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The French Are Different

Enda O'Doherty writes: Surely few of the Irish people who voted in the recent European Parliament election (slightly under half of those eligible to do so) could complain that there was no choice on offer. In my own constituency, Dublin, there were nineteen candidates on the ballot paper (and a 42.9% turnout, significantly below the national average). In Dublin most voters plumped for the divils they knew – Fine Gael, the Greens, Fianna Fáil, Sinn Féin etc – leaving seven divils they didn’t know, or didn’t want to know, trailing the field with fewer than 5,000 votes each. Eight of the candidates in Dublin were described as Independents (and eleven in Ireland South and seven in Midlands NW).

They do things differently in France. As in most countries participating in the European elections (Belgium, Ireland and Italy are exceptions) the European poll was conducted in a single national constituency, an arrangement which certainly discourages parochialism or the emergence of strong personalities with concentrations of local support but little national impact. Nevertheless, no one could say that the choice was not wide here either, with a record number of thirty-three party lists competing, and seats in the European Parliament distributed proportionately between them based on the results. The main difference between Irish political life and French is that the latter would seem to be more ideological. As the nineteenth century essayist Émile de Montégut wrote: “There is no people among whom abstract ideas have played such a great role, whose history is rife with such formidable philosophical tendencies, and where individuals are so oblivious to facts and possessed to such a high degree with a rage for abstractions.” Or, as the philosopher and historian Hippolyte Taine put it: “All that the Frenchman desires is to provoke in himself and in others a bubbling of agreeable ideas.” Sometimes this bubbling can be more baffling or frustrating than agreeable to those not fully educated in Gallic traditions. The stated purpose of the Festival du Mot (festival of the word), held annually in La Charité-sur-Loire, is to “make words resonate so that we may reflect on their magic and their power, with the conviction that words have to be shared with the greatest number”. A friend who works as a translator, chiefly in the arts field, remarks that in French writing on music or literature there is so much verbiage that actually means next to nothing that his English-language versions invariably end up being a lot shorter than the originals. Still, one could imagine the Festival du Mot being quite the thing in Galway.

Let us deal as concisely as possible with the results of the European election in France, a relatively simple business in spite of the baroque complexity and current volatility of the nation’s politics. Though French electors had thirty-three lists to choose from, only six of these achieved representation in the new parliament. The main media focus during the campaign had been on the “duel” between President Macron’s centrist formation La République en marche (LREM) and Marine Le Pen’s far-right Rassemblement Nationale (RN), which had been neck and neck for some time in the polls, with the RN usually showing slightly ahead. The polls turned out to be accurate, with RN winning 23.34% and 22 seats (23 after Brexit) and LREM winning 22.42% and 21 seats (23 after Brexit). Elsewhere, the Greens (EELV) recorded an impressive surge, doubling their seats to 12 (13 after Brexit), while the traditional right (in the Gaullist line of descent) collapsed to 8.3% and lost 13 of the 21 seats they had previously held. The radical left France Insoumise (FI), a newish party which did not contest the last European elections, scored 6.31% and won 6 seats, certainly a major disappointment after the 19.58% its leader, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, scored in the first round of the presidential election in April 2017. Finally the Parti Socialiste, the main component of the centre left, which in the legislative elections in 2017 lost 286 of the 331 seats it had won in 2012, scored 6.31% and 6 seats: not a return to former glories but the socialists will be pleased to have come in level with FI and to have seen off their other rival, Génération.s, a new left-wing formation led by their candidate in the 2017 presidential election, Benoît Hamon, which won no seats. Mr Hamon has since announced that he is quitting politics.

There are winners and losers here. The main winners are, obviously, the Greens. The two big formations, RN and LREM, can also derive some comfort from the poll. The far right, under Le Pen, constitutes a very substantial political bloc with deep roots which shows no sign of going away any time soon. The centre, under Macron, also appears for the moment largely unthreatened by any powerful group marginally to its right or its left. It too looks like a survivor, at least until such time (2022) as the French public makes its definitive judgment on Macron’s success as president. The main losers are the traditional right and the radical left. In the days just before polling, sources within Les Républicains had expressed optimism, partially based on the perception that their standardbearer in the elections, François-Xavier Bellamy, had performed well in television debates. There was talk of lift-off, of a possible 14%, so 8% will have been a huge disappointment. On June 2nd, the Republicans’ party leader, Laurent Wauquiez, whose strategy had been to pull it further to the right (from centre-right to simply right) in an attempt to rival the appeal of RN, resigned. On the radical left, if Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s strategy of maximal hope and sweeping change marched his party to near the top of the hill in April 2017 it appears to have now very nearly marched it down again. In all of this – and indeed in French politics going even a little further back, there has been huge volatility. As the losers lick their wounds they may be comforted by the thought that if things have changed before – who knows? – they might very well change again. There are few enough countries in Europe (Poland and Hungary would appear to be exceptions) where politics is not now subject to abrupt and significant ebbs and flows, ignominious collapses and unexpected recoveries.

