2007 French Presidential campaign. A landscape of platitudes hiding a fragmented society

by Reda Benkirane



Aljazeera Centre for Studies, 25 March 2007


Why is there nothing rather than something? This – inverted – metaphysical question may well illustrate the French political life in the context of the next presidential election to be held in two rounds on 22 April and 5 May 2007. The electoral campaign that will end up with a new French Head of State has been so far characterized by its vacuity (no content or real matter of debate between candidates), its volatility (when everything and its opposite are said by the same candidates) and its extreme sensitivity to opinion polls. All the media hype is focusing on four out of twelve candidates – those who are accredited with more than 12-14% of votes –  jockeying in a kind of horse race which is daily alimented by opinion polls.

One of the main peculiarities of this campaign is that the real problems affecting the French society have never been debated with enough depth and rigour. The evanescent discussions which gravitate around the candidates' profile/itinerary rather than on their programmes reflect more a noisy communication and a marketing approach to political and economic problems than anything else. Most of the time the problems that interfere in the life of ordinary citizens but also that have international dimensions and implications were avoided. So far he world affairs have been completely neglected by the main candidates: we can't really distinguish them on issues of global concern such as the world governance, the role of UN, the economic weight of ‘Chindia’, the political weakness of EU, the challenge of demographic ageing, the environmental limits of economic growth, the US military misfortune in Iraq and Afghanistan, the political instability of Lebanon, the uncertain future of the Palestinian government, the Iranian crisis, etc. At the national level, France is undermined by the lack of competitiveness and the low growth of the national economy, the fractal inequality of revenues and the lack of job security, the persisting housing crisis, etc. None of these questions have been debated at the level we would expect in the context of the president's election of the fifth power of the world…

In the absence of debate and reflection on real societal issues and hard economic problems affecting the Hexagon, opinion polls remain the main feature of this versatile electoral process. In the case of the socialist candidate Ségolène Royal, polls were clearly the driving force that let her pretend to the supreme function: it is now unanimously admitted that, within the Socialist party, Royal’s candidature to the candidature was essentially due to her emergence from the opinions fog through polls conducted all along the year 2006. Militants of the socialist party who voted and designated Ségolène Royal last Fall as the Party’s official candidate were clearly influenced by the series of polls – even if they had the choice to designate candidates of higher calibre such as the former Minister of economy Dominique Strauss-Kahn. In this perspective, many observers of the French socialist party consider that Ségolène Royal does no more represent the left per se; her only significant political asset/difference is that she is the first woman in France that has a chance to become a Head of State.

The weakening of the left symbolized by Royal’s absence of vision can be seen for example in the political convergence with the right regarding the treatment of certain issues such as national security and identity. This weakness reflects an absence of clear political polarization to the point that it becomes  difficult to distinguish the left from the right among the main candidates.

The absence of real polarization between the French left and the right can be explained by an important external factor. France's elites are ideologically embarrassed by the confusing but quite successful British experience conducted by ten years of Blair's third way policy. The two dominant French parties find very challenging the British experience but are not very inspired by the ideological doctrine which was able to lead within a decade to the reduction of the unemployment rate (less than 6%), to the decrease of economic disparities and to the massive investments in public health, transport and education. The British left under the doctrine of Antony Giddens' third way has succeeded in opening the economy to globalization while reinforcing and revitalizing the State sector by creating more than half a million jobs.

In addition to the embarrassing confrontation with what happened in UK during the last decade, the ideological confusion and lack of polarization between the main French parties (Socialist party and UMP) is also shown through the recent significant rise of the centrist candidate François Bayrou (UDF) and the fragmentation of the political landscape represented by a significant number of ‘small candidates’ who come from the extreme left of the political spectrum (Marie Georges Buffet, José Bové, Olivier Besancenot, Arlette Laguiller) representing each less than 5% of the electorate. 

If opinion polls are instruments that measure the state of opinion at a given time, at best they can give a socio-political temperature at certain moments but they are not appropriate tools of observation when it comes to unveil the deep infralogic and powerful waves that drive from underneath the evolution of contemporary societies. The crisis of the democratic system that has been observed in many countries (like for example during the first controversial election of president Bush) is provoking a vague of populism and has generated an increasing and disturbing abstention rate. In recent presidential elections, there is a significant portion of the electorate that remains undecided until the last moment and therefore its behaviour is not measurable/predictable by polls. That is what happened during the two previous French presidential elections. In 1995, it was Prime minister Edouard Balladur instead of Jacques Chirac who was given preferred candidate by opinion polls, but in the end Chirac won with a large advance. In the 2002 presidential elections, opinion polls had spectacularly failed since they did not predict the collapse of the French socialist candidate, Lionel Jospin (who was at that time the Prime minister), and the spectacular rise of the extreme-right candidate Jean-Marie Le Pen. This major failure of opinion polls is partly responsible of the awesome chock that accompanied the seismic results of April 2002.

The hype around candidates and the overweight of opinion polls hide one more time the increasing political and cultural divide between the French elites and the popular classes which have been deeply affected by the adoption of the Euro currency, the economic concurrency of Chinese manufactured goods and many other side-effects of globalization. This gap was manifest in the May 2005 referendum on the European constitution where almost all major political, economic and media actors were pressing the public opinion to adopt it. The referendum was a severe defeat to the political elite and it unveiled a strong and clear rejection coming from the popular classes. A few months later, the riots of the French suburbs confirmed anew this social and cultural divide between the elites and the greatest number. Young French people of African/Arab descent were in rebellion because of their discrimination in the education and the labour markets.

