This article appeared on Left Foot Forward
Alexis de Toqueville wrote of France “Has there ever been any nation on earth which was so full of contrasts, and so extreme in all of its acts, more dominated by emotions, and less by principles; always doing better or worse than we expect, sometimes below the common level of humanity, sometimes much above it”.
The tale of François Hollande as president is extreme, emotional and overwhelmingly negative. Hollande’s economic programme has been a big volte-face, illustrated in the replacement of left-wing finance minister, Arnaud Montebourg, who described the efforts to reduce budget deficits in the Eurozone as Kafkaesque, in favour of centrist Emmanuel Macron who has questioned the French 35-hour working week.
The other big feature of Hollande’s presidential campaign was that he would be Monsieur Normal in comparison to bling-bling Sarkozy, who showed off his celebrity connections and flaunted his pop-star wife in public. French presidents have traditionally left their private lives at home with the press showing deference on this matter (François Mitterrand was able to keep a second family with the press knowing but not the public). But Closer, a celebrity magazine, snapped Hollande, looking very normal indeed, going by motorbike to visit actress Julie Gayet, with whom he was having an affair.
To add to the embarrassment, his ex-partner Valérie Trierweiler has just published a book. The blurb reads “I learnt about the infidelity of the President through the press, like everyone… And the man who I loved broke up with me in a communiqué which was eighteen words long”. Revelations into the private lives of political figures is a big taboo in France, which has won Hollande some sympathy. However as much as the French proclaim indignity, they have bought the book in such quantities that it became the best-selling book since 50 Shades of Grey. In truth, the media interest in Sarkozy and Hollande is symptomatic of a bigger change of more openness and in a changing idea of what is in the public interest.
All this has made Hollande a calamity. His approval ratings hit a low of 13%. But in truth the French political landscape faces a crisis of confidence. Hollande’s Parti Socialiste has never truly gone through the same ‘modernisation’ process that New Labour did. Whereas Labour moved away from socialism during opposition, the PS are moving rightwards while in power (and therefore against the will of many who voted them in) and under the economic straightjacketing of the post-crash Eurozone. The country’s debt just rose above two trillion euros and the unemployment rate is over 10%. The UMP, party of the mainstream right, who did not want to instigate a vote of confidence a few weeks ago because of their own weakness, may well choose the still-ambitious Nicolas Sarkozy as its presidential candidate, despite unresolved corruption charges.
Marine Le Pen, leader of the Front National, has been the main beneficiary of all the chaos. She won the European elections in May and recently won seats in the Senate. Le Pen could well knock-out either the main centre-left or centre-right candidate in the first round of the next presidential election like her father did in 2002. In his case it was due to a split in the Left’s vote; now Le Pen doesn’t require that, only general discontent with the political élite. A recent poll had her ahead of Hollande in an imagined second round run-off, although if it came to that in practice one imagines the French would get scared and stick with the establishment. The FN is like UKIP in that it appeals to those disenfranchised by globalisation and focuses its hatred on the elite and the EU. It is more economically protectionist and also has enough racist baggage to fill a 747.
Tony Blair described the divide in modern politics as less do with left-right as with open-closed. In a France where the Communist Party and the far-right National Front are simultaneously potent, this is a more effective analysis. French politicians of all stripes are sceptical about aspects of globalisation, particularly free markets, liberalisation and immigration. The French Left remains wedded to the big state. However this century France has had a right-wing president for twelve and a half years and a right-wing government for ten years. Lack of economic ‘reform’ is thanks to the right; not the left.
There is more support for the European Union in France than in the United Kingdom, unsurprising given the history. But similar to the inane posturing we see in the UK against Europe is a strand of bigoted anti-Americanism in France. For example 57% of the French believed Dominique Strauss-Kahn was set up when he was arrested for attempted rape of a hotel maid. The economic model feared by many French is seen as an American one, favouring profit and inequality over joie de vivre.
Guarding the French economy from liberalism is about something deeper in the French psyche about protecting their way of life from external threats. It is visible in the same way that the French have Académie française to protect the language of Flaubert and Racine from English invasion, while at the same time historically oppressing minority languages within French territory. Similarly the French agonise over Muslims not conforming to French codes of secular citizenship, leading to an illiberal ban on the niqab. In this light it is unsurprising the French are lacking in confidence. Only 7% of the French think their youth will enjoy a better standard of living than their parents’ generation.
Yet for all its faults, the world needs a strong France. The depressed, pretentious nation which votes in droves for the extreme-right is also the fifth largest economy in the world with a liberal democracy at the heart of the European Union. It can exceed expectations as well and we must hope it continues to do so in the near future.