Whither the French Left?

The twists and turns of the Dominique Strauss-Kahn case reminded us of this piece, originally published on June 4th, 2007, about the state of the French Socialist Party.

It is a strange consequence of modern democracy that a candidate who receives 47% of the popular vote should be viewed as having been soundly defeated. Yet that is exactly what we learned from the scattershot of post—French election media coverage, as the factoids flashing across the screens told the story of an electoral drubbing: Nicolas “Sarko” Sarkozy’s margin of victory over Socialist Ségolène “Sego” Royal was the largest by a conservative over a left-wing candidate since de Gaulle, and—factoid #2—this amid the largest voter turnout, 85.5%, since 1981 when François Mitterrand took power.

With the factoids fitted together, the op-ed pieces for the next morning nearly wrote themselves. It was a Cinderella story of a young dynamic neo-liberal sweeping to power, overcoming a disorganized and outdated left. Many commentators were quick to point out that Sarko was a French conservative, and that came with a few caveats. Still, the predominant opinion was summed up by the title of a Financial Times editorial: “France braced for a swift dose of Thatcherism.” The word “mandate” made its appearances, making me wonder if the term had been stripped of meaning in the new era. After all, one man’s mandate is another’s stolen election. Nevertheless, the pendulum was swinging through the watershed, and in the mixing of metaphors, history was being made.

I read all the election coverage I could get my digital hands on; still, I hadn’t quite had my fill of factoids. I was left wondering: exactly how much history was being made? What kind of mandate were we talking about here?

It turns out that Sarko’s “historic” margin over Sego was only slightly larger than Jacques Chirac’s over Lionel Jospin in 1995, 12 long and stagnant years ago, and nearly the same as that by which Chirac was defeated by Mitterrand in 1988. As far as margins go, the real whopper was Chirac’s over Le Pen in 2002—82%! In fact, the whole history of the French fifth Republic has been characterized by a fickle electorate tacking strongly across the wind, and then back, every few years.

From the outset, the media characterized the contest between Sarko and Sego as a battle of ideas, or, more fatuously, of “competing visions” for the future of France. Much about the election itself contradicted this storyline, but the newspapers had their meta-narrative, and they weren’t about to let go of it. Thus two starkly different candidates—the brash, Anglo-Saxon-style reformer vs. the glamorous face of the new left—would compete to reinvigorate a disenchanted electorate clamoring for a way out of the impassive Chirac era. This picture was complicated somewhat by the late emergence of François Bayrou, the anodyne centrist, though this was easy to discount as mere “voter dissatisfaction with the status quo,” a perennial theme cultivated by Bayrou as much as anybody. (He should have known it to be the death knell of third-party candidates.)

The storyline held up for quite a while, largely because much of what we learned about Ms. Royal we learned through the glossies, part of a concerted effort by her campaign to marry a soft media strategy with a grassroots Internet effort. It was, for a while, a stunning success: everyone accepted the wisdom that Ségolène Royal was the new Blair, a third way socialist. Though her political skills seemed somewhat lacking (she was a stiff debater, and embarrassingly gaffe-prone), her campaign for the socialist candidacy overwhelmed her rivals, the old guard “dinosaurs” of the socialist party, with energy plus that other thing—buzz. Hers, she declared, was a more representative, town hall-style democracy. She may have seemed vague or weak on specifics, but that didn’t matter: she was the anti-executive. Her favorite policy was the plebiscite, and on the tough questions she always said, I’ll put it to the voters.

Even her platform was town hall-style, inspired by suggestions submitted to her website by her supporters. It was also lengthy, with over one hundred policy points. Distressingly for those who had bought in to the third way fantasy, there was nothing third way about it. It was the traditional socialist platform, promising benefits to every social category. And what’s more, it arrived conspicuously sans price tag.

If there is a crisis on the left, it was evident in the lack of vision or courage that produced Ségolène Royal’s platform, a paltry response, despite the word count, to a country crying out for imaginative (read: new) solutions. France still reels from the social and political wounds of two traumatic years—remember the No vote on the EU constitution, the rioting in the banlieus, the anti-CPE student demonstrations? After Ms. Royal’s third way veneer had rubbed off, “Change vs. no change” would have been the more accurate storyline. Eventually, it became “Sarko vs. Anyone But Sarko.”

What is remarkable is that Nicolas Sarkozy is a figure so reviled by so many that Anyone But Sarko was a pretty potent campaign position. Ignacio Ramonet, reacting to Sarkozy’s victory in the pages of Le Monde Diplomatique, read out the indictment against the president-elect: “neo-liberal … authoritarian … pro-American … Thatcherite … [with a] security-based vision of society in which repression is the only answer to the claims of the lower classes and the young.”

