In the tense final days of the French presidential election campaign the candidates’ words have proved revealing. Between the two rounds, the face-off between Nicolas Sarkozy and François Hollande saw the two men caught in a downward spiral of attacks and counter-attacks designed to win over the voters of the Front National (FN). The television debate between the two confirmed what most people suspected : on immigration-related questions there was little difference between the finalists (as FN leader Marine Le Pen noted in her assessment). As I predicted several years ago, the FN emerged the true victor. The right-wing party polled more votes than in 2002 ; its ideas have become normalized, the parameter against which the two finalists ultimately positioned themselves. This year’s elections generated none of the emotion and popular mobilization of 2002, when the FN participated in the second round. But today its symbolic victory and the political power that comes with that victory are more telling and far more dangerous. As arbiter of the second round, the FN dominates the political scene ; there are ample reasons for concern about France’s future.
I have long held that the two “mainstream” parties, the UMP and the Socialists, shared responsibility for the unchecked growth of populism in France. The themes that have stoked successive controversies (national identity, the niqab, halal meat, prayers in the streets, terrorism, etc.) have created a poisonous atmosphere, one that has been perpetuated by a government pandering to the extreme right wing. Far from extricating itself from these debates, the Left has limited itself to criticizing “sarkozyism,” reacting piecemeal to each new crisis and putting forward no alternative social or political solutions. While in opposition the Left was not only unable to shift the debate away from immigration, security and Islam (seen as an intrinsic danger to the Republic, to secularism and to social cohesion itself) but in fact exacerbated it. In doing so, it gave aid and comfort to the populists who, despite the sordid reputation of their party, succeeded in inserting their issues into the heart of political life.
On May 7 France will awaken from the theatrical atmosphere of the election campaign and confront its own image in the mirror. Looking beyond next June’s parliamentary elections, the coming years give ample cause for alarm. The presidential campaign has revealed what France could all too easily become in times of crisis and tension : a country where political debate is void of substance, where emotion replaces rationality, where a president enamored of half-truths and hyperbole has lost all stature while the opposition has traded away its conscience and betrayed its principles.
France needs a political upheaval to shake it out of the deep dream—a near-dogmatic and frequently arrogant dream—of exceptionalism, the illusion of a unique destiny far distant from the troubling objectivity of facts. France is a wonderful country in very poor health, a diagnosis that the election campaign has confirmed. The economic crisis is deep ; though the current government has been able to contain the downward spiral of recession, economists and analysts are predicting a rude awakening. The technocrats—like those who now control the destinies of Greece, Italy and Spain—will soon be at the bedside of a France that is pursuing Germany while lacking the means and resources to do so. The peoples of Europe have been forgotten, cast aside and frequently exploited in the name of economic crisis. It is high time to reconsider seriously the relationship between the democratic rights of citizens (and the legitimate prerogatives of the workers) and the non-democratic logic of the economy. The question is a key one ; the survival of the French model of democracy depends upon the answer.
At stake is nothing less than the unity of the Republic, and of secularism itself. Instead of intoning the same old refrain, the two concepts must be linked to the promotion of egalitarian citizenship, and to the just and equitable treatment of individuals, faiths and memories. There can be no social peace, no coherent secularism, no recognition of citizenship if the politicians make no attempt to combat structural discrimination (in employment and housing), racism (against Blacks and Arabs, against Jews and Muslims), or the denial of the memory of the memories of large numbers of their fellow-citizens (the history of France must officially and in a reasonable manner integrate their diverse memories in order to avoid an unofficial, uncontrolled conflict among them). While it is imperative to recognize the rights of the police, this cannot be done by denying the rights of the citizens of the urban housing estates and the banlieues : France’s political elites must change the way they look at these societies within a society that generate far more than marginality, violence and male-chauvinism. Women and men make these places their home ; women and men who have rights, who are driven by life, by creativity, by the craving for recognition and the desire to live in dignity.
This is the same dignity the peoples of the southern shore of the Mediterranean invoked when they took to the streets to overthrow the despots who ruled them. Will France, which so often supported those same despots, now make common cause with the oppressed and the democrats in Africa as in the Middle East, in Palestine as in Israel ? In the multi-polar world that is taking shape before our eyes will France be able to extricate itself from the Atlantic alliance in which it is trapped alongside the United States and within the command structure of NATO ?
The aftermath of the election promises to be painful. France needs unity, justice, and more than a bit of collective introspection. Quite precisely the opposite of what we now see around us. Reform is imperative ; it will take courage to meet the challenge head on. Nicolas Sarkozy once unfortunately remarked : “France, love it or leave it.” As though the only way one could love a country was to take it as it is. On the contrary, if one loves France one stands his ground, committing himself as a citizen, making his voice heard with determination and dignity ; resisting injustice, sectarianism and racism. Ultimately, the country’s citizens will have the leaders—competent or populist—that they deserve.