Absenteism and the Fall of Lionel Jospin

The Constitution of the Fifth French Republic, drafted by General Charles de Gaulle, was adopted by referendum in 1958. It institutionalized a separation of powers required by de Gaulle to give legitimacy to the way he came to power, namely through a soft, non-violent coup. With rioting in the streets of Algiers by the French Algerian population in May 1958, the War for decolonization began to tear at France’s stability. The military turned to de Gaulle, then in retirement, in the hopes of a swift retaliation against Algeria’s Front de Liberation Nationale. Retaliation it got, though it was insufficient to keep Algeria within the folds of the greater French republican empire.

Through alliance with de Gaulle the military were able to orchestrate a fundamental change in the French State by means of a political process accepted by the Assemblé nationale. In case of opposition from progressive French political forces, the military would back up de Gaulle through a plan to secure the country’s Republican institutions, which involved parachuting the Army into Paris to take control of the major entry points to the city. In the end, there was no need for such muscled invention. De Gaulle went on to have a glorious presidency, finally taking leave of office in 1969 upon suffering defeat in a referendum on proposals regarding regionalization and reform of the Senate.

According to the 1958 Constitution, the President is elected to a seven-year term, with legislative elections occurring at five-year intervals at the longest. It foremost established strong presidential control over government. The President names the head of the executive administration, the Prime Minister, who then presents the selected cabinet to him for approval, usually a process in protocol.

In the event of a national crisis, as had been taking place since 1954 with the Algerian war, or during the general public sector strikes of 1995, the president has the choice of either changing the government or calling for early legislative elections–all in the guise of an abstract, non-partisan voice. Which is why it’s erroneous to claim, as do many Anglo-American observers, that the President’s position is akin to that of the King’s, all in new designer clothing. In fact, the position of President represents the embodiment of the political ‘Idea’ in its philosophical sense. Recall that in the 18th century, the ‘res publica’, or ‘public thing’, made concrete the principle by which Rousseau’s social contract gained legitimacy as a political process.

De Gaulle’s republicanism can ultimately be deemed fundamentalist. After all, he reached back to the philosophical bases of the republic to connect them to the trinitarian Idea by which it was fostered: liberte, egalite, fraternite. This is what also compels every president to take a distance from the party through which he came to power.

While the coup-scented origins of the Fifth Republic are just one of the many historical omissions haunting the French sensibility, its evolution, right through the rockiest moments of May-June 1968, brought France out of the political instability that has continued to haunt a country like Italy until recently. The Constitution sprouted new leaves as President Francois Mitterand, one of de Gaulle–and the Fifth Republic’s–most outspoken critics in 1958, was forced to share power with the center-right for much of his 14 years in power. Now, with the results in of the 2002 presidential vote stretching the Constitution to the expansible limits, France has been graced with an incredible surprise.

To be sure, most troubled among the French are the media and press. No one among the latter, perhaps not even Front National supporters, would have bet on this unusual outcome. Through shock at their critical inefficiency, the French print and television media are emitting waves of panic through a population that can only be said to be riled by the ripples. Late into Sunday evening, and throughout Monday, spontaneous peaceful demonstrations, thousands strong, sprouted up throughout France. Most prominent among demonstrators are the youth. They’re protesting the results of the most mundane election campaign in French history, one which has allowed the Front National candidate, Jean-Marie Le Pen, to eliminate out-going Socialist Prime Minister, Lionel Jospin.

According to French polling rules, the presidential elections, a direct vote for the candidate, takes place in a two-step election process. The top two finalists meet a second time in run-off elections, which is how Le Pen has managed to face off with current President Jacques Chirac for the top job. The process allows for alliances to take shape in the two-week period between polling, just as it guarantees a majority vote. With victory of the National Front unlikely, France is still facing the first prospectof being ruled by the extreme-right since the 1940s.

This year’s elections saw a record number of candidates running, with 16 in all. The first three among them came within 2 percentage points from each other: current president Jacques Chirac scored 19.67%, with Jean-Marie Le Pen finishing second at 17.02%, barely a breath ahead of Lionel Jospin’s 17.01%. Few in France would have expected the vocally far-right candidate Le Pen to keep increasing his standing as he has since first being elected to the Assemblee nationale in 1956 and forming the Front national party in 1972. The fact that he has, however, must be placed in the perspective of the leading presidential candidate: Abstentionism.

Tallied at 28.4%, with an additional 3.37% blank or disqualified ballots, this is a remarkable, though not entirely surprising, event for the cradle of modern politics. French youth and progressive intellectuals have tired of France’s lack luster political scene. The successive ‘co-habitations’ may have moved the Socialist Party closer to the center-right Rassemblement Pour la Republique (RPR). It has also sent the voices of those dubious of the media’s proclaimed disappearance of the Left-Right cleavage into apoliticism. Nonetheless, many French youth share an identical belief, which is their disdain of Le Pen’s Front National. But the fact that this party has finished in second place is a direct result of the youth’s decision to boycott these first-round elections–at least as they were meant to take place with Chirac against Jospin in the run-off.

