The French Chose a New “President”; Will the Eurocrats Let Him Do Anything?


The choice of François Hollande over Nicolas Sarkozy was an extreme case of the lesser of two evils.   Seldom has a winning candidate inspired so little enthusiasm.  Considering how unpopular Sarkozy was, according to polls, the final vote of 51.6% for Hollande to 48.4% for Sarkozy was surprisingly close. Voting for the bland and inoffensive Hollande was finally the only way to get rid of the agitated Sarkozy, aggressively pretending to be President of France.

There is no more real President of France.  The leader who is elected to occupy the Elysée Palace no longer lays down the policy direction to be taken by the nation. That role has been largely taken over by the European Union Commission in Brussels.

With his modest manner, François Hollande is more suitable to be non-President of France.  Not that it promises to be an easy job.  The financial powers that run the world are pushing him to break the news to the French that they can no longer have the policies they want, but only the policies dictated by “the markets”.

In fact, the French are already aware of this.  Exactly what it entails and how people react remain to be seen.

Like all 27 EU member states, and especially the 17 who have adopted the euro as their common currency, France is now under what European Commission chairman Jose Manuel Barroso calls “the new European system of governance”.  This is comparable to what happens when an individual is judged to be incapable of managing her affairs and is made a ward of a legal guardian or of the state.  Little by little, the EU Commission is taking on the role of legal guardian of the economic affairs of the member states.

Last year, in response to the deepening crises in Greece, Portugal, Spain and Italy, the EU adopted draconian measures requiring member states to decrease their budget deficits and public debt; if they fail to do so, they can be punished by huge fines: a measure that could be compared in its logic to the old practice of locking up debtors in the poor house.

France is under specific orders to deepen pension reform (meaning pension reduction, one way or another), reduce or eliminate job security, limit minimum wage increases, shift taxes from income to consumption and further deregulate professional and commercial activities.  These anti-egalitarian, pro-capital, anti-labor measures leave virtually no leeway for the “Socialist” president to do anything significant in favor of economically disadvantaged segments of the population.

Instead, he can advocate gay marriage, which has become the flagship proposal of those who want to prove they are “on the left” by infuriating a segment of the conservative right.  Hollande has promised to give homosexuals the right to marry and adopt children, to enforce employment quotas for the handicapped, to propose legislation allowing the incurably ill to benefit from medical assistance to end life in dignity, to combat racial discrimination, including in police identity checks.  If – and it is still a big if – he gets a majority in next month’s legislative elections, President Hollande can keep these civilizational promises without asking permission of Brussels or “the markets”.  And based on experience, it is to be expected that the police will be better behaved toward ethnic minorities under a Socialist government than under Sarkozy.

However, when it comes to Hollande’s key promises to shift from “austerity” to economic growth and job creation, the gambling “markets” are already yapping at his heels and the European Union stands as a bulwark against any effective measures in that direction.

Mainstream commentators fidget on the sidelines.  Will Hollande tell the French that they must continue to sacrifice for the banks?  Will this push France into revolution, following its old tradition?  Or into “fascism”?

Anti-fascism kills democracy

It is a major paradox that the post-World War II ideology of anti-fascism has played a major role in killing democracy.

This ideology, which finds its most respectable reference in the writings of Hannah Arendt, posits that the masses, when plunged into deep economic trouble, will readily follow demagogues who find scapegoats (usually Jews) and impose some sort of “fascism”.  This ideology underlies the constant denunciation as “populism” of any criticism of banks and finance capital.  Indeed, any expression of sympathy for the needs of ordinary people may be condemned these days as “populism”, regarded as the first step toward “fascism”.  The result of this haunting fear has been to support every possible measure to discredit and weaken “the state” as the source of all evil.  This ideology has been particularly strong in France.  Generations of the left in France have hailed European unification as the answer to the threat of fascism, since it weakens the nation state.  The EU is designed to prevent any excess of nationalism or populism, by moving decision-making to the European level.

With the current financial crisis around the euro, this process has reached fruition.  There is now no important decision that can be made on the national level.  A collateral damage of this achievement is the end of meaningful electoral democracy.  Demagogues may rant and the people may riot, but they are totally powerless.  As are the peaceful voters.

The common currency was conceived by many pro-European ideologues above all as a mechanism to force a European political unity.  This is happening, but in a far more unpleasant way than promised. National sovereignties are being destroyed, but national resentment is growing.   There is no “European common spirit” to match the European common currency and reconcile euro-rich Germans with euro-poor Greeks.

National Sovereignty and the Right-Left Division 

The most spectacular defeat of democracy by “European construction” occurred in 2005 when French voters resoundingly rejected the Treaty establishing a European Constitution, only to have the French parliament ignore the vote and adopt a clone in the form of the Lisbon Treaty.  Since then, what is called a “sovereignist” current of those who would like to recover national sovereignty has been growing, ignored or stigmatized by mainstream media and politicians.

