For French President: François Hollande (With Reservations)

The French left has many deserving heroes. Jean Jaurès proved that socialism could be republican, ethical, and profoundly humane. Léon Blum continued his project, while achieving an impressive record of social reform during his so-called Popular Front government of the thirties. Pierre Mendès-France brought these ideas into the postwar era, conceptualizing a left that was compatible with a modern, technological society, even as he brought the dark chapter of France’s colonial war in Indochina to a much-needed close. After ’68, Michel Rocard made a persuasive case that the democratization of daily life was socialism’s greatest message to the modern world. And whatever their limitations (and Machiavellian ambitions), François Mitterrand and Lionel Jospin showed that socialists could govern—and that, from time to time, they could remain faithful to their core ideals.

The French left does, indeed, have many deserving heroes. I do not believe François Hollande is one of them. Yet he will likely be only the second socialist president of the Fifth Republic, and the first of the twenty-first century. All things considered, this is a good thing. For several reasons. Continue reading


The First Round: The Ten Candidates

The first round of the 2012 French presidential election takes place on April 22. The following is Sister Republic’s run-down of the ten candidates on the ballot:

Nicolas Sarkozy

Union for a Popular Movement (Union pour un Mouvement Populaire, UMP)

It has been a strange five years: the man regarded as unquestionably the most talented French politician of his generation has become one of the least popular and, perhaps, worst presidents of the Fifth Republic. Nicolas Sarkozy, who used to say that he dreamed of being president while shaving in the morning, is struggling for his political survival. He risks becoming the first incumbent since Valéry Giscard d’Estaing in 1981 to be denied a second term (a point that Giscard famously rubbed in, with wonderful passive aggressiveness, by letting the camera dwell on his empty chair for the entire duration of the Marseillaise at the end of his farewell speech).

Sarkozy, renowned for the nervous energy he brings to every endeavor, does have a record to run on (thanks in no small part to his competent and self-effacing prime minister, François Fillon). In 2007, he introduced measures to minimize the impact of public sector strikes on the French population. He implemented a controversial pension reform, which meant that most French people not facing immanent retirement will have to work longer. He has, like all Fifth Republic presidents, made foreign policy a priority. He was critical in securing Western military intervention on behalf of the Libyan rebellion; he has taken a hawkish stance on Iran; and he reintegrated France into NATO’s integrated command. Most importantly, he has played a critical role in the euro crisis, negotiating the Greek bailout and crafting policies to staunch the risk of future defaults. In this context, he found a crucial ally in German chancellor Angela Merkel, though he has often placed himself to the left of her draconian fiscal conservatism. Continue reading

Sarkozy’s Mohammed Merah Strategy (Or, How Not Toulouse)

If Mohammed Merah did not exist, Nicolas Sarkozy would have invented him. It is hard to overstate how perfectly Merah—who murdered three paratroopers and four French Jews before being killed on March 22 by special police forces after a tense standoff outside his Toulouse apartment—plays into the president’s electoral endgame. I may be overreacting to the drama of the moment, but I predict that Sarkozy will be reelected and that the past forty-eight hours will be seen as the decisive turning point in his road to victory. I also think this is a profoundly sad moment: in the months to come, French society, politics, and public discourse will suffer considerably from this tragic incident. Continue reading

Introducing the Candidates: The Slogans and Posters of France’s Presidential Campaign

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. Continue reading

French Santorum? A Conservative Politician Takes on the “Gay Lobby”

Let’s begin with a quiz. Call it “name that homophobe.” Consider each of the following quotes, and see what you can tell about the author:

Here’s the first: “I have no problem with homosexuality. I have a problem with homosexual acts. As I would with acts of other, what I would consider to be, acts outside of traditional heterosexual relationships. And that includes a variety of different acts, not just homosexual. I have nothing, absolutely nothing against anyone who’s homosexual. If that’s their orientation, then I accept that. And I have no problem with someone who has other orientations. The question is, do you act upon those orientations? So it’s not the person, it’s the person’s actions. And you have to separate the person from their actions.”

And here’s the second: “I did not say that homosexuality was dangerous. I said that it was inferior to heterosexuality. If it was universalized, that would be dangerous for humanity … For me, their behavior is sectarian … I criticize behavior, and I say their behavior is morally inferior.” Continue reading

Have a Hartz: Germany in the French Presidential Election

On Saturday, President Nicolas Sarkozy, who officially announced late last week that he was running for reelection, gave a press conference at his newly-opened campaign headquarters in Paris’ fifteenth arrondissement, during which he was asked a peculiar question. “It was announced that Angela Merkel would be "Merkozy"here,” a reporter asked, a hint of deception in his voice. The president gamely replied: “Yes, but she doesn’t have an office here…” The audience burst into laughter.

One of the more unusual twists in France’s upcoming presidential election, where the first round of voting will occur on April 22, is Nicolas Sarkozy’s sudden infatuation with all things German. His family origins lie in Greece and Hungary; he was, in 2007, known as “Sarko the American.” When pressed, he can even muster up some heavily accented English. But in 2012, the French president has gambled his reelection on his German connections. Continue reading

Occupied France (Or, Why the French Aren’t the Socialists They Are Cracked Up to Be)

The Occupy movement that has taken the United States by storm over the past two months is unquestionably a global phenomenon. In its methods and rhetoric, it has borrowed liberally from the Arab Spring and the Spanish indignados. It has deeper origins in anti-globalization activism. Even so, it just as clearly owes it success to a specifically American context. It’s the first movement to mobilize around data that economists have been reflecting on for years, which indicates that, since the 1970s, income inequality in the United States has risen dramatically while social mobility has ground to a standstill. Even though globalization has led to a convergence of economic conditions in industrialized countries, France and Western Europe often appear, to American leftists, as relatively progressive societies. In rankings of countries according to Gini coefficients (an economic measure of income disparities), France comes in as the 37th most equal country, while the US is 93rd. A recent OECD report placed the United States well behind France in terms of social mobility. You’re more likely, it would seem, to achieve the “American Dream” in France than in the United States Continue reading