Tuesday, April 24, 2007

The Struggle for France

"I am France," the Sun King Louis XIV famously said. Several candidates in an unprecedented Sun King-Reaganesque style struggled to claim consubstantiation with the nation on Sunday in a first round electoral showdown that winner Nikolas Sarkozy and others called a victory for democracy.

What lies beneath the "victory for democracy" evidenced in the record voter turnouts for the French presidential election on Sunday? Some say a new kind of crypto-fascism and a resurgent populism based on glossy, strategically ambiguous political branding. But American readers will recall: this comes most effectively from candidate Nikolas Sarkozy, a man whose smooth politicking has been described as "American," of which he claims to be quite proud.

The poll projections for the first round of the French presidential election are crunched and unlike the last election (in 2002) when Jean-Marie Le Pen freaked out the world by showing that a neo-fascist could win 17% of the votePublish, this time there were few surprises. Uh-huh, this time the savvy right-of-center Nikolas Sarkozy (of the Union Mouvement Populaire party) headed the pack with over 30 % of the vote, showing how a right of center candidate can poach the slogans of the extreme wing of his ideological sphere (as the Republicans in the U.S. have done so well at least since Nixon began the Southern strategy), speak in code about race, and try to scare or seduce undecided centrists into voting for him on hot button issues--especially islamophia coded as immigration, law and order, and the candidacy of Turkey to enter the EU. The Socialist Party candidate Ségolène Royal received just over 25% of the vote, placing her in the second and final run-off for the French presidency in early May. Francois Bayrou, the self-appointed bridge of right and left, ended up with a strong but still inadequate showing of almost 19%, while the right-wing surprise of 2002 Jean-Marie Le Pen garnered just over 10% this time (largely because Sarkozy stole his fire).

The ministry of the interior at noon Sunday reported a record turnout thus far with over 30% already recorded. By eight Sunday evening news organizations reported it was a record turnout in French election history with 85.5% of eligible voters heading to the polls.

Here's what it looked like when you slice the French block of voting cheese into 12 qualifying pieces.

SARKOZY Nicolas : 31.09%

ROYAL Ségolène : 25.78%

BAYROU François : 18.53%

LE PEN Jean-Marie : 10.55%

BESANCENOT Olivier : 4.12%

DE VILLIERS Philippe : 2.25%

BUFFET Marie-George : 1.94%

VOYNET Dominique : 1.57%

LAGUILLER Arlette : 1.34%

BOVÉ José : 1.32%

NIHOUS Frédéric : 1.17%

Source: France2 TV

The major issues were said to be government corruption, the economy, and crime/security/immigration. Aside from government corruption, these issues are heavily racially coded. And yet none of the forms of communication these candidates used made any honest attempt to deal with the open wound of race in a France plagued with a post-colonial identity crisis. Au contraire, they appealed to nationalism in a way hitherto only reserved for the extreme right, residual supporters of Tyrannosaurus De Gaulle, and 30s fascists whose necks were spared after World War II (such as Le Pen).

It’s not clear how many people base their vote on posters, TV blurbs, books, internet sites, and influence from local opinion leaders and/or friends. But scholars tell us we’re living in a time of short attention spans and political campaign games that are more about catchy slogans and image than about policy debate.

It’s interesting to note then the form of consciousness-raising the majority of people in France encounter most—the political poster. These things are all over Paris: on official city-designated campaign displays, in the metro, on mailboxes and utility stands, and especially on construction barriers near road or sidewalk work. Remember that the Paris region, the city and its suburbs, is over nine million people. Let’s take a look at the slogans and images they have been bombarded with.


While leading candidate Sarkozy has chanted “law and order” and “respect for the Republic” incessantly since he became Minister of the Interior in 2002, his 2007 campaign poster and slogan doesn’t seem to draw attention to the fear and division on which he has built his identity. With a nearly obscene irony for his opponents, his poster reads, “Together everything becomes possible.” (Ensemble tout devient possible). Of course, his critics say, that is precisely the problem To them, the seduction of a majority of citizens is a softer fascism, harder to detect without the violent gesticulations, and oral paroxysms of the 1930s political style.

