British Western Front in France, 1981 (cc) National Library of Scotland
ON SUNDAY, FRENCH VOTERS will go to the polls to decide whether Nicolas Sarkozy, the incumbent, or his Socialist challenger — and poll favorite — François Hollande will be president for the next five years. Though it took some time to gather momentum, the campaign has picked up in intensity since the first-round voting on April 22 weeded out eight of the 10 candidates. As is usual in the case of French presidential elections, the campaign has begun to attract heightened attention stateside, accompanied by the usual declarations of surprise that this is so.
The same American interest was in evidence in 2007, when Sarkozy defeated Ségolène Royal (Hollande’s ex-companion) for his first term in office. French voters at the time were determined not to repeat the same mistake of 2002, when voter apathy led to the presence in the second round of Jean-Marie Le Pen, a perennial far-right candidate and long-time bête noire of French politics due to his racist, anti-Semitic and xenophobic provocations. But part of the campaign’s energy was also due to the changeover at the top echelon of French politics. Though both Sarkozy and Royal were experienced politicians, it was the first presidential bid for both of them. Moreover, 2007 marked the first time in 26 years that Jacques Chirac’s name did not appear on the first-round ballot as a candidate for president.
If Americans have tuned in this time it is due to three principal storylines that have run through this year’s campaign narrative. The first is Nicolas Sarkozy, who has been a particularly visible French president for an American audience. Introduced in 2007 to the U.S. as “Sarko the American,” Sarkozy made it one of his first priorities to repair any lingering damage to the Franco-American friendship leftover from the Iraq War. As it has in France and Europe, however, Sarkozy’s act quickly wore thin for America.
The second storyline that strikes a chord in the States is the ongoing European debt crisis, which has haunted the continent for more than two years now and continues to threaten not only the eurozone currency and economy, but also the health and stability of the U.S. and global economy. As it became clear that Hollande was promising to revisit the fragile and imperfect consensus that emerged in December in favor of budgetary austerity, the reality dawned that more was at stake than just the resident of Elysée Palace.
Finally, the surprisingly strong first-round showing of Marine Le Pen, daughter of Jean-Marie and candidate of the far-right Front National (FN) party that she inherited, raised the specter of an unsavory element introducing itself once again into French politics. For the past year, Le Pen has sought to rehabilitate the party’s image by breaking with its neo-fascist and racist past, and in many respects she succeeded. Since the first-round voting, Sarkozy has accentuated even further his hard-right turn in an effort to appeal to Le Pen’s first-round voters, whose likely behavior in the second round is difficult to discern and remains the true wildcard that could upset Hollande’s expected victory in Sunday’s voting.
In the weeks preceding this year’s first-round voting, many political observers declared that French voters found the campaign boring, adrift, and irrelevant. With anxieties running high due to the debt crisis, many pundits suggested that whoever ultimately wins the election will have little choice but to buckle to the diktats of financial markets and Brussels technocrats.
However, the high turnout on April 22 underscored the degree to which France was indeed paying attention to what the candidates were saying, even as the first-round results for Le Pen and far-left candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who between them garnered almost 30 percent of the vote, highlighted the fundamental disconnect between the country’s political elites and its popular classes. In this, the outcome echoed that of the 2005 referendum on the European Union constitution, which divided both sides of the political spectrum and cleaved the country into the “France of yes” and the “France of no”: on the one hand, those who embrace a more-integrated Europe, and by extension the globalized world beyond, and on the other, those who recoil from it, seeking refuge in a return to national borders and sovereignty.
There are striking differences between the two remaining candidates, in terms of both their demeanors and their programs. Where Sarkozy is combative, agitated and impulsive, Hollande is conciliatory, calm and collected. Sarkozy has argued that in a dangerous and crisis-stricken world, France cannot afford Hollande’s lack of punch. Hollande has attacked Sarkozy for dividing the country at a time when it must come together to overcome the major challenges facing it.
