Just before the Sofitel Affair brutally ended his political career, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the director of the IMF, was considered as the great favorite of the French presidential election, and François Hollande, who had started earlier his bid for the primary polls organized for the first time on the left by the Socialist Party, was not taken seriously, particularly in his own camp. Nicknamed Flanby, Little Gouda, or even “couilles molles” (soft testicles) by his socialist contender Martine Aubry, Hollande very well may be the unexpected winner of the competition, on May 6th, the final round of the French election. Although it has been a boring campaign, it also has been very interesting sociologically.
Strauss-Kahn embodied a center-left version of the “there is no alternative” line, smoothed by a reputation, acquired in happier times, of a rare economic competency that would alleviate the inescapable rigor ahead. Roughly, President Sarkozy and Strauss-Kahn shared the same views. The President had backed the very moderate socialist for the job at the IMF, and they navigated in very close social and economic circles.
But now, one can see almost every day a sea of red flags and an amazing number of raised fists during the Front de Gauche candidate’s electoral meetings, from the Place de la Bastille in Paris to the Prado beaches in Marseilles. Enthusiastic crowds appreciate the leftist Jean-Luc Mélenchon‘s tough rhetoric: his speeches are loaded with the most traditional items of the radical camp with a very strong French flavor (a daily celebration of the Bastille Day, but also of 1793 and Robespierre). Mélenchon’s fondness for Hugo Chavez, Raul Castro and the Chinese communist leaders does not seem to bother any of his increasingly young and socially mixed supporters. Mélenchon’s rise has totally reshuffled the campaign, that had started with Sarkozy taking up extreme right-wing issues (mainly immigration and security) and Hollande not saying much as he was so far ahead in the polls that he seemed to be afraid of taking any side that would shrink the support he received, mainly based on Sarkozy’s strong rejection, particularly among the working and lower middle classes.
Sarkozy’s strategy was partially a replay of his winning 2007 campaign: using populist rhetoric to siphon off the Front National, the populist and nationalist party that emerged in the Mitterrand years and has not left the stage since. But, the strategy does not seem to be working this time for two reasons. First, the far rightist candidate, Marine Le Pen, “la fille du chef” (Jean-Marie Le Pen’s daughter) has softened her rhetoric and looks more palatable to moderate voters. Second, the “work more, earn more motto” that was so appealing in 2007, particularly among workers, has become impossible with almost one million more unemployed people and a stalled economy. Sarkozy’s arguments are a mixed bag of traditional rightist elements (being tougher at the borders and in the rough areas of cities, fighting Islam night and day) and of self praise (I saved the country from the crisis; the Socialists will turn France into Greece after two weeks; all the European leaders, Angela Merkel leading the group, support me). Coached by a far rightist spin doctor, Patrick Buisson, Sarkozy has constantly gone to the right, with a few unexpected and short lived moves towards criticism of financial capitalism. In the last days, he has not seemed to believe himself that he would be reelected.
Spurred by Mélenchon’s radical campaign, the left, on the contrary, looks in good shape. The polls regularly show that the left vote is about as strong as it was in 1981, on the eve of François Mitterrand’s election. Of course, the old division of the left into two parts, dating back to at least as old as the opposition between Jean Jaurès and Jules Guesde at the turn of the 20th century, one oriented toward social-democracy, and another more radical, at least with respect to rhetoric, is very much alive and well .
This time, however, there is an irony in the story: the reformist and the radical candidates both come from the Socialist Party. Mélenchon spent 31 years on the left side of the PS, served as Minister and Senator before he left it in 2008 to launch the Parti de Gauche, the French version of the German Linkspartei. Mélenchon has been endorsed by the Communist Party that did very poorly in the former presidential elections, but has been rejuvenated by its new spokesman’s unexpected performance. Mélenchon benefits from the strong organizational capacities of the main workers’ union, the CGT, historically linked to the Communist Party. Their campaign is an outlet for the protesters who could not succeed in developing movements like the Indignados or Occupy.
There is a strong nostalgic flavor in this, and one of the leading French historians, Christophe Prochasson, views Mélenchon’s success as oriented towards the past (“passéiste”). It shows the French taste for reenacting great political ceremonies more than adding new items to the repertoire, as in the Occupy movement.
The absence of the rest of the world is a striking feature of the campaign, and it concerns all the candidates. Its beginnings were overloaded with petty issues taken from the National Front (banning halal meat in school cafeterias, or special hours for women in swimming pools) or even surprising issues, like democratizing access to the training for a driving license.
France focuses on itself as if the economic questions could be dealt with at the national level. Euro-scepticism is growing, even among Sarkozy’s supporters. The President has devoted himself to zealously following Frau Merkel in all her recent decisions, but now he seems to be about to change his mind about European integration. To be honest, not only Mélenchon could be labeled “passéiste” in this campaign. The present will brutally come back on May 7th, a day after the second round of the election.