Politics & Policy

French Flip

How can you look like Ségolène and still look like a loser?

I received a note from a friend in America. “[Presidential candidate Nicholas] Sarkozy was on ‘The Charlie Rose Show’ on PBS last night,” he wrote. “Rose asked questions in English and Sarkozy answered in French.”

John Kerry, watching in Massachusetts, must have slapped himself on the forehead, wondering why he didn’t think of doing that. According to the transcript, it seemed to have worked well enough for Sarko. The UMP rightist, who faces Ségolène Royal, the aggressively nice candidate of the Left in next April’s first-round elections, spoke with his customary bluntness, even uttering phrases that the French (and, for that matter, American) Left consider obscene — like “I believe in capitalism.” And “I believe in the market economy.” And “I believe in competition.”

Until now, in Paris, these would be considered the ravings of a madman. For the life of the Fifth Republic, doing things like extolling the virtues of work or condemning inheritance taxes as a betrayal of future generations has been a politically psychedelic experience: You could swear they were true, but then the reality of French political cynicism would kick in, the streets would fill with kids and Commies, and things would return to normal.

For 50 years, buying votes with indolence has given French workers a strong dislike of work and the French ruling caste a life of political luxury. “Right” and “left” in French politics has always been a largely meaningless distinction, since the candidates have almost always been first and foremost “énarques,” hand-picked members of a governing class, educated in the nation’s grandes écoles — and especially the École nationale d’administration, the ENA, whose initials identify the political Brahmins who have always run the country with an affection not for ideology, but for self-preservation. Jacques Chirac, a rightist, is an énarque. So is Royal. So is almost every post-war French president and prime minister. They share a deep respect for each other and an equally deep disdain for outsiders.

But France is growing tired of seeing one Ubu after another elected president. The economy sputters along. Nothing changes. Zidane is gone. People are bored. The world passes by while the present occupant of the Élysée does embarrassing overnight flip-flops, reported here by 20 Minutes, on things like whether or not an Iran armed with nukes is a bad idea. Only Chirac can be both dumb and dumber, both tard and retard, and all within the space of 24 hours. No wonder he’s disliked in France even more than Bush: A whole nation stands ready with tissues to catch whatever falls out of the old man’s mouth next.

For a while — in fact, until just a few weeks ago — Royal seemed to be the perfect candidate. She has been a master of superficiality, a plus in a country that has always valued symbolic change more than the real thing. France knows something has to give, and compared to Chirac’s goofy mug, Ségolène’s blissful countenance, her flippy ’do, and her dentally perfect smile have represented about as much superficial change as a normal person could stand. To add even more upholstery to the warm, comfy feeling she conveys, she’s made political oratory out of small talk. When she strays from her bland script, she steps in it, as this Financial Times dispatch shows.

Normally skeptical journalists have not troubled her about her “companion” and the father of her four children, François Holland, the leader of the Socialist Party and man who would love dearly to run for president himself, but knows he would only lose bigtime. If she were a candidate on the Right, mouthing platitudes and trying not to offend, the leftwing European press would portray her as a scenic sockpuppet. But so far, she has been treated extremely well by the press. Her picture is everywhere. And why not?

But this week, in Le Monde (apparently already archived), André Glucksmann, a leftwing intellectual, threw his support behind Sarkozy, complaining that French politics suffered from “infections,” including selfishness, anger, and depression and pointed out the obvious — that new political ideas seem to be the province of the right. Other leftist eggheads have also turned their backs on Royal’s glibness juggernaut, as Meg Bortin reports in the International Herald Tribune, and Sarkozy has taken the lead in polls. According to Le Figaro, Sarkozy’s gained by simply being more serious than the smiling Ségolène. The lead is tenuous; both sides know that if Sarko loses his temper, as he often does, and directs hostility at Ségolène, he’ll tank. On the other hand, if Royal ventures beyond shallow platitudes (“politics is for people”), she’s in deep water.

Still, the flip is alarming Socialists who fear a reprise of their humiliation in 2002, when they forgot to show up with a new idea. In the elections that year, as this BBC blast from the past recalls, they were defeated not only by Chirac, but also by France’s other leading political embarrassment, Jean-Marie LePen.

You might think there’s a lesson in this for the American Left whose big (and so far successful) idea has been to be mad at Bush. But in France, presidential campaigns are slightly more elegant, perhaps because the lunatic constituency has its own basket of meaningless political parties, while we have to make do with Joe Biden and the Dems. This week, for example, José Bové, the mustachioed couplet who made his reputation by demolishing a McDonald’s restaurant, jumped into the race, as Libération reports. Bové, who is often absurdly described as a “farmer,” was discussed here a while ago. You’d think he’d have been marginalized by his own silliness, but apparently, agrarian crankiness still has street “cred” in Paris, in case you were wondering what that was all over your Vuitton pumps.

Denis Boyles is author of Vile France: Fear, Duplicity, Cowardice and Cheese.

Denis BoylesDennis Boyles is a writer, editor, former university lecturer, and the author/editor of several books of poetry, travel, history, criticism, and practical advice, including Superior, Nebraska (2008), Design Poetics (1975), ...

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