Magazine | December 31, 2014, Issue

Follies of the Fifth Republic

France’s political culture is even more maddening than ours

The critic Malcolm Cowley once noted that “the chief advantage of two years in France is to give you a taste for America.” In that spirit, those who are despondent over the state of the political system in the United States might benefit from a look at the slow-motion Eurostar wreck known as French national politics these last couple of years. Compared with those of Paris, Washington’s tribulations can look downright quaint.

These days, it’s rare to see the name of France’s head of state, François Hollande, appear in print unaccompanied by some variation on the phrase “least popular president in modern French history.” Double-digit unemployment has become a new normal, as has sluggish growth, which rose from zero in the first two quarters of this year to 0.3 percent in the third. At the same time, the country’s basket-case finances have prompted a recent credit downgrade by Fitch, while pitting the Hollande government against EU belt-tighteners who are still deciding whether to hold France to euro-zone deficit rules.

And then there’s the steady stream of tabloid fodder issuing from the presidential mansion and Hollande’s not-so-private life. The humiliation began last January with the outing of his relationship with French actress Julie Gayet and his subsequent separation from French first lady Valérie Trierweiler. September saw the publication of a tell-all memoir by Trierweiler that, among other things, quotes Hollande speaking disparagingly of the poor as “sans-dents,” or “toothless.” Aside from being the last thing a leftist politician should be caught saying, the adjective is an unfortunately apt description of Hollande’s public image.

Indeed, the view of the French president as dithering and ineffective has hardened irreversibly into conventional wisdom. In November, Hollande vowed that unless unemployment numbers — which reached record levels in October — improve, he won’t seek reelection. The admission seemed superfluous to many.

As one might imagine, Hollande’s bleak tenure has set the stage for a resurgence of the French Right, whose main contenders include two of the most divisive figures in French public life: former president Nicolas Sarkozy and Marine Le Pen, head of the far-right National Front (FN) party.

Sarkozy, who was recently elected leader of the center-right Union for a Popular Movement (UMP), holds the distinction of being the first president in 30 years to lose a reelection bid. He also finds himself just as plagued by scandal as the Elysée Palace’s current occupant. As he mounts his comeback, Sarkozy is under investigation for alleged campaign-finance offenses during his 2012 campaign, as well as for unlawful influence-peddling.

One of his chief UMP rivals, former prime minister François Fillon, has added yet another sordid layer to the controversy. Two journalists at Le Monde recently reported that during a lunch in June, Fillon asked Hollande’s chief of staff, Jean-Pierre Jouyet, to fast-track the legal proceedings against Sarkozy. “If you don’t hit him quickly, you’ll let him come back,” Jouyet reportedly said. “So act!” This is hardly the only Hollande–Sarkozy firestorm to ignite of late. When pictures of Hollande and Gayet found their way into French weekly Voici in November, for instance, the source was rumored to be a Sarkozy loyalist still working in the Hollande government.

This confusing flowchart of palace intrigue has, predictably, redounded to the advantage of outsider Marine Le Pen, whose Euro-skeptic, anti-immigration FN has been having quite a year. Capitalizing on growing anti-establishment attitudes, the FN captured 25 percent of the vote in the recent European elections, besting both of the country’s mainstream parties. It also posted strong showings in recent municipal elections and even won entry to the French senate for the first time, taking two seats.

But when it comes to political baggage, Le Pen’s can easily match that of Sarkozy and Hollande kilogram for kilogram. For starters, she is the daughter of her party’s founder, Jean-Marie Le Pen, a notorious figure with a history of impolitic comments of the anti-immigrant, homophobic, and anti-Semitic variety. Since taking over the party in 2011, the younger Le Pen has managed to distance the FN from the more distasteful aspects of her father’s legacy, but she has courted controversy in her unabashedly cozy relations with the Putin regime, even securing an $11 million loan from a Russian bank to finance the FN. Despite all this, recent polls show her to be more popular than either Hollande or Sarkozy. The next presidential contest in France isn’t until 2017, so there is still plenty more show to come.