It is a characterization widely held. Yet demonizing President Sarkozy will profit the left as little now as did earlier efforts to demonize Thatcher and Reagan. He, like they, is too able a politician. He has cherry-picked his issues from across the political spectrum, and then focus-grouped them and crafted them into a coherent strategy. It is no accident that the “environment” and the “plight of women around the world” were mentioned early in his acceptance speech. Having secured the far right, he’s now invading the middle: human rights and the environment are analogous to Reagan and Thatcher’s principled stand against communism in the eighties.

As long as Mr. Sarkozy can reasonably claim that by deregulating the French social democratic model he will place it on a surer footing, he will blunt attacks from the left. During the election, the best argument the socialists could muster against his proposed tax cuts at the high end was that they would “undermine social cohesion.” Social cohesion is without a doubt a core French value; still the sally missed its mark. France has the highest level of taxation among the major European countries; he argued for bringing France in line with the other large economies of Europe. Johnny Hallyday, the infamous French tax-dodging sexagenarian “rock star” (and friend of Sarko), was recently lured back to Paris from his chalet in Gstaad by the president-elect’s assurance that France would cap its tax at 50% of income, a figure that would give a neoconservative heart failure. Tax cuts have yet to become a virtue in and of themselves to the French right, as they have become to Republicans in America. If Nicolas Sarkozy is indeed the Gallic Ronald Reagan, then the revolution is still pretty nascent, and may well grow into something else.

In the meantime, while Sarko consciously fashions his Gallic “third way”—attacking globalization, appointing the excommunicated socialist Bernard Kouchner (founder of Doctors Without Borders and supporter of the Iraq War) as foreign minister, and the popular François Fillon (former Labor and Education Minister known for the Loi Fillon pension reform) as prime minister—and reaps the benefits in the opinion polls, the socialists continue to portray him as an extremist and a divisive figure. In the closing days of the campaign, Ségolène Royal even went so far as to conjure up the specter of riots in the banlieus, warning of the “violence and brutality” his victory would trigger. The Socialists had cornered themselves with their own rhetoric: Sarko is looking more and more like the conciliatory figure, and the left’s demonization of him more like an unwillingness to engage intellectually with the problem of reform.


Now, after this third successive presidential defeat, the socialists are in disarray, and a leadership struggle is in the offing. Various camps will vie for control, either to “modernize” or to return the party to its roots, while the battles over trade (a.k.a. globalization) and Europe (a.k.a. globalization) that have riven the party will rage on. How these challenges are addressed will demonstrate whether France is a laboratory or a museum of the left. How to straddle the distance between a pro-union anti-globalist left and one that is social democratic and market-friendly?

Before we follow this question too far, it’s worth considering the possibility that the question itself may prove irrelevant, since it assumes that the present global situation is sustainable and must therefore either be resisted or accommodated. That assumption may prove wrong. The present paradigm, which began when the fall of the Berlin Wall released an enormous pool of pent-up labor and demand, is an era of increasing trade and an increasingly interlocked global economy. Protectionism will never stem this tide, because the movement of manufacturing production and low-cost service from the developed to the developing world is far along and still accelerating. Much of the discussion among progressives now centers on how to ameliorate the downward pressure on wages that globalization exerts. This is well and good, except that it is a backward-looking solution to the problems of the last decade.

Meanwhile, in the 21st century, the global system faces the potential of structural collapse. It’s worth considering the daunting list of challenges we all face. Environmental challenges—of which reducing carbon emissions is only one—will lead to increasing scarcity of resources and goods. The potential for a global financial mega-crisis is now greater than ever; no supra-national system for managing such a contagion exists. Against such a challenge, the efficacy of traditional monetary policy is highly questionable, since the global derivatives market has largely supplanted traditional banking as the engine of monetary creation, and now dwarfs the financial wherewithal of all of our governments combined. The loss of US leadership, as reflected less in the blustery incompetence of the Bush administration than in the crumbling neglect of the postwar internationalist institutions, likewise leaves us with no supra-national means for dispute resolution. Are we to enter this new era as if the jubilant growth of the last decade erased all memory of the previous century? Are we content with a 21st century that increasingly resembles the end of the 19th, with grand powers contending over what’s left of our dwindling resources?

No extant government is interested in breaking the news that most everyone in the developed and developing world is unwilling to hear—that economies around the globe are addicted to unsustainable levels of growth, and the planet can’t handle it. The regular increases in the standard of living we have to come to expect in our lifetimes are irrational. The left, be it the Socialists or the Greens or whoever picks up the mantle of progress, must figure out a way to justly and realistically apportion the costs of sustainable growth between nations and among individuals; otherwise, the current global configuration will provide its own grim solutions.

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