France gave the modern world the political idea of progress, and even today the French still ardently believe their politics must be both trailblazing and without precedent. Thus, in his successful run for the presidency, François Hollande could stake his fortunes on “changement.” He modelled France’s first get-out-the-vote “ground game” on the Obama 2008 playbook, and even paraphrased John F. Kennedy in his official campaign advertisement (“Ask not what the republic can do for you, but what you can do for the republic”). Notwithstanding, the media portrayed his campaign as “innovative and energetic”, rather than as an American pastoral. This permitted major media sources to portray outgoing President Sarkozy’s failed attempt to rally the base in the fashion of Karl Rove—or indeed of most modern democratic political strategists—as an “unprecedented” anti-republican strategy. When borrowing from non-French political sources, as with many of their imported movies, the French like to stick to dubbing.
In spite of the borrowed nature of many aspects of this election, one can indeed say that it was broadly revealing of important political trends in France, Europe and beyond. Behind the false dualism of “austerity” and “growth”, and the often low-grade debates on republican values, the French campaign was, at its core, about globalization—namely, the remorseless progress of global competition and accompanying homogenization, which can kill everything from manufacturing to local customs, from Peugot to the neighborhood brasserie, if you’re not careful. If the French are any indication, then the Western democracies are very far from ready to meet the challenge with the necessary confidence.
To be sure, this theme was more often than not hidden in the campaign. On the trail, outgoing President Nicolas Sarkozy mostly touted how he had “protected the French during four years of crisis” and ensured French workers’ purchasing power—as if merely keeping the country on economic life support constituted success. (Then again, perhaps there’s something to this.) François Hollande, for his part, rode to victory largely by denying that France would have to make tough choices. It could get by on “solidarity.” Tax the rich, hire several thousand new public servants for job creation, and create a new government bank to fund infrastructure—as if most French banks are not already, in a way, government-run central banks. But, especially in Sarkozy’s camp, the issue of globalization did, at better moments, emerge.
François Fillon, the outgoing Prime Minister and one of the more admirable French politicians currently on the scene, summed up the problem in a remarkable speech during an April Sarkozy rally at Place de la Concorde. “Globalization has threatened our way of life,” he said, “but this was because we didn’t want to see it. For thirty years we have lived on credit. We must free our productive energies, we must liberate ourselves from our deficits.” The so-called”austerity”, in other words, is a matter of national survival. In our day, an immobile and bureaucratic France would no longer merely entail playing second fiddle to les Anglo-Saxons (which over two centuries the French have gotten used to) but real penury and a kind of social upheaval long thought obsolete. At Trocadero on “May day”, Sarkozy attempted the same point in more melodramatic language, saying the mission was to protect French civilization from death or disappearance. Civilization, he said, depends on adequate borders, and by erasing all borders the French risked losing all self-confidence and, as a necessary consequence, any generosity towards others. Innovate now, or face the death of French civilization! We were no longer in the heady days when candidates would argue about how to make Peugot as profitable as BMW.
The electoral numbers themselves showed that the specter of globalization was not mere electoral fear-mongering. In the first round, 30 percent of voters chose either avowed Trotskyites or Marine Le Pen, more than either Hollande or Sarkozy. Their electoral success shows that the “challenge of globalization” has, as the columnist David P. Goldman likes to say, become an existential one for average French people. Exploiting this sentiment for maximum effect, these parties advocate a fanatical insularity. To beat globalization, it’s enough either to forget about it, or to create “another way” by force of will.
How optimistic should we be that the French will deal with their fears of globalization in a mature rather than childlike or fanatical way? Not very. Nicolas Sarkozy, to say the least, did not receive a very receptive audience for his budgetary-discipline-at-all-costs approach, even if voters continued to judge the incumbent party as more trustworthy on economic matters. François Hollande, meanwhile, is not as dumb as he sometimes lets on, but French socialists have hitherto been constitutionally incapable of cost-saving reforms. Their pledge to “create innovation” reveals that at least they know they are lacking in that quality, but the campaign pledges of tax-and-hire will hamper this government, which, in addition, will have a very significant “left of the left” influence with which to contend. In sum, France looks like it will flirt with the reforms it needs but does not want.
This is not exactly a new dilemma for France. But what is new is the fact that the stakes are now the very survival of the French way of life—something previously thought to be endangered only by world war. Whether France can, as in the past, se débrouilla, will be a very good indicator of whether Western nations have the head and the stomach for what lies ahead.