The Cliffhanger in France

The Cliffhanger in France

Would the American model be followed, or would voters choose another path?


Going into June 1, it was a cliffhanger. That’s when the results of the second ballot in the two-stage French parliamentary elections were to be decided, and the suspense broken. But President Jacques Chirac had already lost his bet in the preliminary vote of May 25. He had asked the French to give him a mandate. They gave his conservative coalition 30 percent of the vote (36 percent, if lumped together with other factions of the “respectable right”). The Socialists and their associates climbed back to 27 percent. Add the Communists, whose share of the vote remained a stable 10 percent, the radical Greens and those on the extreme left, and you get a share of more than 43 percent.

The united left clearly had the edge going into the second round. To avoid disaster, Chirac was forced to attempt a mobilization of conservatives (turnout was low by French standards, at 68 percent) and to play for a good slice of Jean-Marie Le Pen’s National Front vote. But the front itself, a disease, had also gained ground, getting 15 percent at the polls, and was able to keep candidates of its own in 133 constituencies. In desperation, Chirac sacrificed his faithful Prime Minister, Alain Juppé, and very vaguely promised change. On the eve of the vote, odds were he would have to call on the Socialist leader, Lionel Jospin, to form the next government.

But while elections matter, we should not be blinded by the ballot box. The ghost haunting Europe today is not electoral. The key question at the end of this millennium is whether the so-called American model will be thrust upon Western Europe or whether, in the struggle to defend their welfare state and other social conquests, the Europeans will be driven to invent a radically different society. Unlike the triumph of Tony Blair, which offers no immediate perspective, would a victory by the French left open the way to an alternative? The answer must be, as they say here, a Norman one: yes and no.

No wonder that the problem should be raised for France. In the trial of strength over the shape of Europe the biggest confrontation, so far, took place there in the winter of 1995. The French strikers and demonstrators not only forced their government to postpone the offensive against the welfare state; they also showed that one could reject the future the establishment offered. But they did not provide an alternative project. This French winter of discontent–with its historic refusal and its inner contradiction–now casts its shadow over the election.

President Chirac learned the lesson that breaking the long-established social contract will prove tougher than was assumed. Hence, his current calculated gamble. Rather than lose a parliamentary election next year, when the effects of additional austerity measures imposed in attempts to meet the European Union’s Maastricht convergence criteria will be felt, Chirac opted for a snap election now. Should his side lose, he remains President but must cohabit with a Socialist government, a prospect the first ballot seemed to foreshadow. If he wins, he can proceed with his shock therapy–including cuts in social services–with no major electoral hurdles till 2002 (though he also learned that the main obstacles are not electoral).

Yet it is also on the French left that this movement from below has had the greatest influence. It radicalized the Socialists to some extent, forcing them to give up not the single European currency but the orthodox financial interpretation of the Maastricht treaty, This shift, however, was not coupled with any fundamental revision of strategy. Nor have the political forces to the left of the Socialist Party, notably the Communists, provided any vision of a different society. The huge social movement, while having an impact on the ideological climate, has not yet found political expression. True, time is needed for such a transformation, since there is a great distance between a refusal and the building of a coherent alternative. The snag is that with the progress of the xenophobic National Front, it is not clear how much time is available. These are the key points I kept in mind while jotting the following notes during this strange electoral campaign, boring and instructive, politically frustrating and historically significant.

His Master’s. Voice. On the face of it, on the right the star of this electoral show, both hero and villain, was a thin, baldish technocrat, the 51-year-old Prime Minister, Juppé. He was the politician most seen on TV screens, the keynote speaker at spectacular meetings throughout the country, but also the man blamed for his side’s shortcomings, even by members of his own coalition. The impression, however, is deceptive. Chirac is the undisputed master of the conservative team, and this is clear not only because he intervened directly in the campaign on three occasions. In France, when president and prime minister are of the same political complexion, the latter acts as a screen for the former, the bad vizier protecting the reputation of the good sultan. Juppé could no longer perform that function efficiently because he was so obviously his master’s servant.

It was Chirac who in the spring of 1995 got elected president as the enemy of social injustice and who by the fall announced his conversion to financial orthodoxy. Juppé, as prime minister, had merely to translate this volte-face into practice. True, his clumsy arrogance contributed to the gravity of that year’s crisis, but the policy was not his own. The same is true now. The decision to stage a snap election was Chirac’s, and it even looked before the event as if Juppé might be sacrificed for the success of this operation.