The most single-minded sovereignist is the most resolutely ignored by the media: François Asselineau, a former senior government official who has founded a party, Union Populaire Républicaine, dedicated to the sole proposition that France must leave the EU to recover its freedom of action.  Deprived of any media coverage whatsoever, or even mention of his existence, Asselineau spreads his arguments by extremely didactic conferences on the history and meaning of the European Union enterprise as a means to make Europe subservient to the United States.  Aside from his desire to restore his country’s sovereignty, there is nothing extremist or even eccentric about Mr Asselineau, and it says something about France that he was unable to obtain even twenty of the 500 mayors’ signatures required to run for president, while two small Trotskyist candidates qualified (not to mention the follower of Lyndon Larouche and the ex-Trotskyist, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who heads the Front de Gauche).  In France, Trotskyism in its various forms is more integrated into political life than is defense of national sovereignty, partly thanks to the many former Trotskyists in the media.

Dominique de Villepin, the former foreign minister who made the famous 2003 speech refusing war against Iraq, which made him a symbol of French independence in foreign policy, was also unable to gather the necessary 500 signatures to run for President.

The mainstream center-right of Sarkozy, and the center-left, represented by the Socialist Party and the Greens, are totally dedicated to what is called “European construction”, which means, inevitably, French deconstruction.  They will continue to prevail because the critics of the EU are fatally divided between the historically irreconcilable French right and French left.  Even if those unhappy with the EU make up a majority of French citizens, their opposition to EU dictates will be neutralized by the vehemence of the right-left split.

This was illustrated in the April 22 first round of this presidential election, where the forces that had supported the victorious “no” vote on the European Constitution were divided between several tendencies.  Three candidates, Mélenchon, Le Pen, and Dupont-Aignan, most clearly representing the heritage of that 2005 “no”, together scored 30% of the vote – more than either of the front-runners.  But they were anything but “together”. In the center, with a mere 1.8% of the vote, was the social Gaullist, Nicolas Dupont-Aignan, who campaigned to leave the “poisonous” euro.  On the right, Marine Le Pen campaigned against the euro, the EU and the banks. On the left, Jean-Luc Mélenchon also attacked the austerity program, but refused to acknowledge a basic contradiction between his progressive social measures and the EU, and chose to make Marine Le Pen his main target, with attacks that were often brutally personal.

Of those two, Marine Le Pen came out ahead, with some 18% of the vote to Mélenchon’s 11%.  Marine Le Pen has been attempting to pull the traditional far right party of her father to the left on social welfare issues, drawing more working class votes than Mélenchon.  But her triumphant May Day rally, where she announced that she would not vote for either Sarkozy or Hollande, showed that she will have a hard time pulling the old National Front stalwarts with her.  In contrast to her claim to unify “all the French” against the elites, parts of the crowd greeted mention of Mélenchon by chanting, “Communistes assassins!”.  Fantasies of fascists on the one hand, and the gulag on the other, undermine any sense of unifying French identity.

Hollande’s Wish List

Even Hollande stressed in his campaign statement that “what is at stake is the sovereignty of the French Republic in the face of the markets”.   France is extremely attached to its public services, the best in the world before coming under attack from neo-liberalism.  Hollande says he will ask the European Union to adopt a directive for protection of public services.  He says he will propose to EU partners a pact of “responsibility, governance and growth” to emerge from the crisis and the austerity spiral which makes it worse.  He says he will renegotiate the European treaty in order to reorient the role of the European Central Bank toward favoring growth and employment.  He will propose a new Franco-German treaty.  He will ask, he will propose…

And what if they say no, or to be more precise, “nein”?

And what of the contradiction between many of Hollande’s minor economic proposals and the imperatives of the European stability pact to make drastic budget cuts?

François Hollande is not one to throw a tantrum, as Margaret Thatcher used to do when she demanded her “money back”.  Hollande’s whole political career is in service of the French Socialist Party, totally devoted to the ideology of European unification.  Knowing this, business commentators speculate that France’s partners, meaning mainly Germany, will make some minor, insignificant concession to allow Hollande to save face before he inevitably capitulates to the relentless demands of “the markets”.

On the left, the ideal of a non-existent “social Europe” is still stronger than perception of the real existing European Union as an institutional mechanism enabling finance capital to destroy the famous “European social model”.

Of course, there is always the possibility that experience will be a rapidly effective teacher.

Meanwhile, some minor improvements may be expected in the area of foreign policy, largely ignored throughout the presidential election campaign.

Sarkozy’s open devotion to the United States, NATO and Israel was exceptional, but a less impetuous pro-Atlantic foreign policy is a solid Socialist Party tradition. The Socialists did not care for George W. Bush, but Hollande has already spoken of the “confidence” that will reign between him and Obama.  Hollande has promised to withdraw French troops from Afghanistan, and has said he wants to encourage NATO to return to its initial vocation of collective security.  That sounds good, suggesting less enthusiasm for aggressive military interventions in the Middle East – even though Hollande went along with the war against Libya.  But there is nothing to suggest rejection of the dangerous and absurd U.S.-sponsored “missile defense”, which is provoking unnecessary tension with Russia. Hollande has also promised to give fresh impetus to an ambitious defense industry policy, without specifying the commercial or strategic objectives of intensified arms production.

DIANA JOHNSTONE is the author of Fools Crusade: Yugoslavia, NATO and Western Delusions. She can be reached at  diana.josto@yahoo.fr

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