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Letter from Europe: Ooh-la-la Land

 

***

 

BERLIN—No,
that big whooshing sound you may have heard a couple of weeks ago
coming from the direction of France was not the collapse of a giant
souffle. Rather, it was a collective national sigh of relief released
by the record turn-out (some 85 per cent) of French voters after the
April 22, 2007 first round of the French presidential election.

The
French electorate sighed with relief because it managed to avoid the
embarrassing debacle that occurred five years ago in the last election.
That’s when leftist voters shot themselves in both feet by fatally
fragmenting the left-of-centre vote, resulting in a second round
run-off that pitted centre-right incumbent Jacques Chirac against
far-far-right challenger Jean-Marie Le Pen. The would-be left-of-centre
candidate, former socialist prime minister Lionel Jospin, was shut out
of the finals because quarrelling leftists were too busy desperately
searching for someone more correct than thou. As a result, the leftwing
vote was splintered among a half-dozen wannabes, none of whom made it
to the final round. Apparently, leftists have learned their lesson.

This
time around, the initial round of voting whittled down the dozen or
more contestants to a classic left-right run-off. The two leading
vote-getters, with the race to be determined in a second round final on
Sunday, May 6, are variously known as “Sarko” and “Sego,” or “Action
Man” vs. “Mrs. Nice.” Officially, they are the country’s rightwing
former interior minister, Nicolas Sarkozy, 52, who led the polls with
30 per cent of the vote, and, representing the left, Socialist Party
candidate Segolene Royal, 53, who scored a respectable 26 per cent of
the total. The remaining 44 per cent was distributed as follows: 18.5
per cent to a heretofore little-known self-declared “centrist,”
Francois Bayrou; 11.5 per cent to the notorious Le Pen, and the
remainder, in dribs and drabs, to a half dozen others.

The
production of a traditional left-right run-off may be the major
accomplishment of the French electoral process this year. The sigh of
relief on all sides may give way to a gasp of apprehension on the left
if all goes according to the polls, which have been consistently
predicting a victory for Nicolas Sarkozy.

There
are two or three things worth noting about the French election in the
context of current European politics. First, during the campaign there
has been a remarkable amount of down-in-the-mouth muttering about the
dismal state of the French state and its much criticized leader Jacques
Chirac, 74, who has served as president for the past dozen years. As
the gloom is formulaically described in the mainstream press, “The
successor to Chirac will inherit a sluggish economy, chronic
unemployment and a ballooning public debt.” (International Herald-Tribune,
May 2, 2007.) The French GDPgrew by an anemic 2 per cent last year,
putting it well behind the European Union average, and its nearly 9 per
cent unemployment is matched only by Germany and a couple of the
underdeveloped EU members. Add to that ethnic youth unrest in the
suburbs that burst into riots a couple of years ago—unrest that former
interior minister Sarkozy did little to calm by calling the
demonstrators “thugs” and “rabble”—and very mixed feelings about
immigration questions—feelings that Le Pen has been able to play and
prey upon for years—and you’ve got the makings of a lot of muttering
and disaffection. As New York University Professor Tony Judt, author of
Postwar, a history of Europe since the end of World War II,
says, “On both sides of the Atlantic, Mr. Chirac’s political obituary
is being written in distinctly unflattering terms.” The portrait of
France in the political and economic doldrums is equally unflattering.

However,
Prof. Judt is one of the few commentators to skeptically ask, “But is
the French situation really so dire?” If the French social model is a
dsyfunctional failure, as is often claimed, then, says Judt, “there is
much to be said for failure. French infants have a better chance of
survival than American ones. The French live longer than Americans and
they live healthier (at far lower cost). They are better educated and
have first-rate public transportation. The gap between rich and poor is
narrower than in the United States or Britain, and there are fewer poor
people.” And all of that is likely to continue to be the case, whether
Sarkozy or Royal wins the presidency.

Despite
the criticisms of Chirac’s years at the helm, Judt notes that he was
the first French president to openly acknowledge the country’s role in
the Holocaust; he adamantly refused to compromise with Le Pen’s “racist
and xenophobic National Front”; he supported Turkish admission to the
European Union; and on the international stage, he has been outspoken
about global warning, “and, of course, he initiated and led
international opposition to President Bush’s war in Iraq.” All
this, it must be remembered, from a conservative French presidency.
Judt’s call for a bit of perspective on the state of France is
well-taken.

Second,
this is admittedly a blurry and rather a-political moment in European
politics. While “conservative” France was opposing the Iraq War,
Britain’s “New Labour” government, headed by Tony Blair, was
vigourously supporting it. At the same time, Germany’s then Social
Democrat-Green government, headed by Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder,
supposedly of the same political stripe as Blair, was nonetheless just
as vigourously against Bush’s war. Schroeder’s successor, a Christian
Democrat and the country’s first female chancellor, Angela Merkel, has
maintained Germany’s political distance from the Iraq War, but is more
generally sympathetic to the U.S. than the previous regime.

Beyond
specific policy differences among the Europeans, differences that can’t
be easily mapped along the left-right political spectrum, it’s fair to
say that the present period is not dominated by strong political ideas.
The political parties are often hard to tell apart, the reigning
rhetoric and spin tends to drive politicians to an imaginary centre
(although the centre is often right-of-centre), and the public
(especially the young) are not terribly interested.

