Thu Apr 19th, 2007 at 12:15:12 PM EST
There don't seem to be any spectacular changes today in the run-up to the first round of the French elections on Sunday. If the polls are approximately on target, Sarkozy and Royal will go through to the second round. If they're off target... But more of that anon.
For the last two or three weeks I've been mulling over why I'm not happy with this presidential campaign. No, not Ségolène Royal's. The whole thing. The themes and their media treatment, the underlying assumptions, the political discussion. More: the themes that have played by means of a submissive MSM, the trick shots that have rolled with the bias of underlying assumptions, the drowning of political discussion in a sea of information. Some of this is general, observable throughout the developed world. But I'm watching it unfold here, and it's what it means to this country, in the context of this culture, that obviously strikes me most powerfully.
We might have hoped, for example, that the presence of a woman candidate – in a position to win, for a change – might have had some effect on the chronic sexism of the French political world. In appearance, at least, it has. Only those terrible elephants from Royal's own party managed to get on record with male chauvinist remarks, back when she announced her intention to run. Everyone else, among pols, has been perfect. No insults, no insinuations. A woman is a candidate like a man is a candidate, no difference, why would you expect us to make one in the 21st century?
Except that the culture makes one, and the spin-doctors know it. Ask people – men or women – directly if a man is more competent than a woman, they'll probably um and ah and say no, of course not, not necessarily, it depends... But faced with the task of organizing within a comprehensible frame a stream of items of news, deeper, unquestioned, interiorised structures take over. And we see it is frighteningly easy to make out a woman is incompetent. Her campaign is badly-organized. She wasn't there on time today. She slipped up, made a mistake, said funny things, was vague, eluded a question. The media keep us informed of all this. The "false notes" are chronicled on a near-daily basis. They seep through to the media of other countries in the form "Ségolène Royal's faltering campaign". It's not that Royal doesn't do these things, it's that the media detail them daily and so people build them into their picture of the candidate. No need to say she's incompetent, just make it part of the news of the day that she blooped again. Meanwhile if the men in the running are slapdash, approximate, contradictory, vacuous, late, unpleasant or even downright irascible, no account is kept. And no one (or almost) notices, because this is playing on favourable terrain – the one where both men and women unthinkingly admit the greater competence of men over women.
Ségolène Royal, visiting the Great Wall of China, coined the word "bravitude" for "bravoure" (bravery). I don't think anyone in France has not heard of this lapsus linguae. I have read comments that suggest that a woman who can't speak French properly is not fit to be president.
Wednesday, 18 April, on France Inter (public radio), Nicolas Sarkozy had his bravitude moment. He meant to say "fatuité" (self-complacency), missed his way and said "fatitude". (Listen here, 1min 50 s from start).
How much noise will the media make around this (otherwise amusing) Sarkozy blunder? I'm not holding my breath.
So? It's tough for a woman, Royal knew what she was taking on, she should just have dealt with it? OK, why not, and perhaps she didn't deal with it 100% as well as she might. But I wouldn't hesitate to call what she was put through Swiftboating Lite™, with the difference that there were no open accusations to fight back against, it was all in the subtext, and so all the harder to fight. How many free points is it worth, being a man in a suit?
And those continuing assumptions – the fact that the campaign has not tested them or apparently shaken them up – about gender equality, or rather inequality, are one reason for my gloom. Another is the long-term trend that brings the ideas of the racist, xenophobic extreme right into the mainstream. Le Pen has worked hard at this for decades. Sarkozy has just given him a tremendous helping hand.
While Sarkozy fights Le Pen for far-right votes and centres the campaign on questions that are not Royal's best ground – security, crime, law and order, immigration (linked to crime) – keeping her away from questions that would be much more favourable to her – family, education, housing, society, the workplace – Le Pen has time to joke, or talk about the problems faced by pets. The effect is that Sarkozy is doing Le Pen's job for him. The leader of the main centre-right party is helping the extreme-right make their ideas more acceptable. What disturbs me most about this is not that I fear Sarkozy is mad or dictatorial (at least, I hope not ;)), but that the goalposts are moving. It's the Overton window sliding to the right.
Le Pen always says Sarkozy's working for him, and he's right. I don't think Sarkozy wants to team up with Le Pen – much rather pluck his feathers and be at the head of a single big party on the right. But watch out, Sarko – stealing other people's positions for tactical purposes very often turns out to be tantamount to joining them and backing them. That is, losing out to them.
And then there are the media, biased (as we've discussed before), but not only that. After weeks of relentlessly "objective" information, arbitrage on what is news and what isn't, snippets and soundbites, what ideas have come through? And the barrage of polls! The French really go in for polls in a big way, and this election has broken new records. The problem is that the (unreliable) polls tell a story that is more like a horse race than a political confrontation. People have their heads in knots thinking about tactics. If I back the horse I don't like, maybe he'll cut the final corner in front of the horse I really don't like. Should I vote "useful"? How useful is "useful"? Tactical voting. No ideas and a horse race. OK, so welcome to the post-modern era, how long is it taking you to notice that's the way things are?
Funny thing about "post-modern". It's like "globalizing". It's inevitable and it somehow favours the right.