In some areas of Paris Sarkozy’s posters have been de-faced, literally, with the notorious Hitler mustache. On the other hand, the far left candidate Olivier Besancenot’s brand is “Our lives are worth more than their profits,” while the Green candidate calls for an “Ecological Revolution,” whatever that would mean. But none of them mentions any clear policy initiatives, except for the old-school “Worker’s Fight” Party and its candidate Arlette Laguiller (in yellow above). Her poster’s outline of detailed positions seems to be completely ignorant of or outright rejects the common wisdom of the Power Point Generation. The anti-Sarkozy skull and crossbones poster has a fair amount of text with it, though it’s not much about policy as about the doomsday civil war that will follow should Sarko be elected. In other words, it’s all branding where the function of the product has nothing to do with the ad and its appeals to patriotism mainly, and human value/class inequality and exploitation on the far left. That is the genre of the poster. The problem is it is also the genre of the campaign ad on TV, and in some newspapers, which many people will not read any way.

The "American" Sarkozy's coded appeals

Last night, Sarkozy spoke to a roaring crowd of admirers, claiming that the high rate of participation was a victory for democracy and that he and Madame Royal have a responsibility to conduct a debate with sincerity and dignity, a true debate of ideas. Cleverly, Sarkozy framed the election results around a great showdown (reverberating with other dramatic claims of other great clashes between civilizations) between two competing ideas of nation, politics, and values.

Sarko has made Law and Order, Authority, economy, and the family the keystones of his campaign and political image. In a speech in the southwestern city of Perpignan in late February he fashioned himself in opposition to the socialist legacy of 1968, reduced to its alleged disrespect for authority. “Down with authority! That was the platform of 1968!” he cried. According to him, lack of respect for authority is responsible for children’s disobedience to their parents and teachers; to the law; to the police; to the flag; to the nation.

At times, he harangues against what he alleges are residual doctrines of the post-68 left, and at others he ascribes causality for social instability, criminality, and violence to socialist economic policies—that is, no work is producing delinquents, an argument that allows him to argue for cutting taxes by 4%, exempting more people from an inheritance tax, cutting civil service costs, cracking down on illegal immigration, and cracking down on crime with minimum sentences for repeat offenders and more severe punishments for juveniles. At still other times, he suggests that Islam and its values of polygamy are responsible for single-parent households with no father figure to discipline children, the latter who become active in underground drug economies and theft.

Sarko’s law and order, family values, and security rhetoric is in some ways a bit of bad American political breath blown into contemporary post-colonial French culture and politics. Like conservative American presidential contenders George Wallace and then Nixon in 1968 who reacted to consecutive summers of African-American riots during Lyndon Johnson’s presidency by dividing white voters with code words for race alarm such as “busing” and “law and order,” Sarkozy’s codes of “law and order,” “respect,” “youth,” and “authority” and “crime” play to fears of many white French citizens who gave racist Jean-Marie Le Pen the second place vote in the first round of the Presidential election of 2002 with nearly 17% of the vote.

There has been talk that Sarkozy has also tried to soften his image in the last two or three months. But on his last day of official campaigning, he spoke to an audience in Marseille, claiming he would be France’s “protector” and calling for renewed faith in a France that has been victim of self-doubt recently. "I hate this fashion for repentance that says France hates itself and its history," he said. Almost perversely to an American observer, he appropriated the form and words of Martin Luther King, repeating “I have a dream,” but the dream is about demanding respect for authority all the while shirking any hard discussion of race. He went on to claim that while colonialism was perhaps “an unfair system,” there is a debt owed to those “decent and hardworking French families” who were driven out of Africa (in the movements for independence, such as the Algerian War). He refused to apologize for that “system.”

In fact, in the campaign Sarko has dealt with the racial problems issuing from colonialism and the French national identity crisis in the same way he did in the midst of the 2005 riots. He completely de-historicized them and treated their causes as cultural (bad parenting, not respecting true French culture, i.e. non-Muslim), economic (being lazy or, alternately, active in an illicit drug economy), and pathological (bad eggs are bad eggs; put them away for good), suggesting cultural solutions (respect) to the problems he defined so facilely. Thus he avoided the well-documented problems of race in everyday French life—in housing, schooling, job hiring, political and media representation, and general social life. Many white French people don’t want to live, work , go to school, or hang out with African-French, which in practice becomes a race problem. But that is precisely what can not be talked about in Sarkozy’s "republican" discourse. For what it’s worth, Royal is happy to tiptoe around it too, with her own codes like “A juster France is a stronger France.”

Sarkozy has cleverly if not diabolically claimed solidarity and the nation for himself by identifying as non-patriotic those who talk of particular identities instead of France as a whole, those who criticize France’s past, its values, and traditions. In fact, he claims they threaten “our capacity to live together!” His attacks on multiculturalism and his calls for a unified and proud France belie the fact that millions of Arab and black French citizens are systematically excluded from the “big tent” France that Sarkozy carries on about in complete mauvaise foi. He tries to set up a farcical debate where his opponents are on the defensive. They can’t talk about racism, difference, and inequalities based therein and their historical origins because that is un-patriotic from the get-go. The French Republic does not recognize race or religion, only laws. So the republican discourse effaces the actual racial practices that are everywhere in French everyday life.

