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Vive la Différence

Are France’s more centrist politics better than ours (and not just for the sex)?

Sep 19, 2011, Vol. 17, No. 01 • By SAM SCHULMAN
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Leading all actual candidates is what a French Michael Barone would call Candidate X: a generic Socialist party candidate running against Sarkozy. The actual candidate will be chosen in two rounds of voting in October. Until he had to check out of his hotel in a hurry to catch a plane in May, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the head of the IMF and a man of Sarkozy-like personal magnetism, seemed to have the Socialist nomination sewed up. Polls showed he would beat Sarkozy with 62 percent of the vote. DSK’s notorious difficulties in communicating his feelings to women sold newspapers and prompted a good deal of anger within his own party, the partisan home of France’s feminist elite. But it also opened the field to a wide range of unprepared challengers, all luminaries in the party that is native to affluent, college-educated, bien-pensant France. They include the woman whom Sarkozy defeated to win the presidency in 2007, Ségolène Royal, Royal’s former common-law husband, François Hollande, and the mayor of the northern industrial city of Lille, Martine Aubry, who is also chairman of the party. These three and several -others are all competing in the two-stage primary next month. 

Subtly handsome Hollande leads the field in the polls. A familiar figure in French politics for 20 years, he may owe his emergence as frontrunner more to his figure than his program. Hollande’s sleek new look has been a triumph of presidential politicking (Governor Christie, take note). “Ask any French person​—​nine out of ten will mention his waistline,” as Jean-Bernard Cadier, a news editor for the France 24 TV network, put it. “Now what sticks with everyone is how much weight he has lost [17 pounds]. And for the French, this is a sign of strong resolve .  .  . a big asset for him.” 

Hollande was shown the door by Royal, the mother of his four children, shortly after her 2007 campaign. Her sudden decision to run against him is often described as the act of a scorned woman seeking revenge. But Royal retains her Katie Couric-like freshness at 57, and among the candidates she is the most photogenic and appealing.

The stolid figure and often scowling face of Martine Aubry​—​resolutely dumpy in a world of beautifully turned-out female French political and media figures​—​has gotten the most press coverage over the summer, focusing on her family life and her fury to protect her husband, the civil-rights activist Jean-Louis Brochen, from accusations that he is the “lawyer for Islamists.” He’s active in the left-wing Ligue des droits de l’Homme, which lies somewhere on the ideological spectrum between the ACLU and the National Lawyers Guild, and which feminists like Caroline Fourest describe as “frequently very ambiguous” on women’s rights when they conflict with the religious obligations of French Muslims, such as the veil. There are rumors that her partnership with Brochen is a mariage blanc​—​which the French public finds scandalous, instead of respectable.

Aubry, as mayor of Lille, was bound to be on good terms with that city’s large Muslim community, and she had made many public accommodations for Muslim religious practices that in the opinion of some were violations of France’s rigorous constitutional separation between state and religion and would never have been made out of deference to the sensibilities of Catholics or Jews. Aubry took the line earlier this year that the label “lawyer for Islamists” was a concoction of “ultra-Zionists” until a journalist discovered that the label originated in a 2004 book by the impeccably intellectually chic Fourest. 

Aubry, as loyal to her man as Strauss-Kahn’s wife has been to hers, defends her husband with litigation and repeated fusillades launched bravely at all enemies, from the lowliest pensioner with a blog to the president of the Republic. Sarkozy’s party responds by drawing attention to her attacks: The UMP party chairman told Le Figaro that Aubry is trying to create a diversion to distract the public from her lack of political ideas. “Aubry has a new idea​—​really? Will it shed light on the Socialist position on immigration, digital technology, or education? .  .  . No, she declares war on the UMP because it appears that the UMP has spoken ill of Martine Aubry.”

