French Elections 2002, Muting the Progressive Vote

The fortnight between the first round of the presidential elections to Sunday’s runoff sparked an intense writing frenzy among the French. The on-line site of LIBERATION featured dozens of daily comments, reactions, analyses and debates. How Jean-Marie Le Pen had ended up in the second-round of the elections, for the first time and beyond all expectations, fostered explanations that proliferated from two main sources. One centered on a pure luck factor, the other on the rising tide of the European far-right.

Recall that in the French political system, the president is elected through a direct vote. The Constitution of the 5th Republic, implemented by De Gaulle in 1959, allows for numerous candidates to appear in a first round, with the two leading scorers being entitled to a second-round or runoff election. The president is ensured with majority rule.

With the elections now over, France has confirmed to its own satisfaction a refusal to flirt with the far-right. Jacques Chirac, cumulating the votes of the former ‘plural left’ coalition, has been swept to a landslide victory in his bid for re-election. Tallied at a historically high 82.22%, he has crushed his rival the far-right contender, Le Pen. The French political and media establishment played its card firmly by proclaiming Chirac’s re-election as a ‘victory for democracy and the Republic.’

The first round saw the total left vote hover at 45%. Leaving aside any speculation as to how much of the absentee vote would have been rallied to it–a third would not be an unfair estimate–, France as a collective whole is not prepared to think through a fascist mind. As for what some observers have questioned about the hidden recesses of its soul, we’ll have to stand with the conviction that the soul is merely illusion.

Yet that illusory soul was what remained deeply disheveled in the wake of the first-round vote. Adjacent to pragmatic explanations, prominent were descriptions of folly, or even madness. The French voting public would have grown mad in its suicidal split voting and absenteeism. The debates in LIBERATION coalesced into judgment cast on the experiment of protest voting. Peter Slotherdijk’s Symbolist paean to the fantastic possibilities afforded by the French political system basked in the fair smells of the Parisian springtime (“En ce Dimanche-Gras francais”: May 3, 2002). By contrast, Salmon Rushdie (“En France, des illusions dangereuses”: April 30, 2002) witnessed streaks of madness in an erring vote reminiscent of Situationist drifting. As an appropriate alert their readings pointed as much to the left’s wide-ranging protest vote as to the FN’s meager-by-comparison 17%.

But “madness”? It appears that this is the way innovative, progressive politics is to be stamped these days. It oddly triggers memories of Kissinger castigating Chilean voting collectives as irresponsible, all the better reason to back up the military plotters. (Perhaps we needn’t dwell into such history: Christopher Hitchen’s rants against the post-9/11 left would surely do.) Ever since exit polls unveiled the unimaginable on April 21, the French press, media, political class and many of its intellectuals, called for the population to keep their good sense and shift their vote to Jacques Chirac. To be more accurate: they downright threatened the electorate to do so.

The media pleaded painstakingly with the accused and cowardly Le Pen voters, or at least his invisible ones. And the ploy was effective. In his Marseilles stronghold, Le Pen campaign staffers suffered to pad a hall that would have otherwise been tearing at the seams. As the last major FN rally, it was a defining moment for Le Pen’s inertia in the lead-up to the runoff.

Whether Le Pen’s voters had receded into the shadows or dwindled to a hardcore, the results of the first round showed there to be no greater amount of representative interest for the Front National in France. The professed 17%, in addition to FN renegade Bruno Megret’s 5%, never tallied at the 22% of the entire voting public as claimed, but only of those who actually voted. Taking the 28% of absentees into account with the additional 5% of destroyed votes, that 17% should have shrunken rapidly to 12% on anyone’s pocket calculator. This score changes little from the one the FN has reaped in every major election for 15 years. Yet the media plowed ahead, equating the runoff election to a struggle pitting democracy against fascism, while leaving the protest vote to vanish in a blur of panic.

In the runoff, absenteeism was slashed to 20.29%, with the number of blank or destroyed ballots holding steady at about 5%. In the end, the two far-right parties rallied to barely gather 18%–totalling at about 15% of the entire vote, then. Faced with the media’s solid opposition, the far-right only managed to increase its ranks by 10%, though that figure does represent about 6 million French citizens.

