I write here about the election in France, but first must note that the most important European news this week very well may come from Greece. The legislative elections there clearly show the disastrous political consequences of hyper-austerity. They demonstrate that the European handling of the crisis has not only brought no remedy. It has aggravated the problem. The results of the Greek elections provide the context for understanding politics in Europe, including France.
In France, François Hollande’s victory did not come as a surprise, but the nature of the victory indicates fundamental changes in the political landscape. The unexpected element was the relatively low margin of victory. He received only 51.6% of the votes after having led constantly in the polls, approaching 60% at times. Sarkozy’s far-right accented campaign shocked the so-called “Republican right,” leading the center right leader François Bayrou to vote for Holland in the second round of the election. It did, though significantly, enable Sarkozy to win substantial support from those who voted for the far-rightist Marine Le Pen in the first round. This needs deliberate consideration.
Sarkozy’s hyper-nationalist, openly anti-European and strongly anti-Islam stance during the last days of the campaign ominously has reunited the right on an ideological basis. Of course, Sarkozy’s neo-nationalist turn was partly tactical, but now there is a real possibility of a dialogue between the far-rightist National Front and the “Republican” right (the President’s party UMP). The so-called “droite populaire,” a part of the UMP that claims 70 députés in the Assemblée nationale, is not against talking to Le Pen. The new ideological horizon for the French right is undoubtedly one of the most important consequences of the presidential election. Sarkozy has played the nationalist and anti-Islam card with an unexpected dedication, particularly if one recalls his attitude during the first years of his presidency, when he practiced the “ouverture” to the left and to ethnic minorities, appointing the French-Senegalese Rama Yade and the French-North Africans, Rachida Dati and Fadela Amara, to ministerial positions. His late commitment to the old Nation was also contradictory with his previous “Merkozy” attitude, that led him to agree with the Kanzlerin in all circumstances. The reconstruction of the French right is underway, as are important changes on the left.
The Socialist Hollande shifted his trajectory during the campaign also, with interesting implications. Having started with a clear support of a form of leftist austerity and a strong commitment to reduce the French debt, he has turned to a more critical position vis-à-vis the German conventional wisdom, and has come up with new fiscal measures, such as the 75% tax on over one million euros income. This was done partly under the pressure of the rise of a new radical left led by the former member of the Socialist Party Jean-Luc Mélenchon and leader of the Front de Gauche, but not only. The Socialists have changed because the austerity packages clearly have not worked, in Greece, Spain or Portugal. While Hollande remains aware of the dangers of economic leftism that led Mitterrand to turn to austerity in 1983 after two year of big spending policy, he is now convinced that he will not succeed with the center-right policy that was advocated from within the Parti Socialiste by Dominique Strauss-Kahn. In this election, the Socialists have regained, partly with the support of the Front de Gauche, but not only, the majority of the clerical workers (58%) and the working class (68%) voted socialist, proving that the popular classes’ turn toward the nationalist and xenophobe National Front is far from an accomplished fact, but is in part the illusion, largely spread by the moderate left think tanks, particularly Terra Nova, according to which the Socialists should focus on middle classes only.
Hollande started his campaign with the claim for a “normal presidency.” Against Sarkozy’s bling-bling presidency, but also against Strauss-Kahn jet setter left. He was mocked for that: how could an average guy do an extraordinary job? But the “président normal” attitude proved to be his best asset in a time of political disenchantment. The French people don’t expect that much from him. It was clear with the celebration of his victory last Sunday night in the Place de la Bastille, which I observed on the scene. Although it might have looked as a replay of Mitterrand’s fête on May 10th 1981, there was no utopian mood displayed and no claim to “changer la vie.” Rather, there was a minimal modest claim: if life can’t be changed radically, it can be kept secure to some extent. Hollande will be a normal president for abnormal times.
Hollande, the unpretentious and “provincial” politician, could reveal himself to be a European Roosevelt, reinstalling the notion of public interest in the political landscape and offering a new deal to the European Union. But to do this, he must find strong allies against the “there is no alternative” mode of thinking. No one would have bet a single euro on Hollande one year ago, maybe it is not totally crazy to gamble now.