Wednesday, August 1, 2007

Right way ahead for France

The French electorate this week forwent an opportunity to pick a woman as the head of the state for the first time, opting instead, by a small but decisive margin, for a sharp turn to the right. It’s a decision quite a few of those who voted for Nicolas Sarkozy on Sunday may come to regret before long.
For all his keenness to depict himself as an outsider, Sarkozy was very much a part of the establishment 18 months ago when economically depressed suburbs in cities across France exploded after two youths of Arab origin were electrocuted while being chased by the police. Two days earlier, Sarkozy, in his capacity as interior minister, had described petty offenders as “scum”; few months before that, he had vowed to clean out the Parisian suburb of La Corneuve with an industrial-strength power hose.
If soundbites of this variety, spiced up with a racist flavour, infuriated large numbers of people, they also served as a dog whistle that attracted the far right. The National Front’s Jean-Marie Le Pen received a smaller proportion of the vote in last month’s first round of the presidential election than he did five years ago because a section of his support base defected to Sarkozy, correctly viewing him as a more effective vehicle for the extremist agenda.
Not surprisingly, the next president’s perceptions of the present are coloured by his views of the past. Twelve years ago, Jacques Chirac admitted collective French responsibility for collaboration with the country’s Nazi occupiers. Sarkozy rejects all guilt on this account. Another favourite subject of his is the supposed falsification of history by those who find cause for shame in France’s colonial past. However, it isn’t very clear which colonial experience he fancies as a particular cause for pride: Algeria? Vietnam? Rwanda and Burundi?
He has been more ambiguous on the subject of the latter-day colonization of Iraq, describing the occupation of that country as a “historical mistake”, yet, during a visit to the US, chiding his own government for its “arrogance” on the matter, to the considerable annoyance of Chirac and Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin. The latter, while serving as foreign minister, responded eloquently to the Bush administration’s belligerent rhetoric at the UN. France played a vital role in ensuring that the US and Britain embarked on their aggression without the world body’s imprimatur.
This was unquestionably the Chirac government’s finest hour on the international stage, and its policy enjoyed an approval rating of 90 per cent among the French public. This helps to explain Sarkozy’s reluctance to diverge too sharply from the near consensus. But had he been ensconced in the Elysee Palace in 2002-03, it is likely that he would have followed in the footsteps of Spain’s Jose Maria Aznar and Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi by massaging George W. Bush’s bloated ego with unstinting moral support and a limited military deployment.
Unlike some of its neighbours, postwar France has maintained a certain aloofness from the US. This tradition, established by the president-elect’s putative hero Charles de Gaulle, is likely to be discontinued by “Sarko the American”, which in turn could precipitate a diminution in Europe’s stature in world affairs - not least in the Middle East, where Sarkozy’s attitude towards Israel closely reflects that of the US.
It is on the domestic front, however, that Sarkozy’s progress will closely be analysed, and his campaign benefited from the fact that he brings to the project a clear vision, unpleasant as it may be.
In his victory speech, he vowed to “rehabilitate work, authority, morality, respect, merit”. Whether it was used deliberately or subconsciously, “rehabilitate” is an interesting choice of word, because it carries the implication of bringing back into vogue something that existed in the past. You will seldom find its proponents acknowledging that the neoliberal “reform” process falls squarely in that category, for it is based on the assumption that rapid “growth” and “wealth creation” are contingent on further empowering the owners and controllers of capital while wresting from workers many of the rights that were gained after long and arduous struggles.
This is, in other words, a regressive process, its primary aim being to take relations of production back to where they stood a hundred or so years ago. Small bribes often succeed in restricting resistance to the backsliding. Trade unions tend to sell out, or become so bloated and bureaucratized that they lose the respect and allegiance of their members. But those that continue to serve their historic purpose of agitating and bargaining for better conditions face the wrath of the entrepreneurial classes: they are dismissed as relics of the distant past and as hurdles to “progress”. From the capitalist point of view, the ideal solution to the nuisance posed by organized labour is legislation that strips it of its powers.