While it’s undeniable that the FN’s brand of nationalism is tainted by racism and nostalgia for the Nazi grandeur best portrayed in Leni Riefenstahl films, the equation with anti-democracy is seriously flawed. No matter how much the media may have wanted to protect the French public from what it appeared to not comprehend, the oblivion into which the protest vote sank is too symptomatic for the story to stand.

It’s of capital importance to bear in mind how the FN has actually prospered under democracy. It’s vital to understand how democracy and the far-right conservative, racist nationalism and roughneck politics of a Le Pen has benefited from democracy–or ‘democracy’ so-called. This has very little to do with any presumed liberal generosity endemic to this system toward forces that seek its destruction. These exist, of course, and they’re incarnate in the skinhead shock troops partaking of Le Pen’s closest entourage.

Still, were there a blindspot to the horrified reaction in the rise of the far-right and the risks France faced, it’s that Le Pen’s team are intent on correcting what ‘democracy’ has become. Wherever the far-right may lead and whatever the political system they might choose to impose in the future if and when given the opportunity, the plain fact is that the FN are integrally part of French democracy. By contrast, as long as French democracy affords such coexistence with the sophisticated and refined ethnic-centered bigotry of the FN, can the media and intellectuals still make claims for the sacred status of democracy and the need to be affiliated to it?

Nothing suggests that the FN would remain devoted to the system through which it reached its pedigree. Whether they do or don’t almost remains irrelevant given that many of their policies have been tended to by center-right–and center-left–governments. This is the democracy the French media has corralled the electorate into ratifying.

Was it then folly or madness to open the Pandora’s box– or can of worms– in protest via democratic and non-democratic means to dispersing the megaliths of the French political class? Both Sloterdijk’s spleen (“the left’s return to power presupposes that it bid farewell to the wounds of the 20th century: to the expressionist esthetic of extremism and the taste for the radical”) and Rushdie’s reality therapy (“After being fooled on Afghanistan, the European left is now being fooled about itself”), cast as they are from opposite sides of the observer’s street, do end up meeting. In their ink we read that progressives who question whether this is the appropriate form that democracy should be taking are actually scratching at the surface of the great taboo.

For those among us who share in the need for such ballot action, ‘street violence’ or ‘insecurite’ cannot ever be accepted as the result of immigration. What these terms refer to is a complex, disconcerting cluster of torn democratic aspirations and ever-increasing oligarchic influx into legislative possibilities. A decaying society results from computation overkill ultimately demeaning education in the liberal arts, matched with both the socialized pressure of empowerment solely through employment, and the macabre flip-side of ravaging social inequality. To claim this decline as caused by the efforts made by foreign workers to do the jobs that Europeans would not is the vision from which we cannot hesitate to part. Moreover, foreign ‘workers’ have also become ‘professionals’ from abroad. Their contribution has sustained the growth of Western societies– often to the detriment of their own ancestral ones.

This why the international dimension of the protest cannot be underestimated. As France is the cradle of modern politics, it was only fitting for the more determined, for the more democratic, to utter their voices there first. The low score of the Communist Party is completely part of the rejection, and by no means a symptom of the left’s failure. It has long been out of the game. This progressive protest, ranging anywhere from a quarter to a third of the vote, has now been strikingly shorn of its reasonable passion with the media’s complicity. As for Le Pen voters, well, they could be ‘understood’, and ‘swayed’. But the protesting left, deprived of a soul, had lost its mind.

At least out-going Prime Minister Lionel Jospin’s team kept smart job-creation programs as a priority. As Martine Aubry, ex-Minister of Labor, reminded viewers in her post-election comments, recent French immigrants are tired of being promised new measures of social integration instead of new jobs to integrate. Without this, even the most cynical politician recognizes there can be little appeasement in the near future. A MBA-flooded market doesn’t translate into new job creation–especially in a country like France where few are convinced of the US’s simple prescriptions for a strong economy.

