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The Schröder-Merkel clash spills across the Rhine

Patrice de Beer
4 October 2005

The inconclusive German elections of 18 September resulted into an unforeseen political mess. After two weeks of intense manoeuvring and negotiation, no stable majority appears in sight outside of a “red-black”, power-sharing agreement between acting Chancellor Gerhard Schröder’s SPD and the conservative CDU-CSU led by Angela Merkel. A third round of talks between these two main parties are due to start today, 5 October, and Schröder seems to have at last admitted that any such “grand coalition” could well be led by his arch-rival Merkel.

The German post-election interregnum, like the election itself and the composition of the new government that results from it, has an impact far beyond Germany’s own borders. This is most apparent in Brussels. Germany’s domestic political instability has prevented the country from playing a leading role in resolving the European Union crisis resulting from the French and Dutch rejection of the treaty proposing a European constitution, and in avoiding the unsavoury and undignified haggling over opening EU admission negotiations with Turkey. In Britain too, the failure of Angela Merkel to win a decisive victory on a more liberal, Atlanticist platform was less than good news for Tony Blair in the midst of the UK’s presidency of the union.

But nowhere has this impact been felt more than in France, where the two main parties – the conservative Union pour un Mouvement Populaire (UMP)and the Socialist Party – are bitterly split by political rivalries between self-proclaimed candidates for the 2007 presidential elections. On the government side, the bickering – if not hatred – between President Jacques Chirac and his ambitious interior minister, Nicolas Sarkozy, has reached new heights since he appointed another long-term protégé, Dominique de Villepin, prime minister in June 2005. Villepin had shown his diplomatic skill when he led the coalition against the Bush-Blair alliance to wage war in Iraq; in these three months he has revealed that his agility is not limited to foreign affairs. He has become a formidable rival to Sarkozy, who has long sought the UMP candidacy for 2007.

At least until this week – when Villepin’s honeymoon with public opinion brutally ended with the general strike launched on 4 October. The prime minister doesn’t have much to offer the strikers when state coffers are empty, the 2006 budget deficit might exceed the EU’s 3% threshold and the unemployment rate is an endemically high 9.9%. Villepin’s hyperactive and consensual image, as well as his explicit, newly acquired ambition to become Chirac’s successor in the Elysée Palace had started to overshadow “Sarko’s” permanent war of attrition with the 73-year-old president; now, when he appears bogged down in the harsh reality of domestic politics, Sarkozy will try to take advantage of his rival. It is easier to play with diplomatic rhetoric than with the hard laws of economics.

Villepin and Sarkozy’s open infighting during September’s UMP parliamentary meeting shocked party MPs who demanded a stop to this war of succession. But the public can’t be fooled by their posturing, nor by Sarkozy’s strategy of “breaking away” from a so-called “French social model” he regards as bankrupt: both he and Villepin, after all, have been ministers in Chirac’s government since his second election victory in 2002. How can Sarkozy, interior minister and number two in the government, break away from something he is so much part of?

In light of this political competition, it is easy to understand the different reactions of the two contenders to the post-18 September German deadlock. Nicolas Sarkozy had made no secret of his support for the pro-American and pro-Blair “Angie’s” reforms, and blamed her disappointing performance (in relation to pre-election expectations) on her methods rather than her policies. The more pragmatic and centrist Villepin camp, meanwhile, hailed Merkel’s failure as evidence that Sarkozy’s reformist ambitions too had been severely damaged.

The French prime minister never loses the opportunity to stress his economic and social “patriotism”. This aristocrat, who feels that French voters are as unready as their German counterparts to swallow the bitter pill of ultra-liberal reforms, has acquired a fresh language to go with his elegant suits and coiffure: celebrating “equality of chances” and warning against “wild individualism”. He has found in the German elections proof that reforms must benefit all – not just the wealthiest.

Also by Patrice de Beer in openDemocracy:

“France and the Security Council: poker diplomacy wins” (November 2002)

“Sorry, wrong target!” (February 2003)

“France’s post-referendum trauma” (May 2005)

“France’s incendiary crisis” (September 2005)

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Democracy as blood sport

But an equally fierce political contest on the political left echoes this one on the centre-right. The Socialist Party leader, François Hollande, welcomed Schröder’s near-victory as supporting the view that a moderate left political platform could be as much a vote-winner as Merkel’s fiscal reforms policy – “the same as those of Dominique de Villepin and Nicolas Sarkozy” which had “frightened away voters from the centre”. Moreover, argued Hollande, the under-5% score of the far-left Linkspartei in former West Germany demonstrated voters’ “excellent reaction” in “choosing Schröder to avoid a rightwing government”.

Hollande’s most vocal leftwing opponent is former prime minister and finance minister Laurent Fabius. Until 2002, Fabius had been the stalwart of social liberalism and privatisations; then he jumped on the bandwagon of the “no” campaign in the April referendum on the EU treaty and began courting the unreconstructed left in the Socialist Party and the extreme left groupuscules. He welcomed the Linkspartei’s Germany-wide result of 8.7% (thus qualifying it for seats in the Bundestag) as a success. But Fabius’s claim that “a left that doesn’t answer popular aspirations will be punished” forgets too easily that all the other German parties – representing 91.3% of voters – had, in one way or another, accepted the necessity of reforms.

The split between Hollande and Fabius shows that the bitter divisions within the PS are far from over. Hollande’s leadership is being challenged from the left, but also from among his own supporters. At November’s party congress, five different platforms will be submitted to party members to choose from. The potential socialist candidates for the 2007 presidential election are equally varied: among them is Hollande’s own partner, Ségolene Royal, who ousted former premier Jean-Pierre Raffarin from his fiefdom of Poitou-Charente last year.

Even the centrist forces in French politics have been putting their distinctive gloss on the German example; François Bayrou’s Union pour la Démocratie Française (UDF) party has a minister in Villepin’s cabinet but he has still become the toughest critic of Chirac’s policy (in the absence of the Socialists, who are too busy trying to destroy each other). “The Germans expressed their double desire of reforming and safeguarding their social model”, Bayrou concluded, stressing that if “the French want reforms, they don’t want to pay for modernisation with increased injustice”.

The German elections were for French politicians (the old French saying seems appropriate) like a Spanish inn, “where people eat the food they bring along with them”. The French read in Berlin’s confused outcome what they want to hear in order to confirm their own political views and comfort their own personal ambitions. Likewise, a disorientated French public has been seeking a political compass in these results.

All part of France’s political game? Yes, but the problem revealed by the German electoral outcome goes deeper. All French leaders use the language of “reform”, but do so only in one of three ways: to reject it (the far left and many socialists), to reject the way it is being advocated by others, or – as by the present and previous (Lionel Jospin) government – to talk, talk and talk again about it without showing the political courage to draft a comprehensive roadmap and to campaign for it. Germany's politics may be stuck, but France's are sick.

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