Not a case of ‘plus ça change…’
They might still use the rhetoric of Left v Right, but the presidential election confirms that those days are past in French politics, too.
A certain class of Briton has long envied many things about the French way of life, both real and imaginary – the food, the wine, the culture, the climate, the hospitals, the dream of a civilised café society. Now we can add one more thing to the Francophile wish list – the politics.
After a remarkable 85 per cent turnout of voters in the first round, the French presidential election is now set to be a run-off between centre-right candidate Nicolas Sarkozy of the UMP, and the Socialist Party’s Segolene Royal. This straight fight between well-supported candidates of the right and the left seems in striking contrast to the lack of interest, energy and choice in British politics, as symbolised by next week’s English local elections. The elections to the Scottish Parliament represent a more interesting contest, but even that looks tame compared with the high-blown rhetoric coming out of France.
This state of affairs has led many a British commentator to express their envy of the French political scene. Oh how they wish that we, too, had a proper contest between parties of the left and the right, one that could offer the electorate a clear choice and thus galvanise the apathetic masses into voting.
French voices, too, have made similar points, congratulating themselves on their political principles. Thus Sarkozy, who topped the first round vote with around 30 per cent, ahead of Royal’s 26 per cent, hailed the contest for proving that the French people want to pursue ‘a debate between two ideas for the nation, two projects for society, two value systems, two concepts of politics’. The left-wing paper Liberation, meanwhile, rejoiced that ‘France has saved the left…. France invented the Right-Left configuration during the Revolution…. It has decided it is still a useful tool in a world where the issues of society and individual freedom in the face of the powers-that-be remain the two great markers of human rights.’
Much of this British envy and French self-congratulation is based on wishful thinking. There is a palpable sense of relief among observers at being able to use the familiar categories of the past. The feeling is that in an uncertain world, we know where we are with an election that looks like Left v Right.
In fact, events in France have much more in common with the demise of traditional political parties and life in the UK and elsewhere. Even in France – which, as Liberation says, invented the old Left-Right divide – it no longer exists in a recognisable form. French political debate might still use that language. But the words are now empty shells, without much meaning. Whatever envious Brits might like to imagine, they are the shadows of politics past rather than the shape of a more energetic political future.
Of course, France is different. As Karl Marx noted, it has long been a more politicised society than Britain with a powerful Left, which not only led the great revolution of 1789 but also attempted at least three more during the nineteenth century. Twenty-first century French politics, however, has more in common with its contemporary neighbours than with its own history.
Even by French standards, the turnout last Sunday was high. But that can probably be explained more by the closeness of the contest than the width of the political divide. Even in the UK, an expectation of a close-run thing tends to increase turnout. Thus the UK party leader who received more votes than any other in British history was the singularly uninspiring Tory prime minister John Major, in his dull but close-fought electoral contest with Neil Kinnock’s Labour Party in 1992.
What can it mean to talk about Sarkozy and Royal as candidates of the Right and the Left? True, there are policy differences between them. But it does not follow that French voters are being offered a ‘choice’ we should envy or wish to emulate.
When the terms Left and Right were coined during the French Revolution at the end of the eighteenth century, they denoted on which side parties stood in the national assembly. Those who stood to the left were the radical forces who want far-reaching revolutionary change; those who stood on the right were the conservatives.
Today by contrast Royal, the supposed champion of the Left, is widely seen as the ‘continuity candidate’, the one most closely linked to the ancien regime of state intervention. She is, in short, even more conservative than Sarkozy, the pro-business candidate of the ‘Right’.
At times they can both sounds like French imitations of Tony Blair, whether it be Sarkozy talking about the positive impact of ‘diversity’ or Royal’s theme of ‘fairness’ – a very different concept than liberty, equality, fraternity. The policy-lite Royal has even adopted the New Labour emphasis on ‘listening’ rather than leading – that is, setting up a website and asking voters to write her manifesto for her. The confusion about their politics is reflected in the confused state of their support, captured by one writer in the UK Guardian who describes herself as a George Bush-hating ‘liberal’ and friend of the ‘little people’, but says she is voting for Sarkozy.
As in electoral contests in the UK and elsewhere in Europe today, the supposed divide between them comes down largely to matters of image and personality: in some eyes the ‘arrogant, aggressive’ Sarkozy versus the ‘caring, maternal’ Royal. A political beauty contest in which how you carry yourself ultimately appears more important than any ideological baggage. Starting to sound familiar?
The notion of Royal as a candidate of the Left rests almost solely on the ‘Stop Sarkozy’ theme of the campaign, painting him as a right-wing bogeyman by endlessly repeating his disparaging remarks about immigrant youth in the Paris suburbs – banlieues – during the 2005 riots. And what is the Left alternative to this contemptuous attitude? Royal has warned that Sarkozy could provide the ‘spark’ to set off the banlieue mobs burning down France again – and she has promised to set up ‘boot camps’ for young offenders. Not exactly ‘to the barricades!’.
Indeed, one thing common to the alleged Left and Right in France is that they have both caught on to the modern politics of fear – whether it is the Right’s talk of ‘l’insecurite’ (fear of crime, terrorism, etc) or the Left’s complaints about ‘la precarite’ (fear of unemployment in the globalised economy etc) (see Paris strikes: more 1984 than 1968, by Gerard Feehily).
Perhaps the most revealing aspect of the election contest so far has been what the candidates do not say. Neither seems keen to talk too much about the future of France and the EU. In 2005 there was a major revolt of French voters in the referendum that threw out the proposed EU constitution. This populist revolt shook the political elite to its core (see The reawakening of European democracy, by Frank Furedi). The response has been to all-but ignore it, and hope that the nasty people will go away. It is a pact of near-silence that marks out Sarkozy and Royal as members of an elite political class every bit as isolated from the real world as its counterparts in the UK and elsewhere in the EU.
So let us hear no more from jealous British observers about the French model pointing the way forward for the rest of us. There may remain more of a tradition of trade unionism and labour politics in France, although these things are now declining there too. But that is a signpost to the past, not the future. Look beyond the rhetoric of Left v Right, and at the heart of French politics there is the same vacuum evident in the UK. The Cold War is over in Paris every bit as much as in Berlin or London, and as the Sarkozy-Royal contest illustrates, nothing of substance has yet emerged to fill the gap.
It might be tempting to some to see the French elections as a case of plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose (the more things change, the more they remain the same). Tempting, but mistaken. The fact is that everything in politics has changed. And nothing is seriously going to change for the better until we recognise that political fact.
The days of Left v Right are over in France, too, and they are not coming back. It is time to face up to the future. The French spirit we should want to emulate is that of the revolutionaries who came together on the left side of the national assembly to stand for a republic of the Enlightenment. A twenty-first century version of that would be something worth envying.
For now, however, I suggest that our Francophiles stick to being jealous of the cheese and wine.
Mick Hume is editor-at-large of spiked.
Frank Furedi said the riots in the Paris banlieues revealed the political exhaustion of Europe and Gerard Feehily argued that there was a mood of deep conservatism in the Paris strikes of March 2006. Previous coverage of European elections on spiked include Dave Chandler on the new ‘democratic’ Kosovo in 2000; Bruno Waterfield on Italy’s unfashionable elections in 2001; Tara McCormack wondering whatever happened to the Orange Revolution in Ukraine in 2006; and Nathalie Rothschild arguing that the 2006 victory of the centre-right coalition in Sweden represented only a very Moderate change. Or read more at spiked issue Europe.
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