A Review of French Politics, 2006 – D. Hamilton

French government is similar to that in the US in that it has three branches, executive, legislative and judicial. The executive, however, is divided between the president, who is elected to five-year terms, and a prime minister, who is appointed by the president. Quoting Wikipedia, “The President has a degree of direct executive power, but most executive power resides in his appointee, the Prime Minister. The President’s choice for Prime Minister must have the confidence of the National Assembly, the lower house of Parliament; also the Prime Minister is always from the majority party in that house.” Presidential elections occur in two stages. In the first, candidates from many different parties participate. The second round is a runoff between the two who receive the largest votes in the first round. In recent French history, control of the executive has alternated between the Rassemblement pour la Republique (which I will refer to as the Gaullists, although that shorthand characterization may be becoming less accurate over time) and the French Socialist Party.

Sharply contrasting with the US, almost all positions of leadership in French politics are held by lifelong professional politicians, specifically graduates from the elite Ecole National de Administration. The French would never think of electing a president who is some amateur not specifically trained to be a politician and with many years experience in various political offices.

The last presidential election in 2002 was a fiasco for the left. Because the left splintered into several different parties in the first round, the two principal right-wing candidates made the runoff. The incumbent, Jacques Chirac (Gaullist), won the first round, but with less than 20% of the vote. Second place went to Jean-Marie Le Pen of the extreme right Front National, with policies similar to US Republicans plus anti-semitism and a militant dislike of immigrants, i.e., fascism. He received just less than 17% in the first round. The Socialist Party candidate in 2002, Lionel Jospin, ran third; less than 1% behind Le Pen. Several parties to the left of the Socialists garnered significant support: Workers Struggle – 5.72%, The Greens – 5.25%, Revolutionary Communist League – 4.25%, Communist Party – 3.37%, Left Radical Party – 2.32%, among others.

The first-round results produced great shock and dismay on the left and massive street demonstrations against Le Pen. In the second round, Le Pen received only 1% more of the vote than he had in the first round and Chirac won with a massive landslide of over 82% of the vote. This occurred despite Chirac being widely considered a corrupt, vacillating, gladhanding politician with few if any principles. Chirac has muddled along through his tenure with approval ratings below George W. Bush at his worst, receiving his highest acclaim for standing up to the US in the rush to war in Iraq. It should be noted that the supposedly right-wing French Gaullists like Chirac support policies well to the left of US Democrats. In fact, almost the entire French political spectrum is to the left of the US political spectrum.

Opposition to US imperialism is consistent with the concept initiated in the 1960’s by General de Gaulle, an incredibly prescient man who initiated the concept of a multi-polar world power structure. This became the French response to the bi-polar conflict, the Cold War, which dominated world affairs during that era. Thus, he withdrew France from NATO and created an independent nuclear armed military. This independence has been a cornerstone of French foreign policy ever since. However, Chirac has on numerous occasions sought to suck up to the US on issues he regards of relatively minor relevance, such as overthrowing the democratically elected Aristide government in Haiti.

The next French presidential election is in May of 2007, less than a year away. How is it shaping up? The various left-of-the-Socialists parties still have ambitions, but it is reasonable to predict that there will be a phenomenon on the left in France similar to the abdication of the Green Party to the Democrats in the US in 2004, so that the left doesn’t get excluded from the runoff as in 2002. There also remains the fear that Le Pen has gained support because of the inflamed immigration issue and could make the runoff again, although he’ll probably never get more than 25% of the total vote. However, Jospin, the 2002 Socialist Party candidate, was considered tired and weak. That will very likely not be the case in 2007. There have also been splits on the extreme right, with Le Pen protogeés thinking it is time for their aging tradtional leader to step aside in favor of new blood. Hence, it is fair to assume that the next election will again end up in a run off between the Gaullists and the Socialists.

The Gaullists have a race on their hands for the nomination between the current prime minister, Dominique de Villepin, and the current Minister of the Interior, Nicolas Sarkozy. De Villepin was badly discredited earlier this year by his proposal of the pro-capitalist economic “reforms” that led to massive street demonstrations, which forced him to back down. Sarkozy distinguished himself to the right by taking a very hard line against the rioters in the suburbs last November, going so far as to publicly call them scum, and is considered a highly combative conservative. For the left in the US, the basic issue is whether the next French president will continue to steer a course independent from the US in foreign affairs. Sarkozy is the most likely candidate to move closer to an alliance with the US and he is the most likely candidate for the Gaullists. My friends here describe him as “worse than Blair.” Sarkozy represents the Americanization of France, removing restraints on market capitalism and cutting existing socialist benefits.

By far the most popular Socialist Party candidate at this point is Ségolène Royal. The growth of her popularity has been described as “meteoric” over the past year. A recent poll conducted by the pro-Socialist Liberation newspaper gave her a huge lead over any other potential Socialist candidate when people sympathetic to the Socialist Party were asked who would be their best candidate. Her current office is roughly equivalent to a US governor and she is “married” to Francois Hollande, head of the Socialist Party, who is also considered a potential presidential candidate. Actually, they were never legally married, but they have been together about 30 years and have four children. This is not seen as a relevant political factor. She is regarded as elegant and articulate, a perfect incarnation of the “caviar socialists.” She has advocated controversial proposals within the Socialist Party that are considered to the right of traditional socialist positions. For example, she has criticized the extension of the 35-hour work week to small employers. She also proposed, as an alternative to prison, mandatory community service projects run by the military for delinquent youths and the reduction of state benefits for the families of recidivist delinquent adolescents. The latter made it into the Socialist Party platform. She is clearly trying to portray herself as tough on crime to counter the use of that issue by the right. She is, therefore, seen as somewhat Hillary-esque within the French context, although her positions on virtually everything are far to the left of Hillary’s.

The Socialist Party just came out with its platform for 2007 and it is more binding on candidates than are platforms of American political parties. It was characterized as moving both right on crime and left on economic issues; “one of the toughest law-and-order platforms ever put forward by a leftist party in France.” Its principal economic element was an increase in the minimum wage by more than 23%, from 1,218 euros to 1,500 euros (about $1,900) a month by 2012. Based on that 35-hour week, that works out to about $12.50 an hour. Other elements of the platform include the re-nationalization of the power giant Electricité de France, plans to build 120,000 housing units a year for the poor and establishing the right to lifelong free education to retrain workers.

At this point, no one knows who would win a race between the Socialist Royal and the Gaullist Sarkozy. The eleven months before the election is a political lifetime. But for leftists in the US and worldwide, a lot rides on the outcome. France has a permanent seat on the UN Security Council and a veto there that is an important tool to help restrain US aggression. It also has prestige and influence beyond what its economic or military power might warrant. Although Spain and Italy have gone to the Socialists in their most recent elections and Blair continues to weaken in England, Germany lost its Social Democratic government. A Sarkozy victory in France is hardly out of the question and would be a disaster. The election will be decided on domestic issues and, perhaps, the gender of the candidates. A Sarkozy victory would also very likely be highly divisive within a French society which has a long history of popular militancy.

A wildcard is the Muslim vote, heretofore largely insignificant, although they make up almost 10% of the population, the largest Muslim population in any Western European country. Despite their numbers, out of 555 members of the French National Assembly, none are Muslims. There are reports of new voter registration efforts taking place among them. Sarkozy has few admirers there.

David Hamilton from Paris

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