France’s political sclerosis

Patrice de Beer
20 October 2005

Politics has long been considered a French national sport, in a country where political opinions and parties can be counted in dozens. We French pride ourselves of our great historical political figures, icons celebrated as les grands hommes (great men) like General Charles de Gaulle.

These times are gone. If les grands hommes of the past are still esteemed, and sometimes buried with all the honours the French fifth republic can command in Paris’s Pantheon, the same can’t be said of today’s politicians. The fact that this applies to all of them – left, right or centre – indicates that the problem is systemic and not merely contingent. The diminishment of France’s politicians is a symptom of the political and social crisis that has been shaking the country for years and has reached unprecedented heights since the “no” vote in the European constitution referendum on 29 May 2005.

An opinion survey from the CSA polling institute, conducted 0n 6-7 October and published in the daily newspaper Le Parisien , sheds a devastating light on those who rule France.

Among the most striking results:

  • 76% of people don’t trust politicians

  • 85% believe politicians think only about their own career

  • 75% believe politicians have no recipes to improve France’s economic situation

  • 63% believe politicians don’t have any vision for the future

  • 62% believe politicians don’t understand how their compatriots really live

  • 78% believe politicians don’t care about their woes

  • 48% believe politicians are corrupt and incompetent

  • 55% believe politicians in France are less modern than figures like José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, Tony Blair, or Gerhard Schröder

It gets worse. In a country where almost all MPs are white and parity between men and women (even though entrenched in law) is openly flouted by political parties, a large majority of French citizens want to see more women (89%) and young people (84%), and people of immigrant background (55%) representing them.

No names were mentioned in the CSA survey, thus saving the face of individual politicians. But this makes the damage it reveals even greater, for it is an entire political class that is being tainted. No one escapes this social censorship: from President Jacques Chirac and his ministers, through his own Union pour un Mouvement Populaire (UMP) party, to the multifaceted opposition that includes socialists, a fragmented left, and extremists of left and right.

Whatever political dreams are raised in France these days, they end up as mud that sticks to everyone. Chirac should have known better when he called for a referendum on the European constitution to split the socialists: the left went divided to the polls, but the president still lost his bet by a wide margin. Nor can the left count on the government’s lack of credibility to improve its chances in the 2007 presidential elections: when aspiring socialist candidate Laurent Fabius lambasts his party leader and rival François Hollande, or when Hollande lashes back, the fallout damages the country’s trust in those who aspire to govern it as well as to their own party.

It is in these troubled times within his own party that former prime minister Lionel Jospin has invited himself into the political debate, with a forthcoming book: Le Monde Comme Je le Vois (The world as I see it) . In what looks like a veiled political platform for his own presidential candidacy in 2007, Jospin sides with Hollande who, he says, is "clearly to the left" with "the advantage of being realistic". He lashes both at the extreme left "whose name can't be linked to any reforms since 1936" and at altermondialists (anti-globalisation activists) who have shown themselves unable to offer "possible remedies to the evil they denounce".

At the same time, he thunders against globalisation and a "new aristocracy" entrenched in a "neoliberal economy" which "tries to submit states" to private interests. The ever-stubborn Jospin thus shows that he still dreams of being a rallying-point in a devastated battlefield. But he is far from having clarified the situation.

France has always been a difficult country to rule, as Winston Churchill once said. French voters have not once returned a government to power since 1978. They have stopped believing political promises – which, according to a former Gaullist minister, “only bind those who listen to them” – and watch the political games on television with cynicism. They have heard too much about “reforms” that governments either lack courage to implement or serve only to weaken part of their social safety-net. Demobilised, they strike by proxy when they support public-services strikes. They shun Europe, fear globalisation and immigration, and are losing hope in the future.

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)

The Schröder-Merkel clash spills across the Rhine (October 2005)

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The unemployment cancer

Besides France’s traditional hard temper, a single word explains this gloomy mood: jobs. This is the top budget priority, far ahead of health, education and housing, not to mention security, justice, culture or defence. France’s unemployment rate is 9.9%, but this average figure hides enormous levels for 55-64 year-olds (63%) - one of the worst figures among OECD countries – and 18-25 year-olds (more than 25%). The numbers too exclude those involved in different schemes: pre-pension, RMI (income support).

Alongside other social ills – a million working poor, skyrocketing rents, lack of low-cost housing, a widening income gap with those who have benefited from globalisation and economic reforms – unemployment has become a cancer slowly eating alive French society. While some members of the business community have displayed their unconcern with social issues, politicians have proved unable or unwilling to tackle them (former president Francois Mitterrand once said hopelessly: “We have tried everything!”).

The much-vaunted “French social model”, still considered in its homeland as one of the best in the world, has been helpless in the face of massive unemployment. Public opinion and most politicians – with the exception of interior minister Nicolas Sarkozy – cling to this obsolete model as to a familiar lifebuoy, advocating at best figleaf reforms. In France, as elsewhere, “fighting unemployment” often means that governments divided between the need to create new jobs and the need to protect purchasing power end up protecting workers (who usually vote more than the unemployed) and their existing jobs. The result: sclerosis.

French people have lost patience with a ruling class that can’t deliver and with a social liberalism they think has only made things worse. Downsizing social protection, transferring social trade and economic responsibilities to Brussels, or opening up even more to globalisation has not helped to generate more jobs than have been destroyed. No country can live well or long maintain its political balance without tackling massive unemployment. Germany’s disenchanted voters, who have refused to give either major parties a chance to govern alone, have forced their political class to face the consequences of its failure. Who will be next?

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