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La Presidentielle

The first September weekend marked the return to normalcy for French society, if French society can be called normal at all.  Stores have unboarded their windows, and people, back from their vacations, amble in the streets.  Roads are clogged and parking is hard to get for those who need it.  I can buy fine cheese again because La Crémerie has reopened shop.  Kids are sent to school.  The two-month hiatus of summer has come to an end.

On that back-to-school weekend French political parties traditionally hold what's called summer universities, gatherings in scenic places to chew the fat and soak up the last rays of sun before tinted office windows will block any insolation.  Besides, the meetings also let the higher-ups discuss strategy, interact with predominantly young party activists, and present their faces to the media and thus the public.  These powwows are always anticipated with impatience because they set the tone and agenda for the year to come.  This year, expectations are even higher and with it media coverage and the pomp of the speeches.

In eight months, France will elect a new president finally doing away with an old and wasted man.  After 14 years in office, Jacques Chirac is completely out of touch with the public and, sometimes it seems, even said office.  He appears on TV on occasion but has not had anything useful to say in a year and a half.  In August, he had a light moment with his nimble handling of the question of the UN security force in Lebanon, but it is painfully evident that a new kid needs to ride into town.

Considerably less evident is who this kid is going to be. The election will be held in two sessions.  In the first, scheduled for April 2007, whoever can collect 500 signatures of elected officials in his support can run.  In the event that no candidate will gather more than 45% of the votes in the first turn, the two front-runners will duel it out one month later.  Common sense dictates that this will be a candidate from the Socialist Party and one from the Union for a Popular Movement, the two major parties in France.  However, it's far from given that common sense will be heeded.

During the last election, in 2002, the socialist candidate was kept from advancing to the second round by a notorious right winger.  It is unlikely that history will repeat itself, but one can see all too easily the weaknesses of the left.  Besides the mighty and stodgy Socialist Party are a dozen affiliated outfits on the left fringes, perennially bickering groups of Maoists, Trotskyites, Leninists, post-capitalist Marxists, and revolutionary communists.  As far as I can tell, most of the time their arguments turn around who is following the right faith and who are just imposters and apostates.  Don't count anyone out.  Because of the fragmented nature of French politics, 16% of the vote was sufficient to enter the second round in 2002.

The two parties dominating the political landscape are the Socialist Party, ideologically just to the right of the communists, and the UMP, a bit less to the left, but nothing that should be called center-right.  That does not exist in France.  There are a thousand shades of left and a right winger, mentioned above, but it's the two major parties whose candidates will be favorites.  Although these candidates will only be determined by intra-party primaries around November, two potential contenders are currently sharing almost all of the media's attention.

On the right side of left is Nicolas Sarkozy.  With eyelids sagging so deeply that they would make Sylvester Stallone cry, he is more apt to play Rocky than president.  He is a foot smaller than anyone else in the political ring and has stunning visuals for giving the underdog or outsider.  He plays his hand masterfully, characterizing himself as the lone warrior who will fight the corrupt establishment and restore order to the madhouse.  He is much less ardent to admit responsibility for the disaster, which he certainly shares as current interior minister and ancient minister of the economy.  About a year ago, when the Presidentielle first appeared on the political horizon, he was already game.  He pounded on the fact that he's unlike all others, that he's going to do things differently, that he will rupture with the past, dragging France out of its present morass.  There is no doubt that he initially intended to shatter encrusted structures and dated philosophies, and it was certainly refreshing to see his professed indifference to conventions and public opinion.  Calling youths rampaging in the banlieues of Paris trash that needs to be cleaned up was not popular but he would repeat it whenever questioned.  Now, his early eager has subsided noticeably.  He has integrated more fully into the party (that he's been presiding over for the last three years) and isn't ready to surprise or shock anymore.  The rupture has ended before it began, and all is as it used to be.

His latest theme is respect.  He claims that the student movement of 1968, a powerful rupture in its own right, started much of what's rotten in France these days.  In schools he would like to see students sit and listen deferentially and quietly as the teacher benevolently dispenses knowledge.  He wants to dilute social protection to make people become more responsible for themselves.  "If you're not ambitious for yourself, no one is going to be it for you."  This last position might just break his neck in a country where a sizeable fraction of the population genuinely aspires to a boring but safe government job.

