What is there to learn from the recent presidential campaign in France? There have been no shortage of commentators that have celebrated the supposed return to an ‘exhilarating’ and clear left versus right battle. But rather than being a return to traditional politics, the election actually represented more of the same: a continued decline of class politics, an increased erosion of political difference, an increased personality-obsession, and further increase in the decrepit state of the established left forces in France. [Read more below for an analysis of modern French politics]
The Independent newspaper in the UK published an editorial entitled An epic fight that brought politics back into fashion, which argues that France had a real choice, and ‘the greater victory belongs to democracy. French voters have given the lie to almost every doom-laden prediction about the future of politics in the industrialised world’. Likewise, the Economist heralded that there was finally ‘a genuine choice between candidates of the left and the right’. (Yet the magazine also celebrated that ‘this election has put paid to the idea that the French are wedded to Marxist-inspired hard-left idealism or to extremist nationalism’). Even Observer foreign correspondent Jason Burke wrote a long article about how ‘The campaign has been extraordinarily bitter, reflecting a polarised and divided people who know they are making a historic choice between very different individuals and very different programmes’ – see Sarkozy set to unleash new French revolution.
More astute commentators have found that there has been little real differences between Ségolène Royal and Nicolas Sarkozy, and therefore the election has generally been in line with western trends towards policy convergence and pragmatism. As one left commentator said: ‘Royal represents no real alternative. Her program is substantially the same as that of Sarkozy, and during the election campaign she constantly adapted to her rival’s right-wing policies. Royal is also an unconditional advocate of the interests of big business’. Likewise, in the WSWS article, Class issues in the French presidential election, it is argued that ‘The differences between Royal and Sarkozy are tactical, not fundamental. Irrespective of who emerges as victor on Sunday evening, the election augurs a profound lurch to the right’.
One of the best commentaries has been from Mick Hume, writing for Spiked. He says that the idea of a clear left-right battle is based on wishful thinking:
There is a palpable sense of relief among observers at being able to use the familiar categories of the past. The feeling is that in an uncertain world, we know where we are with an election that looks like Left v Right. In fact, events in France have much more in common with the demise of traditional political parties and life in the UK and elsewhere. Even in France – which, as Liberation [newspaper] says, invented the old Left-Right divide – it no longer exists in a recognisable form. French political debate might still use that language. But the words are now empty shells, without much meaning.
Hume also points out that although the French actually created the left-right political distinction based on revolution vs conservatism, ‘Today by contrast Royal, the supposed champion of the Left, is widely seen as the “continuity candidate”, the one most closely linked to the ancien regime of state intervention. She is, in short, even more conservative than Sarkozy, the pro-business candidate of the "Right".’ Hume (as usual) brings in the idea that modern politics (and social trends) are about fear:
one thing common to the alleged Left and Right in France is that they have both caught on to the modern politics of fear - whether it is the Right’s talk of ‘l’insecurite’ (fear of crime, terrorism, etc) or the Left’s complaints about ‘la precarite’ (fear of unemployment in the globalised economy etc)
There should also be no doubt that this election has clearly been a campaign focused on personality and image. Never before in France has politics been more ‘Americanised’ and focused on personal characteristics rather than polices. And in this type of contest, Royal was found wanting. A good article on why the so-called left have done so poorly can be found in an article by Philippe Marlière: France’s soul is still leftwing. He argues that French governments – especially Socialist Party ones – have recently made France much more neo-liberal, especially through privatization, and therefore, ‘Only the most fervent of free-market propagandists could seriously believe that France is a socialist state.’ Yet despite this, overall French voters are still rather leftwing – especially on social issues. Marlière then seeks to explain the apparent contradiction that in such a leftwing country, a rightwing candidate like Nicolas Sarkozy can win the presidency. Marlière blames the blunders of the left. In a similar way to what I’ve also pointed out in a previous post, Marlière says:
Ségolène Royal, meanwhile, conducted a lacklustre and centrist campaign that alienated much of her electorate. Instead of coming out in defence of the social state and social justice, she emulated Blairite tactics in an attempt to triangulate Sarkozy's politics. On law and order (the monitoring of young offenders by the military), nationalism and patriotism (the exaltation of the flag and national anthem), the economy (the dismantling of the 35-hour working week), education (the suggestion that teachers were lazy), she tried - unsuccessfully - to occupy the natural territory of the right. Politically and electorally, the strategy backfired. Royal's approach demoralised and angered traditional leftwing voters (many of whom none the less felt compelled to vote for her). It also disoriented working-class voters, who were unable to see any difference between the left and the right. In the absence of a coherent leftwing voice, some ended up backing the "patriotic" voices of Sarkozy and Jean-Marie Le Pen.
