France: An election, of illusions

Les Echos (Paris)

Revolution, protectionism, leaving the euro: the run-up to the presidential election, and the first-round vote on 22 April, has been marked by ideas that are popular but wholly divorced from reality. A columnist deplores what he perceives as the characteristic syndrome of a country that is unable to examine its conscience.

France has many enviable geographical and culinary attractions, but the same cannot be said for the level of its political debate, which has to be the lowest in the western world. The campaigns ahead of the first round of the presidential election are an apt illustration of how inane it can be.

In principle, an election should offer an opportunity to examine problems, propose solutions, and a chance to benefit from a renewed momentum. The campaigns for May 2012, which have been marked by the presentation of disproportionate measures that studiously ignore the real situation of France, bear no relation to this paradigm. And not surprisingly, the election has failed to generate any excitement.

According to the polls, half of the country’s voters have changed their choice of candidate over the last six months: it is not hard to understand why they would. As it stands, statisticians looking at the current rankings — 30% for Sarkozy, 30% for Hollande, and 30% for a mixed bunch of other candidates — will tell you that the division of the vote into thirds is indicative of random selection. The French electorate, whose ignorance of what is being proposed has been left unstirred, will follow their noses and vote for wholly subjective reasons.

The campaigns, which have been an overwhelming disappointment, have set aside any discussion of the unprecedented problems we are now experiencing: an extremely serious economic crisis, an existential financial crisis, terrifying levels of unemployment, and an apparently insoluble European crisis. And all of these issues are coming to a head against the backdrop of a massive shift in power towards Asia, and in a period that has been marked by major technological revolutions.

We have had enough myths

Faced with the global challenges of climate change, and the lack of sufficient food and water resources, at a time when the two major political ideologies of liberalism (which is too unfair) and social democracy (which is too expensive) appear increasingly inadequate, the least you could expect would be for the candidates to show some humility and an awareness of the hard times we live in. But no, France was once again serenaded with the myth of its belle exception.

In 2007, we were offered hope: the campaigns focused on the future. Nicolas Sarkozy was advocating sweeping change to encourage production and to reward hard work. Ségolène Royal, who had also broken with the traditional articles of faith of her party, was proposing to build a “participatory democracy” — a forward-looking idea that had the merit of acknowledging the internet era. Not so the 2012 contest, which has been marked by unabashed intellectual regression with candidates proposing solutions inspired by a pre-liberal world rather than a post-liberal one.

German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk has remarked that France is the only country where political movements never engage in an examination of conscience. The left papers over all of its faults with references to the Revolution which it considers to be the only Truth.

The right, which used to congratulate itself for engineering the Restoration, subsequently seized on De Gaulle as a means to blot out 1940 and France’s collaboration. The past is mythologised and when we examine it for help in facing the ordeals of our own era, it is glorious but of no practical utility. All it can offer, as Mélenchon would say is a chance “to dream”.

But that is precisely the problem, we have had enough myths! Jean-Luc Mélenchon along with Nicolas Dupont-Aignan and Marine Le Pen are vaunting the merits of protectionism, an exit from the euro, and inflation. But none of these politicians can cite a country where these ideas have succeeded. Do their supporters not have eyes to see the extreme discomfort of Hugo Chavez in oil-rich Venezuela, and compare it with the success of reforms adopted by Lula da Silva in Brazil? Or the deadlock and inflation that have resulted from the populist strategy of default in Argentina?

A utopian coma

Clear-headed thought is sorely needed across the entire spectrum of French politics, where clientelism and ideology continue to prevail in the absence of any examination of history, or any willingness to learn from progress in social sciences and pragmatic analysis.

In their work on projects to counter poverty and educational exclusion, and schemes to promote integration and even industrial production, French researchers, like their colleagues abroad, make use of methods inspired by pharmaceuticals testing: a reform is implemented for one group in the population, and the results are scientifically evaluated and compared with data from a control group. On this basis, factual conclusions can then be drawn as to whether a reform is useful or utterly pointless.

This research requires a spirit of humility with regard to our understanding of the facts, which is sadly lacking in French politics. With Hollande’s “contract for a generation” and Nicolas Sarkozy’s “project for schools”, we are being asked to choose between improvised measures, which have not been tested anywhere. And this is not the only problem in a country, where hardly any attention is paid to think tanks, and political parties are mainly focused on internal struggles.

In short this campaign, has done nothing to explain the complexity of the modern world. We are no better informed about the inevitable need for austerity, the imperative to produce, the necessary reconstruction of the European project, and modest solutions to social issues. Nor do we have any greater sense of the opportunities the future may hold. On the contrary, the French population has been lulled into a utopian coma with a heady potion of magical thinking and myths. The wake-up call is coming on 7 May.

Translated from the French by Mark McGovern

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