I am France. No I am!

Segolene Royal has tried to combat Sarko’s rhetorical strategies to claim justice and patriotism by herself claiming them. Her slogan is “La France Presidente” ("France (for) President" and “Plus juste la France sera plus forte" ("A Juster France will be a Stronger France."). Her posters are usually blue and white with some red lettering. She encouraged audiences to join her in singing the French national anthem and to buy themselves a French flag to proudly wave. Francois Bayrou, the candidate who claimed he would unite right and left branded himself “La France de toutes nos forces” (“With All Our Strength for France”). All of these suggest that France is some how divided and weak. And it has mostly been poached from the far Right, about which Jean Marie Le Pen, its 79-year old outspoken and enduring figure has at times vigorously complained. His slogans have long been "Défendre les Français avec les Français" and "La France et les Français d'abord" ( "Defend France for the French" and "France and the French First"). Phillipe De Villiers, candidate of the far right “Mouvement Pour la France” (Movement for France) has similarly claimed the slogan “La Fierte’ d’etre Francais” (“The Pride of Being French”). Le Pen and Phillipe De Villier’s anti-immigrant and pro-nationalist rhetoric has now become mainstream.

Behind the brand: some real policy proposals?

When one gets past their strategically ambiguous but patriotic slogans, is the policy program obvious? You have to go to his website for starters. There you find that Sarkozy claims 15 points.

  1. Put an end to Public Weakness/Impotence (strong government, willing to act and take responsibility)
  2. An irreproachable Democracy (speaking to the theme of corruption that has haunted Chirac and the Clearstream affair).
  3. Conquer unemployment.
  4. Rehabilitate Work (Sarko claims the 35 hour work week, installed by the socialists has resulted in a culture where people don’t have “a taste for risk” and work has become devalued.).
  5. Increase Buying Power (which means there shouldn’t be laws limiting the amount of time one wants to work).
  6. Europe must protect itself from globalization (fine print:preserve the “values of civilization” and thus oppose Turkey’s entry into the EU).
  7. Respond to the urgency of Sustainable Development
  8. Allow All the French to be homeowners.
  9. Spread the principles of authority, respect and merit. (Know your place! Don’t talk back! No rioting.).
  10. Schools that guarantee the success of all students (Of course, the problem with schools currently is an authority problem).
  11. Make higher education and research at a globally competitive level.
  12. Rid “difficult neighborhoods” of violence.
  13. Take control of Immigration.
  14. Major political efforts
  15. Proud to be French (apologies to the Far Right).

Segolene Royal offers a short program for the majority of Attention Deficients and for the professional citizens a 100 point program.

The seven-pointer she calls “7 Pillars.”

  1. Re-launch growth so everyone can work. (Sounds good--how? Her predecessors argued that limiting the hours of the work week would help it, and besides, what kind of growth seems to be increasingly important under the threat of global warming and the twilight of the throwaway society)
  2. Improve buying power. (Noble aim)
  3. Promote education. (That's seriously a "pillar?")
  4. Guarantee the social protection of families. (Fine, and what exactly does that mean?)
  5. Realize Environmental Excellence. (Again: great! But how is the question)
  6. Struggle Against All Forms of Violence (at least here she clearly acknowledges that teenagers burning cars in the suburbs is not the only form of violence in France).
  7. Act for a Stronger France. (Um, whatever that means. I suppose this is to counter any accusation that she is "weak" on anything at all).

Both of these plans have hyperlinks to deeper explanations. But most people are probably not likely to have time or patience to go that far (the important qualification to utopian cheerleading about the internet as the revival of alt.news and robust democracy). On the surface these can each be deceptively ambiguous and even look similar on a few points.

Again, this is hardly different from glittering generalities shoveled to the American public for some time now during campaigns and in between them. And patently American are many of the strategies: playing to extreme wings of a party and undecideds with code and ambiguous claims whose conclusions anyone can supply; also having something to reel in every other single-issue citizen or group in an era where political parties are increasingly weaker in many Western countries with large groups of undecideds.

So, the people have spoken in round one, as Sarkozy gleefully pointed out this evening. But exactly what they said and why is work for an interpreter.

1 comment:

ron greene said...

thanks jayson, very helpful read of the current political climate of France, you will be surprised to learn that there has been very little discussion of the election in the msm here in the States.