France’s first round of presidential elections on Sunday was billed as a dramatic leap into the future. It was, to an extent, but, paradoxically, it was also a giant leap backwards into a not so happy past.
Unlike 2002, when France’s left split its votes among fringe candidates, leaving far right National Front Leader Jean Marie Le Pen facing conservative Jacques Chirac, this time around leftwing voters heeded warnings not to `throw away’ their votes and backed the mainstream Socialist candidate, Ségolène Royal.
On Sunday, French returned to their traditional voting pattern between left and right, giving rightist Nicholas Sarkozy 31%, and Royal 26%. The two victors will face one another in the final election, two weeks hence.
The biggest surprise in this election in which an unprecedented 85% of French voted, was the diversion of support for the far right. Le Pen won only 10.5% of the vote instead of the 20% many had expected. Large numbers of his supporters clearly decamped to Sarkozy’s conservatives, drawn by the former interior minister’s increasingly tough line on immigration and suburban crime, and his quite open hostility to Muslims.
France’s political life has been marked for the past century and a half by the profoundly bitter struggle between left and right. In 1940, France’s right the bourgeois middle class, the upper class, industrial elite, military and the Church saw the Communist and Socialist labor unions and intellectuals, and their Popular Front government, as a greater threat than Hitler’s Germany.
Stalin virtually controlled France’s left. He had just murdered six million Ukrainians, and a similar number of `anti-state elements’ and `capitalist wreckers’ in the USSR.
The Soviet gulag held millions of prisoners five years before Hitler opened his first concentration camps. Many French (and the Papacy) thought they were next and turned to Nazi Germany as a savior from Communism. Stalin, not Hitler was the real enemy of Europe and the Church.
This left-right blood feud continues to this day, albeit more discreetly and without recourse to violence. French society remains deeply split into the productive right, which earns the nation’s wealth, and the left, which spends it. Given that over half France’s GDP is spent by government, socialism has become permanently embedded in the national fabric, and will probably be impossible to seriously reduce without a real revolution.
So the left-right battles of 1848, 1871, and the 1930’s are back. There is precious little meeting ground or compromise between left and right as each represent constituents whose interests seem set in permanent antagonism.
But Sunday’s vote also created a fascinating wild card, namely the amiable Francois Bayrou, who got 18.5%. His small, centrist Union for French Democracy, squarely occupies France’s seriously shrunken political center. Bayrou advocates moderate reform programs that do not upset the cushy lifestyle and most benefits so beloved by French.
Bayrou’s voters and those who backed Le Pen and the fringe candidates of the left amount to 43% of the total electorate. How will this mass of marooned voters act in the next round of elections? So far, Bayrou has refused to throw his support to either Royal or Sarkozy. The leftists fringe candidates are heartily backing Royal and her Socialists, putting her neck-a-neck with Sarkozy in May.
This leaves Bayrou’s bloc as the decisive force and king (or queen)-maker in the next vote. Furious politicking is going on behind the scenes as Bayrou comes under mounting pressure to give his support to Royal. Though many French voters say they have little confidence in her, even more fear just how far right Sarkozy would take their nation and alienate its immigrant population, which now numbers 5 million, or 10% of the population. `Anyone but Sarko’ is the new rallying cry of the left and center-left.
Sarkozy promises major change; Royal promises mostly more of the same. It’s a pity for France that these two distant poles of her politics cannot at least compromise on some sensible reforms that will safeguard the nation’s social security net, excellent health care system, and high standard of infrastructure and government services while freeing labor markets long fettered by medieval restrictions, breaking the power of extortionist farmers, and slashing red tape.
France’s sluggish economy badly needs a triple dose of Cognac to liven it up and release that nation’s great productive energy. French cannot much longer get away with their derisory 35-hour work week, 5-weeks paid vacations and innumerable holidays, nor full pensions at 59 or 60. Not when Chinese are working 18 hours a day, seven days a week.
China is now even plunging into serious wine-making. Nothing, it appears, is sacred any more.
The solution to France’s current economic `malaise’ is a little more work and a little less play. Not violent Marxist revolution nor black shirts marching down the Champs Elysée. Compromise s’il vous plait, worked out over a fine, traditional two-hour lunch with some bottles of very good Bordeaux.