“Let’s march to victory!” “It is time to storm the Bastille!” These are some of the slogans on placards carried by May 1 demonstrators in Paris. Someone unfamiliar with French political folklore might assume that yet another revolution is under way.
No such luck. The time for revolution is all but gone for good, even for France which is the birthplace of revolutionary ideas.
All that is happening in France these days is yet another presidential election in which two wings of the same ruling elite are competing for power.
Nicolas Sarkozy, a geyser of untamed energy who represents the conservative coalition Union for a Popular Movement (UMP), leads one wing. The other wing’s standard bearer is the Socialist candidate Francois Hollande, a low-profile operator who, in one of those paradoxes of French politics, is supposed to represent the revolutionary tradition.
In the current campaign the focus has been the economy. This comes in a curious historical context. Here, for the first time, we have a privileged majority that is concerned about the plight of the underprivileged minority but is not ready to accept painful reforms.
In the past, those enjoying privileges formed a minority of the population and always faced the danger of a revolution backed by the underprivileged majority. For centuries, that was the pattern in French history. When democracy came to France, the form of the interaction between the privileged minority and the downtrodden minority changed while its substance remained the same. On occasions, such as the 1936 general election that led to the Popular Front reforms, the underprivileged majority would vote for a fairer distribution of privileges.
In more recent decades, however, the situation in France has been blocked because the majority, anxious to protect its privileges, refuses change. Each time a government proposed reforms that threatened such privileges as a five-week holiday stint, a shorter working week and a later retirement age, it was chased out of power.
This time, however, the situation may be different if only because many French realize that their economy may no longer be in a position to provide the high living standards they have gotten used to. While globalization has nibbled at many markets for French goods, France has also been losing is phenomenal competitive edge. In fact, French productivity, which rose for a steady one per cent each year for three decades, has all but stagnated since 2008.
The result is a 10 percent unemployment rate and a general fall in the average French family’s purchasing power. Some fear that the good times may well be over.
Such concerns have put two economists under the limelight, once again.
At one end of the spectrum we have John Maynard Keynes, the British economist whose ideas are supposed to have helped the Western world emerge from the Great depression of the late 1920s. The core Keynesian idea is that at a time of recession the government should intervene to create jobs, even if, in normal circumstances, such jobs make no economic sense.
At the other end of the spectrum is the American economist Milton Friedman whose recipe is built around a sound monetary policy and a reduction of public expenditure.
In this election, Hollande represents the Keynesian option while Sarkozy is inspired by Friedman’s ideas.
The trouble is that both men assume a freedom of choice that France no longer has. As a member of the European Union and the Eurozone, France is in no position to adopt either philosophy. It has no control over its currency and is chained to narrow options by Eurozone’s strict budgetary rules.
In dealing with the economy, Sarkozy may be better placed than Hollande because his views are more in tune with the philosophy currently dominant in the EU where all the talk is about reducing public debt and curbing budget deficits.
In the final analysis, however, whoever is elected president on Sunday will not be able to do more than surf a tide formed in places beyond his control.
It is in foreign policy that Sunday’s election might have an impact.
Unable to make much of running the economy, Hollande may well try to silence his radical leftist flank with a number of foreign policy gesticulations. He has already hinted that he would try to withdraw French troops from Afghanistan two years earlier than agreed with other NATO members. He may also tone down Sarkozy’s tough line on Syria and his almost personal campaign against the Islamic Republic in Tehran. Hollande also banks on the possibility of finding new friends from among the regimes produced by the “Arab Spring.”
That would be no easy trapeze for Hollande. The French Socialist party has always been staunchly pro-American. In 1982, President Francois Mitterrand, a Socialist, was part of the front line campaigning for the installation of American nuclear missiles in Europe. And in 1991, it was also Mitterrand who mobilized European backing for the U.S.-led war against Saddam Hussein in Iraq.
In contrast, the Gaullist family, of which Sarkozy is the champion today, has always included a bit of anti-Americanism in its ideological cocktail. And, yet, Sarkozy could be regarded as the most pro-American French president ever.
In other words, this Sunday’s election is full of paradoxes. With ideological demarcation lines blurred, it is difficult for the French voter to know who he is electing and why.
(Amir Taheri is the former Middle East Editor for the Sunday Times. This article was first published in Asharq Al-Awsat on May 4, 2011)