IA-Forum discusses the upcoming French elections with Dr. Natalie Doyle, Deputy Director, Monash European and EU Centre, Monash University, Melbourne Australia.
International Affairs Forum: What do you think are the major differences between the two leading candidates Nicolas Sarkozy and Segolene Royal?
Dr. Natalie Doyle: In their campaigns, the two candidates seem to have been addressing the same concern of the French electorate regarding its future, a future they feel is somewhat threatened by lack of employment security and also the loss of social cohesion. This loss was demonstrated in the so-called riots last year, as well as by opposition by youth to the introduction of a new work contract. So both candidates have been focusing on this feeling of insecurity. Both in different ways have been reaffirming the values of French republicanism, but stressing different aspects of this Republican legacy.
Sarkozy is putting the main emphasis on merit and work. In other words, he wants to reassure the French electorate that French republicanism can still offer the opportunities that it has in the past but opportunities, he says, will only be given to those who are willing to work hard and better their lives and not to those who want to be passive and remain dependent on social security.
On the other hand, Royal stresses different values of republicanism more in line with her Socialist affiliation. She’s stressing the values of equality and fairness. She focuses on the need to prevent the weakest members of the French electorate from being excluded from social life, which she obviously connects up to this question of social cohesion, violence, and so on.
IA-Forum: And in terms of their actual programs?
Dr. Doyle: There are 2 different approaches: the stress on work and merit, and the stress on equality and fairness. These are the two main themes. The two candidates stress employment, the need to improve employment in France and the relationship between work and growth. But Sarkozy looks quite exclusively to what he sees as a superior American model. He’s always talking about the inflexibility of the French labor market and he has in particular been criticizing the reduction of working hours which was introduced by the Socialist Party. He seems to be insisting on the fact that there are a lot of French people that want to work more, but that the French social system does not allow them sufficient rewards. So he wants basically to give employers and employees much more flexibility.
In contrast, Royal has a classic Social Democratic approach, which sometimes nods towards a Swedish model but in French style is still very protective of the public service. Her program is designed to offer workers more security of employment and to reduce the number of people that are denied full term regular employment. She’s appealing to young people because she thinks that there are a lot of obstacles to the employment of young people: young people seem to be caught in endless rounds of fixed term contracts, part time work, and so on. She plans to improve the situation by giving business state subsidies for the creation of jobs with a commitment to some length of employment and by creating a form of professional social security system to help those who lose their jobs return to the labor market, through additional training for example.
IA-Forum: How different do you think a Royal presidency would be from a Sarkozy one, in terms of policy and changes for France?
Dr. Doyle: Well, if we look at the kind of policies they are likely to introduce, I think it’s clear that Sarkozy has an authoritarian streak. He demonstrated it in his response to the riots in the Parisian suburbs. He has been trying to send a message that he has changed, that it was just the situation, the stress. But as Minister of the Interior, he has introduced very authoritarian measures in terms of law and order. He’s very much a law and order person. He stresses the role of strong police repression of violence; he has also already clamped down on illegal immigrants, and for example ordered their forced repatriation.
Royal would be a much softer leader. She would be much more conciliatory with regard to the question of illegal immigration. She’s also been stressing the failures of Sarkozy’s policies controlling the violent protests in the suburbs and social protests in general. One particular issue is that Sarkozy removed funding from local police stations towards a centralized police force, and she wants to reintroduce that and embed police in the communities in the hopes of controlling the tensions that are there in certain suburbs.
The other big difference would be regarding foreign policy. Sarkozy has stated very clearly that he thinks France has moved too far away from the US and needs to rebuild the alliance. So he’s very much an Atlanticist. He has made statements reaffirming the commitment of France to Europe but everybody knows that he’s never been a very committed Europeanist.
Royal, on the other hand, has stressed the need to relaunch the debate about the constitutional treaty which reached a stalemate when it was rejected first by the French and then by the Dutch. So there’s no doubt that with respect to Europe, Royal would be a much more enthusiastic partner.
IA-Forum: Recently it has become clear that the Royal campaign has been struggling. Do you have any insight as to why this might be the case?
