by Jerome a Paris
Sat Apr 21st, 2007 at 08:05:26 AM EST
Tomorrow is the first round of the French presidential election, which will see the two candidates with the most ballots (out of 12) go to the second round in two weeks' time.
First, some background:
Now, if you've been following the French campaign from far away, you've probably heard that this is pretty important election for France, as it supposedly struggles with a stagnant economy, an overbearing State, poorly integrated and riotous Muslims in the suburbs, and a somber mood. A new generation is coming to power, offering a glimmer of hope of "reform" and finally bringing France into the globalised, English-speaking and market-friendly 21st century.
More recently, you've probably sensed disappointment with Ségolène Royal. She had shaken up the Socialist party with her modern campaign style and had created hopes of a "Blairist style modernisation" of the French left (she even had nice words about Tony Blair's policies, never mind that she was praising the fact that the UK has been increasing State spending on education and healthcare, and critical words about the 35-hour week, never mind that it was to criticize it for being too favorable to companies). But alas, pundits noted that her programme, unveiled in February, was actually on the left, something clearly unacceptable; they thus decreed that her campaign was flawed, flailing and failing, and that has been the buzz ever since. François Bayrou, the leader of the center-right and pro-European UDF party stepped into the breach and became seen as the proper "leftwing" alternative to Sarkozy.
Sarkozy himself has been seen as the great big hope "for" France. The New York Times' "straight-talking, America-loving, Israel-favoring son and grandson of immigrants whose electoral acrobatics are most transparently a short-term contrivance" has been described everywhere serious as the man most able to get the French back to work, French diplomacy appropriately friendly to the USA, and Europe to further liberalise as is (or so say the conventional wisdom of these serious people) so sorely needed. As the above wording from the NYT suggests, Sarkozy has not been altogether consistent in his support of reform, and his discourse (and earlier acts while Minister) have a distinct intereventionist and Statist streak, but hey, he's French, what else can one expect form these people - but at least he's not a socialist, let alone an unreconstructed one or the more exotic varieties of extremist lefties that you can find in that sorry country.
Throughout, the dominant theme is that of a country in dire straits, which urgently needs its reformist medecine. As the WSJ puts it, "[t]he recipe isn't complicated: Lower taxes to reduce wage costs, tighten rules government benefits, loosen up employment protection laws, for starters." The story is simple: it needs to lower taxes and wages so that cheaper jobs can be created (for the poor excluded Muslims who otherwise riot and burn cars); If entrepreneurs and profits are no longer taxed, they will no longer need to flee to London or other similar havens of liberty; If France stops its antics, national industrial champions can be killed, reform can take place at the EU level and full liberalisation of all markets can ensure prosperity for all (the haves and the have mores).
Though not perfect (well, what can one expect, he is French, after all), Sarkozy has been branded, through sheer, mindless repetition, as the champion of that painful, but necessary, "reform" agenda, and his victory in this election will be interpreted as the belated acknowledgement of the French that they have to bow to the reality of the globlization and embrace it. It will be seen as a green light for policies focused on profits and on the needs of the rich. Conversely, his loss to Royal (or even to Bayrou) will be seen as a "head in the sand" moment and France will continue to be pilloried for its supposedly sclerotic economic performance.
Now that might not matter too much; after all, we know what the WSJ Op-Ed crowd et al. think of these things, and very little short of total elimination of any tax will ever make them think that the rich (I mean, the economy) are not needlessly oppressed.
But it does matter in terms of perceptions of the inevitability of "reform", and the orientation of EU policies, both internally and externally.
If Sarkozy wins, this will be seen as the knock-out blow to any kind of progressive policies in Europe. The 3 biggest countries of Europe will be invariably described as led by "reformers" (Merkel, because she is from the right wing CDU, despite her lack of enthusiasm for actual "reform", and Blair or Brown because they are the quintessential "reformers" in the eyes of commenters, even if that's a lot more true of their discourse than of their acts); the EU will thus be in a position to liberalise markets that have not yet been so freed, and will be able to conduct a nicely pro-American foreign policy, with 3 designated friends in power. Expect a lot of noise about energy markets (and containment of a resurgent Russia), toughness against Iran and probably China, acceleration of postal and railway liberalisation, attempts to "reform" pensions towards the City (London's Wall Street), and a mini-treaty on EU institutions meant not to be subject to referenda. It will be described the triumph of the right, and of the Atlanticists, and Europe will do nothing to oppose Bush. As to France itself, expect rude attempts to "reform" by Sarkozy, leading to massive demonstrations and strikes, unrest, and a very uncertain outcome.
If Sarkozy loses, the 5 biggest European countries will actually have parties of the left in power. Italy and Spain, with their undoubtedly leftwing governments will suddenly be remembered; people will focus on the fact that the SPD is part of the coalition in power in Germany, and that it is formally a Labor government in power in London. The momentum for "reform" will be very different. I expect that the EU will suddenly try to spend more time on a new version of the Constitution, sticking closely to the version that was rejected in 2005, but adding some sort of social declaration to make it palatable to the French in a new referendum. I also expect a new dynamic as Royal and Zapatero work closely, and, hopefully, bring Prodi and Merkel on board for a new start of the EU. Maybe (one can dream), the Europeans will grow a spine and finally find the needed courage to tell Bush that his insane international policies are, well, insane, and they will stop playing along dutifully. We'll see sour grapes in France, continued hostility to Royal and I imagine an unrelenting focus on her (mostly imagined) "gaffes", but the country will, somehow, mysteriously, not collapse.
I do think that the result matters elsewhere in Europe, as well as in America, as it is a vote, in effect, on the inevitability of "reform" and on the (strangely Hegelian and Marxist) sense that history is on the side of the neoliberals and neocons, with unregulated English-speaking capitalism the (proper and desirable) end of history.
A Sarkozy victory will be spinned as a sign that "even the French get it", and an encouragement to push further; a Royal victory, after the strong message of the 2006 midterm elections in the US, will be (even if it is spinned as denial) a sign that sanity is slowly returning to the world after several crazy years, and that, with adults in charge, we can actually go about tackling the real issues that face us.
Not the war on terror, but global warming and peak oil. Not immigration, but the fair repartition of wealth between the rich and the others. Not geopolitical instability in the Middle East, but the domination over our foreign policies by corporate interests. Not oligopolistic liberalisation of public services, but focus on fairness and the common good.
So yes, I root for Ségolène, and I am optimistic.