In the first round, then, over 25% of voters sent a pragmatic message to both the governing plural left coalition and the democratic system it bolstered. The fact that they were able to, as opposed to what Americans like to believe their Constitution affords, has demonstrated the broader scope of democracy in France. Sloterdijk’s analysis hits right on here. In terms of real power, of course, the results of the first-round stand almost symbolically, as little of that vast-ranging expression holds the weight of parliamentary representation. It may be a kind of direct democracy, as many progressive political analysts are working toward. Still, devoid of representation, we merely wind up in square one. And that square lies in the city, street and alternative media.

By constrast, Rushdie was willing to settle for much too little and, as far as I can see, much too late. If the result of pressing for greater democracy renders a system foolishly vulnerable to fascist elements, it just banishes a very living rejection, which is that democracy as it exists now in the West is simply too restrictive.

It’s restrictive in terms of debate, as the press has now fallen entirely into the sparse hands of a few media conglomerates promoting the ideal object: monopoly control through ever greater mergers. It’s also policy-constrained, as lobby-groups, i.e. former politicians seeking favor from government on behalf of corporations at exuberant consulting fees, interfere with the legislative and executive process. It’s truncated judicially with the international loopholes allowing for existence of tax shelters, or ‘the fiscal paradises’ better named in other languages. They’re surely among the great obstacles to a more fluid tax-collection system without which, as the right may declaim to great effect, the public sector has its hands tied. The problem is not the public sector however, nor that the latter stifles free enterprise. The problem is that the insidious hands siphoning funds from especially profitable public sector firms have now jumped ship into private gardens, given that tax shelters have skyrocketed through the facilities of the ‘modernized’, ‘globalized’ economy.

These factors and others have allowed the courageous expression of the French voting public to reject ‘democracy’ as they see it instituted in their country. It’s no easy decision to make. Most of Anglo-America’s brightest minds do not hesitate to consider this power as stark lunacy. Then again with the Bush team sitting in the Oval office, Anglo-America lost its claim as the world’s most democratic nation in January 2001. To which, all Rushdie can say is vote for Chirac: “the result will be a few more years of him. But it’s the price to pay. The garden cannot be left to the serpent.” But what good is a garden deprived of the sowers?

Le Pen’s death knell resounded when Ernest-Antoine de Selliere, head of the MEDEF, France’s leading chamber of commerce, rejected the FN economic platform item-by-item. As one of the plural left coalition’s bitterest opponents, especially regarding the 35-hour work week, the MEDEF were able to cleanse their rep and assert their allegiance to democracy.

In case the print and television media weren’t successful in spreading enough fear through the population, a secret poll was conducted by the Renseignements Generaux, the French national intelligence agency. In the leak through which it was meant to spread, Le Pen was given a 42% finish. An addendum forebodingly did not exclude victory. Claimed to be tested amongst three other target groups, it’s obvious that those involved in the polling deserve to be fired. That’s assuming, of course, that their intent of spreading fear via disinformation was left unmet.

I was concerned at one point about the attitude the ‘provinces’ might display toward the capital’s parochialism. But 20% abstention remained, and Pandora was appeased despite the lost chance at a photo-op of the faces inside voting booths as they checked off their compulsion to vote for conscience’s sake, obeying the categorical imperative to vote for democracy in utter disgust.

Gaullist observers have spoken optimistically of the Republic’s strengths, about how the Constitution of its 5th incarnation has been approved through this second round. LE FIGARO’s Alain Gerard Slama, one of France’s leading conservative political analysts, was quick to emphasize that the incredible power endowed to Chirac in his landslide victory has enabled real policy decisions. “Tout est dans ses mains”: everything’s in his hands, he insisted during the post-election coverage on the international French station, TV5. If the future depends on how he’ll manage the victory, Chirac’s already limping through its lopsidedness in a desperate attempt to efface the memory of the plural left. And I do ultimate beg to differ with Mr Slama: everything depends not on Chirac, but on June’s legislative elections with or without the media’s assent.

Norman Madarasz is a philosophy researcher. He has lived in France, and now lives in Rio de Janeiro. He welcomes comments at