President Francois Hollande's New Year's tv speech for 2014. Art Widak/Demotix. All rights reserved.We, French, are an inveterate, self deprecating, navel gazing people. Whatever happens to us is always better, or worse than to the others but, anyway, different. This time, worse. No country in the world shares a more negative, pessimistic view of its present and future fate. And the present protracted crisis has all but exacerbated this hopeless trend.
We are revolutionary to the core and yet fear changes, and reform - a word which, in recent years has, for the French, always meant a change for the worse, more taxes, less welfare, worse health and education systems, the expansion of individual liberty at the expense of equality, not to talk about fading fraternity.
It is in this gloomy, rudderless atmosphere that politicians have to lead, businessmen to manage and create wealth, thinkers or clerics to provide hope or help decipher the world we live in. It seems a hopeless task, as we see President François Hollande slide lower and lower in this slippery slope of unpopularity, now around 13% in opinion polls.
But he is not alone. The entire élite class shares in this negative image amongst the population. Lack of results, lack of vision, lack of leadership – both the mild Hollande and the abrasive and arrogant former President Nicolas Sarkozy have failed to deliver as well as to instil a clear vision of the future – and the remoteness from the common people leaves a chasm between the, often self-proclaimed, élites and the rest of the nation.
But, worse is the disappearance of those “French intellectuals” who, from the Age of Enlightenment to post WWII - thinkers like Sartre, Camus or Raymond Aron - have been at the forefront of France's worldly influence and have given us their - positive or negative - vision of the future. But, at least, they had a vision. Now, “thinkers” from all sides are more engaged by McLuhan-type “à la mode” packaging, and spend more time in TV studios, cosying up to leaders and the media than in their study, having forgotten their centuries-old mission and cashed it in for a few seconds of ephemeral fame.
What many here don't understand is that the present crisis – not only economic, social but also at the core of our societies – is well shared among many other nations, first of all in the developed world. And that some have made more efforts, sacrifices than others, thanks to a longer term vision or to more trusted leaderships.
In her blog, former Socialist minister for senior citizens and physician, Michèle Delaunay, wrote in September a devastating piece entitled, “The tunnel or how to make a career without setting foot in the real world” about young and upcoming politicians, and the more senior types they try to mimic, from all sides of the political spectrum, even if she knows best those from her own party. They have entered politics straight from their parents' home and elite schools, climbed up from assistant to some elected figure to local counsellor to find themselves, years later, if they have succeeded, MPs or ministers: “Entered early in the tunnel, they never got out to real life. Counting their last penny to pay their two employees at the end of the month, searching how to pay their son's schooling, following the weather forecast or the price of raw materials to sustain their farms,... They have become dependent on politics in all senses of the term, including financial”. No surprise if their loss of contact with the real world also means losing touch with real people.
Yet what Dr. Delaunay writes is not that different from what Labour shadow justice minister Dan Jarvis said in an interview with the Guardian (21 Sept 2014) where he asked his colleagues to stop talking in a language of “clipped political soundbites” nobody understood outside of the “Westminster village”. Policies, he added, are extremely important but irrelevant if voters do not believe that they will be delivered. "The public are so fed up, so cynical with politicians – we have got a huge challenge to address that. We have got to convince people we are on their side and working for their own interest."
It is on these more and more numerous disenchanted, disenfranchised voters that extreme, chauvinist, authoritarian parties have been banking throughout all of Europe, starting with Hungary where they have achieved power and have been curtailing civil liberties ever since. In the UK under UKIP and Nigel Farage's banner, in France under the Front National with its father-daughter masthead - Jean-Marie and Marine Le Pen - the latter softening the former's abrasive posture. With such success that they are threatening the very traditional political fabric of their countries and could outsmart leading parties at the next general elections.
In France, the political class - or cast - is probably the oldest in age, and career-wise in Europe. Hollande started his own as an adviser to President Mitterrand in 1981, fresh from the Ecole Nationale d'Administration, the elite administrative school. Barely helped by a PS bitterly divided and by his own procrastinations, he has not been able to convince voters that his social-democratic long term strategy of a pact between labour and capital was the only option to cope successfully with the economic crisis and the social disaster it has nurtured. Meanwhile his private life has been splashed all over the magazines, like Sarkozy’s before him, thus helping to degrade even more the presidential image.
Sarkozy re-entered politics on Sept 19 through Facebook. Officially to retake the leadership of his UMP party, now in tatters and financially bankrupt. But his goal is higher, to take his revenge on “liar” Hollande in the 2017 presidential elections. He still believes he could have won last time, whereas in fact it is clear that he lost more than his Socialist rival ever won.
He said on television that he has reinvented himself and that he wanted to change everything. But he did not give any specifics about his plans to lift France away from Hollande, only saying that he did not want to be a saviour but that his country, and party, needed a leader. Nor did he show that he had really changed. Yet he did make his first political speech in 1975 at the age of 20 and has been in politics ever since, despite working for a law firm and frequenting well paid conferences throughout the world since he was defeated two years ago. And now, his friend, former conservative prime minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin, himself in politics since 1977, has just said that he wants to become president of the Senate, also to “renovate” French politics.
Time only will tell if Sarko's clout can set to work once again so that he will be able to convince voters more alienated than ever from politics and politicians. Provided that the seven pending court cases or police enquiries on alleged improprieties either by him or some of his cronies – illegal political campaign financing for him and the UMP, including from ex-Libyan leader Gaddafi, financial improprieties, interfering in the course of justice,... do not call a halt to his revival or blot even more his statesman-like image. Right wing daily Le Figaro's analyst Guillaume Tabard wrote that, in order to succeed, he will have to “make his old policies look new” ((Faire du neuf avec du connu)) (Sept 20).
So far, if most UMP militants want him back, his party's rivals would rather kill the father than become his mere assistants. About two-thirds of public opinion say he has not changed and don't want to see him back again in politics. And one of the first consequences of his coming back might well be to reunify the left against their common enemy.
Sarkozy, like Hollande - none of the other Socialist leaders, except prime minister Manuel Valls, has the image of a potential presidential candidate - not only have to reinvent themselves. They will have to convince people that they really have changed and can deliver. A very hard task in a country where the divorce between the elites and the common people has reached its apogee.
Left or right, says sociologist François Dubet, author of “Preference for Equality” (Libération, 21 Sept 2014), since the 80's “we have given up producing equality” and excluded more and more people: “Inequalities have multiplied and split up: inequalities of income, wealth, education, health, ageing, unemployment, lack of job security or between territories”. Not to forget the ghettoïsation far away from the richer, globalised cities of the less well-off, of the less educated or less trained for the modern economy. Not only blatant inequalities, in short, but a whole host of petty ones.
For these people, soundbites have lost their power of conviction. Policies will have to be re-invented, promises kept, achievable goals fixed, fears of declining social conditions, of creeping immigration appeased. Otherwise, if things go on as they are doing, it looks as if Hollande could be defeated by Sarkozy. A defeat which would not be a victory because people would keep him to his word and demand quick results on penalty of a vertiginous fall in opinion polls like Hollande today. Opening the door, that is, to the she-wolf in ewe's clothing, Marine Le Pen.