Monday, April 16, 2007

The French election Post

As some of you might remember I do hold a dual citizenship and thus I will be allowed to vote at the French embassy in Caracas on Saturday 21. This is a very exciting election. For the first time I have still not decided who I will vote for. Well, I have an idea but I am not dead set on it. Why? Because for the first time since 1981 there is a real choice offered to the French people, there is a sense that we have reached the end of a political cycle that started in fact in 1973 with the election of Valery Giscard d’Estaing, a cycle where France was slowly leaving its post Gaullist period, establishing political change of majority as a matter of fact and creating a certain social consensus around important themes such as Europe, welfare state and organic foie gras.

The Gaullist period extended from the end of World War 2 until Giscard’s Election. It was the period where France realized that it had to get a stronger executive based on a stable majority. It took a generation to get this in the political culture after the preceding 3 generations under the chronic parliamentary instability of the third republic. The political generation that comes to an end with the retirement of Chirac this May was the one that created the two party state system, where a change in power became normal, where the bitterness of political discourse started ebbing some (although the new media age might compromise that). As of May 2007 France will enter into a new process of changing its mental construct to really deal with a multicultural world and a global economy. We might see the end of two strong parties with the birth of more or less stable coalitions as it is becoming the norm in many European countries.

But before I get into commenting on this year election I think it would be helpful to discuss the French electoral system some as many of the arcane decisions of the political candidates are based on that.

The French electoral and political system

France is neither a presidential system nor a parliamentarian one. In fact it constantly switches between them depending on whether the parliamentary majority agrees or not with the president. If it agrees, then France becomes a near imperial presidency. If it does not agree then we have a prime minister who rules and a president who becomes a traveling salesman for French technology and gadgets. The reason for that comes from a parliament and a president who are not elected at the same time, an inheritance of the 1871 tradition when France was not sure it wanted to become a Republic and created a constitution that could serve equally for both, meaning a figurehead President/King indirectly elected for 7 years.

But as the world changed the post-War French decided that the executive should be stronger, not as controlled by parliament as it had been for almost a century. Thus the presidential figure was strengthened by direct election and some other constitutional provision which gave the president preeminence in Foreign and Defense policies, no matter who had a majority in the parliament. This hybrid worked quite well giving France its longest period of political stability since the monarchy. Yet it did not please many politicians. Discrepancies between parliament and president forced Mitterrand to live with an opposition prime minister twice for 2 years and Chirac once for 5 years. So what did they do? They decided to cut down the presidential term to 5 years hoping that in general parliament and president will be together.

This results in that we have an April-May presidential voting followed by a May June legislative election, with the assumption that the freshly elected president would carry his/her momentum into a legislative victory to back his action for the next 5 years.

This was approved in a referendum, at which I voted NO as it altered the French system pushing too much potential power toward the president. In fact, as I will show below, this wishful thinking of the politicians 6 years ago might be proven counterproductive as early as next June when none of the candidates might be able to get a solid majority. France might end up having coalition government constituted after a presidential election, something that will undoubtedly weaken the presidency, admittedly not necessarily a bad thing.

The electoral campaign background

I will prefer to start by what the electoral campaign has not been. Two years ago it was conventional wisdom that the presidential campaign would have a major anti European contender and that the left would be very strong. Nothing of the sort is happening. All polls until today show a second round preference for a right wing candidate and all major candidates except for one are pro Europe. The expected scenario has failed to materialize.

How come? Two years ago France rejected the European constitution in a referendum that was supported by all sorts of left fringes, right wing nationalists and some mainstream politicians. The reason was that French people were mad at the Chirac government and it was a protest vote. Europe paid the price. Chirac has always been a populist. In fact he might be someone with a left heart who ended up as a right wing populist (some say, by the way, that Mitterrand was a right side hearted person who chose the left to reach power). The regional elections of 2004 which saw a socialist sweep and the European referendum of 2005 were a sanction against a lousy Chirac administration. He was not helped by being elected with an 80% vote in the 2002 accident that brought extreme right nut Jean Marie Le Pen to dispute the second round against Chirac. This sort of hid the painful fact that Chirac had posted a dismal result for a sitting president in the first round ballot, not even 20%. The final 80% was not a mandate and Chirac was never able to find the right tone to deal with this accidental victory. Many on the left who resented having to vote for Chirac in 2002 punished him at every opportunity through the next 5 years.

