This is a post on France’s presidential election campaign. I consider it an interesting topic in the observation of “politics in an era of globalization” this blog is about. I also write it because it will help me take a crucial decision when I will vote in six weeks. But it is first and foremost a needed clarification for my “liberal” colleagues and friends outside France on the “true” nature of the candidates. If you are not French, then you will need to be a bit informed on what is going on in France. The Financial Times is not bad in covering the presidential elections, Le Monde is better, of course, for an overview if your read French.
In the professional circles I am involved in here in London, the idea that Nicolas Sarkozy is one of the few “liberals” in France, a reformer, more eager to push through France’s badly needed economic reforms than any other politician is still pervasive. Still a few months ago, an eminent publication such as the FT was publishing articles on Sarkozy portraying him almost exclusively under this light, leaving out what worries many people in France: his social right-wingness. Please, dear readers, please do not believe Nicolas Sarkozy is a liberal. He is purely and simply a right-wing politician. He says he is a “liberal” but he isn’t. Here a few points on why:
Taxes. Nicolas Sarkozy is for reducing income and business taxes. Less taxes, that pleases many foreign liberals as it sounds like out of a liberal economic textbook. In practice, the tax reductions he proposes are meant to appeal to a wealthy constituency who is unhappy with the “impôt sur la fortune” (tax on wealth people having more than €1.5m capital) or with high income taxes (only one third of France’s working force actually pays income taxes, in a system that is progressive – so only high salaries are taxed significantly). There is a debate on how problematic these taxes really are for France’s economy – in general not that much. Taxation of labour, i.e. the very high “social contributions” employers and employees alike give away on each month’s salary, before tax, is, but there is not much Mr Sarkozy says about that, as far as I know.
Working time. France introduced under the socialist government of Lionel Jospin in the late 1990s the famous 35-hour week. With the economically inconsistent argument that it would create jobs, it actually only rose the cost of employing, and made work for French workers harder – increase in “productivity” (i.e. stress/pressure per hour…), loss of income and less opportunity to work more to earn more money if so wished. Nicolas Sarkozy does not want to abolish this legislation, but wants to make it more flexible, and allow for more room for employers and employees to work more if so desired. Quite sound in “liberal” economic terms. However, Mr Sarkozy does not argue “economically” on that matter. He says he wants to give the “valeur travail” (value of (hard) work) a new meaning. This is not liberal economics but conservative “work ethics” mentality.
Labour market legislation. That’s probably where he is closest to “liberal”. He proposed a single work contract, without time limitation, but with the “flexibility” and ease of hiring and firing most proponents of labour market reforms would love. Especially given France’s byzantine labour market legislation that officially protects the employee, but in fact is subject to a lot of abuse, and makes it extremely hard for outsiders (young people, less qualified people, immigrants, no-longer-young workers, etc.) to find a job. How such a labour market overhaul would work in France is an open question. A much more liberal solution would be to allow for more “freedom to contract” – if you want to have a six-month work contract you should be able to. So what Sarkozy proposes is a bit of quick “populism” for shallow liberals.
Economic liberalism in general. In a speech he gave recently – an abstract of which is here for those who read French – well, at least by now for anybody who hasn’t noticed since the Sanofi -Synthelabo and Alsthom affairs – he revealed himself. He is for colbert-style economic nationalism regarding the protection of companies dubbed “national champions”. He accuses the European Central Bank for causing the current problems at EADS and for being the reason behind Europe’s (mythical) “de-industrialisation”, because, he argues, it overvalues the Euro and therfore undermines Europe’s export competitiveness. He overtly says he is for “un Etat fort” (a strong state) “qui protège” (that protects). This could be interpreted as left-wing socialist statement, but in fact can also be interpreted as conservative right-wing – it is also an authoritarian and paternalistic way of looking at politics. So whoever still thinks he is at least an economic liberal if not a social one, is by now hopefully convinced that even in economic terms this is not the case.
Immigration and “national identity”. When you are a true and convinced liberal, and not a right-winger adopting a few elements of economic liberalism when these can suit a conservative, you are also rather in favour of immigration and for more openness towards immigrants. Well, Mr Sarkozy has a discourse of “chosen immigration” – which in fact means expelling/flying back forcefully poor undesired Sub-Saharan African immigrants, treating them badly therewhile, and cointaining them inhumanely in North Africa. Last week, Mr Sarkozy proposed the creation of a new “Ministry for National Identity and Immigration” – obviously to appeal to the constituency of the extreme-right candidate Jean-Marie Le Pen who in the last elections in 2002 made it into the 2nd round and forced the French electorate to choose the very impopular Jacques Chirac as president (who had the decency not to join the presidential race, although he kept it until the last moment) as the least of evils. Anxiety with “national identity” is old in France, and is typically a right-wing discourse. What “national identity” is he thinking of??? A true liberal does not really care about the national identity problem. He/she sees society more as an “open-ended-adventure” where democratic debate creates national policy and in which prevails freedom for each individual to be and think and do and believe what/how he likes [and be of any skin colour and speak any language]. The only aim is to preserve those values of freedom against what destroys them. This liberal approach is definitely not Nicolas Sarkozy’s approach. The latter consists of imposing the French language (not that it is not useful to be able to live in France….) and to love-the-country-that-is-charitable-enough-to-give-Them-a-place if they want to have access to what the country offers, from jobs to citizenship. And Sakozy also blames the victims. He insulted as “scum” young people, most of them with French passports, sons of immigrants of the 2nd or 3rd generation, from those rioting suburbs where reigns above all lack of oppurtunity. Do you want to have a president who insults part of the population he is supposed to be in charge of? Not me.
Europe. Towards the outside, Sarkozy says he wants to save the EU constitution by scaling down its scope and passing it through parliament – just for the sake of keeping the EU up and running after the hard blow of the “no” in the 2005 referendum. Internally, though, Sakozy has made it clear that he has something against European competition policy (which is, by definition, liberal). Indeed, it opposed his move to protect an ailing company such as Alsthom when he was Finance minister. His recent ECB-bashing also reveals a lot….As for the reform the the Common Agricultural Policy: Sarkozy has so far been very very very nice to French agricultural lobbies, which is, again, a very right-wing tradition in France.
In France, the only “liberal” politician in the race to the presidency is Francois Bayrou from the centrist UDF party and former education minister. He recently almost caught up with Sarkozy’s contender on the left Segolene Royal in the polls. But Mr Bayrou has two problems: he is mainly there because the populism and demagoguery of both Royal and Sarkozy scare many people, not because he incarnates some particular ideas people want to support. And he is from a small party that would never be able to rule comfortably. Bayrou as -very hypothetical – President would need the support of a parliament that cannot be majoritarily from his party. He would need to create an alliance, either with the Socialists or with Mr Sakozy’s UMP.