view among wage and salary earners that the social state must endure against the attacks of those who want a more Anglo-American style market system. The French are not attracted to the American social model. It has lately been reported that the wage gap between rich and poor in the United States has grown wider than at any time since 1928, the eve of the Great Depression. And reports from Britain, a country with greater youth poverty than any other western country including the U.S., do not go over well in France. At the same time, the defenders of the social state in France have been losing ground over time against the insistent pressures for a more market driven system, even though the income and wealth gaps between rich and poor are not as wide as in the Anglo-Saxon countries.

The election is highly fluid with forty to fifty per cent of voters saying they have not finally decided on the candidate of their choice. Making the outcome more uncertain has been the strong presence of Francois Bayrou, the candidate of the UDF, a small right-leaning centrist party. Bayrou’s message that French politics has been hijacked by the two major parties and that the French ought to choose a centrist candidate resonated with many but seems to have been losing its traction in recent days. That said, Sarkozy, Royal, Bayrou and Le Pen, are all serious candidates and will poll well.

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