Monday, 19 March 2007

Presidentielle 2007 - Why is Libéralisme a Dirty Word in France?

libéralisme, nom masculin
Sense 1: Doctrine centrée autour des libertés individuelles. 
(Doctrine centred around individual liberties).
Sense 2: Doctrine économique qui défend la libre entreprise, la non intervention de l'Etat dans le secteur économique.
(Economic doctrine which defends free enterprise and the non-intervention of the state in the economic sector).

I have mentioned before that in French politics liberalism is a dirty word. I thought at first that this is because France is fundamentally left wing, and is very concerned about social cohesion and preventing the exclusion of its less favoured groups, but for the last twenty five years it has alternately elected right and left wing governments. I have therefore found it difficult to comprehend why France should be so strongly against liberal policies, but with the help of an article in Le Monde 13 March, based on an interview with Pascal Perrineau, the Director of Political Research at Science Po, I am beginning to understand why.
I have quoted heavily from his interview in the following extracts. I hope he will forgive any inaccuracies of translation.
Liberalism has become a scarecrow, almost an affront to public opinion. And lacking an enemy, which today’s French politics cruelly misses, liberalism has become the ideal enemy. Today, even when in reality liberalism flows through a candidate’s political culture, no candidate can take the risk of proposing and defending a liberal policy”. Elsewhere in Europe liberalism has a visible political existence. Across the channel it is an integral part of the Conservative Party and the Labour Party has adopted some of its aspects. In Germany the Liberal Party is the hinge between the Social Democrats and the Christian Democrats. In Holland, Denmark and Italy liberals actively participate in government coalitions, generally of the right, and bring their political themes”.
“The only true attempt to offer a liberal alternative to French electors was in 1997 when Alain Madelin created a party called Democratie Libérale and stood for election in 2002. He got only 3.9% of the votes, which represents one million electors. These came mostly from the owners of small businesses, the artisans, the self employed and those working as senior managers. Amongst the middle and working classes his support was negligible. This failure has shown that no one can brandish the liberal flag without suffering the opprobrium which follows and this has condemned liberalism to being a stowaway in political programmes”.
“Why has liberalism never been able to occupy a durable and credible part of French politics? From Colbert (advisor to Louis IV, 1619 – 1683) via Napoleon to de Gaulle, there is an historical attachment, from both the right and the left of French politics, to the power of the state. For a variety of historical reasons, this does not exist in Germany, the United Kingdom, Spain or Italy.
There is also a cultural question. The right in France has developed around catholic values, whilst the left has developed around Marxist concepts. Both are hostile to money and business.
There is finally a very French political and judicial approach under which public power embodies the general interest. Particular interests, which menace the general interest, are therefore illegitimate. For our neighbours, however, the general interest flows from the addition and co-ordination of freely developed particular interests”.

So, in 21st century France, liberalism is seen as a right wing political doctrine which leads to adverse social consequences, such as a loss of jobs and a greater divergence of income between rich and poor. But liberalism is an economic doctrine which defends free enterprise and the non-intervention of the state in the economic sector; therefore it is also seen as a potential challenge to what people have become used to as the role of the state.

French people rely on the state to protect and nurture them, and their belief in the concept of the Republic is partly founded on the ability of the state to deliver this protection. Therefore a political doctrine, which by definition implies the withdrawal of the state from some of its customary responsibilities, threatens this belief. This is profoundly unsettling for many French people and is one of the less obvious reasons which explain why liberalism is such a dirty word in France.

Sunday, 11 March 2007

Presidentielle 2007 - From your French Political Correspondent

Two weeks is a long time in politics. Nearly two weeks ago I wrote about Francois Bayrou (UDF centre right) implying that he was irrelevant, since he was in third place at only 17% in the opinion polls, and he was unlikely to get elected. He has risen steadily since then and Le Monde (9 March 2007) was quoting support for him now standing at 21%, seriously challenging Segolene Royal at 24% and Nicholas Sarkozy at 29%. The Socialists are worried to the point that their spokesman said on France Inter (10 March), that if Bayrou beats Royal on the first round, he should withdraw so that France is offered a true left of centre alternative to Sarkozy. French journalists are so well trained and respectful that no one laughed!

There are two rounds of voting for the Présidentielle. For a long time I have been trying to understand the rules for the second round, so finally I looked them up and they are very simple. If a candidate does not get a majority of the votes cast in the first round, then there is a second round with only the top two candidates. Whoever wins this is elected. In the same poll quoted above, people were asked who they would vote for on the second round, and the figures were Bayrou 55% against 45% for Sarkozy.

So there is now a serious possibility that Bayrou could pull ahead of Sego in the first round and win in the second. Since he is an experienced politician he is unlikely to make silly gaffes, and his platform, of being an alternative to the left – right pendulum of the last 20 years, is clearly going down well. It is after all a very simple message to sell. I shall now have to try to understand whether he has anything else to offer because I still have reservations about him. Firstly his basic left-right coalition idea is naïve and will not work. Secondly I watched one of his speeches a few weeks ago and a disproportionate length was given to education, but he had only one serious idea for helping businesses and re-launching the economy (he used to be Minister for Education). I am, however, certain that he has no grand ideas for reforming France and voting for him will be a vote for the status quo. Lastly, there was an event this week which bears on him and deserves explaining.

Simone Veil is a Grand Dame of French politics. She is Jewish and was a concentration camp survivor. She is a symbol of the re- construction of post war European politics and is said to be one of the best liked personalities in France. As a female politician, over the years, she has championed the rights of women but from a right wing rather than a left wing perspective. She was a member of the UDF, Bayrou’s party. For some years she has been on the Conseil Constitutionnel, an organisation, which amongst other things, sets the rules for elections and is non political. This week her term of office ended and on the Day of Women she announced her support for Sarkozy. In 1989, Bayrou directed her campaign for the European elections, which was considered a fiasco, and she lost. She is on record as saying that he was ineffective and their antipathy has deepened since then. Her intervention did make the television news, but we will have to wait to see whether it has made any significant impact.

There are still six weeks to go until the first round of voting on 22 April and that is a very long time in politics. I don’t think that any of the candidates are really dominating the media and they are missing opportunities. There is little of the rapid riposte and media management that we are used to, and got very tired of, in the UK. I think this is especially true of Sarkozy whose message is not getting through and needs simplifying. I wonder whether Alistair Campbell can speak French. I would say that their politics are very similar and there is still time to make an impact.

José Bové (Confédération Paysanne, Peasants Union) is in a bit of trouble. He is a colourful character on the greenish extreme left, and is one of the minority candidates who is difficult to ignore. His difficulty isn’t the fact that he has been sentenced to four months in prison for driving a JCB into the front of a MacDonald’s. Since he is out campaigning as usual, that is not his most immediate concern. His problem is that he is several hundred signatures short of the 500 that he needs to sponsor his candidature, from the 36,786 mayors in France. Until the list closes on 16 March, the CSA (Conseil Supérieur Audiovisuel) has decreed that all candidates should get equal airtime. This explains his frequent appearance on many TV discussion programmes, which I am disappointed to report, has confirmed to me that he isn’t a peasant, but a well educated politician. I look forward to seeing much less of him very soon.