The race is on to replace French President Jacques Chirac - who has been the most unpopular president since polling began - with a recent popularity rating of just 29%. Added to this, there are massive social and economic problems in the country, with 54% of the French think their country is in decline. In this context, the French Socialist Party presidential candidate should be the almost unstoppable. Yet Ségolène Royal's campaign has been a bit of a disaster, and her programme has been far from convincing to voters, as she lurches from left to right and back again. The Guardian has pointed out that her failings in opinion polls might be related to the conservative nature of the French electorate, but the newspaper also adds that although Royal complains of sexism, her support base is actually heavily male, with women supporters being the least loyal. [Read more below]
Royal has mostly built her political programme on conservative values, such as family, responsibility and authority. The Economist says her platform is an 'unorthodox blend of social authoritarianism with left-wing economics':
On social policy, for instance, she borrows language from the right: the daughter of an army colonel, she talks of discipline, order, family and effort. In her speech, she repeated her idea—which shocked grandees when she suggested it last year—of putting young criminals under military supervision. She has a post-ideological, modern feel about her.
Since then, Royal has pushed all the nationalist-patriot buttons possible, controversially declared that every family should own a flag and display it in their windows on Bastille day, and insisting that La Marseillaise, belted out by supporters at the end of her rallies. She has even talked about the efficiency of the Chinese justice system. The Guardian reports that she has been keen to assert her 'independence' from the Socialist Party mainstream. And the Economist reports that 'she stunned her anti-capitalist wing by insisting that “we must throw out the ideology of punishing profits".'
As I posted last year, Ségolène Royal is basically a French Blairite. http://liberation.typepad.com/liberation/2006/08/ideological_con.html Yet at the start of her 2007 campaign Royal was said to have shifted somewhat to the left, with the adoption of a long 'laundry list' of interventionist policies. It is interesting that the Economist magazine refrained from painter her as an unreconstructed socialist, and instead saw her left shift as mostly pragmatic:
What explains this leftward lurch? One explanation is tactical. François Mitterrand, a wily former Socialist president, taught that, in France's two-round system, a presidential candidate must first act to secure the political base, before trying to conquer the centre ground. Many analysts consider that Lionel Jospin, the Socialist contender in 2002, failed to get into the second round because he moved to the centre too soon.
Just as Royal has at times tactically swung to the left to shore up support to her left, her main rightwing opponent, Nicolas Sarkozy initially sold himself as being tough on immigration and crime. According to the Economist, Sarkozy then 'begun to temper such radical talk with softer messages designed to soothe and reassure the centre'.
This is an attempt to squeeze out the newcomer, François Bayrou, who is playing the classic centrist populist game. He has reinvented his image as a 'humble farmer' and talks of 'governing beyond the left-right divide'. This is smart pragmatic politics in a country where a recent opinion poll suggested that 61% of the French had no confidence in either the left or the right.
All this pragmatism and centrism is the way of politics in France. To see how successful this approach is, you have to look at the highly successful rule of Jacques Chirac - the man the Economist has labelled 'the master of political opportunism'. Chirac has played the centrist strategy very smartly, as the following section illustrates:
he has come to embody the non-confrontational, risk-averse approach to governing the country that, in many ways, has characterised French political leadership for the past quarter of a century. This manner of government is neither clearly to the right, nor to the left; it shies away from conflict, and it denies the depth of the underlying problem.....Yet, as president, Mr Chirac has compared the dangers of liberalism to those of communism, increased the state's overall tax take and defended the strained French social system as “perfectly adapted” to the modern era.... Mr Chirac conducted nuclear tests, yet converted to ecology; courted African leaders, yet defended French farming subsidies; promoted Europe, yet failed to campaign vigorously for its first constitution. In practice, the Gaullist Mr Chirac has governed as a politician of the anti-liberal left, or what the French know as a “rad-soc”: radical socialist.