Sunday April 29, 2012
Drama with predictability
BEHIND THE HEADLINES
By BUNN NAGARA
The on-going French presidential election has seen fireworks over two weeks, only to reach an expected result.
FRENCH President Nicolas Sarkozy lost the “first round” of voting last Sunday, setting off various alarm bells in different directions.
His Socialist Party challenger Francois Hollande who topped the field of 10 candidates also failed to win by a knockout (simple majority), so the fight goes on to round two next Sunday. The intricacies of the points decision to come are already more entertaining than any party’s election campaign.
Sarkozy can take full “credit” for a humiliating defeat in round one, becoming the first sitting president in two decades to do so. When he crumbles in the deciding round as expected, he would become the first president in four decades to lose a re-election.
No matter what happens between now and May 6, his presidency is still expected to self-destruct in extended play. And there is precious little in the next seven days that he can do to reverse that outcome.
An uninspiring term since 2007 had produced a tepid re-election campaign. In a series of occasions, Sarkozy became regarded by the people as being self-absorbed, even narcissistic, aloof, indifferent to the national predicament, and finally out of touch.
The score last Sunday: of the “double-digit” candidates, Hollande scored 28.6%, Sarkozy’s right-wing United for a Popular Movement (UMP) party bagged only 27.1%, Marine Le Pen’s far-right Front National won a record 17.9% and Jean-Luc Melenchon’s Left Party had 11.1%.
There were actually two significant results: Sarkozy’s apparent political demise, and the evident rise of the Le Pen family’s crypto-fascist movement.
The Socialist Party’s seeming triumph, however expectant, is marginal and therefore minimal. Hollande is neither charismatic nor particularly inspiring.
The Socialist leader, however, has been a fortunate beneficiary of Sarkozy’s decline. Hollande happened to be in the right place at the right time.
By no measure is today’s France taking a turn to the left. Much of Sarkozy’s woe is a protest vote against his government, such that a Hollande victory comes only by default.
Neither does the Left Party help to “balance” the equation with the rise of the Front National. Melenchon had begun his campaign by pledging to neutralise the neo-fascist sentiments embraced by Le Pen, but her performance has put the Left Front’s in the shade instead.
Based on vote percentages, Le Pen has come in a clear third. She has already done better with her family party’s extremist ideology than her father Jean-Marie ever did.
Marine Le Pen actually performed better in voter turnout across the country than her party’s sole regional victory in Gard suggests. From the three parties’ performance in France’s departements (regions), the Socialist Party won 57.9%, the UMP 41.1% and the FN (almost) 1%.
However, a closer look at the percentages of votes in individual departements shows the NF coming close to the two main parties in many places. In nearly a dozen regions, such as Aisne, Bas Rhin, Pas de Calais and Var, populist neo-fascist appeals of (racial) anti-immigration and “French identity” boosted the party’s standing to second place.
In parliamentary (National Assembly) elections in June, the FN is expected to do better still. Marine’s niece Marion, granddaughter of Jean-Marie Le Pen, is tipped to win the Carpentras constituency to become the country’s first FN lawmaker.
For the party, Marine Le Pen initially focused on the economy to downplay the myriad controversies of FN politics. But as support for the party grew, her confidence developed until she could directly target the issue of immigration, with all the racial implications her party’s hardline stance implies.
Nor is the FN’s rise an isolated phenomenon of academic interest only. It is bound to cause ripples in the other parties, notably the UMP, by making it more extreme.
For weeks, analysts have speculated on how Sarkozy’s rightist re-election campaign would slide further towards the extreme right as it limps on to May 6. Sarkozy, himself a Jew, might not be expected to woo supporters of the “natural party” of anti-Semites, but the temptation to do so is strong in an inevitably tight race.
On the same day that he denied he would seek a deal with the FN (Thursday), he was reportedly appealing in substance to the party’s soul on state power and the position of minorities. This has already encouraged Marine, who is pressing for more concessions including the UMP giving way for the FN in June’s legislative elections and even Cabinet posts with a Sarkozy win.
However, Sarkozy is also wary of FN carrots being dangled in front of him. His advisers have cautioned that a deal would not be worth the effort, since the FN also hopes to benefit from a UMP meltdown.
Strategists believe that the “UMP-friendly” portion of the FN base is just under 20%, whereas Sarkozy needs up to 80% of FN support to win the re-election. His lack of a political future is practically sealed.
All of this is unlikely to push Hollande’s Socialist Party further towards the left. Already, the consensus among voters and election watchers is that his party and the UMP differ little on economic ideology.
Thus the stage is set for Hollande to introduce the French version of Tony Blair’s so-called New Labour. He must know the pitfalls and brickbats in store for such a move, but the sorry state of the French and the Eurozone economies may leave him little choice.
The Socialist Party may simply come to supplant the UMP in government, doing little for the labour movement or to deliver on its declared agenda. Then the party’s own credibility and standing might in turn unravel.
Still, the prospect of a Socialist Party government has triggered shrill noises from French plutocrats and European industrialists. A higher tax for the super-rich that Hollande has envisaged is key to the issue.
Hollande, however, is also more upbeat than Sarkozy policy-wise. He wants to institute more government investment to stimulate the economy, rather than simply languish in more austerity measures.
The economic malaise that has hit France, along with so many other European countries, has clearly proven to be Sarkozy’s undoing. It is also an opportunity for Hollande to gain a taste of governance.
At the same time, it is an opening for the far right to race ahead in placing its stamp and ideological influence on the country’s political mainstream. It has never had a better time to do this than now.
Nonetheless, it would be simplistic to stereotype today’s FN in the way it might have been done in Jean-Marie’s day. The boost in support for Marine’s party comes in part from disaffected UMP supporters and even, reportedly, some disillusioned socialists who had supported Hollande’s party before.
France is the largest country in Europe and a pivotal co-founder of the European Union. With European neo-fascists more networked than before, how Le Pen’s triumphs will impact on the continent remains to be seen.
Hollande is expected to win 55% to Sarkozy’s 45% in round two. That would be an amplification of round one’s result, an enlargement process that the NF also hopes for itself.
This election, amid spiralling economic difficulties, has already brought prominence to elements of neo-fascism and its cause. That happened before in Germany, another major European and EU state, with devastating results.