Contrasting with the current presidential campaign itself, a strong signal coming from the grass roots is the high number of registered voters which is approaching 41 millions and which demonstrates an unprecedented mobilization for a presidential election. Apparently, the campaign of sensitization encouraging the suburb's youngster to vote is to a large extent successful. In this perspective, there is a high expectation on the intentions of first-time voters who are young citizens from suburbs, victims of discrimination because of their ethnic origins and their religious affiliation. According to many grass roots associations, their political weight might make the difference between one candidate and an other.

In this presidential campaign, it goes without saying that there has been an inclination to use Islam as a domestic 'fear factor' but it has a limited impact since the popular classes are well aware of their real socio-economic problems that have nothing to do with the second national religion. One very  'small candidate', Philippe de Villiers – who desperately seeks to be the clone of the old right-wing extremist Jean-Marie Le Pen – , has built his entire campaign theme on the motto of fight against the 'islamization of France' and the threatening presence in airports and railway stations of French workers of Islamic confession (when in a similar way it would be unthinkable to denounce a 'judeization' of the French media or of the political sphere), This candidate is arguing openly and without any official condemnation that if ‘Islam is the bedrock of Islamism, Islamism is the bedrock of terrorism’. Clearly, the ideas that were in the past limited to the marginal political space of Le Pen's party Le Front National are now migrating to centre, being shared and widely debated by many candidates. In this context and in a response to a question related to French Islam, the favourite candidate Nicolas Sarkozy said  in a TV prime time show that France will not accept excision of women and people sacrificing sheep in their bathroom. This right-wing candidate known for his populist rhetoric on national security – and which was until very recently the Minister of Interior and of Cults, and has played a crucial role in the officialization and the instrumentalisation of the French Council of the Muslem Cult (CFCM) – was unable to answer in a radio interview to the unambiguous question of whether Al Qa'ida is a Sunni or a Shiite organization. A few days later, he announced his intention to create a Minister of National Identity and Immigration. Before that, during the suburb's riots, Sarkozy qualified the young rebels as 'racaille' (scum, rabble) and that France would need to clean them up with a 'karcher' (a brand of industrial power hose).

But despite the temptation to use Muslims in particular and immigrants in general as scapegoats and see them responsible for the insecurity, violence and unemployment of the country, laborious classes are more sensitive to the fact of the social and cultural divide between the elites and the rest of the population. In this context, the profile and the political orientation of Nicolas Sarkozy appear to be the most disconnected from the French reality and consequently his election which seems more and more probable would announce the most radical change in the country.

Paul Stéphane Sarközy de Nagy-Bocsa, son of an aristocrat immigrant from Hungary who arrived in France in the 40's, raised by his divorced mother (herself being the daughter of a Greek Jew converted to Catholicism), was not  known for a particular brilliant career in law nor in politics. His only real achievement was his election as a mayor of Neuilly, the richest suburb of Paris. Sarkozy until 2002 was a second role in French politics. Sarkozy really started to work on a national political destiny once he was nominated Minister of Interior in 2002. He fabricated his personality by showing that complex problems have simple solutions and that he is the only one in the political arena that formulates in simple words and deeds the solutions to France's inherent problems. This populist if not demagogic attitude, alimented by a constant media coverage, let him take gradually control of Chirac's party UMP.   Sarkozy is known for his acquaintances with the decision makers, and the higher class of economic elite. It is hard to understand how his populist speech  might meet the hopes and expectations of laborious popular classes, how the French working poor can recognize themselves in its apology of individual freedom and values which are not easily compatible with the ideals of equality and fraternity. Sarkozy, who is known for an immoderate personal ambition and who stands on tiptoe to look taller each time he sings the national anthem, is probably the first leader of the French right who evolves outside the Gaullist tradition. Sarkozy's populism is a highly speculative policy that relies on the hypothetical existence of a gregarious behaviour of the French masses. However France's sociology shows that such a docile and predictable population's behaviour will not be met. 

Among the series of uncertainties, the only certitude remains in Sarkozy's foreign policy. The man takes pride in claiming his American profile and individualistic ethics. He will probably follow blindly the American foreign policy  whatever the political price would be. Like Tony Blair and former Spanish Prime Minister Aznar, he will do his best to stand firm even against his own national public opinion in order to be a zealous Atlantist. Sarkozy who is more and more becoming the inevitable next French President, still approves the pertinence of the US invasion of Iraq, already condemned Hizbollah resistance against the Israeli attack, announced his opposition to any contact with a Hamas representative of the Palestinian government. Sarkozy’s political alignment with the US and Israel show that vis-à-vis the Arab world he will at best produce an inconsistent paternalism. Needless to say that having Sarkozy emerging in Europe and working side by side with the pro American German leader Angela Merkel will not promote the political independence of EU.

If opinions poll are correct when they systematically announce the victory of Sarkozy, then the next French president might be another populist and demagogic leader. But in this case, the French population will be very often in the streets, demonstrating its violent and irreducible opposition to a right that has no cultural base in the country. At the international level, the agitated but docile Sarkozy will certainly contribute to the political decline of France in the concert of nations, unless we see France's automatic alignment to US foreign policy as a qualitative leap.

The 2007 French presidential campaign shows a landscape of platitudes hiding a fragmented and anxious society.  For the French citizens, the future is not bright and will remain unsure as long as their problems are not treated by the elites. 

Reda Benkirane

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