It is thus a traumatized French political class that started preparing itself for this presidential campaign, yet a political class that might have tried to read more into the referendum result than what it should have read. It is important to note that of the four candidates that have more than 10% at the polls, three of them are pro Europe and voted Yes in 2005 and between the three of them they constantly gather more than 50% of the voting intentions. There goes the 54% No of 2005. Also a mainstream potential candidate such a Laurent Fabius, who tried to capitalize on the Anti European vote, failed to become candidate of his party. Far from the protest vote, the French remain pro European in the core raising the hope that the new president will be able to negotiate some compromise which will allow Europe to restart its stalled machine (unless it decides to move on without the French and the Dutch).

The campaign is thus again a classic contest between right and left where the left seems to have had undeserved high expectations. However this time the protest vote might be a centrist vote through Bayrou, not without precedent in French tradition: Lecanuet, Poher and up to a point even Giscard d’Estaing come to mind. There is also a difference, the right left cleavage is paradoxically less stringent than in the past as the Socialist Candidate Segolene Royal is on the right of her party. The right left tension persists though because the right wing candidate, Sarkozy, is more on the right side of the governing UMP as he is more of an Atlantist, and economically more Liberal than Chirac.

The candidates and the campaign

I have not followed as closely the campaign as I used to do, I must admit it. But Venezuela has been keeping me very busy. Also there is the fact that I could find myself voting for either Royal or Sarkozy as I find both of them with great merits and great advantages. At this point, barely a few days before the first round balloting I confess that I am in that still astounding 30%+ of French people that has not decided who to vote for yet! I think that I will vote for Royal on the first round but I reserve my second round vote even if Royal makes it to the second round. Then there will be a debate and a clarification of some obscure areas of the campaign.

Thus, now that the suspense is over I can start by discussing all the candidates that I will not vote for.

The less than 10% candidates

There is a plethora of 8 small candidates who have managed to gather enough elected officials to sponsor their run (in France you need 500 signatures of elected officials to be allowed to run for president, something which is not too easy to get). Many of them such as Jose Bové thought that after the European NO they could preside over the construction of an “option altermondialiste”, and anti liberal globalization option, but it has not worked out. What we have is a cacophony of Trotskyites (plural!), divided greens, zombified communists, anti European (and nearly royalist) right and even a defender of the hunting community. All deserve equal access to French media which is more than can be said for Venezuelan media. All had to face hard questioning journalist to have access to TV, something that Chavez could do without last December. But then again France is a democracy whereas Venezuela has long stopped being one, even though it was not much of a democracy to begin with. But I digress.

All of these small candidates (none is expected to even reach a 5% total) have been squeezed for two reasons: the wrong calculation as to the European NO and because many French do not want the nightmare to have again Le Pen on the second round vote. This time on the first round people will tend to vote pragmatically instead of finding some protest vote. They will amount to little more than 20% when votes are counted and will probably split 1/3 for the right wing winner and 2/3 for the left wing winner in the second round ballot of May. That there is a potential of some abstention among them, and that as much as 1/3 will go to the right is something that must keep Socialist campaigners awake at night as usually these minority parties tended to be a socialist reservoir for the second round. This year they might not be enough as Segolene Royal seems to be in a difficult second position.

(This paragraph and picture added later) I did find a poll historical which is presented in a way as to illustrate how Bayrou vote has grown at the expense of Sarkozy and Royal, and how the small candidates remain stuck at the bottom. Even the decrease in abstention seems to favor Bayrou, who is thus a "protest" vote of sorts. The name of the pollster is immaterial as all of them indicate the same trends. A refreshing change from Venezuela polling... Click to enlarge.


The more than 10% candidates

There are four of them and I will start by the one that I will not vote for.

Jean Marie Le Pen

Unless the second round were to be between a Trotskyite and Le Pen, I cannot foresee myself voting for Le Pen ever, and even then. After Chavez, Le Pen does not look as sulfurous as he used to look and the French Trotskyites manage to look barely more democratic than Le Pen, believe it or not! So there is no point in wasting more electronic ink on him except trying to wonder about how come the man is still running after all these years. To begin with he has a stupendous ego, always a plus for a politician in the long run career. Second, he has managed, unbelievably, to convince some that “OK, I will keep the foreigners that are already here but no more will be allowed to immigrate to France”. With that he has managed to neutralize a lot of the racism associated with him. He even dared to put on some of his political adds some “colored” people, and got away with it. And thus Le Pen remains at the 12-16% that he has been holding since Mitterrand made the electoral rules change that allowed Le Pen to grow to this plateau. That deliberate strategy to weaken the right is not the best legacy that Mitterrand left to France. And Le Pen could well be again the spoiler, but I do not think so, too many people want a real second round debate to risk a first round protest vote, in particular when there is a much more palatable protest vote with Bayrou.

