23 April, 2012
A Question of Identity
For many people this election was about the unpopularity of Nicolas Sarkozy, that is evident. For others the result is an astonishing level of support for Marine Le Pen, gaining nearly one in five votes with strong support among young and unemployed. Others see it as a weak support for the Far Left: Mélenchon, who was supposed to shake the edifice to its foundations, gaining less than Le Pen.
Something has been going on in France, but what? The first thing to remember is that the labels 'left' and 'right' mean nothing here. There was only one candidate amongst the ten who could have qualified as even a wishy-washy member of the British Conservative Party and he got 2%. Le Pen is to the right on social policy, certainly, but splattered her campaign with Left-Wing economic rhetoric which would have embarrassed the British Labour Party in 1970.
It was not just about voting Sarkozy out, though he is highly unpopular personally, and the political upheaval in my view did not, as some are saying, come from 1789. I believe it came from the 1950s.
After the war Britain, nominally on the winning side, was exhausted and depressed. The string of leaders, most too old fashioned to understand that anything had changed, failed to ignite the popular morale. We watched the Empire gain its independence, the pound devalue and the economy decline as if it were fate. In France, by contrast, which could not seriously lay claim to being a winner (but was not a loser), De Gaulle's staunch evangelical nationalism made people think France was a great country.That greatness resided in the bones of France itself, in its quirky cars and terroirs, in that indefinable Frenchness which some love and some hate.
The instrument of Gaullism was not to be an Empire but the European Union, which France dominated intellectually and politically from 1957 until 2010.
Now France is beginning to ask itself questions. The 'Merkozy' concept, that the EU would be run jointly by France and Germany was in itself a climbdown but now that parity has also been lost. With France's debt downgrade (more important for morale and status than many think) and its obvious economic underperformance, France no longer ranks alongside Germany. It is as if it had lost one of those tiny 19th century battles which somehow changed the established order.
So whereas you could have told Britain - at least any time up to the Falklands - that it was a third rate country and the population would have accepted it, France is left wondering what has happened. It has been left asking itself who it is.
And the answer? The future is not, I fear, bright. Those of us who wish the country well are dismayed by the almost Trotskyite tone of some of the candidates, the anti-trade, anti-competition speeches made by most of them, the depressing, mercantilist isolationism of the whole debate.
Hollande should have a comfortable mandate on 6th May. But it does not augur well, for France or for Europe.