It is the logic of our times
No subject for immortal verse
That we who lived by honest dreams
Defend the bad against the worse.
–Cecil Day Lewis
Most French voters, judging by opinion polls, are bored with the current presidential campaign. No wonder. Twenty years ago, in May 1968, when imagination was supposedly poised to seize power, some of them had rediscovered hope. Seven years ago, in May 1981, the left had victory thrust upon it when François Mitterrand defeated Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, and many people assumed that, after twenty-three years of conservative rule, a new era would begin. Now nobody has such illusions. Whoever wins the May 8 election–Mitterrand, the incumbent and favorite, or one of his two conservative challengers, the pushy Jacques Chirac or the smug Raymond Barre–there will be no political earthquake. This does not mean that the result is irrelevant. It does matter, for the future of the right, which of the two challengers wins the April 24 primary and, for the future of the country, who wins the runoff. But it matters no more than when similar elections determine who will be the German chancellor or the British prime minister. What is at stake is the person and the party, not the nature of the regime or the fate of the social order.
The way in which France is following in America’s footsteps is shown by- the growing importance of money and media. True, France has not yet reached the stage of allowing political advertising on television; when the candidates appear on the small screen during the official campaign period, access is controlled, equal and free. Even so, the advertising expenditure is tremendous. Chirac, Mitterrand and Barre stare out from posters throughout the country. The government record is extolled in pages of advertising in both the Parisian and provincial press. Add to that the booking of halls, the bills of pop singers, the fees for pollsters and P.R, people, and it is estimated that Chirac, the biggest spender, has probably already exceeded the permitted ceiling of about $20 million. (Yet who will really check the cut-price deals, the phony bills and other tricks of show-biz, life must the trade?) It is at Chirac’s meetings that the new pattern is most striking. As in a chat show, the star performer answers questions from a panel, his image projected onto a big screen for all to see. In the make-believe world of political show-biz, life must imitate television.
Another feature of the campaign is the disappearance of genuine ideological debate. Worried by Mitterrand’s advance in the opinion polls, Chirac has tried to rally his side by reviving the specter of the “Red peril.” But his attempt to depict a battle between free-trading white knights and collectivist Red villains fell completely flat. The left, after all, did spend five years in office, 1981-86, during which.time the very word “socialism” nearly vanished from the Socialist vocabulary. Today nobody buys the image of Mitterrand as a Kerensky paving the way for the Bolsheviks. With the ideological divide blurred, the election is increasingly presented as a clash of personalities: three main contenders in search of the presidential crown.