A country’s presidential election is partly a reflection of its political identity. The contrast between the United States’ messy but direct, democratic horserace primaries and the seamless power transfer China hoped for before l’affaire Bo Xilai ruined it all speaks volumes about the respective natures of these two countries’ political systems.Now turn to France, where the French elect a new king every five years in a two stage electoral process that reveals that state of the French soul. The hate murders by a deranged fanatic have set the stage for a debate among the candidates over the nature of France and the central challenges facing French identity, and President Sarkozy, struggling to overcome a huge disadvantage, is making the most of his opportunities.Marine Le Pen, the French right’s candidate, lashed out against what she called “the gangrene of radical Islam.”
How many Mohamed Merahs are there in the boats and the aeroplanes that arrive every day in France full of immigrants…How many Mohamed Merahs among the children of those non-assimilated immigrants?
Sarkozy has responded to the killings by boosting his own speeches on security and immigration. Many observers note that if anything his campaign has gotten a boost. He’s able to position himself between the socialists (seen by many as hopelessly ‘pro-immigrant’ and pro-welfare for immigrants) and the unacceptably harsh National Front. He’s the man in the middle where the voters want him to be: not too hot like the Front, not too cold like the socialists — but just right.Yet immigration and inter-cultural relations are just one issue in the French election. Polls taken after the killings show that the French still care much more about economic issues than security or immigration. New data this week showing that France avoided recession last year may prove much more helpful for Sarkozy than his swift response to the tragic killings and efficient operation against the killer.France’s economy grew (a relatively dismal) 1.7 percent last year, but this was better than in 2010. The economy still remains the dominant concern of the French and well it should. But there’s a problem: the French don’t like their economy the way it is, but they also don’t want the changes that could make it work better. While France isn’t a Greek or Italian style monstrosity of licensing, closed professions and obscure anti-market labor regulations, it is very far from being an easy place to do business.Its economic sclerosis and its angry youth problem are, of course, connected. Young workers are the ones hurt most by protectionist labor policies; employers are very reluctant to make new hires when that hiring involves a lifetime commitment to a new employee. Imagine if you got tenure working at Starbucks and couldn’t be fired; France, like much of the rest of Europe now has a two tier labor market of tenured older workers and young ‘gypsy’ workers on temporary contracts — or simply unemployed.But while the French hate the results of their economic and labor policies, they are much too attached to those policies to give them up. The likely result: the next French president, whoever he is, will continue to preside over a country that falls farther and farther behind Asia, the US and, worst of all, Germany even as unassimilated minorities, cut off from most opportunities for work by byzantine labor market codes, curdle and fester in the banlieus.None of this is pretty, but it seems to be what the French prefer to any of the possible alternatives. The deluge may come, but not yet.