With a few days to the first round of France's
presidential poll, let’s have a look at the campaigns and the way it
reflects the worrying situation of the country.
On April 22nd, France went to the polls
to elect a new President. The second round will take place on May 6th.
French voters who aren’t ardent partisans
remain disillusioned and will vote for a candidate because they despise the
other camp. The German magazine Der
Spiegel sums it up by saying that “the French have the choice
between a man they no longer want and a man they don’t really
Hollande and Sarkozy: same difference
When it comes to the two candidates who are likely
to be elected, the truth is that France faces a choice between two statists.
Both favour a command-and-control economy, moderated protectionism,
entrenched entitlements and deeper European integration.
a former civil servant and candidate of the Socialist Party, the largest centre-left
party is hoping to become the first Socialist president since his mentor François
Mitterrand won re-election in 1988.
He ran the party for 11 years but likes to cultivate
the image of an average Frenchman, implicitly contrasting himself with the
mercurial Nicolas Sarkozy.
Holland’s platform is largely old-school
socialist, calling for a punitive 75% marginal tax rate on incomes above
€1 million a year, a more generous minimum wage and for a return to
retirement at 60 for those who have worked for long enough. He wants to
create 150,000 subsidised jobs for young people in difficult neighbourhoods,
60,000 new jobs in the national education and justice systems and
5,000 in the police. He promises to reduce the share of nuclear
power in the national energy mix from 75% to 50% by 2025.
This additional spending of €20 billion will
be financed by tax increases. But he insists he will bring France’s
deficit down. To return to a zero deficit in 2017, he
believes the state must find €100 billion: 50 from savings and 50
from new tax revenues. He won 28.6% of the vote.
Nicolas Sarkozy, a former lawyer, current President
of the French Republic and candidate of the centre-right, Gaullist,
pro-national independence and dirigiste Union for a Popular Movement came to power in
2007 promising voters a break with the ways of the past.
But it didn’t take long for his personal
behaviour - cavorting with millionaires, exposing his private life - to
antagonise the French. He struggled to earn political credit for his
hyperactive efforts during the global financial crisis, but it is not sure
he’ll be France’s next president.
His list of achievements is less than stellar.
Sarkozy pushed through a university reform and, in teeth of huge
demonstrations, a raise to the minimum retirement age. Others were
operated more quietly, as the tax credit for research,
encouraging business development. Many
other projects were announced and
then abandoned. The hope of a revival, present in 2007,
hasn’t been satisfied.
Sarkozy promises an increase of 30% in
building rights, a decrease of labour costs for low wages, young and old
professionals. He wants to establish a minimum corporate tax for large
companies and broaden the tax on financial transactions. To control public
spending, his only plan is to continue the current policy of replacing two
retiring civil servants by one. To finance his promises and balance the public
budget by 2016, the state would have to find €53.5 billion, one
quarter coming from tax increases, three quarters from spending cuts.
The French state remains one of the biggest spenders
in Europe, and Sarkozy has never faced up to the need to rethink the
underlying social model. He won 27.2% in the frist
round of the vote.
But Hollande and Sarkozy were
not the only candidates in the race.
Eight other candidates obtained the requisite 500
signatures from elected officials needed to run for President. Moreover, TV
stations are legally required to give them equal airtime.
The hard-left was well represented by three
candidates. Singing the praises of the dictatorship of the proletariat, Nathalie
Arthaud is a former professor of economics and
management who is the candidate of a Trotskyist party called Workers’
Struggle is currently, we found Philippe Poutou, a
labourer and labour union leader, the candidate of the New Anticapitalist Party, another Trotskyist organisation. His
irreverent campaign used the election to air his party’s views: a
national retirement age of 60, a wage increase of €300 a month for all,
a minimum monthly wage of €1,700, a 32-hour working week, requisition
of the banks and an end to nuclear power.
We also found the rising star of the hard-left, Jean-Luc
Mélanchon, a former senator and candidate of
the doctrinaire Left Front, a de facto
rebranding operation of the French Communist Party. To sum-up, Mélanchon is all about contempt, bitterness and
Mélanchon called for
a 20% rise in the minimum wage, and for income above €360,000 to be
confiscated via a 100% tax. He wanted to establish a 100%
reimbursement of health expenses by the state, to create 60,000
jobs in national education and increase funding for public research, culture,
sports, etc. He promised to nationalize electricity, nuclear and oil
companies, now de facto controlled by the state.
When it comes to public finances, Mélanchon set
no date of return to equilibrium and claimed, he
simply doesn’t care. To fund his program, he wanted
to increase taxes on the rich, on capital income and social charges on
low wages. He came out of the first round with 11,1%.
A talented orator, he has an earthy appeal, in
contrast to the choreographed campaigns of Sarkozy and Hollande.
His success forced Hollande to tack to the left in
the first-round campaign.
