FRANCE IN THE TWILIGHT
There is an irrepressible need for political change in France. Ségolène Royal and Nicolas Sarkozy meet it and personify a new generation. They strive to appear outside the system and address formerly taboo issues. Mrs. Royal, whose policies are largely uncertain, decided to consult public opinion before actually forging them. Mr. Sarkozy has been on the front line for years, which exposed him to reactions from all sides. Mr. Chirac, hit by the slogan of “breaking”, can deeply damage Mr. Sarkozy’s candidature. The long awaited debate between Royal and Sarkozy which should clarify which reforms France urgently needs, may be blurred by a violent fight of symbols and ideologies. Let’s hope not.
Will French views on globalization improve ? This is a crucial question. There is a real danger that the presidential campaign will be deprived of the vital inspiration of openness to the world. The European issue is a test. The political leaders do not want to draw lessons from our rejection of the Constitutional Treaty. And what will their policy be for tomorrow ? The left is deeply divided. It is turning to old objectives, such as a Social Treaty, or wishes an economic government in the euro zone but gives no substance to it. N. Sarkozy favours a “mini-Treaty” implementing institutional reforms that would not require being put to a referendum. The aim of revitalising Europe via joint projects that could rally its populations – on energy, environment, and immigration – is being expressed but has yet to be reflected in politics. All together the demand for a European Union that protects the Social State predominates.
In domestic politics, however, the social issue is under debate. The disquiet of the middle classes is pronounced. They have often become poorer and the social ladder is no longer functioning. Reducing the working time and giving priority to social security benefits is a discredited policy. People want to earn more. Rehabilitating work is possible and criticism of the educational system is no longer unthinkable. S. Royal has cleverly recognised the “desire for a future,” and N. Sarkozy has oriented the platform of the UMP (Union for a Popular Movement) to support a powerful objective : those who accept to work more must be able to earn more (and conversely). As a result, overtime would be paid at a higher rate, and exonerated from payroll taxes.
But how can social considerations be reconciled with improved competitiveness ? Contrary to Germany, public debate in France fails to confront economic reality. Amazing work such as that conducted by the Pébereau Commission is being fought tooth and nail by those, including some renowned economists, who deny the critical problems posed by insufficient competitiveness and substantial public debt. It is nonetheless urgent to establish a competitive supply-side policy. But the French State no longer knows how to prepare for the future, the French have not reconciled themselves with business, and there is no consensus yet on a social market economy.
Ségolène Royal will have to ignore the Socialist Party platform – a caricatural restitution of earlier politics and the Welfare State. Any government attempting to apply it would hurl the country headlong into a wall. The UMP has a more reasonable platform ; it advocates a general reform of public finances and a reduction in compulsory payroll deductions but only afterwards. This will face strong reactions from society, however. Sarkozy appears both liberal and Bonapartist, calling on entrepreneurial initiative and committing the State. An odd concept.
In order to get elected, S. Royal must avoid rubbing the left the wrong way. She has a major advantage : the support of 21 regional council presidencies out of 22, along with that of many local elected officials. Laurent Fabius refers to a “regionalised Blairism” in her case.
A bipolarisation process is clearly underway that will be followed by a shift towards a presidential regime - some sort of Americanization of French politics. Royal and Sarkozy are conducting communication campaigns that are considered to be “populist.” They are in fact adapted to a country whose system has been discredited. However, calling on public opinion and listening to people does not go so far as asking them to shoulder responsibilities or establishing the conditions for genuine participation. France is suffocating under State control and republican elitism : only State reform can pave the way for democratic progress.
The political game is now more open than before, but only French society’s commitment to the course of reform, the return to Europe and openness to the world will allow our country to pull itself together.
Philippe Herzog, Chairman of Confrontations Europe