Opposite Sarkozy stands Ségolène Royal.  She appears as the only viable possible candidate on the squabbling left and talks of changing the system, though she does not go so far as to call her approach rupture.  She is flying the colors of difference, and different she certainly is – an attractive woman in an ocean of male old politicians called elephants in France.  She milks her difference and her public appeal for all it's worth, working the press while staying extremely foggy when it comes to political ideas.  She prefers to say nothing if she doesn't have to and even bailed out on the question-and-answer session with the new blood of the party at the summer university.  When, during a press conference or an interview, a tough question is asked or a precise answer seems impossible to avoid, she retorts an indignant "Would you have posed the same question if I were a man?"  Increasingly many voters have taken up the "I'm going to vote for her because she's a woman" attitude, equally sexist as "She won't get my vote because she's a woman".

One concrete point she made recently is mandatory union membership for all employed.  Immediately, vociferous protests were heard.  However, it was not political opponents or hassled employers that were opposed to the idea.  It was union representatives who cried wolf the loudest.  Unions in France are extremely militant.  Less than 10% percent of employees belong to one of what seems like a thousand and yet, general strikes regularly bring the country to a halt.  If unions had a larger number of moderate members, the social dialogue would take place in a much more civilized way, but that's not what the unions want.  They enjoy their power and are not ready to let go.  The tyranny of the minority, as some have called it.

For all the ideological differences, it is striking to see the similarities between the two ostentatiously opposed players.  Skepticism over the incommensurate power of the unions is a major point where Royal agrees with Sarkozy who recently suggested all employees (and not only union members) should vote before a strike be called.  Another is the need for a general shake-up, which seems unavoidable if France wants to truly enter the 21st century.  Both agree also, somewhat non-sequitur, that society needs more respect, and rules need to be followed and enforced.  Interestingly, at this early time in the campaign, both go poaching the other party's (and, by extension, ideology's) territory.  Royal is trying to woo conservative voters by calling into question the sacrosanct 35-hour work week while Sarkozy works hard to impress the left by taking problems of immigrants and with immigration seriously.

Far behind Royal and Sarkozy, both in terms of political weight and public appeal trail a number long shots.  François Bayrou hails from a smaller party in the center of the political spectrum traditionally affiliated with the UMP.  He doesn't get much airtime or space in newspapers, though he seems to have a few interesting things to say.  From what I gather, he is sick of the left/right division and wants to do away with it completely.  One might dismiss him as a utopian, but his ideals might ring with the French who have got increasingly estranged with politics over the last decades.  They showed their discontent most clearly when they rejected the EU constitution last May despite the solicitous endorsement by their president.  Bayrou has assembled around him an impressive number of disaffected but ambitious politicians – from the left and the right – and it can only be hoped that he will be given the opportunity to contribute to the debate.

It would be a grave mistake to count out Dominique de Villepin who is currently prime minister and as presidentiable as no other.  He gained international fame for word-fighting the US with masterly eloquence in the months leading up to the invasion of Iraq, when he was foreign minister.  No one gives speeches like he does, with a flawless command of his language and an exquisite elocution, and no one writes whimsical poems praising the glory of the patrie with more devotion.  He also has the generous manners of a future president, evident in the speech he gave at the summer university where he paternally praised Sarkozy for all his accomplishments in government in much the same way as a president would praise his prime minister.  Unfortunately, he is notorious nationwide for trying, this spring, to create a new job category specifically for the unemployed young.  These jobs were to become permanent only after an unusually long probation period of two years.  After weeks of anarchy in the streets, organized by worker and student unions, de Villepin conceded utter defeat and retired his proposal.  He is only now regaining ground in the polls.

On the left, about five of the elephants have not accepted that a women might become president.  They intend to use their (cumulative) centuries of political experience and undeniably superior oratory to subvert Royal's campaign and gain ground with a suspicious public.

It is thus not given that Royal or Sarkozy will finish victorious in their parties' primaries and become candidates.  Currently, they are just candidates to the candidacy, and an early start doesn't guarantee a timely finish.  As the French like to say – c'est pas gagné.  In politics in particular, it's important to make your speeches at the right time and to peak in popularity on election day.  As fall takes over from summer, the days will heat up nevertheless.  Stay tuned for surprising reactions and baffling turns.  The winner will be named in May.

13 September 2006