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Sarkozyland: France's inward politics

Patrice de Beer
16 June 2009

The French are out of love with Europe and disenchanted with themselves. The elections to the European parliament held in the country on 7 June 2009 were surrounded by much noise but little enthusiasm, and did as little for the European Union's sense of cohesion and purpose as did the process in the other twenty-six member-states. But if all politics is local, France added its own touch of désamour to the event.

Patrice de Beer is former London and Washington correspondent for Le Monde

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)

"France's politics of regicide" (6 February 2009)

"Esther Duflo: the new French intellectual" (9 April 2009)

"France's lost and found ideals" (13 May 2009)

The disaffection with "Europe" among both citizens and elites in the countries that compose the union is often a form of displacement that reflects national frustrations and failures. A self-defeating cycle operates whereby the projection of responsibility for economic, social or political frustrations onto the unaccountable power of "Brussels" reinforces the tendency of European elections to be fought on national issues, in turn reminding voters of why they are unhappy with their domestic politics...for which, in the end, "Europe" again takes the blame.

The process is far advanced, which makes imaginative attempts to stall it - whatever their individual merits - all the more welcome (see, for example, Anand Menon, "The European parliament: problem, and solution", 5 June 2009). But if Europe's response to the international economic crisis and the setbacks to the Lisbon treaty has been less than impressive, it cannot be blamed for the problems of national polities. The French, for one, are more than capable of creating their own.

The political tide

France's election experience shares some elements with its partners', but reflects the oft-cited "French exception" too. The turnout at 40.48% was only a little under the union-wide 43.24%; and the overall tendency of incumbent governments (and especially centre-right ones) to be favoured by voters was reflected in the success of Nicolas Sarkozy's Union pour une Majorité Présidentielle (UMP) over its bruised rival on the left, the Parti Socialiste (PS).

Yet the scale of the president's victory and of the left's defeat is excessive by European standards, even more so at a time when (according to polls) only between a third and two-fifths view Sarkozy in a positive light. Even at a time of deep financial worry and high unemployment, the UMP increased its vote to 28.87% (from 16.64%  in 2004); while the PS saw its vote reduced to 16.48% (against 28.89% in 2004). This puts it only marginally ahead of the creative green coalition Europe Ecologie (EE) - led by the maverick hero of May ‘68, Daniel ("Dany") Cohn-Bendit - whose 16.28% is indeed (alongside Denmark) an "exceptional" result. A further difference between France and elsewhere in Europe is that the extreme-right, which made advances in (for example) the Netherlands, lost ground (though it still received 7% of the votes).

Sarkozy's unpopularity, reinforced by policy failure and drift, meant that the UMP was not expected to do so well. The hyperactive president, however, still manages to dominate the "mediatic" space to an extraordinary degree - exemplified in the D-Day commemoration ceremony in Normandy with the United States president, Barack Obama. Moreover, "Sarko" retains a good measure of political cunning. He has managed to unify the right, even as the left (and the moderate centre and far-right) are split into bickering groups; and was clever enough to wage a basically "Franco-French" campaign (admittedly like all other parties except the Greens) which mentioned Europe only to stress his leadership and his opposition to Turkey's accession to the union.

At the same time, the claim of a Sarkozy triumph must be qualified. The total votes of the right are at a record low (34%, plus 7% for the extreme right), exceeded still by the left (39%, plus 6% for the far left). Yet if the left looks politically shattered, it is in part because in a presidential system, a good candidate with a strong base will always win against a fragmented and rudderless majority.

The left in peril

The fate of the left in the European elections is a melancholy tale of a kind that is becoming familiar. In the case of the Parti Socialiste, almost everything went wrong.

The lack of internal unity was damaging: the party remains split after the divisive Rheims congress of November 2008 which narrowly elected Martine Aubry as its new leader over her bitter rival (and PS candidate in the presidential election of 2007), Ségolène Royal. So too is the lack of dynamism: most of the party's energy is devoted to cliquish infighting that conveys to voters the image of a self-obsessed party deaf to their lives and problems at a time of deep economic crisis. The members of the PS's leading factions live in a world insulated from voters: talking among themselves, negotiating their platform with an eye to their party position, choosing candidates on the basis of inner-party politics rather than their capacity to engage with a changing society. 

