In the early eighties, a British band had a hit with a song called “Stop the World (I’m Getting Off”). This could be the slogan of Arnaud Montebourg, a candidate in the presidential primary that the French Socialist Party has organized for October 9. Montebourg has staked out a position distinctly to the left of the five other contenders. His outlook is not, however,“classically” socialist. Rather, his campaign is an attempt to inject the ideas of the anti-globalization movement into the mainline of French politics. Far from being idealistic or extremist, these principles are, he contends, pragmatic and sensible solutions for a world in crisis. He sums up his program in a single word: “démondialisation”, or “deglobalization.”
Montebourg—who, at age 48, is the youngest of the six socialist candidates—has, throughout his political career, demonstrated a knack for associating himself with unconventional ideas without alienating himself from the political establishment. He was born in Burgundy, but his grandfather was Algerian. He studied law, arguing a number of high-profile cases in the nineties. Along the way, he married an aristocrat with right-wing ties (they have since divorced). He was first elected to the National Assembly in 1997, in the same elections that resulted in socialist Lionel Jospin’s appointment as prime minister. Montebourg joined the Socialist Party’s left wing and attracted attention for his work on a parliamentary committee investigating money laundering in Europe.
Montebourg’s claim to fame, however, was a full-throttle attack on France’s current constitution. The presidency of Jacques Chirac (1995-2007) was tainted by a never-ending flow of revelations concerning the illegal schemes that Chirac had used to raise political funds while mayor of Paris. The constitution of the Fifth Republic, however, makes it very difficult to hold a sitting president accountable for a crime. With a lawyerly passion for justice, Montebourg tried to jump-start procedures to indict Chirac before a parliamentary commission, which would trigger the creation of the only court that could legally try a president. Lacking support, Montebourg’s ploy failed. Rather than give up, he founded an association—the Convention pour la sixième république, or Convention for a Sixth Republic—to push for a constitutional overhaul, one that would result in a “new” republic. Montebourg believed that French democracy could be revitalized by switching to a parliamentary rather than a presidential model—in the mold, say, of Germany or Italy (or, for that matter, France’s Third or Fourth Republics). He again failed to achieve his goal, but managed to burnish his reputation as a man of ideas.
In 2005, Montebourg came out against the European Constitutional Treaty when it was submitted to the French people as a referendum. He viewed it as a kind of Trojan horse for neoliberalism. This put him at odds with the Socialist Party’s leadership, notably first secretary François Hollande. But it placed him on the same page as the majority of French voters, who handily rejected the treaty.
In 2007, Montebourg served as spokesmen for the socialist presidential candidate, Ségolène Royal. He caused her considerable embarrassment, however, when he declared, in an offhand remark, that Royal’s only problem was her partner—none other than François Hollande, the party leader (Since 2007, Royal and Hollande have split up and are now running against one another—as well as Montebourg—in the socialist primary) .
Montebourg thus has plenty of experience walking the fine line between dissident and stalwart. Yet while he has long demonstrated an attorney’s taste for high-minded principle, only in recent years does he seem to have found religion. His creed owes its name to the Pilipino thinker and politician Walden Bello: “deglobalization.” French laborers laid off because their companies have outsourced to Brazil; German workers who are paid a measly daily wage of nine euros because of the Hartz IV labor market reforms; Cleveland families that have lost their homes in foreclosures due to subprime mortgages; Indian peasants whose livelihoods have been destroyed by the false hopes of genetically modified cotton—all, Montebourg believes, are victims of globalization’s “race to the bottom,” which, in the name of free trade, pulls down trade barriers and rides roughshod over local standards, reducing populations to poverty even as financiers and multinational corporations reap massive profits.