One leaves these heated precincts of loyalty, betrayal, conspiracy, and revenge with regret to turn to the policy differences that the Socialist standard-bearer will run on. What novel proposals do the Socialists offer voters? The candidates all agree on these basics: reduce France’s deficit to 3 percent of GDP by 2014, lower the retirement age (which Sarkozy raised to 62 less than a year ago) back to 60, roll back a number of other anti-unemployment measures, fund preschool for 500,000 more children, create 300,000 new jobs for youth, index the minimum wage to inflation, increase barriers to trade, and raise taxes.

With smaller numbers and percentages attached, there aren’t many of these policies that are unimaginable coming from a Sarkozy second-term government. Sarkozy himself is saying little, admitting that for the head of state, 2012 is too far in the future to issue election promises that would not be affected by the European economic crisis. If Sarkozy and the Socialists increasingly resemble one another, it is because they are, as many advise the Republicans to do, both seeking the same political center. The question is only who best can claim it: a pink UMP or a PS mugged by reality. The centrist voter may find it difficult to get very excited about that choice. And the picture is further confused by the fact that a former member of Sarkozy’s cabinet with an even more exotic name, Jean-Louis Borloo, is thought to be Sarkozy’s biggest worry. Why? Borloo may be building a centrist presidential campaign which aims to insert itself into the impossibly narrow space between Socialists and Sarkozyists.

Neither the Socialists nor Sarkozy would be attractive to a typical center-right American voter. Would such a voter turn naturally to the far-right candidate, Marine Le Pen? Let’s stipulate that the National Front has been purged of its racist and anti-Semitic heritage​—​and this may in fact be increasingly the case. A specialty of French political bloggers is to announce the discovery among the party’s supporters and staff of exotic political opposites: an Islamist and an Islamophobe, a neofascist and a Trotskyist, an anti-Semite and an ultra-Zionist, a hurler of threats at Algerian immigrants and a leader of the Algerian immigrant community. 

The attractive, mellow, and modern Marine Le Pen has been duly denounced by her father, although immigration and traditional values are her issues. Her sanitizing has attracted more supporters than her father ever had, from a wider range of people, but she has not defused the hatred and fear of the French chattering classes, for whom the National Front is still not salonfähig. To an American conservative, it’s not her ethnic/social appeal that would sound strange, such as her demand that French children be taught French history, not postcolonial narratology. But her economic policies are repellent to anyone outside the Pat Buchanan wing of the GOP. Le Pen is a Blue Dog Democrat in American terms: antiglobalization, full of schemes to protect domestic industry, picking winners among sectors and companies. In spending and entitlement policy she boasts that President Obama is “plus à droite que moi,” further to the right than I am. Her commitment to the state provision of cradle-to-grave economic security is ironclad.

There is no way that the political wish list of the majority of Americans who now say they intend to vote GOP in 2012 could be fulfilled by any of the French parties. We would have the choice that French economic liberals/social conservatives have: to waste one’s vote on a tiny party that aspires to reach a single percentage point of the vote, or to choose the lesser among a choice of evils that, as far as Tea Party policies go (constitutionalism, low taxes, and less regulation), are nearly identical. 

There is no place in French politics for a pro-capitalist, pro-constitutionalist populist movement like the Tea Party, or for any of the leading candidates for the GOP nomination (I’ll pause here while the cheering in the MSNBC studio dies down). But here’s what’s even worse about the center-seeking French system. It doesn’t allow any populist leaven at all in the political baguette. The grand gesture, the romantic, unattainable desire, and the purism of our various populist movements, right and, more commonly, left, have enriched our political culture by periodically scaring the pants off our political class, forcing its members to humble themselves by touching hands with the voters​—​reconnecting with them, even at the cost of losing face with the New York Times and party leaders like Nancy Pelosi. The necessity to retain this connection with disaffected voters, understood instinctively by Democratic members of Congress after the 2010 midterms, infuriates liberal pundits because they haven’t any feeling for it. What does France provide its voters in the place of populism? In 2011, instead of reconnecting with the French electorate, the French political class offers them​—​Bernard-Henri Lévy. 

