As elections approach, France contemplates a bonfire
It’s too early to hear the sound of the tumbrils rolling, or the excited click-clack of spectators’ knitting needles as the aristos are taken to the guillotine, but don’t bet that a modern bonfire of the pretensions of the very rich won’t happen, and maybe soon. (Peacefully, I hope: Revolutions are mostly horrible affairs.)
The French allusion occurs because the presidential election campaign opened officially there earlier this week, and the first round of the two-stage voting process will take place on Sunday Apr. 22. From the results of that first pass for the French people, we should see something of central interest and concern to our times, with an import far beyond France. We’ll see how mad people are, and how deeply (or not) they feel they shouldn’t take it any more.
The smart money remains on one of the two front-runners in the race: President Nicolas Sarkozy, the candidate of the right, who’s campaigning as if his life depended on it; and François Hollande, of the Socialist Party, an altogether more laid-back man whose travel-to-work transport was, until recently, a scooter (the kind with a motor – modesty has its limits). They both have been hovering below 30 percent in the polls, while 10 percent is taken by François Bayrou, a veteran campaigner and a liberal, centrist, sensible sort of man, who is trying to pump up votes for a job that is unlikely ever to be his.
It’s the other 30 percent of the electorate where the fascination, and maybe the fear of moderates, lies. The woman who, it was once thought, might emerge as the real challenger to Sarkozy, Marine Le Pen of the anti-immigrant Front National, has faded from a high of near 20 percent to around 15 percent – perhaps because Sarkozy has stolen many of her garments, promising in some stump speeches something akin to a fortress France, keeping out cheap goods and immigrants alike.
Yet in a poll midweek for Le Monde, just over a quarter of 18-to-24-year-olds said they would vote for her. Commenting on the poll, Ms. Le Pen said the surge in youthful support was because of her criticism of the current economic model, which had been “massively rejected by the youth, who are shocked by the cynicism of the political elite.”
Now in an increasingly impressive third place, with over 15 percent of the votes and rising, is Jean-Luc Mélenchon, a former Socialist minister who left office and the party in disgust at its refusal to be radical and who has gathered together what remained of the Communist Party, together with other leftists, and created the Front de Gauche (the Left Front). He preaches “civil insurrection” at enthusiastic rallies and also thinks the current economic model stinks. He, too, is enjoying a large boost from the disaffected young, seeing support in the 18-to-24-year-old range jump from 5 percent at the end of last year to 16 percent today.
Young men and women, in France as elsewhere in Europe, bear the brunt of the jobs crisis, with nearly a quarter unemployed. Both Mr. Sarkozy and Mr. Hollande have promised to help – the former with a young entrepreneurs’ bank, the latter with 60,000 new university enrollment spots and eased rules on hiring young workers. But the far right and far left seem at once more exciting and less compromised by the “model” Mr. Mélenchon hates.
Over the past several decades, aside from a blip or two here and there, the Western world hasn’t got poorer and large parts of it have got considerably richer. (The rich, of course, have got very considerably richer.) But a rising tide lifts all yachts, and there was enough work, consumption, and promise of more to make the calls for even mild redistribution seem cranky and old-fashioned, like something out of old socialist pamphlets. It’s different now. It isn’t just resistance to mass immigration, and above all to Muslim immigration (the sentiment that got Ms. Le Pen’s father through the first round of a presidential election a decade ago). A malaise has spread much more widely through the working and middle classes, as once secure jobs vanish and once thriving small businesses collapse.
A new trend has emerged: economic suicide. In Greece especially, but in other Mediterranean countries as well, some men (especially) and women appear to have reached the limits of their ability to tolerate a life with no work, or no business, and with an apparently endless vista of dependence on a state that can hardly afford dependents. On Apr. 4, a Greek pensioner in his seventies, Dmitris Christoulas, shot himself near Constitution Square in Athens, prompting further riots, demonstrations and a wave of sympathy through the country. The suicide – there have been others – is now seen as more of a potent, contemporary symbol of the stricken state than the Parthenon.
Unequal societies get by because most members of them get by, and can mostly say that they live better than their parents and certainly their grandparents did. No more. When that stops happening, people look at the yachts and the Ferraris and the golden, nine-digit goodbye packages (in 2006 Exxon Mobil gave its retiring chief executive, Lee Raymond, a package worth $400 million) – and cease to say: One day for me? They begin, instead, to mutter: Never for me, and what have they done to deserve it anyway.
They mutter the more, because the promise is shrinking. The United States had been among the most upwardly mobile countries in the world, where hard work and talent could transform modest beginnings to immodest wealth. Now, it lags way behind in that league. There, as elsewhere, the rich dig in and reproduce wealthy children; the comfortable cling to their jobs and benefits; the outsiders, increasingly young, see unscalable walls. President Obama gave a speech in Boca Raton, Florida earlier this week to note that the share of the national income taken by the richest 1 percent was now at 1920s levels and that “the folks who benefit from this are paying tax at one of the lowest rates in 50 years.”
Democratic, centrist politicians of the right and the left are struggling to show their egalitarian bona fides. They can see that there’s a gathering tide – one can see it in authoritarian China and in semi-authoritarian Russia as well as in the democratic countries of the West – that begins to resent wealth and corruption (the two tend to be close friends) more bitterly, with less inclination than in the past to shrug and say: Oh well, nothing to be done.
One can see it in the rising number of demonstrations and strikes that made the departing Chinese prime minister, Wen Jiabao, call for democratic reform while there was still time; in the rallies in the cities of Russia that mobilize the active young against both the political and financial corruption of their leaders. And now one can perhaps see it in the growth of extremism among the youth of Europe, as the mainstream alternatives seem too much entangled in webs of compromise and doublespeak, unable to address the manifest unfairness of the times, dependent on the rich, pandering to the media barons, careful most of all for their own comfort.
It’s a delicate, even perilous, moment. It may pass as the hot summers of the late sixties (above all in France and the U.S.) have passed, leaving behind aging leftists who either rail impotently against opportunity lost, or more often have adapted and carried on with their lives. Or it may be deeper, with less of that well-founded hope for better times that kept the bulk of working people off the streets in the sixties and seventies, in the reasonable belief that the system would serve them better than the would-be revolutionaries ever would.
These days Mr. Mélenchon’s “civil insurrection” may look more inviting – a communal response, better at least than lonely futility ending in such desperation that death seems better than life. Come Apr. 22, when France – which still sees itself as the world’s weather vane, first through the door of the future – gives its first vote, we’ll get some indication of how bitter people feel.
PHOTO: UMP party activists glue posters onto a wall in support of Nicolas Sarkozy, France’s president and the UMP candidate in the 2012 French presidential election, along a street in Paris, April 13, 2012. REUTERS/Philippe Wojazer