It was not always so. The modern French socialist party (PS) was formed in 1969, and in 1971 designated as its leader François Mitterrand, an adroit politician with a long political pedigree which had not always been impeccably left-wing. Mitterrand challenged for the presidency in 1974, losing very narrowly to Valéry Giscard d’Estaing. In 1981 he dislodged Giscard, and retained his position in 1988. In 1995 he was replaced by the Gaullist Jacques Chirac, who remained president until 2007 (the length of the presidential mandate having been reduced from seven to five years after 2002). Nicolas Sarkozy succeeded Chirac in 2007 and was president until 2012, when he was replaced by the socialist François Hollande.


This period of remarkable political stability, involving the regular alternation of power between the centre-right or right (1974-81, 1995-2007, 2007-12) and the centre-left or left (1981-95, 2012-17), seems now to have ended, with the dominance over the last few years of a different opposition, that between the centre and the far-right, but with no sign as yet that the latter is likely to be the beneficiary of an alternation of power. How did this come about? One reason has been the inexorable growth of the far right (from 10.4% in 2007, to 17.9% in 2012, to 21.3% in 2017 – all first-round presidential election figures), based at least partly on the passing of the baton from Jean-Marie Le Pen to his daughter, Marine, and the accompanying attempts to slightly soften the party’s image (and change its name – from Front National to Rassemblement National). Another has been the crisis of the left, or perhaps the crisis of the left project. There may have been doubts about the depth or the sincerity of François Mitterrand’s commitment to socialism but there were few doubts about his political skills or indeed his nerve (in more than one sense of the word). The PS’s campaign slogan in the 1970s was nothing less than the very maximalist Changer la vie (change life). This was also the party anthem, first sung at a congress in Nantes in 1977:

Changeons la vie ici et maintenant
C’est aujourd’hui que l’avenir s’invente
Changeons la vie ici et maintenant

(Let us change life, here and now / It’s today that the future is being invented. / Let us change life here and now.)

A tall order certainly, but when Mitterrand became president in 1981, with the support of the communist party (PCF), the changes that his first prime minister, Pierre Mauroy, introduced were indeed ... well let us say life-changing: significant increases in the minimum wage, old age pensions and family allowances; reduction of the working week to thirty-nine hours; the possibility in some occupations of retirement at sixty; some nationalisations of industry; decentralisation; new workers’ rights; the decriminalisation of homosexual acts; the abolition of the death penalty. However, in a worsening international climate, and with Thatcher and Reagan ruling out the idea of prime-pumping the international economy for growth, the brake soon had to be applied. From 1983 the Mauroy government was forced to switch to a policy of rigueur, or, as we might now say, austerity, implemented by the minister for finance, one Jacques Delors. Inflation was soon brought under control but unemployment increased and proved difficult to deal with. In 1984 Mauroy was replaced as prime minister by Laurent Fabius.

The French socialists had been very attached, since the 1970s, to the notion of rupture, specifically a rupture with capitalism. Indeed Mitterrand announced that one couldn’t really be a member of the party if one did not believe in this rupture. In practice such notions did not long survive collision with the real world, or with the market if that is the same thing, or the ways of international finance, including such difficult and frequently unpleasant concepts as confidence, and loss of confidence. However, it must be said that a significant number of Mauroy’s beneficial reforms stuck, being of the kind that could not really be withdrawn without running the risk of provoking revolution (which seems never all that far away in France). It was said at the time that France couldn’t afford such reforms. Well, as it turned out France had to afford them. And French socialism had something to deliver to its people.

In the longer term, however, the experience of the early 1980s must surely have raised the question of how socialism was to be done in the context of a now, probably irreversibly, internationalised and globalised economy and financial system. French politicians’ considerable talent (particularly on the left) for abstraction, for making words resonate, and the pleasure their followers tend to take in the agreeable bubble of ideas, may have long diverted many activists from unpleasant truths about the world or the economy: indeed, behind the political dominance of big beasts like Mitterrand, Mauroy, Delors, Fabius and Rocard, there seethed a thriving subculture of courants, associations, clubs and cercles de réflexion, laboratoires d’idées, manifestes and déclarations. But after the 1980s the truth was surely beginning to sink in for many and the idea that the world as given could be remade by will and imagination and without very much human cost had migrated to the radical left, a safer home where on the whole it was unlikely to be in danger of being tested. Lionel Jospin, who had been a socialist prime minister during a cohabitation regime with President Jacques Chirac and a twice unsuccessful presidential candidate, “sought”, according to the political scientist Sudhir Hazareesingh, “to distinguish between a ‘market economy’ (which was necessary and valuable) and a ‘market society’ (whose inegalitarianism was socially and morally destructive)”. This, as formulated by Jospin, is indeed the problem for social democrats who want to deliver something to their constituency or to the wider society; it is not, however, the solution, which would involve more time and more space and repeated use of the word “how?”.