Still, France’s political process could have absorbed such abstentionist attitudes were it not for the split that has also occurred within the voting Left. With the discontents of globalization contesting the good mood of the Jospin team throughout his term, the Prime Minister has taken the results as a rejection of his personal political contribution. The irony is that he has been sanctioned for reasons perhaps not owing to what is incumbent to his mandate under the Constitution. The rewards, by contrast, have been harvested by a professional politician whose presidential immunity has thus far sheltered him from a major corruption scandal. Moreover, the obstacles blocking the investigation have led to the recent resignations of two leading judges in the French criminal court system. Ultimately, there’s some sense to the saying that only the Socialists have known how to make Jacques Chirac look his best. At this point, the gent from Correze can only be counting his lucky stars.

Mr Jospin’s campaign was run at a time when taking political sides increases the stakes of the political game. France has suffered a spate of anti-Israeli violence which, for all intents and purposes, cannot be distinguished from anti-Semitic acts. This led the media and spin-doctors to lend a touch of ‘l’exception francaise’ to the predominant theme driving world politics today: terror. Yet France is too historically rich a nation to merely co-op that lowly American veil for incompetent governance, now tainting the Bush administration. It was, after all, Robespierre’s commitment to virtue that accelerated the guillotine’s macabre glide and first conferred to progeny the label of ‘Reign of Terror’–as a positive trait no less. The French would improvise upon the day’s theme in a convergence of concerns, decrying ‘l’insecurite’ instead. Despite the fact that homicides, according to official French statistics, have actually decreased during Jospin’s term, the high-rise unemployment and poverty in the suburbs of France’s largest cities have seemed to cast the screen for a different type of film.

What about Monsieur Le Pen? A former legionnaire, who fought in the French colonial wars of Indochina and Algeria, he bears the parachuter physique of those supporting de Gaulle in 1958. Found guilty of assault against a female Socialist candidate in 1997, which finally barred him from office for a year, he actually hates the center-right coalition represented by Chirac more. They are the ones who have kept him from gaining political legitimacy, while opportunistically co-opting his campaign themes whenever needing to rally farther right voters.

No matter how much his pretty PR and press people–BB Brigitte Bardot is among them–are working to press his racism into the new ‘nationalism’, and how much FN dialecticians perfect his spotted historical interpretations, his political past projects every bit of the role the man’s mystique harbors. I saw him give a speech at the Jeanne d’Arc statue on Worker’s Day 1991, which he recuperated as did his Italian and German masters of another time. The whole scene, with Medieval banners shinning in the spring sun, was really quite reminiscent of Monty Python’s Holy Grain. The look on the skinhead bodyguards’ faces quickly reminded me that these gentleman distinctly lacked a sense of humor.

By North American standards, there should be little to be intimated about. He’s certainly no farther right than is George W. Bush’s glimmer of a political vision, or his Canadian equivalent Stockwell Day’s (now being replaced by same). He represents ‘la France profonde’ (Deep France) every bit as much as the latter two preach for the Bible Belt and Conservative Canada. And, compared to Ariel Sharon, he’s a Ken-doll figure. The main difference probably has to do with his nostalgia for the shiny boots of the SS, instead of the high-tech velocity of American might. Although Le Pen is no friend of France’s Jewish population, let alone of Israel, his main scourge is France’s large North-African Maghrebin population. Le Pen’s views are, in fact, more faithful to the real sense of ‘anti-Semitism’: he hates all foreigners from the South, Middle and East, no matter whether they’re Jews or Arabs, point a la ligne.

Le Pen’s second place finish is nothing more than a matter of luck, related to the direct vote scheme. Five years ago, his party nearly imploded through a power struggle with No. 2 Bruno Megret, voicing the ‘intellectual’ wing. It’s only through a kiss and make-up gesture that they can expect to combine votes to reap 20%. However scandalous that tally may appear, it’s the frightening, newly-opened Pandora’s Box that has created the most anxiety for the French–and they know it. As political parties have scurried to rally behind candidate Chirac, and the media stutters in trying to explain how they misjudged voting trends, the population is bemused by a not altogether disconcerting spectacle. Mainstream politicians are imploring the people to keep their ‘good sense’ and bring a president back into power who has barely gathered 20% of the popular vote and lacks any political vision apart from the kind of opportunism we all attribute to the world’s second oldest profession.

More importantly, the entire population of France is aware that Mr Chirac has a corruption charge pending against him for the years of absolutist rule over Paris city hall. He might very well have to face those charges, like the average Frenchman would, when and if he leaves office. Those disgruntled and disgusted with how corrupt French politics are have already rejected Chirac and his crony bureaucracy. It’s the anger of those who might go on to do so–like Arlette Laguiller, head of the Union-friendly ‘Lutte Ouvriere’ (Worker’s Struggle), who has already refused to yield her 5.72%–that will make France tremble for the next two weeks. The stakes are now being set on assuming how much the French as a whole are willing to display their ‘good sense’.

Prior to moving to Brazil, Norman Madarasz lived in France, where he did his doctoral research in philosophy and the social sciences under the supervision of Alain Badiou. He welcomes comments at: normanmadarasz@hotmail.com