This post was originally written and shared with an old friend, Bud Oakey (see Thoughts from Bud
). As I write, the run-off candidates, Nicolas Sarkozy (who received 27.18% of first round votes) and François Hollande (28.63%) are maneuvering for the second round scheduled for Sunday, May 6. The rhetoric of the second round has been of very high quality and a real national debate is actually taking place on issues such as the social responsibility of the financial industries, resident migrant rights and citizenship as well as the issues raised in this article. With feed back and encouragement I will be pleased to continue sharing.
The problem posed by the French election is how to reconcile French national ambitions and perceived global responsibility as a nuclear power and the world’s fifth economy with diminishing expectations at home and the difficult sustainability of the French social model.
First though, we should take a moment to understand what the French understand as their “social model”. The French government does what it does in the international sphere to promote French industry and create national wealth. It sells Rafale jets, negotiates treaties, builds nuclear reactors and high speed trains and signaling systems. The fruit of this work is national income or the “common wealth” which is captured through income taxes (a regressive tax which produces a relatively small percentage of fiscal revenues), value-added taxes (a consumption tax paid by everybody across the board and representing the bulk of French government revenues) and property taxes which are collected by the national government but essentially redistributed to local authorities. (You should note that education, health services, fire and police protection are organized and financed nationally.)
The question is, what should be done with excess wealth? In other words, how should it be distributed?
Some say the excess wealth should be kept at home and used to “ensure the domestic tranquility”, i.e. support a 35-hour work week, retirement at 60 years and a high minimum wage, saying, “after all, we earned it”. These people do not generally concern themselves with paying down sovereign debt or the competitivity of French industry. The other side argues that this national wealth should be reinvested in promoting the productivity of French industry, and that the French labor, despite apparent productivity, has not worked hard enough (they are overpaid) or long enough (retirement should be postponed to 65 or 70 to reflect longer life expectancies).
I have no doubt about where I stand on these issues, except that Sarkozy’s flamboyance, his in-your-face style sends a message that quite understandably offends French sensibilities. (We should note that the threshold for being considered “flamboyant” in France is much, much, much lower than it is in Italy, for instance, where Berlusconi flaunted his money and virility to make a mockery of virtue and traditional Italian values.)
So what we have on the one hand is a socialist party organization that smells the blood of a wounded adversary and positions its candidate as the “mild mannered, nice guy next door” devoted to his party, best-in-his-class public servant and scorned husband to boot. (It does not hurt him that many French find his former wife, Ségolène Royal to be an ambitious woman who lost patience with her plodding husband and ran for president herself.) Here we have a first reflection on how the social model is broken, or at least, “exposed” in an unwelcome way. The French genuinely believe in women’s liberation but found (in 2006/2007) the public behavior of the outgoing and rhetorically brilliant wife of the Socialist Party First Secretary (at the time, François Hollande) pushy and somewhat misplaced. Even so, the Socialist Party today is not offering anything new. It is merely offering old wine in new bottles.
On the other hand, Sarkozy has governed well but the rashness and impetuosity of youth. In my opinion he gambled his political capital on reform. Also in my opinion, he won his bets. France is better and stronger for his first term (five years) and for his management of the sovereign debt and Euro crisis. But how much of this success is due to the man and UMP party faithful, and how much of this is the result of the inevitable, of bureaucratic (in the noble sense) continuity?
Unfortunately, the Sarkozy camp are discouraged, and two days out from the first round of the general election, don’t see their way to a clear-cut victory. And also unfortunately, the left has fielded two excellent candidates (in the sense of competitive politicians) who between them stand a chance winning over 50% of the popular vote on the first round. (Because they are two candidates there will still be a run-off. But if the left remains united that does not augur well for Sarkozy.)
The “financial” versus the “real” economy
Any analysis is necessarily a simplification, a reduction of complex processes to a single snapshot in time, and that, a snapshot described through the eye of the beholder, in this case your friend and humble servant, moi.
Since 1984 France has been reforming its institutions to provide greater autonomy and freedom of action to its territorial administrations. By order of size, these are, from largest to smallest, 27 regions corresponding more or less to the feudal divisions annexed to create modern France, 83 departments (sometimes compared to counties) set up following the Revolution of 1789 as the administrative units for implementation of public policy. And finally, there are some 36,000 cities, villages and towns, of which only 255 are “cities” of more than 30,000 inhabitants. It is in these cities that the “real economy” takes place.
The gutting of French industry by low-cost producers (read, low labor-cost producers) has a deep effect of the viability of these local economies in a globalized and globalizing world.
With the advent of consumerism (an economic layer predicated on the need to consume to ensure full employment and productivity), the disappearance of physical barriers (both transport and telecommunications) village and town communities are threatened with transformation as supply territories, destined for rural impoverishment by big city “consumption machines” that monopolize energy and concentrate resources to accumulate ever more wealth. We are talking here, about megacities and urban centers, as well countries and ideologies.
Some on the left maintain that our troubles are produced by globalization and the blurring of traditional barriers. Others, mostly on the right, argue that the French are not sufficiently globalized, that France must defend itself from cultural and economic colonization, not by protectionism and introspection, but by offering new models of social organization, renewing the national capacity for empathy as a means to resolve persistent (and growing) inequalities, not only at home, but as humans. There is no turning back. If we are to survive as a species, to retain stewardship of the blue planet, with its oceans, forests, atmosphere and soils rich in diversity and teaming with life, we much propose new models of growth and social authority.
What does all this mean for the choice of candidates in 2012?
The 2012 general election presents a choice between those who slow the pace of globalization and if that were to prove impossible, erect barriers to ensure that for them at least, the world would not go too fast and those who consider that liberal democracy is the way forward: On the one hand, reactionaries and would oppose modernization by obstructing, and on the other hand those who believe that for France and indeed, the world, the only way forward is through closer integration and improved stewardship.
Stated this way, the choice is obvious. But from a French perspective, looking at Sarkozy the flamboyant, man of power head of state, the choice is somehow transformed into a choice between consumerism and family values, between the local economy which the French left has fairly successfully coopted, and the globalized economy and progressive colonization by financial, political and industrial elites.
The candidate who most engaging is Jean-Luc Melenchon. I think this is because he is an effective speaker, a performer with a populist socialist message. He is to the far left of the socially acceptable socialists and he is dangerous, like a bad-boy lover. One of the articles of his platform is constitutional reform, a 6th Republic. I cannot imagine that this would benefit France in anyway, but it is useful to think that the alternative to another five-year term with Sarkozy would be constitutional reform. And that is not an option!
Finally, and to his credit, it should be mentioned that Sarkozy has been open to shared sovereignty in areas that can no longer be successfully managed as national domain; the seas, the atmosphere and carbon entitlements, food security and water. Europe needs effective institutions, and the way forward clearly lies in strengthening these. The direction offered by the Sarkozy camp is the only way forward if you would live in the Star Trek utopia proposed by Jacques Cheminade (currently polling less than ½ of one percent) while avoiding the disaster of the shy, teddy-bear-like anticapitalist, Philippe Poutou (currently polling less than 1% of first round voting intentions).