The problem facing Chirac was how to present a purely tactical decision as one taken for the country’s good. He tried to justify it as necessary to strengthen his hand in Europe’s monetary permutations. But why would a drastically reduced parliamentary majority–the best he could hope for–provide him with a better European mandate? Besides, for most people Maastricht means misery and is thus no good.for getting votes. For a while it seemed that Chirac would run his campaign as Reagan’s heir, shrinking the state and cutting public expenditure. This line, approved by the international establishment and some U.S. correspondents, was dismissed by his pollsters as electoral suicide. Unable to preside over another campaign as the archenemy of the “social fracture,” Chirac was left with Juppé and the highly ambiguous motto of “change coupled with continuity.” (Juppé stood for continuity; only his dismissal might suggest a break with the past.)

The conservative coalition could not gain support on its record After four years and two governments, it was unpopular. Nor could it reveal its plans, since these inevitably involve a further tightening of the belt. Remembering that attack is the best form of defense, the conservatives questioned the realism of the economic progress of the left, assuming that people still remembered how the Socialists had promised to change life and then betrayed everything, including their principles. For the right the only chance of survival was the hope that the left would not look like a credible and genuine alternative.The rebuff of the first ballot proved that the resentment against the current rulers was stronger than the bitter memory. Chirac then asked his faithful servant for a final sacrifice–to resign as a scapegoat. But the President still clung to the same hope.

“Changing the Future.” La Vilette, the former meat market of Paris, is now a science park, and within it is le zenith, a modern 6,000-seat concert hall. One recent evening it was nearly packed, though the main performer was no rock star. The Young Socialists, distinguishable by their T-shirts and occupying the front rows, had been whipped to a frenzy by the time their party’s leader, Jospin-tall, bespectacled and, despite his white hair, looking youthful in his 60th year-climbed the rostrum. Three questioners were there to provide the cues for a good and well- rehearsed speech, the fans interrupting him time and again with cries announcing future victory. The youthful crowd was good too, applauding loudest in the right places, when he denounced corruption in Paris or the shameful nature of French policy in Africa, when he damned the National Front or promised to repeal the Pasqua-Debré immigration laws (a decision it took the Socialists a long time to reach). Why, then, a feeling of doubt rather than enthusiasm?

It may have been because of the stage management of this show or the oft-repeated sports slogan On va gagner (“we shall win”). The same catch phrase had been used in 1981 by a left that, having won, allowed François Mitterrand to govern in its place. This time, too, the Socialist campaign seemed too centered on its leader. Yet the unease was probably provoked by the other slogan presiding over this meeting: “Together with the young we shall change the future.” Sixteen years earlier, the Socialists were supposed to change life by changing society, but instead they settled down comfortably in the existing one. By now, when the pressure is to eliminate past social conquests, the introduction of progressive reforms may require mass mobilization and projects more ambitious than the Socialists have imagined. They do not really explain how and with whom they intend to build a “social Europe.” To spur the French economy and radically reduce unemployment, more may be needed than the Keynesian measures in the Socialist program. And their boldest proposal–to reduce the workweek to thirty-five hours without loss of income–may really imply “changing the future” and not simply the team in office. Awakened from their slumber by the social upheaval, the Socialists give the impression of being lost somewhere between Tony Blair and the deep blue sea.

To see whether their partners have wider horizons I went to Blanc Mesnil, a constituency in the Communist-dominated départernent of St. Denis, the remnant of the once vast “red belt” surrounding Paris, for a meeting with Robert Hue, since 1994 the successor of Georges Marchais as the first secretary of the Communist Party The hall was modern but small, and the performance less contrived, with the questions obviously unfiltered. The 50-year-old Hue, short, stocky’ bearded, with a twinkle in his eye–reminiscent of a joyful dwarf from Snow White–was more relaxed in this friendly atmosphere, less cliché-ridden than on TV; Nobody can seriously describe this jovial leader as the red with the knife between his teeth.

If the C.P. no longer frightens, is it still relevant? Hue argued that one should vote for it for two main reasons: to anchor the left on the left (read: to keep the Socialists from betrayal) and to give an outlet to the social movement. The C.P., however, does not have the tools for such a policy. There is plenty of space to the left of the Socialists (even electoral: nearly 20 percent.of the vote, judging by the first ballot of the 1995 presidential poll). To mobilize this full potential one needed, as dissidents within the C.P. argued, to create a “pole of radicality.” Instead, the party tried to dominate that space so as to be the inevitable governmental partner of the Socialists. As a result, no new force emerged. The leftish Greens signed a pact with the Socialists; and the C.P., with its 10 percent of the vote, will have little clout to influence its three-times-stronger partners. But there is a deeper weakness. The more radical proposals of the Communists–notably, for a sharp, immediate increase in the minimum wage and all low incomes–cry for a different logic and a different system that the party does not offer. Having finally smashed the Stalinist model, they have put nothing in its place. The party drifts like a ship without a compass.