Arguably it is the failure to deal with these problems of what and how that has led to the current meltdown of French socialism. The “normal” alternance that existed in France (the replacement of one party by its chief rival after a period in government) until 2017 depended on voters being dissatisfied with the record of the outgoing government – something one can usually if not always depend on. Nicolas Sarkozy won the presidency in 2007 after portraying himself as more dynamic than any possible rival: he would get things moving. But in fact in spite of his hyperactivity unemployment rose significantly during his term, and so he was turfed out and replaced with the socialist François Hollande, under whom the rate crept down very marginally while looking to most people to be much the same. Disappointment with Hollande’s tenure led to great tensions in the Parti Socialiste as 2017 – the date for a further presidential election – approached. A primary opposed candidates from the right of the party and the left. The latter, Benoît Hamon, prevailed and went on to fight the presidential contest on a firmly left-wing programme. He scored 6.36%, the socialists’ lowest share of the vote since 1969. By this time many of the more centrist members and supporters of the PS had begun to look rather kindly on the campaign of Emmanuel Macron, a former member of the party and a Hollande adviser, while some of the more left-wing members no doubt thought the chances of the more red-blooded Mélenchon presidential campaign were better than those of Hamon. And thus the party that Mitterrand had remade (on the ashes of Jean Jaurès’s SFIO – Section française de l’internationale ouvrière) was pulled apart by two factions whose visions of socialism were incompatible and who had for years avoided the inconvenience of coming to a resolution of the differences between them and a modern, working synthesis.

Emmanuel Macron’s emergence as French president and the subsequent overwhelming victory of LREM in parliamentary elections might well not have happened. Many people would have bet instead on a second-round run-off between the centre-right François Fillon and Marine Le Pen, which the former would have won. (Fillon, unfortunately for him, was damaged by a minor corruption scandal.) In opinion polls before the first round Fillon, Le Pen, Macron and Mélenchon were all bunched closely together, within the polling margin of error. If Mélenchon had nosed ahead of Macron and Fillon he would have faced Le Pen and he would certainly have won: a president from the radical left, though very probably one with no parliamentary majority to implement a radical programme. Sometimes the accidental plays a significant part in politics. Whether LREM remains a major player in the medium term may depend on the success of Macron’s presidency (those stubbornly high unemployment figures have begun to dip again, but so far only slightly). As for the other big player, there is no sign whatsoever of Marine Le Pen’s party disappearing.

This is not to say that she has no rivals on the far right: much the same range of nationalist, xenophobic and anti-EU figures presented themselves in the European elections as had in the 2017 presidentials. And with much the same result: Stand up France! 3.5%, Together for Frexit 1.17%, Patriots and Gilets Jaunes Together 0.65%, French Dissidence 0.02%. And, probably not on the right, another derivative of the gilets jaunes movement, Alliance jaune, Revolt with the Vote 0.54%. If the fissiparousness of the left can be put down to an excess of intellect in politics the proliferation of far-right groupuscules could perhaps be attributed to the narcissism of small differences.

Which brings us to a footnote, the curious case of the gilets jaunes. You know the reference of course, but perhaps not its original source. It’s from Conan Doyle’s story “The Adventure of Silver Blaze”.

Gregory (a Scotland Yard detective): “Is there any other point to which you would wish to draw my attention?”
Holmes: “To the curious incident of the dog in the night-time.”
Gregory: “The dog did nothing in the night-time.”
Holmes: “That was the curious incident.”

As the protest movement of the gilets jaunes spread from October 2018, showing remarkable powers of self-organisation and co-ordination across the country, traditional political parties looked on, some of them, particularly on the radical left, the traditional right and the far right, nervously wondering if this new phenomenon was something that threatened their base or whether it was a new type of spontaneous organisation without sophisticated political leaders that they might profitably clamber aboard. The movement had kept well away from traditional forms of politics (unless one counts the repeated early calls from among the ranks of the then hundreds of thousands of demonstrators for the immediate resignation of President Macron – for whom, incidentally, almost 21 million French citizens had voted a year before). In the event, as the numbers of demonstrators inevitably dwindled over time, only a few isolated individuals from the movement joined the political lists contesting the European elections, and these on the political fringes and chiefly on the far right. Perhaps those who had supported the movement did not sufficiently feel they were unrepresented by already existing political parties. No one can be sure who they voted for in the European elections but it would be a fair bet that it wasn’t LREM. After all the media exposure, in 2019 the gilets jaunes were the dogs that didn’t bark.

Sources: Le Monde, https://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipédia, How the French Think, by Sudhir Hazareesingh.
Image: François Mitterrand with German chancellor Helmut Kohl in 1987.