In
Britain, where Blair will momentarily announce his retirement after a
decade in office, the analysts are scratching their heads as they try
to figure out how to characterise his rule or his legacy or where on
the political spectrum to locate him. Was he a “modernizer” of the
Labour left, a warmonger, or merely an updated Thatcherite? All of the
above, or none of the above? The answers are ambiguous at best.

On
the other side of France, in Germany, there continues to be a weariness
with electoral politics, although the voters, if asked, would be
willing to re-elect Mrs. Merkel. But the reason Merkel would be
re-elected is not because of her policies necessarily, but because the
economy has rebounded, and unemployment fell last month to under the
politically sensitive level of four million for the first time since
2002. Whether the economy and the political policies, of either Merkel
or her predecessor, have any connection is arguable. What has happened
as a result of the policies of both the Social Democrats and the
Christian Democrats is that Germany now has what most employers and
most of the media have long demanded, a “more flexible labour market.”
What that fuzzy phrase means is that more workers now have less secure
jobs, that work is more frequently pieced out without the employer
having an obligation to pay benefits, and reduced unemployment benefits
puts workers at an increasing disadvantage. If the language of Marxism
were still a live option, we’d simply say that the capitalists appear
to be winning the class struggle.

Finally,
if politics is experiencing the blahs throughout much of Europe, France
may be the exception. Certainly, there’s a sharp contrast in terms of
appearance in the French presidential contest. Frontrunner Sarkozy has
an undeniable if polarizing charisma. Those who dislike, fear and/or
hate “Sarko” portray him as authoritarian, thuggish, and worse. But a
great many people are attracted by his seeming decisiveness and his
willingness to denounce immigrants, the French welfare state, and
various disturbers of the peace in graphic terms. Segolene Royal, as
France’s first serious female challenger for the presidency, would seem
to have a lot going for her. Yet, her grasp of policy has been
questioned during the entire campaign (often by those nominally on her
side of the political fence), and her pro-feminist emphasis has often
been marred by what critics hear as a tone of whining.

More
important than image, there are genuine policy differences. The
differences often appear merely emblematic from outside, but the French
electorate clearly understands the deeper meanings underlying seemingly
small changes. For example, Sarkozy has promised to attack the
socialist-inspired 35-hour work week, not by abolishing it, but by
excluding overtime earnings from taxes, thus encouraging workers to
work longer hours. He also promises to cut personal taxes, corporate
taxes, and inheritance taxes. Public-sector pensions will be trimmed
and the strike rights of public transportation workers will be
curtailed. It’s a standard right wing fiscal program, aimed at
producing the famous “flexible” labour market, but whether it’s a
prelude to proto-fascism, as some of the anybody-but-Sarkozy opposition
claims in its more extreme moments, is doubtful.

Royal,
in social democratic contrast, proposes such familiar measures as
raising the minimum wage, subsidizing jobs for unemployed youth,
bolstering low income pensions, and discouraging more labour
“flexibility.” Though Royal is the candidate of France’s Socialist
Party, nothing in her program sounds any more socialistic than
Britain’s New Labour policies sound or are pro-labour.

Most
of the polls, as late as the candidates’ debate four days before the
election, put Sarkozy some 5 points ahead of Royal. The debate was
watched by some 20 million people, nearly half of the eligible
electorate, a TV audience only equalled by World Cup soccer matches,
which is at least an indicator, like the record turnout in the first
round, that the French are interested. Unlike the rather tame
presidential and prime ministerial debates in US and Canadian electoral
races, the French contretemps was a raucous affair, with Royal on the attack, and Sarkozy urging Madame to remain calme. “To be president of the republic, you have to be calm,” said Sarkozy. “Not when there are injustices,” snapped Royal.

Unless
something surprising happens in the voting booths, Sarkozy is expected
to win rather handily. There are two yet-to-be determined factors,
however, that may affect the outcome. Although Sarkozy is expected to
pick up Le Pen’s 12 per cent of the first round voters, the
cantankerous Le Pen has urged his supporters to abstain from voting,
since the National Front leader doesn’t like Sarkozy, the son of a
Hungarian immigrant minor aristocrat father and a French mother of
Greek-Jewish origin, any better than he likes Royal. The more important
open question is where will the nearly 20 per cent of the electorate go
who supported the centrist Bayrou in the first round. Although Royal
took the unprecedented step of engaging in a televised dialogue with
Bayrou in a bid to woo his supporters, the pollsters have continued to
predict that a majority of them will vote for Sarkozy. If they do,
Sarkozy will occupy the post once held by such figures as DeGaulle and
Mitterand.

If,
however, the French chefs of electoral cuisine have somehow got the
ingredients all wrong… well, keep an eye on that giant souffle.

.

Berlin, May 3, 2007.

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Stan Persky

Stan Persky

Stan Persky taught philosophy at Capilano University in N. Vancouver, B.C. He received the 2010 B.C. Lieutenant-Governor's Award for Literary Excellence. His most recent books are Reading the 21st Century: Books of the Decade, 2000-2009 (McGill-Queen's, 2011), Post-Communist Stories: About Cities, Politics, Desires (Cormorant, 2014), and Letter from Berlin: Essays 2015-2016 (Dooney's, 2017).

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