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Political Power Vacuum in France

The Americanization of French Politics

by SERGE HALIMI

Paris.

At first glance the contrast could hardly be greater. In Germany, the main political parties, the Christian Democratic Union and the Social Democratic Party, have agreed to share power, after expressing (polite) differences before the voters. In France, the right and the left abuse each other to the point that one might imagine they differ about almost everything — levels of taxation, social security and immigration policy. Nevertheless, with a distinct prospect of a rematch for the Elysée with the same leading contenders as in 2012, and the media already setting the scene, Nicolas Sarkozy and François Hollande might do well to follow the example of Angela Merkel and Sigmar Gabriel, and join forces to form a government that would more or less continue to follow the direction of the past 30 years.

Hollande, in Devoirs de vérité (The Duties of Truth, 2006), admitted that the Socialists and the liberal right were of one mind on European economic, financial, monetary, trade and industrial policy: “It was François Mitterrand … with Pierre Bérégovoy … who deregulated the French economy and effectively opened the way for all forms of competition. It was Jacques Delors who … helped to establish the European monetary system with its political implications for the development of macroeconomic policy. It was Lionel Jospin who introduced the most innovative industrial changes, even though it meant partly privatising utilities — a move for which he was criticised. So, let’s get rid of this wretched ideological baggage that deceives no one” (1). Eight years later, there is nothing to add.

It is this lack of grip on the direction of the country that explains why French people object to the sound and fury of their political class, all the more so because parliamentary representation is monopolised by two rival, complicit factions. The Socialists and the right may hold 92.2% of seats in the National Assembly and 89% in the Senate, but public opinion does not like the government’s decisions, and the conservative opposition is barely less unpopular. No matter: the regime holds firm, backed by institutions that confer full powers on the president, including the power to defer without limit an environmental tax (the Ecotax) approved by almost all members of parliament.

But French people are rebellious, and encouraged in that because politicians are discredited and clearly have no vision to offer. Moreover, the press constantly reports and exaggerates malicious gossip and personal squabbles. The poisonous indiscretions attributed to Sarkozy’s comments on his political friends are a more rewarding line for journalists to pursue than Socialist attacks on the prime minister, Jean-Marc Ayrault. That kind of atmosphere encourages a widespread Tea Party-style, neo-Poujadist movement outside the traditional parties, through intermittent outbursts of rage and the incessant tub-thumping of social networks (2). In barely 18 months, we’ve had small businessmen refusing to pay their taxes, Catholic crowds protesting against gay marriage, and farmers and truck drivers wearing the bonnet rouge (red hat) in the style of 18th-century Breton rebels.

Americanisation of French politics

The split between voters and their elected representatives is partly the result of the Americanisation of French political life: the largest parties are now simply electoral machines, cartels of local officials who rely for support on the ranks of senior citizens (3). It is easy to see why new members do not want to join: the instruments of any policy alternative seem to have been cast aside. Protests against gender education in schools or objections to tolls on motorways have no effect on the resources allocated to national education or to the level of tax avoidance, but they do provide an opportunity for a get-together, and the satisfaction of forcing a minister to give way. But the bitter feelings return a week later, when it is clear that nothing has really changed because nothing depends on a minister’s decision. Or on the Elysée.

Hollande, when he came to power, immediately chose to stick to a course he had promised to change: caution rather than courage (4). The rest is just an act, a political puppet-show. As soon as the left takes over, the right accuses it of undermining national identity, welcoming immigrants and taxing too hard. When the right gets back into power, it immediately claims that it is being unfairly blamed for supporting privilege, and reminds its opponents (who have almost returned to their revolutionary ways), that they themselves had sometimes pursued policies more neoliberal than the right’s. The prime minister François Fillon took offence during a debate with the Socialist leader Martine Aubry in February 2012: “I am deeply hurt when I hear it said that we have favoured the rich. When you were a minister [between 1997 and 2000] the tax on capital was 10% less than it is today. When you were a minister, income tax was reduced. We impose a tax on capital, we have taken decisions that you never took on stock options, traders’ profits, workers’ retirement pensions … In 2000, Laurent Fabius [then minister of the economy] reduced the tax on certain stock options” (5).

A decade before, the opposition leader Laurent Fabius had blamed Fillon, who was then minister of social affairs, for not increasing the minimum wage enough. Fillon replied: “You didn’t increase the SMIC [the growth-linked guaranteed minimum wage] in 1999. You didn’t increase the SMIC in 2000. You gave it a bit of a boost, 0.29%, in 2001.” There won’t be a bit of a boost in January 2014. The same players, the same words, the same reasons: you just need a good memory to predict what will happen. In three and a half years’ time, the “world of finance” will probably be the Socialists’ “real enemy” once again (6). But for the moment, the banking lobby is safe with this government’s finance ministry.

