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The Changing Political Complexion of France

By Arthur Goldhammer

In the spring of 2012, France will elect a new president. The incumbent, Nicolas Sarkozy, is currently at a low ebb in the polls, with an approval rating hovering around 25 percent. Until Saturday, May 14, it therefore seemed likely that the next president of France would come from the principal opposition party, the Socialists (PS). But with the news that the leading PS candidate, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, was arrested in New York that night on sexual assault charges, the political landscape changed literally overnight. It was an “earthquake,” one newspaper wrote.

Any number of Socialists now find themselves in a position to make a credible bid for the party’s nomination, which is to be decided in an October primary. The best-placed in early polling is former party leader François Hollande, but he will likely be challenged by the present leader, Martine Aubry; the candidate who lost to Sarkozy in 2007, Ségolène Royal; and several others.

The French political landscape had already been transformed, however, even before the bombshell from New York. Sarkozy’s precipitous decline in popularity is one visible manifestation of a more ominous phenomenon: the rise of populist parties of the extreme right and left. The xenophobic, anti-immigrant National Front has scored as high as 32 percent in some recent polls, while the Left Front polls around 7 or 8 percent. At a minimum, in other words, some 40 percent of the French electorate is rejecting the mainstream parties of the right, left, and center. That is cause for alarm.

In 2007, Sarkozy took a tough line on law and order and immigration control and managed to win back some voters who had deserted the center-right for the Front National in 2002. In that year, Jean-Marie Le Pen shocked France by obtaining 16.86 percent of the first-round presidential vote against only 16.16 percent for Socialist Lionel Jospin. Since only the top two finishers in the first round go on to the second, Jospin was eliminated. Sarkozy wagered that his hard line on “security” issues would win back ethnically French working-class voters who had gone over to the Front, and in 2007 he reduced Le Pen’s vote to just over 10 percent. The Front National was thought to be finished.

When the economic crisis hit in 2008, however, many who had deserted the Front National in the election decided they had had enough of Sarkozy’s mildly neoliberal economic reforms. The president’s staunch support for the European Union, whose rules and regulations impose tight constraints on the ability of member states to respond to high unemployment, played into the hands of the Front’s new leader, Marine Le Pen, the daughter of Jean-Marie. She has softened the party’s image by recasting her father’s overtly xenophobic rhetoric as a defense of the French republican tradition of strict secularism in the public sphere, a tradition that she claims is threatened by France’s growing Muslim minority. Meanwhile, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, has enjoyed surprising success since leaving the Socialist Party, to whose left wing he belonged for years, and organizing a new Left Party, which has now joined with the rump of the Communist Party to form the Left Front.

This large populist vote should send a powerful message to what the French like to call “the political class,” meaning the politicians, journalists, pundits, experts, civil servants, and intellectuals who monopolize public debate and make policy. To be sure, France is not exceptional in this respect. Large contingents of voters in many countries have registered acute disappointment with the leadership of their elites. But in France this disappointment has been a persistent feature of the political culture for nearly two decades.

Interestingly, the International Monetary Fund loomed large in the rhetoric of both the National Front and the Left Front, perhaps because Strauss-Kahn until his arrest both headed that organization and seemed likely to be the Socialist candidate. Le Pen denounced what she called the IMF’s “deadly dogmas,” while Mélenchon referred to Strauss-Kahn as “a starver of nations.” Of course it was convenient to use the IMF as a symbol, because it was headed by a man who was expected to be the Socialists’ strongest candidate. The ultimate targets are globalization and the European Union, to which there is substantial opposition in France, as the “no” vote on the 2005 constitutional treaty demonstrated.

President Sarkozy reportedly told a private meeting of leading members of his party that the Socialists had lost “the morality battle” because of Strauss-Kahn’s behavior. But he forgets that he was the one who recommended Strauss-Kahn to the IMF in the first place. The voters already disaffected from the “political class” because they believe that it is arrogant, distant, and insensitive to their problems will only take the events in New York as evidence that the powerful believe they can get away with anything. Since more than two of every five French citizens now reject the establishment parties, a full-blown “crisis of legitimation” is at hand. That is a dangerous moment for any country. It wouldn’t take much—a debt default in Europe’s periphery, say, triggering bank failures in France and Germany—to bring the whole system to a halt and open the door to the worst political dangers. We live in interesting times.

Arthur Goldhammer is a fellow at the Center for European Studies. He has translated many works of French scholarship into English. His blog, “French Politics,” chronicles the French political scene on a daily basis.

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Op EdsCommencement 2011