Every time the French hold an election, there’s a moment when municipal authorities cart out truckloads of heavy metal panels from wherever they hibernate in non-election years and set them up in front of schools, mairies, and other public spaces. On these panels, the candidates and parties that qualified to be on the ballot are allowed to display their official “electoral propaganda.” Each panel is reserved for a particular candidate or party. This is where diligent citizens could, in the pre-internet age, go to learn about the candidates so that they could make an informed choice between them. I doubt that these days many people actually make up their minds by reading these panels, if they ever did. Yet there is something touching about the fealty that the French still pay to this custom—to the idea of a neutral space, designated by the state, where every candidate can make his or her case before the electorate. On the metal panels, politicians of Brezhnevian longevity, such as Jacques Chirac, receive no more and no less space than the ecologist du jour or the ever befuddling LaRouchites.
The panels also offer a first-rate political education. I first discovered them during the 1981 election, probably walking to get the bus after school (which I attended in the Paris suburbs). Being an American and still relatively new to France, I must have been amazed—and creatively confused—to see posters promoting communist candidates and displaying the hammer and sickle. The posters also provided numerous insights into French political culture. For instance, as commentators have often noted, the more left-wing the candidate, the greater the poster’s word count: the Gaullists placed no more than a few stirring words atop the image of their candidate contemplating, with a visionary stare, a rural landscape (incidentally, the socialist François Mitterrand finally won in 1981 when his media advisers adopted this format); the communists blended pictures mixed with substantive bullet points; but by the time you got to the Trotskyists, you really were just reading a manifesto—an imageless poster saturated with text. From an American standpoint in the age of Citizens United and super PACS, these panels might seem quaint. Yet I still find them engrossing—dingy avatars of a lost democratic purity.
In France, the official campaign for the 2012 election begins shortly, but most of the candidates have already crafted their slogans and designed their campaign posters, the ones that will presumably be plastered on those same metal panels—though I suspect these days most are fated to be circulated electronically. Here are they are, translated and followed by a few thoughts.
“Strong France” (“La France forte”)
Sarkozy has opted for the “visionary stare” approach. It harks back to François Mitterrand’s famous steeple-dotted advertisement from 1981, touting his “Force tranquille” (“tranquil force”). The slogan—“strong France”—is pretty meaningless, but still vaguely Gaullist. In many ways, this is surprising, given how little Sarkozy seems to care about the general’s legacy. His foreign policy and worldview have been solidly pro-American; he brought France back into NATO’s integrated command, reversing de Gaulle’s famous 1966 decision; and he has worked closely with the European Union. The slogan’s real intention is no doubt to project an image of strength and confidence at a time of profound economic anxiety. The image of the sea in the background is a bit puzzling (aren’t Gaullists about land?). I suspect its meant to convey a sense of calm, and indeed, tranquility—the very opposite, in short, of those traits with which Sarkozy is most associated in public opinion: hyper-agitation, over-sensitivity, and impetuousness.
“Change is now” (“Le changement, c’est maintenant”)
This image is fairly emblematic of the Socialist Party’s outlook. It’s almost a gloss on the famous French saying: the more you speak of “change,” the more likely you are to remain the same. Tapping a little implausibly and belatedly into Obamamania, Hollande wants us to believe that he is all about change. Yet this poster’s conservatism and unimaginativeness would make a city council candidate blush. Hollande looks like he’s running for mayor of Brie-Comte-Robert. In this way, the poster reflects the basic dilemma in which Hollande finds himself. There’s a great desire for change in France. The global economic crisis has made the crassly materialistic values of Sarkozyism look empty and destructive. But debt, the European Union, and the constraints of the international economy will severely limit the socialists’ ability to take many innovative steps (presuming they had new ideas in the first place). But at least with this poster we get a bit of landscape.
“A united country—nothing resists it” (“Un pays uni, rien ne lui résiste”)
Though it doesn’t exactly roll of the tongue, this slogan sums up Bayrou’s centrist message: if we overcome ideological differences, we can have a stronger country. This could appeal to those who are fed up with Sarkozy but skeptical about Hollande’s ability to govern. But the slogan glosses over the basic problem of French centrism, which is that it’s not really centrist, but rather a clearing house for the non-Gaullist right (and, historically, a motley alliance of classical liberals and Christian Democrats). The affable photograph plays into Bayrou’s reputation as one of France’s best-liked politicians. I’m a little disappointed there’s no landscape, however, since Bayrou is a strong advocate of regional identity.