That, in part, is the sort of thing Sarkozy has in mind. His supporters hope, and his opponents fear, that his influence on the economic landscape of France will be as profound as the effect Margaret Thatcher produced in Britain. He has the unions in his sights, not least because they proved a year ago that they can still summon up the street power to resist retrograde proposals.
The bone of contention last spring was the de Villepin government’s contrat première embauche, which would have made it easier for employers to sack young workers. It was ostensibly intended to combat widespread youth unemployment, but millions of French workers and students didn’t see why job creation should entail job insecurity, and they poured into the streets in numbers not witnessed since May 1968, compelling Chirac to order a retreat.
Sarkozy has frequently underlined the need to “liquidate the legacy of May 1968”, offering the impression that the events of that tumultuous phase in French history were little more than a mass mobilization in defence of the right to strike. In fact, the radicals of ‘68 were determined to overturn the power structure, and very nearly succeeded in bringing down de Gaulle. They were let down, above all, by a Communist Party fearful of seriously challenging the status quo.
Among the more prominent leaders of the abortive revolution of ‘68 was Daniel Cohn-Bendit, who now represents Germany’s Greens in the European Parliament. He recently advised Sarkozy’s presidential rival Ségolène Royal, the Socialist Party candidate, to back away from left-wing policies. “If she tries to play it on the traditionally socialist card, she will lose,” he predicted, “because France has veered right.”
So much, then, for the legacy of May ‘68. It was, in fact, liquidated long ago. Sarkozy isn’t inheriting a socialist state any more than Royal would have sought to create one, had she won last Sunday’s election. France does, however, retain elements of the welfare state. As Tony Judt commented in The New York Times a couple of weeks ago: “The dysfunctional French social model, we are frequently assured, has failed. In that case there is much to be said for failure. French infants have a better chance of survival than American ones. The French live longer than Americans and they live healthier (at far lower cost). They are better educated and have first-rate public transportation. The gap between rich and poor is narrower than in the US or Britain, and there are fewer poor people.”
Much of this may no longer hold true once Sarkozy has had his way, but there can be little question that his campaign benefited enormously from the incoherence of the competing vision. Royal was unable to offer voters much more than a vague, unexciting continuity. It wasn’t entirely her fault: the fractious Socialist Party was never solidly behind her, and some socialist voters decided that a dose of Sarkozisme was likelier to reinvigorate the left than a bout of Royalisme. However, the risk is that five or 10 years of Sarkozy could drastically alter the shape of French politics, paving the way for a situation analogous to that of Britain, where the Thatcherite legacy found the ideal host in New Labour.
European social democracy has been in decline for decades: most of the parties associated with that label have convinced themselves that there is no alternative to neoliberal economics and, furthermore, that deviations from the capitalist path are indefensible on the electoral battlefield. No one exemplifies this trend better than Sarkozy’s friend and admirer Tony Blair. The centre has shifted, making it simpler for conservatism to slide towards extremist variants of the creed. Sarkozy, with his appeals to nationalist pride, is one of the consequences. If the drift continues, it is not inconceivable that the far right in Europe will before long acquire “respectability” of the sort it hasn’t enjoyed since the 1930s.
“I will be president of all the French people,” Sarkozy vowed in his victory speech. The diminutive, polarizing politician’s tall claim will severely be tested once he begins implementing his agenda after next month’s parliamentary elections. One of his first targets is likely to be the 35-hour working week. And a harsh crackdown on “delinquency” could reduce France’s unemployment problem the American way: by increasing the prison population, with disproportionate representation for non-whites.

There is a small possibility, of course, that the reality of power will moderate Sarkozy’s crypto-fascist tendencies. However, given that their new president appears to have little time for notions such as liberté, egalité and fraternité, it’s more likely that the plurality of French citizens will sooner or later find themselves rallying to defend not the legacy of 1968 but the spirit of 1789.

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