Also in openDemocracy on French politics:

Johannes Willms, "France unveiled:making Muslims into citizens?" (26 February 2004)

Patrick Weil, "A nation indiversity: France, Muslims and the headscarf" (25 March 2004)

Henri Astier, "We want to beFrench!" (22 November 2005)

Alan Lentin, "The intifada of thebanlieues" (17 November 2005)

Henri Astier, "France's revoltagainst change" (23 March 2006)

Henri Astier "In praise of Frenchdirect 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: thestrange death of France's deuxième gauche" (25 March 2007)

KA Dilday, "France's two worlds" (7 May 2007)

Hector Andrieu, "A lost left: thesoul of French socialism" (5 June 2007)

James McDougall, "Sarkozy: big whitechief's bad memory" (7 December 2007)

The party was ostensibly committed in the European election to the manifesto adopted by the social-democratic parties of the twenty-seven European Union states, but did not campaign on it to avoid further alienating its left wing. The PS as a result had no coherent "coalition" strategy: militants wanted to fight an all-left battle against the centre and right, while moderates wanted to attract support from the centre. The last resort was an "all against Sarko" campaign which failed to mobilise voters.

All this is both cause and consequence of the fact that the PS has lost the support of its traditional core: workers (both manual and professional), young people, intellectuals and even sections of the upper-middle-class elite. The outgoing director of the Paris Opera Bastille, Gérard Mortier, added the wise comment that the left "has lost its taste for utopia"; and it is clear that no more realistic set of aspirations has emerged to fill the gap.

The French left may also be to some degree an "exception", but in its way it is also a caricature of what the European left could become if it continues to embrace worn-out ideas, slogans and attitudes. The evidence of the election is that the left has lost the political battle of the economic crisis, and is unable to come up with credible answers that speak to voters and to a society more plural, fluid and dynamic than was imaginable in the class-stratified and heavy-industrialised era that gave birth to modern socialism.

But the PS was not the only party to fight the "wrong" campaign. The centrist Mouvement Démocratique (Modem), led by François Bayrou, also fell into this trap. Bayrou is a staunch European whose supporters wanted him to talk about Europe, but instead he in effect refought his presidential campaign of 2007 and rehearsed the one he wished to fight in 2012. In the process he secured only 8.45% of the vote (against 18.57% in 2007), thus shattering his image of an independent politician who is "not like the others".

The right to rule

If there is a gleam in the gloom, it is the surprising success of the Europe Ecologie coalition, which suggests that a progressive, Euro-friendly campaign can earn a strong political dividend. This new coalition (not yet a party) presented a genuine European platform articulated by popular local figures (such as the Franco-Norwegian anti-corruption judge Eva Joly, and the farmer-activist José Bové, as well as Dany Cohn-Bendit himself).

The response of voters (far beyond natural "greens") to a campaign waged with imagination, fresh ideas, and an enthusiasm that shamed traditional party machines is measured in the fact that Europe Ecologie won 41% of the youth vote, and that many  traditionally PS and Modem followers switched sides. Dany Cohn-Bendit - "Dany the Red" in his left-wing heyday, now most definitely "Dany the Green" - would be sure of broad support if he stood for the French presidency, but he is focused rather on leading the Greens in the European parliament.

A new brand of politics of the kind represented by Cohn-Bendit seems the most attractive way on offer to engage the huge numbers of citizens no longer connected to the political process. In the European election, around 70% of workers, farmers and small businessmen abstained, and (according to different polls) 70%-80-% of the 18-34 category. French voters responded to unappealing choices, tired answers and a superfluity of candidates (twenty-seven "lists" in the Paris region alone) by staying away from the polls.

Did I forget someone? Maybe - but then so did the voters themselves. Olivier Besancenot and his Nouveau Parti Anticapitaliste (NPA) failed to reach the 5% threshold required to elect an MEP. The popular, media-friendly postman received an indulgent press (including outside France among those ever-eager to promote or recycle the self-myths of insurgent leftism), but was unable to convince more than a hard core of militants and hangers-on that warmed-up Trotskyism offers any meaningful answers to France's problems.

Besancenot's campaign was a flop. His reliance on traditional slogans (preserve jobs, tax les patrons) could not conceal the absence of a single realistic idea to respond to the crisis. A trade unionist even publicly scolded him for politically exploiting people's misery: that is, fomenting discontent while refusing to dirty his hands by sharing political responsibilities with the rest of the left. In the end, those who did vote seemed to prefer people who deliver to those who play the pipe-dream of sterile and impossibilist opposition.

Europe's parliamentary elections are over for another four years, and continental media attention moves to the European council summit on 18-19 June 2009 and efforts to revivify the union's economic and political agendas. Amid a gloomy political landscape after battle, the French have a year - until the regional elections of 2010 - to learn lessons from this campaign and begin invent a better way of doing politics. If they don't, then by default the hyperactive Nicolas Sarkozy may just go on ruling the disaffected, occasionally unruly, but politically directionless French.

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