“The voice of the people, the spirit of France” (“La voix du peuple, l’esprit de la France”)
The goal of the heiress to the Le Pen political franchise in 2012 is clear: she wants to project a kinder, gentler image of a political movement that is fundamentally racist, anti-Semitic, and xenophobic. A tall order, indeed. This might be why Marine is shown here in a quiet, relaxed, “can-you-imagine-me-goose-stepping?”kind of pose. The slogan is peculiar but interesting. “La voix du people”—the “voice of the people”—in addition to being a left-wing catchphrase, was also the name of a newspaper edited in the mid-nineteenth century by the most important French socialist of the non-Marxist tradition, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon. Interestingly, Proudhon’s ideas were later appropriated by the Action Française, the quasi-Fascist monarchist movement popular during the early twentieth century—and, arguably, one of the National Front’s predecessors as the embodiment of the French far right. The idea that there is a French “spirit” is, moreover, a basic component of right-wing nationalism. So whether deliberately or not, Le Pen is playing on the FN’s notorious ideological ambiguity: the fact that it is simultaneously nationalist and populist—a movement that invokes the allure of nationhood to appeal to those who feel excluded and marginalized by the tweedlee, tweedledum policies of the mainstream right and left.
“Take power!” (“Prenez le pouvoir”)
Mélenchon is one of the most interesting figures to emerge in French politics in the past couple of years. As I’ve explained in this blog, this dissident socialist has been inspired by popular revolts in Latin America against neoliberal economic policies. He wants his campaign to mobilize people to “take back the power” that, he believes, has been farmed out to corporations, the European Union, the European Central Bank, the IMF, etc. So his slogan is a call to arms, cast against an unapologetically red background (he has, incidentally, been endorsed by what’s left of the French communist party). I suspect that this slogan is meant to appeal to the “Occupy” movement and the Indignados: “take power” and “occupy” are, in this discourse, similar goals. Definitely a candidate to watch.
“The just vote” ( “Le vote juste”)
One of the odder slogans. The green candidate’s slogan makes no reference to environmental themes. Rather, the slogan evokes the candidate’s previous career: Eva Joly was, before she threw herself in politics, a prosecuting judge who took on a number of corrupt politicians and businessmen. But the slogan itself is, all the same, confusing for a party that is focused on ecological issues, particularly at a time when these concerns are becoming increasingly mainstream.
Dominique de Villepin (Solidarity Republic/République Solidaire)
“Let’s love France” (“Aimons la France”)
This one probably gets the prize for the dumbest and emptiest slogan. At least it’s fitting for the candidate: Dominique de Villepin, best known in the US for his (in many respects, admirable) denunciation of the American effort to strong-arm the world into endorsing its invasion of Iraq in 2003. De Villepin has, however, never, ever been elected to anything (he’s a career diplomat) and his campaign is motivated by his personal rivalry with and deep-seated hatred of Nicolas Sarkozy. His campaign appears to be organized around a kind of neo-Gaullist personality cult, celebrating de Villepin’s elegance, charisma, and ingenuity. His website includes weird pencil drawings of the great man in various states of brilliance. The most revealing part of the slogan is the royal “we”: De Villepin, he wants to tell us, is best suited to be France’s lover. Yuck.
“For a Free France” (“Pour une France libre”)
No nonsense here: Dupont-Aignan’s campaign poster looks like it could be from the seventies, at least. And that is probably fine with him. Dupont-Aignan is a classic, straight-up Gaullist—a dissident from Sarkozy’s party—who firmly believes that the story of contemporary France is one of a gradual relinquishment of national sovereignty—to Europe, most of all, but also to other international economic institutions. As his slogan indicates, he longs for a France that would at last be “free” of such constraints. He’s a defender of the world that we—or the French—have lost.
“A Communist Candidate” (“Une candidate communiste”)
Some things don’t change: the Trotskyist organization Worker’s Struggle is running as its presidential candidate an austere-looking woman with short hair. Some things do change: for the first time in three decades, the woman in question is not Arlette Laguiller (who ran in ’74, ’81, ’88, ’95, and ’02, and ’07). This time around, it’s an economist named Nathalie Arthaud. Her slogan is striking: she asserts quite simply that she is a “communist candidate.” Why? Ten years ago, in the 2002 campaign, there were no less than four communist candidates on the ballot: three Trotskyists and a Communist proper (five communists, in fact, if you count Lionel Jospin, who was once a Trotskyist himself). In 2012, Arthaud wants us to know, she’s the only one left.
“Let the capitalists pay for their crisis” (“Aux capitalistes de payer leur crise”)
The New Anti-Capitalist Party was founded in 2009 when the other major French Trotskyist party, the Revolutionary Communist League, reorganized itself as a broad front against “neoliberal globalization.” Like their rival on the far left, Workers’ Struggle, the NPA is also grappling in this cycle with the “routinization of charisma”: after being represented in two presidential races by Olivier Besancenot, the popular baby-faced revolutionary mailman, they have a new standard bearer, the older and grayer Philippe Poutou. But his political line is still crystal clear: the global economic crisis shows that capitalism has failed, and we have to ensure that working people don’t get footed with the bill.
Corinne Lepage (CAP21)
“Trusting the French” (“Les Français en confiance”)
Lepage is an environmental lawyer who ran for president in 2002. Somewhat atypically for an ecologist, she’s closer to the centrist movement of Francois Bayrou than to the left-leaning Greens. Her slogan is cryptic. What exactly does she trust the French to do, end climate change? It is interesting, in any case, that she uses the word “French” in her slogan: her rival for the environmental vote, Green candidate Eva Joly, was born in Norway—the only presidential candidate who is not a French citizen by birth …