France's elections: Plus ça change... -

France’s elections: Plus ça change…


Much debate in France over reforms to the country’s rules for obtaining a driver’s license. Nicolas Sarkozy, the incumbent centre-right arriviste incorrigible doofus, has a plan; so does François Hollande, the soft-focus socialist challenger who seems likely to beat him. Perhaps inevitably, a French car magazine followed the various candidates around and wrote about their violations of the highway code.

When The Economist devoted its cover, a couple of weeks ago, to an editorial complaining that the entire campaign was “in denial” about the economic trouble the country was in, the coverage in France was amused: Oh, look at those Brits with their odd preoccupations. But The Economist has a point.

France is not in existential crisis. Downgraded by Moody’s, it can still, after a fashion, afford a deeply frivolous campaign. Genteel capital flight, depressed investment, and the continuation of an oppressive pessimism caused in part by an absurdly over-complicated public sector are all luxuries the country can afford to give itself, election after election. Which is good because that’s what it’s about to do, again. 

Reading France’s top papers — I look at Le Monde and Le Figaro most days, Libération a couple of times a week — I’ve garnered little sense of François Hollande’s strengths and weaknesses as a campaigner. The French press is obsessed with Sarkozy, chronicling his every mistake with care, benefitting from his campaign’s eagerness to explain its every move. I’m surprised at how much energy Hollande shows in his campaign ads,  and tickled by his willingness to swipe his opponent’s most precious symbols and predecessors: yes, that’s Charles de Gaulle in a Socialist ad. Sarkozy did exactly the same in 2007, appropriating Socialist heroes, essentially accusing his opponent (Ségolène Royal, who was then Hollande’s domestic partner) of betraying her own party’s best instincts. It’s a tactic we haven’t seen yet in Canada. Imagine Tom Mulcair saying some variation of, “Diefenbaker helped build a great Canada and Stephen Harper has lost sight of what made Canada great.” Perhaps that’s too complex a manoeuvre for our politics.

But anyway, campaign symbolism has little to do with economic policy. Hollande would impose a 75% top tax rate, which is lovely but it would simply encourage rich French people to move to Switzerland, hardly a rare phenomenon already. My guess is that Hollande would manage to be worse for France’s economy than Sarkozy has been, but on balance I’m hoping for Hollande’s victory, so Sarkozy will exit in disgrace and the odds of a disciplined, simplifying candidate (come on, François Fillon) leading Sarkozy’s party in 2017 will increase slightly.

Sarkozy has been an abject failure. In 2007 he raised hopes he has done nothing to address. He visited the big cities’ banlieues frequently, scoring points with the far right by growling threats at neighbourhood hoodlums, but also promising economic opportunity. It was a rare, uncharacteristic and fleeting insight: if young, often Muslim French kids could hope to get out of the ghetto, they would not simply sink into bitterness.

At one point Sarkozy campaigned in the City of London, because economic opportunity had made it a global headquarters for young French kids. Le Monde covered that campaign stop, spoke to a couple of bright French kids who’d moved to London to work in the brokerage houses, mentioned only near the end of the article that one of the kids was Arab and the other black and that neither could hope to find as good a job back home. Sarkozy offered that hope. He suggested a better-functioning economy would allow kids to move out of the banlieue by moving up. Of course nothing of the sort has happened since.

It’s no coincidence that among the general French population under 25, Marine Le Pen, the more presentable daughter of far-right stalwart Jean-Marie Le Pen, is the candidate with the fastest-growing support. When no candidate offers realistic hope, resentment becomes more appealing.