Terms of Engagement

Pandering in Paris

With President Nicolas Sarkozy closing the gap in the run up to elections, challenger Francois Hollande is falling back on the tired, old Socialist battle cry.


"Clomp! CLOMP! Clomp! CLOMP!"" That’s the sound of French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s high-heeled boots as they grow closer, closer, closer to Francois Hollande, the gentle lamb offered up by the hapless Socialist Party in next month’s presidential election. Six months ago, Hollande lead Sarkozy 39 percent to 24 percent in the polls. Four months ago, it was 31.5 percent to 26 percent. And earlier this week, it was…Sarko, 28.5 percent, Hollande, 27 percent. Hollande still holds a strong lead in a hypothetical run-off between the two men, but Socialist partisans are beginning to tremble. Last week, the president debated Laurent Fabius, a leading Socialist standard-bearer, on television. "Sarko destroyed him," a leftist policy intellectual said to me grimly. Clomp!

Much of the press attention here has been focused on Sarkozy’s utterly shameless courtship of France’s xenophobic voters, most of them followers of the far-right National Front. In the debate with Fabius, Sarkozy said that France has too many foreigners, and repeated a proposal he had made to cut the annual number of legal immigrants almost in half. After National Front leader Marine Le Pen made the absurd suggestion that all meat in the Paris region was being slaughtered according to Islamic rules, known as halal, Sarkozy declared, with a straight face, that "the biggest concern of French people is halal meat." The New York Times accused Sarkozy of taking "the low road" in a way that will be "damaging to French society," if not necessarily to his own electoral prospects.

But the low road is where Sarkozy lives. He made a name for himself in 2005 by calling immigrant rioters racaille, or "scum," and more recently proposed deporting gypsies from France. Sarkozy is, in American terms, a little bit of Rudy Giuliani and a great deal of Richard Nixon. "The French recognize in him something that is in them, too," says Marc Weitzmann, a French novelist whose work captures modern political life. "That’s why the French vote for him, and hate him at the same time."

But what’s wrong with the Socialists? In 2007, they nominated Segolene Royale, an eccentric figure whom Sarkozy feasted off in the presidential debates. Hollande is, bizarrely, her ex-unmarried-spouse. He is, however, a much better candidate — a careful thinker and a gentleman, witty and wry in the French manner. The one thing he lacks, unfortunately, is the all-important gift for the visceral — this in the face of a man, Sarkozy, with a dark genius for the lowest common denominator. Hollande has been coasting on the public’s overwhelming desire to get rid of Sarkozy, but it now seems that he won’t be able to coast all the way to the Elysée.

This time around, France is in the midst of an economic crisis for which Hollande must come up with convincing answers if he is to close the sale with voters. France’s unemployment rate is hovering around 10 percent, and its growth rate is around zero. Earlier this year, Standard & Poor downgraded France’s credit rating (along with that of eight other European countries). Sarkozy ran in 2007 as a man prepared to wrench France into the future, and he still enjoys that reputation. Hollande, too, has tried to present himself as a modernizer and a pragmatist. "He’s not stuck in nostalgia for the 20th century, or the 19th century for that matter," as one Socialist leader recently put it. His platform emphasizes fiscal prudence, economic growth and relatively modest expansion of the public sector (through he plans to hire 60,000 educators).

That is, in effect, one side of his reaction to France’s predicament. But it is the quieter side. In public, he is the tribune of public outrage over the lords of finance. At his first campaign rally in January, Hollande declared that his "real adversary" was not Sarkozy but rather the "faceless rulers" of global finance. And when pushed into a corner, he has darted left. In late February, with Sarko closing in, Hollande unveiled a proposal to create a new tax bracket for those annually making in excess of 1 million euros, or $1.3 million, with a marginal tax rate of 75 percent. Even Ed Miliband, the leader of Britain’s Labor Party, blanched at the proposal. Hollande seemed to be playing to French resentment of capitalism and wealth as cynically as Sarkozy was with the immigrant issue. Having spooked the forces of finance, the Socialists quickly backpedaled by having Fabius declare that the new tax rate would be probably just a temporary measure.

France does have an economic justice problem: According to Julia Cagé, an economist with the Ecole D’Economie in Paris, the wealthiest 5 percent of French citizens pay taxes at a lower rate than the very poor. Sarkozy cut taxes on the rich, and continues to defend their privileges, thus creating a very large opening for a populist attack (or "class warfare," as we say on this side of the Atlantic). But France also has a competitiveness problem, and Sarkozy at least preaches the virtue of the "German model" of liberalized labor markets as a means of giving the country an economic jolt.

Hollande favors cutting taxes on small business — a good idea — and establishing a public investment bank to direct funds to potential growth sectors, a maybe not-so-good idea. But he has advocated partially rolling back increases in the retirement age mandated by Sarkozy, and he has supported the 35-hour work week, the Socialists’ poisoned gift to the French economy. And he has rarely spoken about labor market reforms, despite the growing gap between French productivity and that of Germany and other northern countries. I asked several people to explain Hollande’s "contract of generations" designed to spur youth employment, but none of them had heard of it, and the language is so fuzzy I couldn’t make any sense of it.

Hollande, like Sarkozy, is playing to his base, and probably he’s wise to do so. France’s allergy to the marketplace really is remarkable. In the last election, Segolene Royale was heard to say something nice about the British economic model, and then had to defend herself from allegations — certainly unfair — that she was a convert to "liberalism." As Nicholas Dungan, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, puts it, the French generally — and the Socialists above all — "don’t consider the markets to have any valuable message to convey." Market failure, that is, may trigger calls for more spending and higher taxes, but not for market reform. Dungan takes the view that the deep French commitment to social solidarity, Fraternite, recoils at the creative destruction of capitalism.

It all kind of makes one yearn for Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the former head of the International Monetary Fund and Socialist hero, whose political prospects evaporated after he was accused of raping a hotel maid in New York. Had he run for the presidency, Strauss-Kahn might have been able to convince the French that economic liberalism was not incompatible with social justice, and that the accumulation of wealth was not inimical to broad economic growth. Without him, the Socialists have reverted to their instincts.

And what if Hollande loses? What if, that is, the Socialists can’t beat the most hated leader in modern French history at a moment when the economy is failing and the very concept of Europe, itself a great French legacy, is in danger of collapsing? Would that force a shift to the center, as with Tony Blair’s Labor Party? (Blair, by the way, is supporting Sarkozy.) That seems unlikely. Martine Aubry, who lost out in the Socialist Party’s nominating contest, derided Hollande as a "soft Socialist." Defeat would probably bolster those who argue for a more blunt appeal to French workers, and to French anger at globalization and liberalism.

Defeat, that is, could turn nostalgia for the 20th century, or even for the 19th, into the Socialist’s platform. A Sarko victory might also enrage the students and workers who view him as the handmaiden of French plutocracy, and could plunge France into the kind of social unrest which is becoming endemic across Europe. And since France’s president only knows one way to deal with disorder, that French solidarity could be put to a very grave test.

James Traub is a regular contributor to Foreign Policy, a nonresident fellow at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation, and author of the book What Was Liberalism? The Past, Present and Promise of A Noble Idea.

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