The right would however be mad to admit that the Socialists are following the same directions as Sarkozy and Fillon, who were bound by treaties they had all negotiated and signed. In the right’s view, France under a Socialist president lives in fear, with immigrants everywhere and the rich departing; Figaro readers are told that Hollande is responsible for “the greatest exodus since Louis XIV revoked the Edict of Nantes”; that “the Ayrault government has decided to open the gates of state aid to children” to “condition them to be completely dependent on the state and remain on benefits for ever”; that “white heterosexuals in our country may soon be forced into hiding”. Give us a break.

Amid all these outbursts, the most explosive section of the right reproaches itself for its lack of vigour when it was in power and swears to make up for it as soon as it gets back in. The scenario is familiar, like the situation in 1983-86 that gave the Front National (FN) its big chance; then, the Socialists’ neoliberal course had horrified some of their supporters; the right, interpreting this as an admission that leftwing policies had plunged France into an abyss, claimed that a move towards a market society was imperative. The Socialists then attacked their opponents’ radical position and, being unable to defend their own poor economic and social record, resorted to crying “Help, help, the right is coming back!” Some senior conservatives made xenophobic pronouncements and attempted to form alliances with the far right, and the resultant uproar became the focus of public attention. Meanwhile, businesses were outsourcing their production and inequalities were increasing.

A new shock programme?

The right now has a shock programme for the future. In an interview in Les Echos, Jean-François Copé, president of the Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) laid it out: “the end of the 35-hour week, massive tax cuts and public spending cuts … No one can understand why the broadcasting system continues to cost a billion euros. Do we need so many public television channels? … With our state medical service, we are the only country in Europe that continues to cover 100% of illegal immigrants’ medical expenses. … Public spending now accounts for 57% of GDP. We must get back to the Eurozone average, approximately 50% of GDP” (7). Was Copé trying to suggest that the Socialists’ policy is genuinely leftwing?

Ayrault will not help him in that, having just announced that austerity will continue throughout Hollande’s presidency: “Savings will amount to €15bn in 2014, but we shall have to continue to save at the same rate in 2015, 2016 and 2017” (8). Public spending increased by an average of 1.6% a year during Sarkozy’s five years of office. The Socialists have set a target, limiting the increase to 0.2% for the next three years. They don’t have any choice, since the European supervisory authorities will remind them that the “public books can no longer be balanced by raising taxes” (9).

Things do not look any brighter on the production and employment front. The French government wants to restore the soundness and external competitiveness of national undertakings in a free and fair market. How? By favouring what Hollande calls a “reduction in the cost of labour”. And by introducing a universally applicable increase in value-added tax to fund a generous tax credit for competitiveness and employment, €20bn to be handed out to all profitable businesses, without requiring them to recruit any new employees. Underpaid employees will subsidise their employers including the retail giants, who have no international competitors and are buckling under the weight of their profits (10).

It may be useless to point out that there is nothing socialist about this policy. But we can at least observe that it is not successful. Within the euro, France cannot devalue its currency, so it must pursue a policy of budget austerity and reducing the cost of labour — wages (11). But the “improvement of the supply side of the economy”, painfully achieved by reducing the purchasing power of the average household, is immediately lost as a result of the revaluation of the euro against other currencies (6.4% in 2013). It would take a supreme act of faith to believe that a country with zero growth and low domestic demand, and with many of its best European customers facing poverty, can permanently reverse rising unemployment and cut public spending. This was tried in the early 1930s, by Herbert Hoover in the US and Pierre Laval in France, and we all know how successful that was.

In 1983, when the left abandoned the battle over economic and financial matters and severed all connections with its revolutionary past, it attempted to replace its old ideals with a universalist, antiracist, European utopian dream, as sold by artists and journalists. This doesn’t work any more. With Hollande, there is no hope, real or contrived, only the droning of an accountant caught between the expectations of voters, who believed one last time that change was on the way, and the demands of his financial watchdogs. He must constantly convince them he is conducting “a credible policy” because “any sign of weakness would be severely sanctioned” (12). When the only progress he’s pursuing is to spend less than Sarkozy, belief in progress dies.

