21 April 2012

Les Zélections

Mother of mercy! Is this the end of Sarko?

It’s a curious phenomenon: tomorrow, the French will vote in the first round of elections for President of the Republic, and what ought to be my principal preoccupation right now seems as distant to me as the moon. While I’ve managed to glance at the websites for Le Monde and Libération from time to time, and to listen to French radio broadcasts on the Internet, there’s nothing to compare with the constant onslaught of news and analysis of the campaign that I’d get if I were in France now on a day-to-day basis.

These elections are important, however, to the destiny not only of France but of all Europe, and despite the remoteness and the relative dullness of most of the candidates, we really ought to pay close attention.

If French voters construe these elections as any kind of referendum — on the economy, on the current administration, on hot-button issues such as immigration — then President Nicolas Sarkozy is in deep trouble. His aggressive, “American” style, his private life, and his rather skimpy list of achievements during this, his first (and possibly only) term, have dismayed the French, who would like to be rid of him. His principal hope is to appeal to voters’ concerns that any of his rivals would make things worse.

For example, any of the alternatives could mean a major change in France’s status in the European Union, in which Sarkozy has played a significant role in recent years (notably in his close alliance with Germany’s Angela Merkel): in this case, change might mean economic upheaval and loss of political influence, both scary prospects.

Not your father’s xenophobe: Marine Le Pen.

Sarkozy is also courting both moderates (who would ordinarily vote for François Bayrou) and the far right (who would ordinarily vote for Marine Le Pen), whom he’d like to lure away from their respective parties (the Mouvement Démocratique and the Front National), but the catch is that these groups don’t really agree on much, and he’s got much more experience making veiled appeals to the hard right than to the center.

And Marine Le Pen is doing awfully well for herself already. There’s something (almost?) cynical about the way she’s rebranded the FN, long associated with her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen. She can say precisely what he said, promoting a xenophobic, ultra-nationalist, radically conservative line, and yet it’s automatically more appealing than it was when her father said it. She’s blonde, pretty — in no way a cranky old man like her dad — and anything she says seems more palatable.

Protest votes for Jean-Marie Le Pen already catapulted him into the second round in 2002, knocking out the Socialist candidate, then-Prime Minister Lionel Jospin, and obliging a broad spectrum of French voters to hold their noses and support incumbent President Jacques Chirac, rather than see Le Pen in the Elysées Palace. The Socialists, in turn, have done a piss-poor job of nominating viable candidates: under the Fifth Republic, only François Mitterrand has won election to the Presidency, and both Jospin and Ségolène Royal, the party’s candidate in 2007, failed to reach far beyond their bases.

Jospin suffered largely because voters wanted to signal their displeasure with his policies as Prime Minister, and because they never dreamed he wouldn’t make it to the second round. Royal was simply ineffectual. And curiously, she spoke so often of her refusal to be beaten (battue) that even the leftist Libération began to speculate about her psychological background, and whether in fact she might have been abused.* Meanwhile, her domestic life fell apart, which was exceedingly awkward, given that her partner and father of her four children was also running her campaign.

That man was François Hollande, who is now the Socialist candidate for the Presidency and who, regardless of his history with Royal, is quite possibly the dullest man in French politics. Frankly, I was surprised that he won the nomination. But given the widespread discontent with Sarkozy (who is, if anything, far too interesting a character) and given the implosion of Dominique Strauss-Kahn (who turned out to be much more interesting than anybody knew), dullness begins to look like a strength. Even the head of the Socialist party, pugnacious Martine Aubry (architect of the controversial 35-hour work week), was too interesting. Hollande took charge, and he’s been polling very well: if he and Sarkozy face off in the second round, Hollande is expected to win handily.

The dullest man in French politics? François Hollande.

He’s had to keep a close eye on his left flank, however, as candidates from smaller parties have gained momentum: notably Philippe Poutou, of the Nouveau Parti anticapitaliste; and Jean-Luc Mélenchon, of the Front de gauche, have excited popular enthusiasm with direct appeals of a kind that Hollande is simply too moderate and too bland to make. Along with Eva Joly**, of the Green Party, these candidates pose a serious risk of splintering the leftist vote and costing the Socialists their best shot at victory in many years.

French law requires that all the parties get a hearing during the campaign, which means that television and radio have been dominated by these characters, ten candidates in all, and this drama. I’m sorry to be missing out on so much of it.

*NOTE: Royal’s father was in the military, and the ensuing speculative construct amounted to a French version of a Pat Conroy novel.

**Joly is a naturalized French citizen, Norwegian by birth. See what happens when you’re not tougher on immigration?


Yohalem said...

True, F. Hollande is probably the dullest man in French politics since Louis XVIII. But you know? The French do not LIKE extremes of arrogance; that's why they tossed Giscard d'Estaing. They prefer humble folks like "L'etat c'est moi" de Gaulle and "Dieu" Mitterand.

Do admit, as Nancy Mitford, that superb Frenchwoman, would say. (See what happens when you're not tougher on immigration.)

Anonymous said...

"...his rather skimpy list of achievements during this, his first (and possibly only) term, have dismayed the French, who would like to be rid of him."

Reminds us of a certain other much-trumpeted world leader, does it not?

-- Rick

William V. Madison said...

No, it does not. But thanks for asking.

Chanterelle said...

Shock reigns over the strong showing of Mme Le Pen, but you sure called it (is it true blondes have more fun?).