The Greens, a progressive, socialist and ecologist
party, was also represented in this campaign. But its candidate, Eva Joly, a Norwegian-born magistrate failed to steer the
public debate on corruption and environment issues.
A perennial also-ran in French presidential
elections, François Bayrou, a former
teacher, likes to present himself as the sensible centrist alternative to the
candidates from the mainstream left and right.
His party, the Democratic Movement, urged fiscal
restraint (but did not say how), sayed France must
do more to encourage entrepreneurship (but didn’t detail this), and
adopted a liberal tone on social issues like gay rights (but was unclear
about it). His ideas on healthcare, pensions and unemployment were
He would have been an OK candidate for the
libertarian vote if he hadn’t also advocating for a long list of
statist measures: the centrepiece of his program was to revive the
“made in France”; he wanted to create a “bureau for
national strategies” and he wanted the state to identify key industrial
sectors that will be funded by EU subsidies. He also pushed to raise VAT by 2
points in 2 years and create two new
tranches of marginal income tax, 45 and 50%.
France would have needed €100 billion to
finance his reforms and bring the country to a zero deficit by 2016; 50% of
it would have come through spending cuts and 50% through new taxes.
Nicolas Dupont-Aignan, a
civil servant and candidate of a right-wing, souverainist,
protectionist party called Arise the Republic won a 1.8%.
The hard-right was represented with Marine Le Pen, a
former lawyer, candidate of the National Front, a nationalist, social
conservative, anti-globalization, Eurosceptic, protectionist party. They got a
very high score of 17.9%.
Marine has rejuvenated the party founded by her
father, Jean-Marie. Where he thundered over losing Algeria and dismissed the
gas chambers as a “detail of history”, she has warned of the
dangers of Islamification and untrammelled
immigration, and called for France to leave the Eurozone. It has worked, up
to a point.
Marine Le Pen wants France to leave the Eurozone,
create an international tax on financial transactions, increase wages by €200
per month, and create an income for parental education. She also wants a more
generous pension system, to increase VAT and income tax, eliminate loopholes
and inefficient taxes. It worked!
After she took over the party leadership in January
2011 her poll ratings soared. Yet her support has flatlined
since then, and Sarkozy aimed to suck away some of her backers by taking a
harsh line on immigration and law and order. However, she got a very high
Jacques Cheminade, a
former civil servant, candidate of the Solidarity and Progress party,
representing the difficult to classify Lyndon LaRouche
movement in France, won 0.3 of the vote. Among other things, he compared
Barack Obama to Adolf Hitler, advocated for the colonization of Mars and wanted
the state to promote choral singing.
been the libertarians?
La Boétie, Turgot, La Fayette,
Constant, Bastiat, Tocqueville and Aron: France is the homeland of well-known classical
liberal and libertarian thinkers and political figures since the Renaissance.
Yet, the French bourgeoisie has always seen the centralized State as a
tool to crush the power of the privileged nobility. This historical setting and
its legacy has generated huge constraints on the classical liberal movement
in its struggle to accommodate its principles to the French
culture. Even if a few classical liberal reformists can be seen as
actors during the 18th th and 19th
century, they have been observers since the 20th.
France is also a country where anti-libertarian ideologies are
very present in public opinion, specifically in some key sectors like
national education, civil service, labour unions and political
representation. Any reform of the state is felt as an attack
on the country’s identity.
To sum-up, French people use the word “libéral” as an insult, preferring to add prefixes
like neo- or ultra- to it. The word “fascist” is easily dropped
to describe it. “Libéral” stands
for Madoff, nouveau riche, politically connected big business, CEOs who love
to fire employees and outsource their plants, worldwide
police state and having great pleasure in seeing African children starve to
Giving this toxic intellectual environment, you
would expect classical liberals and libertarians to escape the country or
hole up somewhere. Well, many don’t.
Two presidential elections ago, in 2002, Alain Madelin, a former minister and the candidate of Liberal
Democracy, a short-lived French classical liberal party, reached 3.91% (1.1
million votes) in the first round of the poll at the end of a treasons-packed
The existing classical liberal Liberal
Democratic Party doesn’t have a candidate in the presidential election
this year. Its board has chosen to focus on the coming legislative elections
on June 10th and 17th 2012.
With no candidate to promote their views, a group of
libertarian activists tarted a mock campaign called
Bastiat 2012. The 19th century French
economist and prolific pamphleteer, well known in the US but ignored in his
own country, was seen on posters, flyers and videos
in the street and on the Internet.
François Lenglet, a
resolute business journalist from a cable TV channel called BFM, is the only
critical journalist around when it comes to public finances. During prime
time interviews, he explained with graphs to all of the candidates how insane
their economic plans were. Far from opening their eyes, most of the
pretenders felt offended.
France has its share of liberty-oriented think tanks
(iFRAP, IREF and IEM among others), media (from the
venerable review Commentaire to the pure-player Contrepoints) but most of them are run by volunteers or
are financially struggling.
