Friday, August 25, 2006

[presidential election looms] viva la nouvelle france!

Good article from The Age, abridged here:

What is France’s place in the world? Can it keep its character and difference, or will it be overwhelmed by globalisation?

President Jacques Chirac's decision on Thursday to commit 2000 troops to the Lebanon peacekeeping force was also about national identity: France's standing on the world stage.

Last year's riots in poor suburbs, the failure to win the 2012 Olympics, France's catastrophic loss of primacy within the European Union after its voters rejected the European Constitution in a referendum in May 2005, the end of labour market reform and the presidential hopes of Dominique de Villepin] have not been good for French pride.

As people return to work after the long summer break, the country enters the last nine months before the presidential election in May. Some commentators say the nation's future hangs on the result.

The election "is the most important in the history of the Fifth Republic (established in 1958)", Christophe Barbier, editor of the weekly magazine, L'Express, wrote this week. "It is one of France's last chances to stay among the really big countries," says Emmanuel Lechypre of the Centre for Economic Forecasting at L'Expansion business magazine.

Who, then, is the great hope to replace the enfeebled Chirac and raise the tricolour again? On current trends it will be "Sarko" or "Sego".

Intelligent and charismatic to his many followers in the centre-right UMP party, egotistical and self-serving to his critics, Sarkozy is the enigma of French politics. More than any other leader he has called on France to make a "rupture" with the past, and adopt a more free market economy.

But he mixes courage with cold calculation. As Interior Minister he has chased the right-wing vote by stoking fears about immigration and disorder: he famously called last year's rioters "scum" and this year tried to deport the children of illegal immigrants (he had to halt his plan after a protest movement of teachers and parents hid children from police.)

Royal, meanwhile, has become a media magnet overnight. Not in the race a year ago, she is in line to be France's first female president. Long before either party has chosen its candidate, a poll last week put her potential vote at 55 per cent, with Sarkozy on 42.

Royal has also dared her party to break with old policies — criticising the 35-hour week, for example. "She is suspected of Blairism," says Reland, a dangerous tendency in France and especially in the Socialist Party, which Reland says "refuses to assume its social democratic nature".

Royal is seen as weak on foreign policy and untested in many areas. Many wonder whether she, or Sarkozy, have the stature to be "presidentiel". Best known for her focus on the politics of family and community, in this she may have caught the mood of modern France. But that mood is also the candidates' biggest problem, Lechypre believes. In a poll of 1000 people to be published in L'Expansion next week, 75 per cent accepted that France needed to make sacrifices to save its social model.

However, it seems sacrifices are best borne by others. Asked if they would accept allowing companies to more easily fire staff if retrenched employees were guaranteed good income support and promises of retraining 58 per cent of people said no.

Similarly, asked if they would accept a rise in taxes to pay for their generous pension schemes, 63 per cent said no. Majorities also opposed paying more to fund health and higher education. "It shows there is a problem of maturity in the French mind," says Lechypre.

One of the Socialist Party's most powerful constituencies is the many civil servants, who benefit hugely from the status quo. Lechpyre says Royal or another Socialist candidate will "have to say to their voters, 'If you vote for us you will have to make sacrifices.' It is very hard to say that."

He thinks right-wing voters are more likely to agree change is needed. But they dislike Sarkozy's talk of "rupture", and he, too, may choose to tone down as the election approaches. Some good recent economic news may also discourage Royal and Sarkozy from being bold with their criticism. Growth is up, business is doing well, unemployment dropped a percentage point in the year to May.

Lechypre thinks the economic gains are cosmetic and, as interest rates rise, already sputtering out. Even so, he says former centre-right prime minister Roland Barre told him recently he thought the French had not really been touched by decline and there would be five more years of stagnation before the crisis was so acute they realised things had to change.

To Barbier, that will be too late. The election is a moment of truth, he wrote this week. If France faces the truth it can leap into the new century.

If it continues to lie to itself, "it will wither bit by bit, becoming a museum country, a 20th century fossil, offering its charms — countryside, monuments, gastronomy — for the enjoyment of the warriors of globalisation".

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