Francois Bayrou

He is, unaccountably, the protest vote, the maverick that came on his truck from the provinces to convince French people that he will manage the country better, keeping all the benefits that the French enjoy, while somehow paying the huge debt that France has.

But Bayrou is disingenuous. He has been a minister in past center right governments, He is not some hick from the provinces even though he tries to pass for one with his folksy fake speech (he is a writer too, although I have not been impressed by a biography of Henri IV he wrote, finding it rather boring considering the rich subject).

Bayrou also has the advantage to have a political career that does not depend as much on this year result. Le Pen is too old to have another run in 5 years. Royal and Sarkozy will have great trouble to maintain control of their party for 5 years if they lose. They lead the two main movements in France and thus have lots of potential rivals that will say “you failed, now you step aside”. Bayrou does not have a major party behind him and no real perspective to prevail in the second round if he reaches it ahead of Royal. So he can afford a folksy campaign with platitudes that he does not need to explain much. If it does not work this time, well, he can try again in 5 years.

However this is the real reason while I will not vote for it. Since he does not have a real party behind him he will not have the organizational strength to organize the legislative election of May-June. In fact he might not even have enough solid candidates to field in the nearly 600 seats that comprise the National Assembly. Thus I doubt very much that his potential victory will give him a stable legislative majority in June. His party might even be hard pressed to get even a 30% of the new assembly (which would be a huge improvement from the current handful it holds, but still not enough). This will be a problem as France is in dire need of some serious questioning and decisions on many social issues that have been postponed almost sine diem. The most likely outcome of a Bayrou victory is a France paralyzed for 5 more years as the socialists are certainly not going to be nice to him and the right UMP will just be bidding its time to force early elections and try to become a majority again imposing the Prime Minister.

Nicolas Sarkozy

There is a lot of appealing stuff in Nicolas Sarkozy. He is relatively young. He is a new generation of politician, even somehow newer that the one that should normally replace Chirac. He is energetic. He is aware of the many blockages of French society and himself being the son of immigrants he is rather likely to break some of the privileges that exist today in France, privileges that make the France of today eerily reminiscent of the France of the 80ies, the 1780ies that is.

The economical, social success of France and its stability has come at a price. Immigrants hired to pick up the garbage and do the menial jobs have now filled suburbia with their children who are not integrating well. The French melting pot is not working for North Africans and sub Saharan Africans because the French melting pot was a republican and non-religious melting pot, and the idea of the republic has been weakened along the recent decades. How can you integrate veiled Muslim women in the country of haute couture? How can you integrate Muslim boys when French culture is based on pork paté and red wine? I exaggerate of course, for the point, but there is some of it in the difficulties that France is experiencing in integrating its immigrant second generation.

Some measures are finally been taken. No religious symbols of any type are allowed in public schools, be they veils, yarmulke or crucifix on your chest. The idea of laical public education is reinforced to strengthen The Republic, such as it was done in the first third of the XX century. But the road ahead is long.

But that is not the only thing that ails France. The country has become again a caste society just as it was in 1788. These castes have been created by the success of French educational system in creating elites to run the state. From Polytechnique to the ENA, all the high spheres of French private and public administration are staffed by these graduates just as demographic studies indicate that the children of such graduates are more likely to enter these schools than other kids. And way much more than the immigrant kids of the “banlieus”. France suffers of a decreasing social mobility and the perception in France is that it is getting worse, and that Europe is not helping as the lower castes of artisans and specialized workers feel threatened by the famous “Polish plumber” of the European referendum campaign.

Caste systems have a way to generate their self preservation as too many people are willing to maintain the caste system as long as they are not in the lowest strata. Ask India. Thus France seems currently stuck and one if not the great failing of Chirac is not to have taken advantage of the very large majority he got in the legislative election of 2002 to drive on these divisions. But Chirac and some of his ministers such as De Villepin are products of that effete caste system. Their timorous populism made them wishy-washy leaders that did not achieve much in 5 years. Even if Sarkozy was a minister during that time, he still managed to project certain impatience with the system and that allow us to hope that an eventual victory will give him the means to tackle some of these problems. At the very least he seems to be the only right wing politician willing to discuss some of these issues in a credible way.

