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The Lady with the Popular Front

France’s rightists have grown too big to ignore.

May 7, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 32 • By CHRISTOPHER CALDWELL
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The French prefer “tenacity” to “cooperation” by a measure of 51-44 percent, according to a poll about political attitudes published this election season. By 57-41 percent they like “hard work and courage” better than “social justice and solidarity.” Such attitudes have not been widespread in France since the war. On Friday, Dominique de Villepin, the foreign minister who led France out of the Iraq war coalition in 2003, professed himself “frightened” of France’s right-wingers. As Attorney General John Mitchell said of the United States in 1970, This country’s going so far to the right youre not even going to recognize it.”

Photo of Marine Le Pen

Marine Le Pen

NEWSCOM

Present-day France, in fact, has just the problem that the United States faced in Mitchell’s day. An increasingly angry public, gripped by a sense of peril and decline, is going to wind up ruled by an elite that shares few of its preoccupations. In the first round of France’s presidential election on April 22, Socialist candidate François Hollande edged the Gaullist incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy. But the story of the election was third-place finisher Marine Le Pen, who took 18 percent of the vote at the head of the National Front (FN), the post-fascist party her father founded. Sarkozy’s UMP shares many preoccupations with the Le Pens’ FN. But neither party can embrace the other. When the second round is held on May 6, pitting Sarkozy against Hollande, most expect Hollande to become France’s first Socialist president since François Mitterrand, who took office the same year as Ronald Reagan. 

How did Hollande convince French voters that he was their ideal leader? He didn’t. He sat around not being Sarko, as the president is called. An exit poll found 38 percent of Hollande’s voters chose him because they like him; 60 percent picked him because they dislike Sarko. This may be good news for Mitt Romney, but it is not good news for France.

All Western social democratic parties have, over the past generation, made the transition from the factory floor to the faculty club. American Democrats and French Socialists have gone farthest, and now have scant support among the working classes they were built to represent. Intellectuals—like the anthropologist Emmanuel Todd, who has called this “the most important election of the postwar period”—can get excited about the fate of the Socialist party, but no one else can. The Socialists are the party of les bobos—a word coined by David Brooks in The Weekly Standard as shorthand for “bourgeois bohemians” but which is now much more commonly heard in French. Professors, minorities, the mega-rich, single women, and government employees … these are the core of the coalition. It is arguably mightier in France than in the United States because the state is mightier. Government spending takes up 56 percent of GDP. 

What traditionally made the Socialists weaker in France than the Democrats in the United States was the general disorganization of French political life. This year, however, the Socialists took two pages out of the Democrats’ playbook. Inspired by the Obama-Clinton contest of 2008, they held the country’s first-ever presidential primary, which muscled offstage the tiny Trotskyite splinter groups that often fragment the left-wing vote. And in last week’s first round, they undertook France’s first large-scale get-out-the-vote effort. According to the website rue89, activists say they knocked on 3,675,855 doors. No group of voters can be organized quite as efficiently as residents of welfare housing. So it was in ghettos, or “sensitive neighborhoods,” as the French call them, that the Socialists registered their biggest gains. Around Lyon, according to Le Monde, Hollande got his top score in La Velette, which is the poorest, the youngest, and one of the most heavily immigrant sections of the metropolitan area. In notorious Vaulx-en-Velin, the hometown of the late terrorist Khaled Kelkal, where the Palestinian flag often flies over the mayor’s office, Hollande raised his party’s score from 39 to 44 percent.

Hollande’s platform is nugatory. Next to it, Bill Clinton’s 1996 “micro-initiatives” look like the Sermon on the Mount. Hollande wants to cut ministers’ salaries. He has a complicated kind of apprenticeship program that permits one senior citizen and one new hire, if they happen to be found in the same company, to pair up and apply for a modest tax reduction. He wants to undo parts of the legislation whereby Sarkozy, in the hardest-fought political battle of his term, managed to raise the retirement age from 60 to 62. 

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