Elsewhere, Marlière has also written about this in Strategy sellout:
the moderate but socially reformist programme of the party was shelved. Royal was given carte blanche to develop her campaign themes, mixing Blairite soundbites, humanistic generalities and tough remarks on law and order. This was at best an erratic campaign, at worse, a farcical one. This electoral episode has underlined once more how cynical and how detached from popular realities this current socialist leadership is
We also need to understand how a rightwinger like Sarkozy could be so successful amongst the working population. A translated article from Le Monde Diplomatique, by Serge Halimi has posed the question of how ‘a candidate who has the support of employers, and who demands the reduction of corporate taxes’ can successfully ‘present himself as the spokesman of the people against the elite’ and win over working class voters. As an explanation Halimi turns to the US to show how ‘this feat was accomplished’ by Reagan and then GW Bush ‘mainly through a call to patriotism, resentment over tax, the invocation of traditional moral values and the fight against legal leniency, presented as the principal driver of violence and crime’. To do the same, Sarkozy has ‘made sure to move the demarcation lines from rich v poor or capitalists v workers, to salaried v scroungers and wage earners v cheats’. Effectively Sarkozy has successfully become ‘a man of the right adored by chief executives, and the defender of the working man’. Of course, Sarkozy also learned from the strong showing of the National Front in recent years, who has built up a substantial amount of support amongst the industrial working classes in France. As Halimi states, ‘Le Pen showed how a hardline rightwing line could attract support in the vacuum left by the Socialist party’.
It is clear that the class dealignment has been further advanced in this contest – with workers supporting the rightwing candidate to a greater extent than ever before. The WSWS sees this as connected to the decline of the Communist Party – which was once the biggest party in France – and the de-classing of the Socialist Party:
A number of the current strongholds of the National Front were former centres of influence of the French Communist Party. It was the reactionary policies of Mitterrand and Jospin, together with the servile support of the Stalinist Communist Party, which has allowed Le Pen to exploit social tensions to advance his own reactionary agenda. It is a fact that the chauvinist agitation against immigrants—which is at the heart of National Front policy—was first initiated by the Stalinists
The Observer’s Jason Burke has also correctly pointed out that Royal had little to offer workers:
‘But Royal - hindered by a lack of ideological coherence and a quarrelsome and jealous Socialist party - has failed to convince France's restive working classes that she has the answer to their concerns about international economic competition, immigration and decreasing household incomes’
Burke also correctly characterised the class powerbase of Sarkozy as being that of ‘working classes; small businessmen; the very wealthy’, which Royal’s and the Socialist relied on ‘coalition of urban middle classes’. This assessment is backed up in the Guardian by Charles Grant who has stated that ‘the French Socialist party is essentially middle-class (and very white), with a strong base in the public sector. The party has never had much support from the industrial working class’.
However the radical left in France also did not profit from the Socialist Party’s ideological decline and their loosening hold on working class voters. Perhaps this was because they failed to be able to unite in any sort of proper workers platform. Instead they all made it clear from the beginning that they wanted Royal to win. Even the Lutte Ouvrière (Workers Stuggle) candidate lined up behind Royal - whereas in the past this group refrained from giving any support for the Socialist Party. In fact, none of the radical parties posed any demands or even raised any questions before throwing their support to Royal. Perhaps as a result of this soft strategy they all did very poorly in the first round. Only the LCR (Revolutionary Communist League) candidate obtained an impressive result – of 4.2%. And overall – if you include the vote for Royal as being leftwing - then the left’s first round vote was actually the lowest since 1969.
As Hume argues, the rest of the west shouldn’t look with too much envy to a non-existence left vs right election in France, but should instead raise their horizons and attempt to create a 21st century version of the ‘revolutionaries who came together on the left side of the national assembly to stand for a republic of the Enlightenment’. I couldn’t agree more. And although it’s an over-used proverb, I think this election has definitely warranted the French phrase, 'Plus ça change, plus ça reste le même' — the more things change, the more they remain the same. The outcome of the Royal vs Sarkozy battle is simply business as usual.