The contest in France today is between the center-right UMP [Union pour un Mouvement Populaire], the party of former presidents Nicolas Sarkozy and Jacques Chirac, and the right-wing Front National, the party of the perpetual wannabe Le Pen family (papa Jean-Marie and his forthright blonde daughter Marine) for the hearts and minds of French voters. Hard to believe, but the nation that enthusiastically chucked Sarkozy out of the Elysée Palace 13 months ago to install with unalloyed enthusiasm his totally colorless Socialist challenger François Hollande now wants little or no part of the man they elected to serve them for five very long years.
At least part of the problem is that Hollande has done nothing to solve any of the nation’s most intractable, largely economic, problems — especially the rampant unemployment that continues to reach new peaks each month. And this from a man known as a consummate technocrat. After all, what better sort to put in charge of an economy in freefall — so many of those who voted for him posited at the time — than a man trained in the Ecole Nationale d’Administration and promoted to the top rank of its graduates as an Inspecteur de Finance, promptly going to work at the prestigious Cour des Comptes (Court of Auditors), which audits most of France’s public institutions.
But in his first year of office, rather than implementing socialist-style solutions to France’s problems, which went down to ignominious failure like a succession of tottering bowling pins, Hollande is now flailing toward some — any — solution. Indeed, he has begun adopting much of the philosophical coloration, without any of the flamboyance (which the French do admire in their leaders — witness everyone from the various monarchs named Louis down through Napoleon and Charles de Gaulle), of his immediate predecessor, Monsieur Sarkozy.
The latest solution was revealed just this morning with some evident glee by the center-left newspaper Le Monde, which plumped for his election last year and now seems to be regretting much of its intemperate enthusiasm. The paper details some 9 billion euros ($11.8 billion) of cutbacks in the next national budget as a giant step toward the socialist president’s objective of 14 billion euros ($18.3 billion) in savings for the budget in the coming fiscal year. Long forgotten, it would appear, is the traditional socialist mantra of spending one’s way back to fiscal health — a liberal mantra reaching at least back to the days when Franklin D. Roosevelt adopted pump priming as the route out of the Great Depression.
Not surprisingly, this latest twist has left many of France’s unemployed left-wing, the working class, somewhat at sea — at the least disaffected, and at worst howlingly outraged at Hollande’s betrayal. No jobs, no government assistance. Ordinarily this would appear to be little more than a tale of abject political failure, albeit with a large and important nation and its people as the unwilling and unintended, indeed somewhat innocent, victims (but for the fact they sent him enthusiastically to the Elysée Palace in the first place). But there’s much more at stake here then a simple politico-economic failure in the heart of Europe, if that alone weren’t enough. Suddenly, some close to Sarkozy are talking about a potential comeback for the leader who has maintained a studied, almost cloistered (at least for him) quiet over the past year. Hence the sudden appeal for his UMP.
In earlier times, a Hollande-scale of failure and ineptitude would also have sent chunks of the electorate fleeing to the PCF (French Communist Party). But that alternative dissolved with the end of Communism in the mother ship — the Soviet Union — back in the early 1990s. The wave of anti-communism that swept from Red Square across Russia’s East European allies did not stop at the fringe of the Iron Curtain. Other communist parties from Paris to Rome foundered as well, though in France a determined effort even earlier by its last Socialist president, François Mitterrand, had already pushed it to the brink. It didn’t take much of an ideological shove, then, to send it careening down to the rocks where it smashed apart.
So today the choices of France’s now thoroughly disaffected working class have been remarkably circumscribed. With little remaining on the far left, they are turning instead to the far right. I’ve often thought of the French political continuum as a circle rather than the traditional straight-line spectrum. Left and right have little real meaning in such a universe. In France, it’s a very small step, then, for the far left to make one little shift and arrive in the camp of the Front National on the far-right. And that’s exactly where many of them are now winding up.
On French television’s “Journal du Vingt Heures” (the 8 p.m. prime-time evening news), it’s not unusual now to see a French steelworker appear suddenly on the screen throwing his not inconsiderable bulk behind Marine Le Pen, the inflammatory blonde leader of the Front National, or marching arm-in-arm in some demonstration with Marine and her aging father Jean-Marie, the founder and patron saint of France’s right-wing. Often, their worker-supporters are identified on TV, quite strikingly, as card-carrying members of the CGT [Confédération Générale du Travail] the unabashedly communist trade union that still possesses much of the power on the shop floor that it had when there was a French Communist Party. Indeed, the CGT, with 720,000 members, even larger than when there was a communist party, is one of the last outposts of communism in Europe, or indeed most other parts of the world (outside, at least nominally, of China). It’s also the second largest labor union in France, only barely outnumbered by the more moderate CFDT [Confédération Française du Travail] with some 875,000 members.
The right-wing’s new labor allies are really all pretty much horrified by how inept and powerless the phlegmatic and uninspiring Hollande is proving to be in running France. A change some years ago in the French system does mean that there is no interim parliamentary election between the joint presidential and parliamentary contests once every five years. Of course, the president can, on his own, dissolve parliament and call for an interim election. But why do that and face almost certain defeat at the hands of a parliament that cares even less for him and his proposals than the current one, which is becoming increasingly divided and vocal as France sinks into the mire?
Instead, why not support the one party that is anathema to François Hollande and his demoralized Socialist base? The fear, of course, is that the increasingly strident rhetoric from Le Pen and the more centrist UMP, not to mention the reality of rising unemployment and shrinking wages, does pose one final threat. That the French consumer will simply stop spending, spiraling the economy into an ever steeper tailspin especially as public spending dries up. In France, as in much of Europe, the past may only be prelude.
David A. Andelman is the Editor of World Policy Journal. Previously he served as Executive Editor of Forbes.com. Earlier, he was a domestic and foreign correspondent for The New York Times in various posts in New York and Washington, as Southeast Asia bureau chief, based in Bangkok, then East European bureau chief, based in Belgrade. He then moved to CBS News where he served for seven years as Paris correspondent, traveling through and reporting from more than 70 countries. He is the author of three books, most recently, A Shattered Peace: Versailles 1919 and the Price We Pay Today. @DavidAndelman