France’s choice: naughty child or colourless adult?

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I cannot vote in the French presidential election. While as an EU citizen with residence in France I have the right to vote for the mayor, I discovered that exercising that right requires extended negotiation with French municipal bureaucracy, an exercise on which no sane person would voluntarily embark. But the choice of president is a matter for the French alone.

I am glad not to have to choose. The candidates remind me of characters from my childhood. The incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy is the small boy at the back of the class who endlessly drew attention to himself; his rival François Hollande has the views, personality and gifts of inspirational leadership I recall observing in the assistant secretary of the Edinburgh South constituency Labour party 50 years ago.

Still, if you have to choose between the naughty schoolboy and the decent, colourless adult for your president, your choice is likely to fall on the grown-up. Polls suggest this is what French voters will do. The presidency of the French Republic is a job description written for one man – Charles de Gaulle – and no one else has since filled the post with much distinction.

Perception of managerial competence is therefore key to this election, as it is in most western democracies. The likely defeat of Mr Sarkozy is both the tail-end of the process in which voters reject the leaders who led them into the 2008 financial crisis and the beginning of the process in which they reject the politicians who let the continent drift into the eurozone muddle. Mr Sarkozy is in one sense central to that confusion and, in another, irrelevant. He is not interested in detail and Angela Merkel is interested in nothing else. This fundamental difference has permitted a convenient alliance in which the French president can declare his country’s determination to do whatever it takes and the German chancellor can implement her intention that her country should do as little as possible. Such an accommodation is unlikely to survive under a president with a longer attention span.

Otherwise, the differences between the French contenders are more rhetorical than real. Although Mr Sarkozy is the candidate of the right and Mr Hollande is from the left, the views and policies of competing political candidates in each western democracy are in many respects closer to each other than they are to those of parties of the left or right in other countries. While Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, David Cameron and Ed Miliband, Ms Merkel and – like everyone, I have forgotten who is leader of Germany’s SPD – may sound different to their supporters, if you sat down with leading politicians of the same nationality in private you would hear similar descriptions of issues, problems and plans.

The two candidates are, first and foremost, French, as evidenced by the main domestic controversy. Mr Sarkozy supports retirement at 62: Mr Hollande thinks 60 appropriate. Mr Sarkozy was elected on a programme of reform, and retirement at 62 proved its most controversial – indeed almost its only – measure.

France’s social democracy is not really participative and its government is not really contested. Whoever is elected, economic management and control of public services remain in the hands of a homogenous cadre. In the postwar era, senior politicians (regardless of party), civil servants and the top management of most large French businesses have been drawn from a single elite class, selected through a rigorous meritocratic process, mostly implemented through France’s grandes écoles. Mr Sarkozy was in these terms an outsider, but Mr Hollande represents reversion to type. The political class administers the most centralised of large western states, with an extensive public sector; it is technically efficient though not user-friendly and French people are mostly proud of it as they grumble about their experience of it.

In 1848, the French overthrew Louis Philippe and ended the Orléans monarchy. A republic was declared and Napoleon’s nephew was elected president. Three years later, Louis Napoleon declared himself emperor. But even before then, the critic Alphonse Karr coined the aphorism “plus ça change, plus c’est la meme chose”. And so it is today.

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