French Presidential Elections – Bye Bye la République

December 4, 2006

In order to identify himself with the capitalist system, the unemployed of today would have completely to forget his personal fate and the politician of today his ambition. Joseph Schumpeter.

Every French person you speak to will agree that his or her so beloved République is going down the drain. The questions of why and of what to do to solve France’s problems and save it will be responded to with a lot of passion and affect yet widely differ from person to person. Generally, though, one will hear that it’s the fault of “la mondialisation”.

France is not in crisis because of globalization itself, but because it hasn’t been able to embrace it positively. Its inability to undertake fundamental reforms in two of the main machineries of growth and prosperity and hence political and social cohesion. i.e., the labour market and education, is currently undermining the foundations of what makes France, namely its core values Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité. La République how it works now is no longer delivering on either of its threefold promise. These issues need also be tackled within a much-needed re-think of the fate and role of a top-down post-1945 state born out of a now irrelevant socialist/Gaullist compromise. The current institutional set-up is just not able to take the challenge of creating the conditions for a prosperous, thriving and peaceful multicultural society. Without these reforms, France is drifting into the insignificance of a “a country among others” in an EU of 25/27, something it fears but might become a self-fulfilling prophecy if things remain the same.

Despite many hints at renewal in French politics with two unconventional candidates for the presidential elections in 2007, there is not much hope that the problem will be tackled with all the necessary vigour and honesty. Its politics are drifting towards populism and irrelevance.

In the meantime, France’s morale continues to lower and its angst to rise. Quite symbolically, France is Europe’s greatest consumer of anti-depressants, along with Holland (is there any correlation between depression and No-votes to the European constitution?…). Intellectuals’ business thrives on gloomy “déclinisme”. Students from dusty universities with poor prospects of ever finding a decent job in the near future protest against – very patchy – moves to liberalize the labour market with naïve anticapitalist slogans. In practice, though, those who can, move to one of the Dens of Global Capitalism, London, for better job prospects. 60% of the estimated 250.000 French residing in the UK live in London. About two years ago when I was still living in Paris, in a café near the breeding-ground for the future political elite, the Institut d’Etudes Politiques de Paris, I overheard a conversation of highly skilled and intelligent young French talking about the trends for them to seek expatriation in the UK or the US. One of him said, cynically “C’est tant pis pour la République” (“too bad” for La République).

To the République. Every proposal for change is scrutinised right and left of the political spectrum for its adequacy with “les valeurs républicaines”. Interestingly, those who tend to resist change always use the argument: “this goes against republican values”. The French République is a monument, and to explain to foreigners what it is in one sentence is a challenge. Yet I’ll give it a try: it’s a state-centered approach to working towards the triple goals of Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité. It is not socialist or Soviet-style statism, like many “Anglo-Saxon” Liberals (British and Americans) I have come across tend to think. But contrary to the traditional liberal tradition, they count on the state to actively promote and preserve it. It is very different from British-style instinctual distrust of anything that comes from the state. I also think that The Economist’s verdict during this spring’s protests against the above-mentioned labour reforms saying that France hasn’t “demarxified” does not get it completely right. What France hasn’t done is “destatify”. The generous and well-meaning breasts of France’s over-protective mother-state stifle the desire of the French to take their destiny in their hands, and to strive even more in life for the cosy security of permanent government jobs, especially in the never-ever changing world of l’Education Nationale. Unless you make it into France’s thriving and increasingly internationally recognized but compeletely non-state Ecoles de Commerce (see today’s FT survey of the Europe’s leading business schools), this is a rational way to act in France, because if you are young and were simply at university there is hardly a chance for you in the labour market.

France is renowned for being one of the strongholds of anti-/ or alterglobalism. Strangely enough, though, French people have no problem with L’Oréal, its best performing company listed on the local index CAC 40 – exporting its cosmetics across the globe. Strange how the Coca-Cola and the global MacCulture annoy the French, but when it comes to distributing agressively L’Oréal products across the globe, nobody protests. What in fact worries French people are the usual Capital and Labour issues. For example offshoring with its spectacular plant closures and new ones being built in Eastern Europe, or immigration with its more mythical than real pressure on salaries and the challenge to national identity. Unemployment remains high, and as the highly regulated, over-legislated, and over-protected labour market continues to be as it is, there is a two-tier labour market, with the excluded surfing the wave of instable short-term contracts, long periods of unemployment, badly paid internships, permanent freelancership, without ever making it to sacred Graal – the Contrat à Durée Indéterminée (labour contract with no time limitation and with very strong guarantees against firing).

All this is the crux of the matter in French politics. Yet the candidates, however creative and imaginative they are in the proposals on how “to change” (this is on of Sarkozy’s slogans), do not take position on this issue. The sectors corroded by corporatism, the labour market and l’Education Nationale – are strangely absent from the debate. It’s taboo, there is a nervousness and total absence of reasoned dialogue on anything related to economic and structural reforms.

As an illustration, a few examples of what is going on in the campaign. “Ségo”, proposes much more state de-centralization and “room for experimentation”, as well as tougher handling of delinquent youths, which are in France generally right-wing proposals. And she’s a woman, maybe the most revolutionary of all aspects of this campagin. “Sarko”, proposes positive discrimination as one of the solutions to France’s problems of including immigrants and their children in society. Concern with discrimination and racism is not traditionally on the French right’s political agenda. These are only examples. But in terms of striking and controversial concrete proposals, that is about it. The rest is your usual show. Royal plays the role of the understanding and all-including mother. Her “participative” blog, is a sad caricature of Habermas’ concept of participative democracy. Hers are the politics of kitsch and sentimentalism, and reflect the current urge for scared French to take refuge and cry in “les jupes de maman” (Mom’s skirts, as the French like to say). Nicolas Sarkozy is ambiguous in his policies. He no longer plays the role of the so-called Anglo-Saxon-style reformer now that the election approaches, yet he remains the tough “scum”-basher during the recent riots in the suburbs and intolerant top cop to please Le Pen voters, the old-fashioned “economic patriot”, the bourgeois mayor, and member of the traditional right saying that the middle class needs to be “given perspectives”.

This new-style populism emerged to address French disaffection with politics and its population’s flight to the extremes, in particular into the arms of extreme-right Jean-Marie Le Pen. But it does not dupe anybody, Le Pen voters the least. Le Pen is expected to fare very well again in these elections. A recent survey by a major polling agency showed that the best-represented social category of Le Pen voters are workers – 25%, although they represent only 14% of the population, then come lower level white-collar employees (22% against 18% of the total population), then come the elderly. Le Pen voters also tend to live outside France’s big cities….

Le Pen voters are the archetype of your typical rich-country globalization loser. The one who is outside the system and lives the famous “precarious” (as the French term it) existence described above which is not so much due to the global capitalist system but to the two-tier labour market and the inability to change the skills-profile of a population that of course cannot compete with the Chinas of this world. Nobody offers long-term solutions (Sarkozy a bit of life-long learning… but this is not new) apart from your usual handouts in the form of a new rise in the minimum wage.

All this, with Le Pen looming in the background, announces the rise of “counter-republican” politics. As the FT journalist John Thornhill ironically points out [Just to be fair: I love to read about UK politics in Le Monde. The outsider’s view tends to have a sharpness and clarity the noise at home often tends to blur…], it seems that:

“next year’s elections will revolve around the counter-revolutionary trinity of family, work and nation, the slogan of the wartime Vichy regime”…

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