Thus is the appeal that Sarkozy has, a willingness to discuss a New France. That he would have the means to effect the changes is another matter, but at least he seems to have the intention and that by itself is a mini revolution. Sarkozy is a break with the right wing political establishment as most of them are still the heirs of the heirs of De Gaulle and are still stuck in a bubble from which there seems to be no escape. Sarkozy is out of that bubble, though this could also indicate that he has an adventurer side which is always very worrisome in right wing leaders that refer to the Bonapartist origin of the some of the French political right including Chirac. Also Sarkozy has shown a strong ability to insert his foot in his mouth and has had to apologize more than once even if in general some of these mistakes seem to have favored him. The main risk with Sarkozy is his potential to antagonize his very own supporters, and without them there is no way he can propel the needed reforms. His ability to reach above traditional politicians to reach some social consensus is little bit more than speculation, though there might be some evidence of a certain “popular” outlook.
Ségolène Royal

Right form the start Segolene Royal is a great novelty: she is the first woman ever in France that has a real chance to reach real power. At least since the regent queens of the XVII century. But that is also her main downfall: she is perceived as a novelty and many socialists are inclined to vote for Bayrou as he seems in a better position to stop Sarkozy in a second round. How they think Bayrou will convince all socialists, not even thinking about Trotskyites, to vote for him in May is not explained, but so goes the rumor.

Of course Segolene is much more than a novelty: no one reaches easily the top of the socialist party who has occupied for 15 years since 1981 the seat of prime minister and for 14 the one at the Elysée Palace. She made her way to the top because she has shown herself to have enough political savvy, ruthless decision and social compromise.

Once we get over the fluff of the novelty item, Segolene Royal has many appealing qualities. She is a single mother. That is right, she never married though she has several children with the same man, François Hollande, who happens to be the first secretary of the socialist party and as such had to step aside to let his ambitious wife run and he managed the successful bid of her candidacy. If her marital status is actually a plus for people like me, it is possible a downfall among some more traditional French.

But of course Segolene is more than that. The biggest appeal I see in her is that she has the potential of becoming a Tony Blair for the French Socialist. These ones are in bad need of an aggiornamento, in a need to abandon some of their doctrinal illusions that they keep from their “Jacobin” historical reference. Michel Rocard, Prime Minister in 1988 was the first one to try to bring the French Socialist to a more pragmatic approach to things. This was kept up with a limited success by Jospin in 1997 who had to work hard to convince himself of that need. Segolene Royal might be the first one that actually will believe into the new left idea, that can understand that the world has moved away from the certainties of the cold war era.

She also seems to be the more principled candidate of the lot. She has said that she will be willing to increase pressure on Iran and on states that do not respect Human Rights adequately, going as far as letting her name associated to a possible Beijing Olympic boycott if China refuses to put pressure on Sudan over the disgrace of Darfur. If one candidate of the lot might be able to resist some of the indecent pressures of Total like companies she might be the one. Finally, something that I particularly like in her program, she will try to put an end to that disgusting habit of French politicians who are allowed to hold more than one elected office at once. For example before becoming president Chirac was a representative of the Corrèze area while he was the mayor of Paris, a little bit as if the Mayor of New York were to also be a Senator from Arkansas (or the other way around?). Needless to say that such a accumulation of jobs can create very powerful local potentates, called “barons” in French politics.

Conclusion?

For the US public it is important to know that you cannot decide on French political tendencies with US values. Sarkozy no matter how right wing he is considered in France would probably feel much more at ease in the Democratic Party than in the GOP. And Le Pen would look quite acceptable for some sectors of the GOP. Whereas Segolene would clash with some of the positions of Nanci Pelosi.

There is a strong consensus in France that the core of the welfare state must be preserved, that education should be free, public and laic. There is also a consensus that foreign adventures such as Iraq should be avoided. If Sarkozy is willing to help the US to get out of Iraq it is just that, to get out of Iraq before there is more damage done. Segolene also wants the US out of Iraq but might not help much. None of them, even Le Pen, would help the US remain in Iraq past December 2007.

But for the US reader the best choice might remain Sarkozy as he is definitely the more pro US of the lot, not pro Bush, pro US, that distinction is important as French are in favor of institutions and are quite able to differentiate between who is the accidental holder of the White House or of the Congress Chair and what these institutions mean for France in the long run.

As for non US readers. Sarkozy, Royal and ever Bayrou will mean the same as far as Europe is concerned. On other parts of the world Royal might have a more principled stand on foreign policy, bowing less to French economical interests when moral and ethical decisions must be done. Chavez might want to root for Bayrou who will just ignore Latin America or Sarkozy who is more likely to put economic interests ahead of Human Rights. But Segolene Royal is not going to be kissing Chavez anytime soon. In fact Segolene is not at all of the kissing type and some macho troglodyte like Chavez is not her ideal business partner. Which probably means that I will vote for her in the second round anyway.



-The end-

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