France: a politics out of time

The tragedy in Toulouse has changed the atmosphere of France's presidential-election campaign. The emergence of a left-wing candidate makes the first-round outcome even harder to predict. But beneath the drama, the country's politics remain far behind a changing society, says Patrice de Beer.

Patrice de Beer
3 April 2012

All opinion-polls agree: most French voters feel the current campaign for the presidency is dull, boring and remote from their main concerns. What they want is to keep their jobs and social services, earn decent wages, have less social inequality, a good education system for their children, and law and order. At the same time, they are well aware of the turmoil caused by the country's economic and social crisis, and the urgent necessity to reduce the punitive cost of a public debt which has doubled in ten years to reach almost 90% of GDP.

By contrast, the debate launched about immigration by the extreme-right wing Front National (FN), and recycled by the incumbent president, Nicolas Sarkozy (in order to siphon off disgruntled citizens tempted by the FN's national populism) is far from voters' priorities. And this remains the case after the horror provoked in them by a French-born Islamist terrorist's brutal murder in March 2012 of seven persons - three paratroopers of north African origin, and three children and a rabbi from a Jewish school.

French people - of all creeds and origins - were shocked beyond belief by these acts. Yet their overriding concern with bread-and-butter issues meant that after it, as before, they rejected the invitation embedded in Sarkozy's rhetorically vehement campaign to accept that immigration (non-white, and specifically Muslim) and crime were the country's top - and linked - problems. A majority still thinks that losing one's job, or looking hopelessly for one, is the worst they can expect.

The effort to place crime and immigration higher on the agenda, however, has been given a terrible boost. Many French are afraid of or worried by both, something that can be felt it in daily life and in casual conversations - a fact that both reflects and fuels the brazen playing of the issue by some politicians.

Even if the French were prepared to see more debate and more action on these "security" questions, they did not expect and would not have wanted the campaign to be so brutally tarred as it has been by the events in Toulouse. Nonetheless, that has happened - and changed the atmosphere of the campaign. Who, if anyone, will benefit from Mohamed Merah's madness or fanaticism is as yet unknown.

The combat

In these dire circumstances, the socialist candidate François Hollande has taken the unprecedented step (in France at least) of attacking his conservative rival on the latter's "own" ground. The Parti Socialiste (PS) has long been accused by the right (sometimes correctly, sometimes not) of being too soft on crime, too immigrant-friendly, too do-gooder with young delinquents. Nicolas Sarkozy, a long-serving interior minister under Jacques Chirac's presidency who continues to surf on the "crime-fighting" reputation he made then, is now obliged to defend himself on his trademark issue.

Hollande's barbed and intellectual style, replete with occasionally deadly humour, is the vehicle for his attack: effective among those already his supporters, not always well understood, and in any event utterly different from Sarkozy's brutal populism. But there is a genuine shift in the PS's understanding of the issue, in that it recognises that those who suffer most from crime are the poor and that to focus on delinquents as victims of society is inadequate. Moreover, the party points out that violent crime has increased Sarkozy ten-year tenure as France's number-one cop (even if crime in general is lower), and that he disbanded the neighbourhood police and even voted against a socialist-sponsored bill enabling the police more easily to pursue individuals like Merah.

The focus on crime, but one aspect of the PS's aggressive anti-Sarkozy strategy, has become crucial for François Hollande. The strong opinion-poll lead he had at the start of the campaign has now disappeared (as he predicted it would), and the two leading candidates are now almost even in relation to the first-round contest on 22 April - though the polls suggest he would clearly defeat Sarkozy in the second round on 6 May. Moreover, his team remains cumbersome, and over-extended by the need to include members from the PS's several (and often rivalrous) factions. And "Sarko" is a formidable machine ready to use any political tactic or innuendo to discredit his opponent.

Sarko's very ruthlessness, however, is also a potential asset to his opponents - those on the far-right (Marine Le Pen), the centre (François Bayrou) and far-left (Jean-Luc Mélenchon) as well as Hollande. For the president also inspires in most voters a pervasive loathing. This is true even of conservative ones, very few of whom (besides members and sympathisers of his UMP) feel any sympathy for him. True, millions will in the end vote for him in the absence of any alternative from their own camp. But the rooted dislike of Sarkozy and his way of doing things is itself a factor in the campaign.

The squeeze

François Hollande does not have the luxury of focusing on the president alone. For the current political momentum also lies further to his left, with the unexpectedly successful campaign of Jean-Luc Mélenchon and his Left Front coalition (which will contest the parliamentary elections that follow on 10 and 17 June).

"Méluche"'s hard-hitting populist style - brandishing red banners, shouting "résistance!" - is on display at rallies where he promises the huge crowds a shining future: banks forced to spit back the money they have stolen, employers placed under strict supervision, the French economy saved from recession, a record public-debt problem solved by inflationary economic policies. The spectacle has won him around 14% in the polls, revitalising his allies (such as the communists [PCF], whose candidate received 1.93% of the votes at the 2007 election) while all but crushing other far-left candidates and the greens (which won 16.5% at the European elections, but whose candidate Eva Joly is now recording 2% support).

Many on the left, from workers to academics, are loving the show. They much prefer this revolutionary romanticism to Hollande's calm (even occasionally bland) moderation and refusal to make commitments he knows he can't fulfil. There is no glamour in Hollande, just "realism" - and it is as hard to build a victory on moderation as it is on a negative choice alone.

Mélenchon is unconcerned by the charge that by taking votes from Hollande (whom he accuses of not being "left" enough) he could derail the PS's presidential hopes for the fourth time in a row. This makes him, notwithstanding their profound political differences, something of an ally of Sarkozy, who hopes that Mélenchon can come ahead of Hollande on 22 April and thus ensure the president's re-election in the first-past-the-post contest on 6 May.

The aftermath

The noise and fury of the campaign are escalating as it moves towards the first-round vote. Yet beneath the fray, the election resembles an older-folks' argument rehashing ancient tunes revamped by spin-doctors. Marine Le Pen, at 44, is the exception (though she inherited the FN from her 84-year-old father Jean-Marie, who is still active behind the scenes). The four other (male) candidates - Nicolas Sarkozy (57), François Hollande (58), Jean-Luc Mélenchon (61) and François Bayrou (61) - are approaching or over the official retirement age before Sarkozy raised it to 66.

France's birthrate is among the European Union's highest, yet all but one of its major presidential candidates are older than (for example) Tony Blair, José Maria Aznar and Bill Clinton when they retired from politics, and Barack Obama and David Cameron when they entered office. In front of the "glass walls" of age and gender, it remains hard for younger aspirants to reach top positions in the political (and indeed the business or academic) worlds.

Any hope that the coming national-assembly elections will give the institution a younger and more female appearance is limited. The goal of gender parity, voted for in a law in 2000 which imposes fines on parties that do not comply, is still remote. The PS may be getting closer, but the UMP is as far away as ever. Only 18.5% of the outgoing assembly is female, and the proportion of MPs over 60 to those under 40 is nine-to-one (it was three-to-one in 1981) - and from metropolitan France there is but one non-white MP.

French politics, in short, is still the domain of old white men. At a time of economic crisis, when young French people (most of all those of immigrant origin in the banlieues) feel that politics have ever less relevance to their daily lives and their difficult quest for a job, this is a huge obstacle to progress.

The sociologist Emile Durkheim wrote that to rejuvenate social life, it is not enough that a new generation emerges; the latter must also avoid following in the ways of its predecessor. That is a measure of the task facing France.

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