What France really lacks are grassroots movements
like campus groups, an uneasy challenge in a country where libertarians are a
scattered minority - called insane at best, dangerous at worst.
A fear of
decline and a vague yearning for renewal
The pessimistic talk about French decay is blooming.
With good reasons, the country is presented as crushed under a mountain of
public debt, a loss of competitiveness, a jammed democratic system and a
France remains the fifth largest
economy worldwide, but several indicators are flashing.
France has the highest public spending ratio of the
Eurozone: 57% of its economic output depends on life support from the state.
In 2011, the public deficit reached €103 billion, the
public debt €1.7 trillion, or 85.8% of the GDP. This peak does
not stem only from the financial and economic crisis. It
is the heritage of a 30-year inability to control public finances:
the country hasn’t had a balanced budget since 1974.
The country has already lost its triple-A credit
rating from Standard & Poor’s and, although its situation is not
comparable with that of Greece or Spain, rising interest rates on its
sovereign bonds would exacerbate the euro crisis.
Cooked governmental figures say that the
unemployment rate reaches 10%. An entire generation of children of
immigrants are growing up in ghetto-like suburbs where they have no contact
with the labour market. Plant closures and spurs of social revolt are
So far, little has been said about the worrying
situation of the country during the election campaign. Finding a way to save
€100 billion is becoming an urgent priority but none of the candidates
is signposting a way to cut public spending and liberalize housing,
healthcare, pension, transports, retail, education, energy or banking.
wants to spend more and raise taxes; Sarkozy has missed the opportunity to
make cutbacks over the past five years in office. Inward and backward
looking, the competing political figures are lacking bold new ideas.
To this economic decline one must add a profound
loss of self-confidence. This sentiment is reflected in particular by a
violent rejection of the global economy. The French see globalization as
a calamity that came from elsewhere. The concept of "de-globalization"
is surging in the polls and the Left is not alone in criticizing
outsourcing. From François Bayrou to
Marine Le Pen and from cliché reservations to fiery rhetoric and
pledges, the broad right-wing spectrum is also against globalization.
The French anxiety is also apparent in the political discourse on
immigration. "There are too many foreigners in France,"
Nicolas Sarkozy said, adding: "How could we integrate and assimilate
foreigners, if an uncontrolled wave of immigration comes indefinitely to
frustrate the efforts of the Republic?"
Fear of Islamization
of the country is expressed through the burqa ban,
debates about prayers in the streets, mosques building or halal meat. To
many, communitarianism is now developing to the point of destroying the
foundations of the Republic.
This debate illustrates confusion about national identity. It also shows
nostalgia for a paradise lost: "When talking about the problems of
immigration, […] it creates the idea that if there were no immigrants
and their children, we would return to a Golden Age” estimated
Franco-Norwegian Eva Joly, the Green candidate.
No one seems to understand that the issues the
country is now facing – closed society, hierarchical in the extreme and
mired in a culture of conflict of interest, unemployment, broken social
ladder, economic sclerosis, state corporatism, inequalities in education, social
apathy or violence, generalized distrust – are the consequence of an
interventionist state penalising success, crushing civil society, dynamism
and innovation. This system wasn’t designed by today’s immigrants
but by French-born electors in the 1950s and kept until now.
The French are also more depressive, take more
medication (and not just because Social Security is more generous than
elsewhere), commit suicide more often than in countries with comparable
income levels. Yes, the French are moaners, but that’s because
they feel a deep unease to live together.
Something else is at work in the political field,
undermining reformist elks and precluding optimism. Half of French people no
longer feel represented by politicians. They think that all parties from
right to left don’t care about their problems.
These invisible French are shunning the ballot
boxes. This has resulted in record low turnout in recent elections.
This crisis of representative democracy is coupled
with a loss of confidence in political efficacy. The French believe less
and less that their leaders have the power to act. The political failure
to support purchasing power, reduce unemployment, and boost growth in
the wake of the financial crisis has strengthened this opinion.
Distrust of politicians is an
old French trait. But it found great opportunities to
express itself during the last five years, with the revelation of
multiple corruption and misbehaviour scandals where governing left and
right-wing parties were heavily implicated (Woerth-Bettencourt,
Karachi, Strauss-Kahn or Guérin).
France is a country that does not renew itself. It is the same old
ideas, the same old parties, and the same rotten debates. The French
are deeply dissatisfied with the way political issues are
dealt with. The civil society has taken good note of today’s fundamental
transformations but the political world is still alien
No matter who becomes President on May 6th will be
forced to tackle the public deficit issue. Bond markets will be more watchful
than French voters. If elected, Hollande would need to discard some of his promises and
would experience the negotiation power of Chancellor Angela Merkel when it
comes to budgetary discipline; Sarkozy would be under the obligation to find
new budget savings.
In both cases, the consequence will be a sharp surprise and a sudden
blow to the people.