The deepening economic crisis is returning France to the politics it knows best: of anger, polarisation, and carnivals of protest. Nicolas Sarkozy's frenetic activity and bling-bling style was tolerable enough to a people who elected him to the presidency in May 2007, but now seems to have run its course. The numbers interested in the brutal ousting of once popular justice minister Rachida Dati (the pioneering politician once so close to "Sarko") or in gossip about the Italian-born singer and "first lady", Carla Bruni are still high, but the French now have other things on their mind.
Among Patrice de Beer's articles in openDemocracy:
"Calle Santa Fé: between Chile and freedom" (16 January 2008)
"Sarkozy and God" (6 February 2008)
"May ‘68: France's politics of memory" (28 April 2008)
"Nicolas Sarkozy, the frenetic leader" (25 July 2008)
"Nicolas Sarkozy: world leader, local problem" (12 November 2008)
"France's socialist crack-up" (17 December 2008)
It is a time of troubles, which are having a devastating impact on incomes, jobs, businesses, and futures. A national strike on 29 January 2009 saw up to 2.5 million people on the streets, many of them from the (Sarko-voting) private sector and the middle classes. The political momentum has changed sides.
The great success of Sarkozy's political strategy so far has been the isolation and destruction of the far right, which (in the form of Jean-Marie Le Pen of the Front National [FN]) received 17.9% of the votes in the first round of the presidential elections in 2002. Now he seeks to exploit fear of the far left in order to destabilise the Parti Socialiste (Socialist Party / PS) and spread fear of unrest among the middle classes.
The meagre evidence for a "red scare" includes the headline arrests in November 2008 of a "terrorist" group accused of planting bombs on railway- lines. The interior minister compared the perpetrators at the time to al-Qaida or the Basque ETA, but all those arrested (except one) have been released for lack of evidence. In any case, public opinion is now less impressed by political games and smears than by the daily news of factory closures, job losses, and traders' bonuses.
The language of rejection
Yet the political weight the French far left retains is indeed part of the "French exception". This is the country, after all, represented in David Cerny's provocative Entropa art-installation in the form of a strike-banner. Indeed, the French are world champions of the leftist protest vote: embodied successively in the Parti Communist Francais (PCF) [whose slow decline from the heights of 28% in 1946 accelerated during the socialist François Mitterrand's presidency in the 1980s] and in a far-left mosaic of a dozen communist, Trotskyist, and anti-globalisation groupuscules. The combined vote of two rival presidential candidates representing these currents (Olivier Besancenot and Arlette Laguiller) managed to obtain almost 10% in 2002 (though only 5.4% in 2007); now, the kaleidoscopic left dreams of overtaking the establishment parties in June 2009 in elections to the European parliament (where the protest vote is usually higher).
openDemocracy is pleased to offer readers special access to the History Today archive
Discover the history behind this story... >> Le Crunch: France 1709 An economic meltdown in Louis XIV’s France holds striking parallels for today>> Ten Great French Figures See if you agree with our choice of the ten greatest French historical figures >> De Gaulle, Denunciation & les harkis Recent stories on French history published on our blog
The far-left leaders share with Sarkozy the common goal of weakening a PS already riven by internal rivalries. They have a good chance of succeeding, and pushing the new socialist leader Martine Aubry towards a resounding defeat (this might explain why she won't be standing in June for the European parliament). The PS, a clear victor in the previous (2004) European elections, is now threatened by three popular figures: Olivier Besancenot of the Nouveau Parti Anticapitaliste (NPA, which holds its founding conference in St Denis La Plaine on 6-8 February 2009), Daniel Cohn-Bendit (already a Green MEP), and François Bayrou of the centrist Mouvement Démocratique (Modem). Also in openDemocracy on French politics:
Johannes Willms, "France unveiled: making Muslims into citizens?" (26 February 2004)
Patrick Weil, "A nation in diversity: France, Muslims and the headscarf" (25 March 2004)
Henri Astier, "We want to be French!" (22 November 2005)
Alan Lentin, "The intifada of the banlieues" (17 November 2005)
Henri Astier, "France's revolt against change" (23 March 2006)
Henri Astier "In praise of French direct democracy" (12 April 2006)
KA Dilday, "Zidane and France: the rules of the game" (18 July 2006)
Henri Astier, "France's banlieues: year of the locust" (8 November 2006)
Henri Astier, "Jurassic Left: the strange death of France's deuxième gauche" (25 March 2007)
KA Dilday, "France's two worlds" (7 May 2007)
Hector Andrieu, "A lost left: the soul of French socialism" (5 June 2007)
James McDougall, "Sarkozy: big white chief's bad memory" (7 December 2007)
The NPA, a fresh initiative on a tired French political scene, has received considerable attention as its formal inauguration nears. Much of this is due to the veteran (yet eternally youthful) Besancenot, the Tom Cruise of leftism, whose media-savvy persona has made him that rare thing: a popular French politician. The attraction of his approach - at heart, easy sloganeering that remains free of any sense of responsibility avoids making any realistic proposals to solve the crisis - is obvious in times of social confusion.
It is also understandable that many of those in despair at the loss of their jobs or unable to find work at all abandon belief not just in capitalism but even in a social-democratic version of the market-economy - and thus contemplate voting for the far left. They now have a wide choice of movements that speak the language of political rejectionism: of the parliamentary system, class collaboration, globalisation, and participation in a PS-led government.
The vote of despair
The presidential strategy of frenetic reforms has proved unable to deliver meaningful improvements to a French public worried by an enveloping economic crisis. In a society both rife with inequalities (social and racial) and obsessed with egalitarianism, the political embrace of a plausibly modern version of old demons can begin to look attractive.
Indeed, current opinion-polls as well as the evidence of social unrest again suggests that the dominant French view of capitalism and globalisation is far more negative than in other European countries: 53% want capitalism to be fundamentally reformed (TNS Sofres), while 50% believe that the current strike season could develop into a massive protest movement (Le Figaro).
This moment should be a gift to the left, which has lost every presidential election since 1988 and has been out of government since 2002. But which left and for what? The PS has to rebuild the confidence of voters after years of inaction, intellectual laziness and a protracted war of egos. It has to recover lost political skill in both attracting leftist votes and establishing the image of a responsible, left-of-centre party that would perform well in government.
Julien Dray, a socialist MP (and former Trotskyist), explained why a "classical" answer to the crisis won't work: "Socialists will condemn themselves to opposition for long if they stick to their sordid miserabilist vision of the left." He argued that a "whining or bitter left, stigmatising those who are lucky enough to earn a bit more than their neighbours", guaranteed its irrelevance.
Those in the PS who are close to the far left and who are strongly opposed to any outreach towards Bayrou - embodied by the party's official spokesperson, Benoît Hamon - believe they can claw their way back to power on a dogmatic platform. But they have so far been unable even to win support among the "left of the left"; more broadly, they seem to forget that France is a country where the centre is the key to power.
It was the political analyst Alain Duhamel who (in La Marche Consulaire [Plon, 2008]) compares Nicolas Sarkozy to Bonaparte for his authoritarianism and his urge to decide on everything. In this context, a comment Sarkozy made in January 2009 - that France is a "regicide country" whose people "could, for the sake of a symbolic measure, overthrow the country" - may yet return to haunt him.
The opposition's inability to unite under a credible platform offers Sarkozy respite from problems that might otherwise engulf him. Yet to avoid the kind of troubles which have rocked earlier French leaders and governments, the president must create a positive project of his own. If he fails, a combination of rising unemployment, social anger, political frustration and fear of the future could again wake the dark - "regicide" - instincts of the French people.