It would be a mistake to conclude that the social tremors have no political consequence. The climate is altered within parties and without. Dozens of associations are now more active– defending the homeless, organizing the jobless, struggling against AIDS. A march of the unemployed has just crossed Paris on the way to Amsterdam, and labor activists are meeting with “intellectuals” to prepare the estates general of the social movement. Only, with so many certitudes shattered and the world changing fast, time is needed to find new forms of democracy, of organization, of national and international struggle; in short, to really reinvent the future and not just patch up an electoral majority. And time may be running short.

Southern Blues. With the white boats shining in the Old Harbor, Marseilles is as attractive as ever, but this is a sad occasion. I am here for the final meeting of Jean-Marie Le Pen’s campaign for the National Front in his favorite southern region. Just beyond the suburbs of Marseilles lie two of the four cities now ruled by the front, Marignane and Vitrolles, the latter won in February by Le Pen’s second-in-command, Bruno Mégret, by proxy: Having on the previous occasion exceeded the ceiling for electoral expenditure, he could not run, so his wife got elected instead. The other two are Orange to the north and Toulon,to the west. This is the area where the front can do what it hopes to achieve in other parts of the country–affect the second ballot by keeping its candidates on (anybody getting votes of at least 12.5 percent of the registered electorate is carried forward).

A sigh of relief. The sports palace, admittedly big, looks rather empty. Barely more than a thousand have gathered for this jingoistic mass. The singing is usual, the music more eclectic, with Beethoven’s Ninth and even a song of the French Resistance. Don’t think of a sudden conversion. At the book stand, prominent are authors such as Robert Brasillach, executed for collaboration with the Nazis. After the presentation of the candidates, we are offered Mégret as curtain-raiser. Small, smooth, slick and sinister, he is often dubbed the Goebbels of the movement. Lacking Le Pen’s charisma, this product of the best French engineering school, having transited through the Gaullist party, is now the organizer of the National Front’s strategy and propaganda. At 48, he clearly has higher ambitions. But, though he turns 70 next year, Le Pen is not thinking of the succession and is the obvious leader of the show.

Le Pen greets the public like a prizefighter amid hysterical applause and.entertains it for ninety minutes like an old trouper. The election, he proclaims, is a fraud. Since the real conflict is between all the others (“I hate the right even more than the left, because it betrays our principles”) and the front, everything is being done to defeat the front. He lists the key issues that are avoided: immigration, insecurity, corruption (“Ninety-five percent of the politicians, outside the front, ought to be jailed”) and unemployment, inevitable since French interests are sacrificed on the altar of Europe and globalization. He could end here but does not. He goes back to immigration and spends half his time on the subject. With a mixture of horror and relish he tells about a policewoman allegedly raped “by four Arabs and one black.” He talks about sparrows disappearing when there are no more cherries on the tree, and gets cheers when he insists, “We shall take care there are no cherries for them.” Overseas immigrants must be sent home. As he speaks of immigration, or of the Jews, passion seems to dominate calculations. With the front gaining ground among workers and the unemployed;more emphasis could be put on Maastricht and mondialisation. Maybe the change of guard will come sooner than expected.

There are some really encouraging signs–for instance, counterdemonstrations whenever the front holds big meetings. There were three times as many protesters in the Old Harbor as devotees in the sports palace. But one should not conclude that the danger is over just because the front will at most get only a handful of deputies. As shown in the first ballot–a gain of 2.5 percent from the previous parliamentary poll–the disease is actually spreading. Why? Each case is specific. In Vitrolles it is plain to see. A town for drivers, based on a commercial center, was shoved upon a village of Provence. The great expectations of the capitalist boom having collapsed, it’s now an overstretched city of 39,000, with high unemployment and no soul. Add a fishy Socialist mayor and years of infiltration by the front, and you get a recipe for disaster. In Toulon it was revelations of corruption and conservative collaboration with organized crime; in Alsace, nationalism in a region bordering on Germany; in northern France, the collapse of traditional industries. Altogether, the rise of the extreme right in the past fifteen years is due to structural economic crisis and the failure of Mitterrand’s governments to cope with it. As long as the left does not emerge as a radical alternative, the poison will spread and the National Front, with or without Le Pen, will see its fortunes rise.

The first ballot confirmed that the French people are yearning for change. Chirac, claiming he got the message, could not tell them who would carry the transformation or in what direction. As these lines are written, the right is trembling, Le Pen enjoys the limelight and the left is uniting in search of success. With the results of the second ballot, you will know whether to deplore the failure of the left to convert or start worrying about its victory. Or simply decide elections are not the real milestones of history.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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