When 84 percent of the voters turned out in the first round of the French presidential election Sunday, they proclaimed that a battle was on for the soul of France. Both Left and Right voted in such large numbers because they felt that the future direction of France was at stake.
The voters could well be wrong: Jacques Chirac, who now appears to be the personification of stagnation, won several elections as the candidate of change and reform. He then presided over exactly the same French “social model” — generous welfare provision, inflexible job security, state interventionism, anti-American foreign policy — that his Socialist opponents would have defended if they had been in office. Whoever won, it seemed, France would continue as before.
But the voters might just be right on this occasion. Until the final days of the campaign, Nicholas Sarkozy, the candidate of the Right, had presented himself as a genuinely determined reformer. He would give France more economic freedom and a more Atlanticist foreign policy. Sarkozy’s radicalism proved popular and pulled the other candidates in his reformist direction: The Left’s Ségolène Royal advocated a kinder, gentler version of reform, and the centrist François Bayroux flirted with an almost revolutionary proposal to close down the grandes écoles that train France’s haughty elites. As the election approached, however, and as Royal seemed to be catching up in the polls, Sarkozy softened his radicalism. France’s political inertia seemed once again to be extending its dead hand over the future.
Yesterday’s first-round results suggest that Sarkozy may have been needlessly cautious. He emerged with a clear lead of five percent over Royal. They now face each other in a two-party fight in two weeks. True, a battle between Sarkozy and Bayroux might have offered a more interesting contrast between two different approaches to reform. But the actual result represents French political reality. Royal’s moderate reformism is a coded defense of the French “social model.”
That model enjoys the support of something like half the population, if not more. There will now be a straight fight between reform and immobilization — and doubtless another high turnout for that reason.
Though Sarkozy starts with a slight advantage, the outcome is far from certain. The conservative can reasonably hope to win most of the National Front’s 11 percent. But the Socialist can equally reasonably expect to win most of the 15 percent that went to the extreme-Left Trotskyist and Green parties. If both trends pan out, Sarkozy’s margin of advantage will shrink considerably. All will depend, therefore, on how Bayroux’s 18 percent splits between Left and Right. And that is hard to forecast.
The centrist constituency is one that favors reform without tears. It wants a free market without losers, welfare without dependency, tax cuts without lower spending. An emollient conservative might paint a smiley face on tough reforms and get away with it. But Sarkozy, like Thatcher in Britain, has an abrasive personality that highlights his toughness rather than conceals it. Ségolène Royal, on the other hand, is unpersuasive as a reformer precisely because she is entirely
convincing as a smiley face. The battle lines are thus unusually sharp and well-defined. It is liberal economic reform versus socialist stagnation.
But economic reform alone is not enough to win electoral victories for conservative parties. It has to be coupled with other issues that concern those voters who may not gain quickly from free-market policies and may even initially lose from them. In France today these issues include crime, immigration, the Muslim challenge, loss of sovereignty to supra-national bodies, the divisive failure of multiculturalism, and the crumbling of national identity.
The National Front’s Jean-Marie Le Pen used to be the unrespectable champion of these issues. He lost ground yesterday precisely because other parties have now recognized their power and legitimacy and moved in on his territory. But they do so shamefacedly and without conviction. No major French politician has yet found the civilized and liberal language to discuss these issues intelligently without arousing fear and distaste. No French politician can today speak with the kind of unembarrassed patriotism that American leaders employ every day. No one has yet presented a fully worked out alternative to multiculturalism. This failure is odd because France’s traditional republican identity is particularly well-suited to incorporate ethnic and religious minorities without strain. Ségolène Royal is too compromised by the Left’s multiculturalism to discuss the revival and broadening of French republicanism with any plausibility. Sarkozy alone can do so — provided that his vision of France is inclusive rather than defensive. It is his great opportunity not only to win the election in two weeks but also to begin a revival of France that must go beyond the merely economic.