Monday, May 7, 2012

New French President, The Reasons He Won and What It (Really) Means.

As some of you may have seen in the news, France has a new President: socialist François Hollande who beat conservative Nicolas Sarkozy by 51,67% to 48,33% last night. This is a historica moment for France.

So a word or two (or more) is in order.

I read here and there that Sarkozy was ousted because of "public anger over austerity measures and economic crisis", joining a "series of other European leaders booted from office" in Italy, Spain or Greece (Business Week, Wall Street Journal,). In my opinion, this is mostly a wrong superficial analysis of France's mood. And Kevin Drum is wrong, Sarkozy is NOT merely the latest victim of the economic crisis. He is the victim of his own making and he has always been his worst enemy.
The election of Hollande was more anti-Sarkozy than pro-Hollande. There was not necessarily a lot of excitement about Hollande and there is doubt about his economic plan (the French know they're in for tougher time), but "anti-Sarkozy sentiment has become a cultural phenomenon in France." (the Guardian).
Upon hearing the result of the elections, people in French tough neighborhoods cheered loud from the windows in their projects, hunked the horns in their cars; and made all sorts of noises, - something resembling more winning the world cup than presidential elections, certainly not seen in France since 1981.

Sarkozy the Divider: One Does not Rule France by Dividing Its People
Sarkozy was the most unpopular president in French history (about 35% job approval) and his slip in the polls started fairly soon after the elections (Le Monde polls). He was criticized not only for his ostentation display of wealth, favoring the rich while leaving behind high unemployment, but also for his divisiveness and his agressive tone and style,seen as unbecoming of a president. in French culture.

The New Republic has it right:
(Sarkozy has) "constantly undercut himself, thanks to his notorious difficulty sharing the spotlight and his coarsely confrontational personal style. is no coincidence that his single best-known phrase, uttered to a protester in early 2008, is “Casse-toi, pauv’ con” (roughly, “Shove off, asshole”). It is not exactly de Gaulle’s “France cannot be France without grandeur.” (The NR).
Sarkozy may have been quick to react in times of crisis, but he was a lot of hot air, and lack any vision. He failed to see what people need in times of crisis.
 “Nicolas Sarkozy is constantly trying to create cleavages… when what people expect from a president, especially in times of crisis, is to be a unifier,” said political scientist Roland Cayrol of the Centre for Studies and Analysis. (here).
During the campaign, he went further to the right, trying to court far-right Le Pen's voters by playing on the fear of immigration, borders and Islam, missing the point that the French are more worried about the economy and high unemployment than Islam and immigration.

The French Prefer the virtues of the Tortoise to that of the Hare.

This is the allegory rightfully used by the NYTimes to describe the patience, diligence and quiet road chosen by Hollande to win over his rather impetuous rival, Sarkozy. As in the fable, Hollande was seriously underestimated by both the media and his opponent, who was overconfident.

The "New" Socialist.
A word of caution to my Anglo-saxon friends who might be afraid of the word "socialist". Even though Hollande was the candidate of the "socialist party" (which he ruled for years), I agree with Matthew Yglesias that Hollande is actually more a socio-democrat and I also think he's a pragmatist. Yes, he has promised massive taxation on revenues over 1 million euros revenues but that does not make him a socialist. As I reminded a friend the other day: in the United States the top income rate was 75% in 1939 ias high as  94% in 1944 and 1945 and remained between 90% and 70% until 1981, which did not make post-WWII America a socialist country.
Granted that those were other times, but the current crisis demands unprecedented measures and taxing the wealthy maybe one of them for its symbolism if nothing else. You cannot ask the rest of the country to face tough measures if it is not perceived as widely shared by the wealthy. After all, this something that Buffet can agree on.
The greatest challenge for Hollande is his deal with Merkel and the French debt which will require some spending cut and our president-elect has been more than evasive on the question. What is certain is that Merkel's austerity philosophy faces more and more criticism in Europe (NYTimes). Hollande wants to add growth, and that is after all what seemed to be working in the United-States. Of course, Hollande's way of achieving this may not be the same as other leaders' and he will have to compromise, but it is probably about time that someone stands against Merkel's obsessive one-eyed vision.

Franco-American Relationship:
As always in the U.S. it is likely that the election of a "socialist" president will scare some of the media, particularly on the right, the word itself is enough to spook most Americans. This unfortunate as it is largely ignorant of the particular of French and European history and ideology.
In 1981, when Mitterand name four communists in his government, a horrified Ronald Reagan sent his vice president, George H. W. Bush to voice his concern that "the future of Western democracy hung in the balance" (here and here). Yet in the end, Franco-American relations under Mitterand turned out to be one of the closest, including in the containment of Soviet Power (think of the Pershing missile controversy in 1984 or the less-well known but extraordinary Farewell spy case, (here too) or later the Gulf War for instance - LATimes)
In the same way that branding Sarkozy "American" (his view of America was superficial at best) is just as wrong and misleading as branding Hollande a "dangerous socialist".
In fact, one can argue that Hollande's platform has commonalities with Obama's (although not necessarily in the specifics):
The platform that Hollande won on, in addition to the stress it laid on restoring economic growth, echoed several other themes Obama sounded in Ohio on Saturday, when he officially launched his reëlection campaign: fairness, hope, and inclusion. (The New Yorker)
Europe's failures might even be a good lesson for the American electorate:
When the campaign turns to questions of economics, what is happening in Europe should provide Obama with plenty of arguments with which to flay his opponents. Republicans say they want to slash government spending and focus on the deficit regardless of the immediate economic situation. The Europeans have carried out that experiment, and, to say the least, it hasn’t turned out very well. (The New Yorker)

No comments: