Terms of Engagement

That Seventies Show

France's newly dominant Socialists have absorbed the lessons of American politics -- but are they planning to take the republic back to the future?

FRED DUFOUR/AFP/Getty Images
FRED DUFOUR/AFP/Getty Images

You probably didn’t notice the most recent debate among the républicains. It was spirited but courteous; it focused relentlessly on the economy; it clarified differences — and it further consolidated the apparently invincible lead of François Hollande.

Monsieur Hollande is, of course, the front-runner in the race among France’s Socialists to challenge Nicolas Sarkozy in the presidential race next year. Among Hollande’s chief rivals is Ségolène Royal, whom Sarkozy trounced last time around, and who soon thereafter separated from Hollande, her partner — though not spouse — of 30 years. French politics are more solemn than the American version, but also sexier.

But the most remarkable thing about the debate, held on Wednesday, Sept. 28, is that it occurred at all. French parties have traditionally chosen presidential candidates through ballots among activists, making nomination an essentially private affair. No longer: This year, anyone who claims to subscribe to the principles of the Parti Socialiste can vote; and for the first time ever, the candidates have put themselves on public parade. Although Sarko has always advertised himself as the Disney-loving, American-style candidate, it is the Socialists who, despite their horror of capitalist vulgarity, have adopted the American system, complete with debate coaches, polls, and spin. And it has proved to be a brilliant move on their part.

The other day, Le Monde ran a post-debate analysis that any close reader of American political news would have found bewildering. The point of the piece was that the magisterial contempt with which leaders in the UMP, Sarko’s party, had been treating this innovation had collapsed in the face of reality. That was interesting; but what was amazing was that UMP officials were quoted by name admitting that they had been bested. "It was a lovely democratic exercise," said one UMP deputy. "It gives a good image. We would do well to be inspired by it ourselves." Another noted that because each of the six candidates offered slightly different policy prescriptions, voters on the left could all find something to identify with — "and this risks staying in their head even when there’s only one remaining candidate." Haven’t those UMP officials ever heard of "off the record"?

For those of us who have already gotten bored with the interminable GOP debates, it’s touching to be reminded of the merits that others, with their fresher eyes, see in the process. The French seem slightly dazzled by their brave new populist world. I listened to a TV interview show that urgently asked, "Who are the men of the shadows?" — the gurus, the advisors, the coaches. In the United States, of course, these figures are celebrities in their own right; the Sunday talk shows couldn’t exist without them. And polls! Hollande’s rivals have objected to the polls, which find him securely in the lead, because it’s almost impossible to determine in advance if any given respondent will actually participate in the party ballot.

This was a race that Dominique Strauss-Kahn was, of course, supposed to win in a cakewalk. I always believed that a chief reason for the left’s outrage at the sexual-assault accusations lodged against DSK, as well as at his alleged manhandling by the Manhattan district attorney, was that the party’s hopes of winning in 2012 so completely hinged on him. But that’s already a memory. It is Sarko now who is being sunk by scandal (see Eric Pape’s "Is Sarkozy Fini?"), while the left has been buoyed by its embrace of openness. "There is a mood of hope in the left, and I think we’re really post-DSK now," says Justin Vaïsse, a Brookings Institution analyst. A senior diplomat and scholar says that the debates have proved "quite refreshing and have been perceived in that way by observers, and it makes UMP, divided by infighting but compelled to support one candidate, look a bit old-fashioned."

This project of refurbishment also has an amusing François-Ségo subtext. Royal ran in 2007 on the premise that French voters had grown disgusted with the pomposities of the grand discours — the high-flown policy declamations that define French politics at the national level — and instead craved a politics of family values and home truths. She wound up sounding slightly weird, and not altogether real, and Sarko ate her lunch in the debates. The erudite, articulate Hollande is a traditional politician of the left — so much so that he was having an affair with a political journalist, which is why Royal kicked him out of the house — and now he has thoroughly supplanted his ex-partner. Hollande is the future, Royal the past. I’m told that so far they have kept a careful distance from one another.

The debate, in format, resembled the American version, circa 1980 or so. Two questioners on a studio stage — no audience — faced the six candidates, fanned out before them. The questions focused on policy, as did the answers. The candidates frequently interrupted one another and spoke over one another, but never heatedly. They often prefaced their disagreement by saying something like, "In all friendship…." There were only a few testy exchanges. Hollande, playing the Mitt Romney role of cautious front-runner, tried to float above the fray by summarizing the exchanges, prompting a vexed Manuel Valls, a Socialist deputy in Parliament and mayor of Évry — and a second-tier candidate — to cry, "François, for once, don’t conclude!" Valls is a centrist, and he growled at Arnaud Montebourg, a deputy from the Saône-et-Loire department who has espoused a doctrine of "deglobalization," "No one here has a monopoly on the left." In general, however, the famously fractious Socialists surprised the public and disconcerted the UMP by sticking to the high road.

The substance of the debate would have been at least as strange to an American ear as the sober comportment. The candidates proposed responding to the financial crisis wracking Europe with an explicit industrial policy, with "a contract between young and old," with price controls and protectionism. I kept encountering the unfamiliar expression licenciement boursier, apparently a terrible thing. This expression was translated for me as: "downsizing in order to improve the standing of a company in the stock exchange." This is, of course, pretty much how Romney made his fortune. The rough American translation would be: "efficiencies." Martine Aubry, the party leader, proposed allowing employees to petition a court to replace the leadership of such a refractory firm; Royal proposed banning the practice. Told by the interviewer that her ideas were redolent of 1970s thinking, she shot back, "You could say that, and it wouldn’t bother me."

The left has a very powerful wind in its sails right now. The party controls a majority of France’s provinces and major cities, and last week, in a tremendous blow to the UMP, it took control of the Senate for the first time since 1958. France is already, in effect, a majority-left country. And the scandals besetting the ruling party have only begun to unwind in public: Le Monde has sued the French state after learning that secret-service agents had obtained the phone records of the investigative reporter who had been covering a scandal involving illegal campaign contributions. The paper stated in a recent front-page editorial that the affair pointed to the existence of a "black cabinet" — a department of dirty tricks — in the Élysée Palace.

Until now, what the Socialists have lacked is an appealing standard-bearer. Hollande may prove to be such a figure. He is a far more talented debater than his ex-partner — and arguing well matters as much in French politics as does, say, authenticity in the United States — and he is not an ideologically divisive figure. He has already won the endorsement of Jacques Chirac, Sarkozy’s predecessor as president and UMP leader — a startling defection and a powerful indication, according to Jean-Pierre Filiu, a historian at Science Po, that "deep-France is longing for a président normal." Filiu argues that the importance of a Hollande victory would go far beyond France because "a right-wing dominated Europe has proved unable to act collectively to face the euro crisis."

Those are, indeed, the stakes. In 2007, Sarkozy ran on a promise to change France’s social contract, which, shaped by Europe’s most powerful unions, offered a range of worker protections that employers found deeply onerous and that arguably put France at a serious competitive disadvantage within Europe, as well as globally. Sarkozy made some headway, but not much. A victory by the left would give France a chance to try an alternative formula, less "liberal" and more dirigiste. Returning to the statist politics of the 1970s doesn’t sound like a forward-looking response to the current crisis. On the other hand, it sounds at least as plausible as the anti-state, anti-tax vision being peddled by the républicains here in America.

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