#page#French politics would be a more enjoyable spectator sport if the problems facing the nation weren’t so grave. As noted, the country’s gasping economy shows little sign of catching its breath, a fact not lost on the public, particularly France’s youth. A recent poll by Le Point magazine found that half of French young people would, given the chance, move elsewhere. Indeed, many already have. The emigration of the country’s ambitious and entrepreneurial-minded to the U.K. has already helped turn London into the equivalent of France’s sixth-largest city by population. The trend is both evidence of and reason for a growing hopelessness among the French about their nation’s economic future.

Using American political logic, one would think that this Hollande-era malaise would leave a clear opening for the French Right to champion a more commonsensical economic message of the free-market sort. But as any American who has spent time in France can tell you, Stateside reasoning is of little use when deciphering the actions and attitudes of the French. 

For her part, Le Pen has staked her party’s electoral success on a growing exasperation among voters with the cosmopolitan ruling class in Paris and Brussels. Sarkozy, far from contrasting himself with Le Pen, seems to be taking his cues from the insurgent populist, or at least trying his best to peel off voters from her. Over the course of a few days in November, he echoed Le Pen more than once, announcing his opposition to France’s recently passed gay-marriage law and publicly criticizing the EU and calling for it to give “half of Europe’s current powers” back to member nations.

To the extent that one encounters serious discussion of economic reforms lately, it’s from — get this — the Socialists in Paris. Since coming to power, Hollande, a self-proclaimed enemy of the rich and especially of bankers, has pivoted decisively to a pro-business agenda and appointed a rich banker, Emmanuel Macron, as economy minister. Just think for a moment how bad things must be if even the Socialist party’s statists recognize the need for a pro-growth overhaul. That such policies are undeniably required, however, hasn’t made them any easier to sell. Talk of structural reforms — including the elimination of the 35-hour workweek and the liberalization of highly protected sectors such as pharmacies — reliably sends protesters to the streets (the sight of pharmacists on the march is not to be missed). Even the most indefensible employment-suppressing policies, such as restrictions on Sunday retail commerce, have proven remarkably difficult to undo. As for proposals to roll back welfare spending, one can guess how those have gone over.

And so, it’s tempting to take comfort in the fact that, whatever Washington’s problems, they are far more tractable than those before the Fifth Republic. On this view, American political dysfunction, however one might define it, is of a different, more manageable kind than France’s. This is true enough. It is, after all, a distinctly French reverence for entrenched practices and institutions that has generated the most acute crises facing the country.

The popular resistance to needed economic reforms, for instance, could be chalked up to a deeply embedded skepticism of — even disdain for — capitalist institutions that characterizes much of French politics, and not just on the left. That such prejudices stand in the way of rescuing the world’s fifth-largest economy from stagnation — to say nothing of buying toilet paper on Sunday — seems like a fairly suicidal instance of the country’s notorious preference for the French way of doing things over the most sensible or fair or reasonable way of doing things. Even the most ideological corners of American politics, by contrast, appear to possess a degree of policy pragmatism. One is compelled to remark contemptuously that if only the French had been persuaded by the chart-heavy analyses that so many American political commentators embrace, perhaps they would have avoided their current fate.

This is an attractive line for an American observer to take, and one I find myself rehearsing regularly. But then I remember the truth that America’s political domain is far more the product of our unique interest-group dynamics, irrational fixations, and national mythologies than we like to admit. How else to explain our reform-resistant tax code, public-education system, drug laws, and entitlement programs, to name only a few examples? The recent vogue of data-driven political commentary tends to cloak our biases, aesthetic preferences, and moral commitments in the dispassionate language of economics. Say what you will about French politics, at least it leaves its irrationality out where everybody can see it — often right there on the picket line.

– Mr. Herritt is an American writer living in Paris.

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