Known by his initials, BHL is in many ways an admirable figure, and certainly a romantic one, thundering against the old left, denouncing any sign of reemerging Stalinism, taking stands that are reminiscent of America’s Cold War liberals of old. This summer, BHL made a lot of noise in support of two causes: the liberation of Libya, for which he claims even more credit than Sarkozy, and the injustice of his friend Dominique Strauss-Kahn’s arrest. In each cause, he imagined himself a prophet, giving voice to the demands of an aroused public​—​a public that is in fact rather cynical about the prospects of a happy outcome in Libya and the fundamental innocence of DSK. BHL is tone-deaf to popular ideas​—​that there is something corrupt about how DSK had been protected by the establishment while he enjoyed himself with women, willing and not so much, at the expense of the nation. BHL’s hymns to Libyan freedom and his self-dramatizing arrival in -Tripoli have not in fact made much of a difference to the success or failure of the Libyans who fought on the ground, or the NATO forces in the air. BHL himself is not to be blamed: It is the French political culture that we have just examined which has a weakness for the likes of BHL, even as it is deaf to the popular expression of political desires. 

Okay, so the New York Times editorial board has now joined the MSNBC cheering section. But even non-conservatives should recognize that the outcome of the French system is bad in this respect: It isolates politics, politicians, and lawmaking from voters. Think of our unenviable president. Obama is inclined to do nothing different during the next year, but were he to undertake any of a number of actions to conciliate the rebellious voters of 2010, he could make his reelection probable and put his party in a much better place. 

On the other hand, the president of France poses as a man of action, and may well be one. But his actions—​some of them ill-advised, some of them perfectly pitched​—​will have no consequences. For example, Sarkozy has spent the summer pushing a balanced budget amendment, called la règle d’or, through the legislature. The French public wants it, the Socialists, idiotically, opposed it​—​and it will not make much difference to Sarkozy’s lack of popularity or the Socialists’ lead. The French voter is accustomed to seeing the political class make solemn, unbreakable pledges​—​such as the promise that nations entering the eurozone would never let deficits rise above 3 percent of GDP​—then ​break them with electoral impunity. It was not just Greece and Portugal but France and Germany who repeatedly violated these terms in the early 2000s, as Holland’s finance minister scornfully declared recently. Our own president has discovered that Americans do not reward speeches unaccompanied by action. Sarkozy has discovered that the French do not reward action even when he spares them the speeches. 

Imagine a Sarkoized Obama (even if these statements are, clearly, packaged to feed the public). If Joe Biden were to say, as a Sarkozy adviser told Le Figaro, “When you’re in a war, you don’t spend time thinking about the next election.” Or were Jay Carney to declare, as Sarkozy’s communications chief did, “The president is convinced that the best way to campaign is to do his job—especially during the [opposition’s] primary.” Or if Obama were to think, as Sarkozy does, in the words of the same communications chief: “It is a time for decisions, not for speechifying. The French see what we do: You can’t establish your credibility by decree.”

Sarkozy’s strategy for reelection is not to say very much, not to expect very much, and to do what he pleases. On a number of matters it is prudent of him to wait, and even more prudent to remain silent. No one can possibly know the final outcome of causes he has been associated with, such as Libya and the fight to save the euro. An adviser put it well, speaking in July to Charles Jaigu of Le Figaro. Sarkozy disappointed those who voted for him, and they think they want a change. After they get a good look at the competition, they will see that “the president, finally, isn’t so bad.” 

American voters, both right and left, want more and get more from their candidates than “not so bad” because they have the power to punish those who disappoint them​—​by choosing to replace them with someone whose differences are clear and distinct, even if doing so alarms the New York Times op-ed page. Would ordering things here as they do in France, eschewing divisiveness and seeking the center, improve the health of our politics? No​—​except for the sex part.

Sam Schulman last wrote for The Weekly Standard on “Frenemies of Free Speech.”

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