Easy advance of the FN

The FN has advanced easily because of this general loss of hope: no one expects it to improve things, only to set off a little dynamite. Its claims to be outside the system, its undiminished political will and the radical nature of its proposals make its agenda more attractive (including its views on European issues). So it is no accident that a former rightwing minister and vice-president of the UMP, Laurent Wauquiez, well known for his opportunism, should take liberties with the Brussels consensus and propose (in December) to reduce Europe to a hard core of eight members “France, Germany, the Benelux countries, Italy, and probably Spain and Portugal, but not much more… With the UK on the one hand and the central European countries on the other, it is impossible for Europe to move forward … There are too many different countries with different sets of social rules” (13). Presumably this also applies to the euro.

The anti-capitalist left may be divided over the single currency (14), and the Socialists don’t talk about it. But even in their ranks, there are signs of a shared desire to find a way out, to recover some measure of sovereignty and hope. Shortly before he became a minister in the Hollande government, Benoît Hamon summarised “the left’s dilemma — to fight or to betray its ideals” (15). But his government is not fighting, and this, rather than its lack of success, is why it should be blamed. A bolder team would no doubt have faced enormous difficulties: a Europe in which progressives are weak and discouraged, and liberal and monetarist rules are increasingly strict — there are Socialists who rule on rightwing lines, or in collaboration with the right, in more than half the countries of the EU; a social movement stuck in limbo; a very low rate of unionisation (7.6% in France). But it is waiting for Godot to expect that some day leaders in Brussels and Berlin may have second thoughts and realise the economic and democratic risks involved in the austerity they have imposed. To react sharply to all the conservative opposition’s outbursts, in order to accuse it of playing to the far right, is to be resigned to the far right gradually commanding the game.

At times when fatalism and waiting for history’s tide to turn delay the work of regaining lost intellectual ground (16) and mobilising political forces, there is no alternative but to build up a confident, victorious social force, and take courage in spite of all. In the words of Glenn Greenwald, who took the risk of publishing Edward Snowden’s revelations about US spying activities, history teaches us that “courage is contagious”.

Serge Halimi is president of Le Monde diplomatique.

(1) François Hollande, Devoirs de vérité, Stock, Paris, 2006, p 192. Pierre Bérégovoy was finance minister between 1984 and 1986. Jacques Delors, who had been finance minister from 1981 to 1984, left Paris for Brussels to head the European Commission. Lionel Jospin was prime minister between 1997 and 2002. All three were (or are) Socialists.

(2) See Cécile Cornudet, “Ces politiques qui veulent faire oublier qu’ils le sont”, Les Echos, Paris, 10 December 2013. See also Pierre Rimbert, “Deserving and undeserving poor”, Le Monde diplomatique, English edition, May 2013.

(3) See Rémy Lefebvre, “Faire de la politique ou vivre de la politique?”, Le Monde diplomatique,October 2009.

(4) See Serge Halimi, “Sacking Sarkozy won’t be enough”, Le Monde diplomatique, English edition, April 2012.

(5) “Des paroles et des actes”, France 2, 2 February 2012.

(6) In a famous speech in January 2012 while campaigning for president, François Hollande lashed at his “real enemy”, “the world of finance”.

(7Les Echos, 10 December 2013.

(8) Interview in Les Echos, 19 November 2013.

(9) Interview with Mario Draghi, president of the European Central Bank (ECB), in the Journal du dimanche, Paris, 15 December 2013.

(10) See Martine Bulard, “Neoliberality, inequality, austerity”, Le Monde diplomatique, English edition, April 2013.

(11) See Christine Jaske, “Vous avez dit ‘baisser les charges’?”, Le Monde diplomatique, November 2012. On 17 December 2013, asked by RMC-BFM about the government decision not to review the minimum wage, Benoît Hamon, deputy minister for the social solidarity, economy and consumer affairs explained: “In order to encourage employment, it is necessary to ensure that the cost of labour does not place too heavy a burden on the competitiveness of undertakings.”

(12) Interview with Pierre Moscovici, economics and finance minister, Journal du dimanche, 19 August 2012.

(13) BFM-RMC, 3 December 2013.

(14) See Frédéric Lordon, “No currency without democracy”, Le Monde diplomatique, English edition, September 2013.

(15) Benoît Hamon, Tourner la page: Reprenons la marche du progrès social, Flammarion, Paris, 2011, p 23.

(16) See Serge Halimi,“We can’t go on like this”, Le Monde diplomatique, English edition, September 2013.

This article appears in the excellent Le Monde Diplomatique, whose English language edition can be found at mondediplo.com. This full text appears by agreement with Le Monde Diplomatique. CounterPunch features two or three articles from LMD every month.