What does it mean to be “on the right”? In France, this question has long been debated. The great political scientist René Rémond famously saw the right in France as torn between a series of apparently contradictory positions: secularism and clericalism, authoritarianism and liberalism, statism and anti-statism. In recent decades, the French right has seemed similarly fractured, in ways that both perpetuate and depart from its earlier cleavages. It can espouse free-market capitalism but also “economic patriotism,” European integration as well as national sovereignty, republican tolerance but also rabid xenophobia. In particular, the French right has been dogged by the persistent problem of its relationship with the National Front (Front national, or FN). Does the Le Pen family party ultimately share many of the mainstream right’s values, only expressing them in more virulent terms? Or is the FN’s identity sui generis, as distinct from the center right as the latter is from the left? Continue reading
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 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:
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
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
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