Montebourg advocates what he calls “new wave protectionism.” Unlike right-wing movements such as Marine Le Pen’s National Front, deglobalization, he claims, is not about the “fear of the other.” Rather, it promotes a “protectionism of development and emancipation” (see his pamphlet, Votez pour la démondialisation!—“Vote for Deglobalization!”). This kind of protectionism, he maintains, will be the “Keynesianism of the twenty-first century.” Because the world still lacks an institution that can defend the common global good, nation-states must once again learn to use borders as tools for promoting their populations’ well-being. Protectionism can be implemented to defend social and environmental standards that other countries refuse to follow. It can be used, furthermore, to undertake an “ecological transformation,” fostering “shorter industrial, agricultural, and productive circuits” that bring locations of consumption and locations of production closer together. Protectionism, moreover, can compel corporations to be socially responsible. Specifically, Montebourg endorses legislation that would hold corporate headquarters accountable for the social and environmental practices of their subsidiaries. He doesn’t oppose the European Union per se, but thinks, rather, that it must do a better job protecting itself against China and the United States (which often fail to practice the free trade dogma they preach). He wants the EU to impose a carbon tariff on imported goods, penalizing nations with less rigorous environmental standards.
You can tell a lot about a politician by the enemies he picks. Not surprisingly, Montebourg sees the financial sector as globalization’s most reprehensible culprit. He describes financiers as an “antipatriotic nobility, who ally themselves with foreign nations against France,” like the aristocratic émigrés during the French Revolution.
But the bad guys can also be other nations—or at least national political elites. Montebourg particularly dislikes China, in whose policies he sees a point-by-point refutation of neoliberalism’s myths. Myth: “The free market will bring broad prosperity to developing nations.” But only 5% of its population makes over $20,000. Myth: “China will be an outlet for Europe’s high-tech goods.” But its leaders have decided to favor what they call “indigenous innovation.” Myth: “Free markets promote democracy.” Yet the Chinese political elite remains firmly in power. Montebourg is indignant that the Chinese have taken advantage of the crisis in Greece to buy up its ports at bargain basement prices.
Somewhat anachronistically (it would appear), Montebourg also shows a strong anti-German streak. But his arguments are, at the very last, novel. Germany, he claims, is “Europe’s China”—a phrase he actually uses. The problem lies in the way that Germany reformed its labor market in the late 1990s and early 2000s, through the so-called “Hartz reforms” pushed by social-democratic chancellor Gerhard Schroeder. In the name of reducing unemployment, these reforms made the German labor market more flexible and created downward pressures on salaries. As a result, Germany’s export-driven economy boomed, while salaries stagnated or declined. The nation’s once vaunted “social model” has become a thing of the past. Meanwhile, as the current Eurozone crisis testifies, Germany’s behavior on the continent is, in Montebourg’s view, highly “egotistical.”
Montebourg’s diatribe against Germany is in many ways a critique of a recent trend in Western left-of-center parties. Schroeder was, after all, a proponent of the “Third Way” philosophy touted by Bill Clinton and Tony Blair. Montebourg denounces this mindset as a “socialism of adjustment”— a socialism that is merely an enabler of neoliberalism, correcting, at best, its worst excesses. Instead, Montebourg wants a rupture—the right to opt out of the entire globalizing process in the pursuit of greater social justice and sustainability.
In this way, Montebourg’s voice belongs to France’s growing anti-globalization chorus. His ideas are shared in some form by the Left Party candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the Green Eva Joly, and the New Anti-Capitalist Party. The far right endorses a radically different yet nonetheless comparable take on these principles. Montebourg’s originality lies in his effort to bring these ideas into the mainstream. His chance of winning the October 9 primary is slight. Recent polls give him around 5% of potential primary voters, though this could change as the campaign heats up. Montebourg is, however, a talented and media savvy politician, with a proven track record of introducing new ideas into political discourse while keeping one foot in the establishment. His program will be accused—somewhat plausibly—of being unrealistic. But Montebourg’s views are coherent and speak to the anxieties arising from the global economic crisis. Montebourg will almost certainly not be the socialists’ presidential candidate. But “deglobalization” may well become a watchword of the 2012 campaign.