They also differ on how to address the current debt crisis facing France and the eurozone, while warding off the looming threat of recession. Sarkozy seeks to cut government spending while liberalizing the French labor market to boost growth through increased wage competitiveness. Hollande has called for balancing the budget by increasing revenues and stimulating growth through investment projects funded in part through European institutions. Most importantly, Hollande promised to revisit the EU’s fiscal discipline pact to balance it with a European pact for growth. When first announced in December, Hollande’s proposal initially provoked anxiety among European leaders who believed that any move to alter the fiscal discipline deal risked reawakening the market doubts that had brought Greece, Italy and Spain close to ruin. But with the EU-wide austerity cure imposed by German Chancellor Angela Merkel already cutting growth forecasts, and thereby reducing government revenues needed to meet budget-reduction targets, Hollande’s call for a growth plank has now been echoed by a list of European notables, including Merkel herself.
Clearly, the outcome of the French election could mark a turning point in how Europe responds to the crisis. The signs of such a turning point are already evident. After a period where technocrats and market analysts usurped the reins of power in Greece and Italy, and dictated the terms in Portugal and Spain, politics — that is, the people — have returned to the bargaining table. Those making the decisions over budgetary austerity are once again accountable to those who will suffer the cuts. For now, the debate has remained within the bounds of “respectable” society. But if that line has held so far, Marine Le Pen’s showing in France, and the fall of the Dutch government due to the refusal of Geert Wilders’ far-right Freedom Party to sign on to harsh cuts needed to meet Brussels’ budgetary discipline criteria, show that it is under strain.
If you consider that between Le Pen and Mélénchon, roughly a third of French voters retreated to identity-based politics — one based on national identity, the other based on class identity — the implications of the crisis-fed backlash against the cosmopolitan European project as conceived by Europe’s elites become frighteningly clear.
It is easy to argue, as many do, that Le Pen’s voters are wrong, that Europe protects far more than it exposes, and that the economic benefits of open trade regimes far outweigh the costs. It is easy to point out that France is a country whose identity has been formed and shaped as much by its successive waves of immigration as by its “terroirs” and republican values. But the European project, like globalization, is one made up of trade-offs, and Le Pen’s voters, as well as those of Mélenchon, have for the most part come out on the losing end of those trade-offs. While the sentiments they express are not pretty, neither are they wrong, unless politics is no longer the struggle to pursue one’s interests through democratic processes.
Of course, there is no politics without trade-offs, and while the European institutional architecture is flawed, no system is perfect. But there is a difference between an imperfect system and a doomed one: the European Union’s Gordian knot of economic problems is technically solvable, but not without the kind of federalist leap ahead that is impossible for reasons of economic orthodoxy in Germany and political orthodoxy in France and elsewhere.
In this sense, Le Pen is speaking the truth when she tells her followers that Europe has left them behind, just as Sarkozy and Hollande are telling the truth when they argue that France’s best hope lies in saving Europe. None of them is telling the whole truth. Europe is, as Le Pen maintains, a runaway train heading for a wreck, but getting off that train will not be as painless as she suggests, and doing so alone is suicide. France can help push Europe toward a sustainable resolution of the current crisis, as Sarkozy and Hollande imply, but not without a dramatic reinvention of the nature of French sovereignty that most French voters would find unacceptable.
Contrary to what they all maintain, growth will not come from resuscitating France’s industrial past, but rather from being at the forefront of the global economy’s new frontiers. What is needed in France, as well as in Europe and beyond, is imagination — not just to rebalance the European project, but to reinvent it. And as an ensemble, Sarkozy, Hollande and Le Pen incarnate France’s — and Europe’s — collective failure of imagination. Faced with the choice between an old order no longer up to the challenges of the day and a new one not fully formed to address them, Sarkozy and Hollande have chosen to deny that the path ahead is a dead end, and Le Pen has chosen to pretend that the path behind is a solution.
Meanwhile, France is in far better shape for tomorrow’s economy than one might imagine, given the tone of the campaign. Indeed, it has almost everything it needs to excel and prosper. It’s a commonly repeated exaggeration to say that France has a cultural aversion to innovation. It is more accurate to speak of a general mistrust of reinvention. France must overcome this mistrust, because reinvention is precisely what France and Europe need right now.