Dr. Doyle: I think it’s clear that Royal has been struggling a little bit, though in the polls she is coming back up. There are quite a number of reasons. First, she had a slow start to her campaign. She started high in public opinion polls, when she won the primary for leadership of the Socialist party but then she embarked on a very ambitious program of consultation - travelling through France, holding meetings, talking to ordinary citizens, and not just the usual ones you’d expect from a member of the Socialist party. It took quite a while for her to actually present her program. But she did about 10 days ago. She presented a very clear and detailed program of 100 policy measures, and it was presented as a response to everything she had learned in the process of consultation.
But I think there is something more fundamental in her failure to garner more support. Her position, I think, lacks consistency. There were tensions from the start. When she started positioning herself as a presidential candidate a long time before the party itself entered the process of selection, she portrayed herself to the public as a breath of fresh air- because she’s a woman, but also because she distanced herself from the old male hierarchy of the Socialist Party. In that respect there is a little bit of dishonesty on her part because she also has a political past. She was quite close to Mitterrand, she was part of socialist governments under his presidency, and more recently was part of the Jospin government, which was rebuffed by the French electorate.
Clearly, there were also the very pragmatic imperatives. She needed to have the support of the party machinery. When the Socialist Party nominated her as a candidate, they were to a certain extent pressured by public opinion - they had to respond to the high polling. So they went along and supported her, but there was a certain tension. There was also of course the issue that she lives with the head of the Socialist Party, François Hollande, with whom she is raising a family. So she had to negotiate appearing as her own person while at the same time being part of the party machinery.
IA-Forum: You mentioned the issue of Royal being female, which brings to mind Hillary Clinton’s campaign in the United States. Do you think Royal being a woman is in any way going to affect her candidacy?
Dr. Doyle: Well I think it’s been a definite asset for what she tried to do, which was as I said to appear as a modernizer. For example, she made reference to Tony Blair and his reform of the British Labour Party. She certainly associated it with the fact that she’s a woman, a still reasonably young woman with family responsibilities, and the fact that she wanted to introduce a new era for the Socialist party. That was very much what underpinned her success in the pre-campaign.
I think though that this is starting to lose its effect. There have been comments from women that suggest that she was pushing that woman line a bit too much. One thing, for example, has come to annoy people- men, women, everybody- a couple of times when she was asked in interviews a question which might be considered tough, she responded by saying ‘you wouldn’t ask me that question if I were a man,’ and in a sense avoided answering the question. So, people thought she was rather dishonestly hiding behind an alleged sexism and not really demonstrating that she can be as good as a man. And that became associated with the soft approach, the stress on social cohesion, and part of the electorate now seems to think that she doesn’t come up with enough answers to the real tough questions, for example the place of France in globalization.
IA-Forum: What about Francois Bayrou. His campaign has been gaining momentum. Do you see him as a genuine contender?
Dr. Doyle: This is the issue of the moment. I think it’s still not yet clear. But he is becoming stronger and stronger. What is clear is that whether he does get to the stage where he is a genuine contender or not, he will be a part of the political landscape and he will be an important figure in that landscape.
He in fact addresses an issue that has been there in France for quite a while, since the mid-90s, but which really erupted with two events: the last presidential election and the second round having Jean-Marie Le Pen as a contender, and the second event being the rejection of the draft constitution for the European Union. Now, what did those two dramatic events mean? They indicated that the traditional structure of French party politics and the ideological divide between Left and Right is no longer perceived by the electorate as matching the problems they see France as facing. So there are a lot of comments that Sarkozy and Royal are not that different. That can translate into votes for the extremes, right or left. It obviously fed into Le Pen’s success in the last presidential election.
But there is another reaction to the perception that the Left and the Right are not tackling the real problems, and that is to try and transcend the Left/Right divide. There’s been a lot of discussion about the German model, for example, and the Italian model. The last German election was also very difficult from the point of view of a traditional division of political leadership between the Christian Democrats and the Social Democratic Party, so government was formed on the basis of a national alliance.
So both the German and Italian models have been discussed and have inspired discussions about the possibility of Bayrou being a kind of leader who gathers people to negotiate, democratically, a new direction for France. So he is positioning himself quite well as someone who can and wants to transcend the ideological divide between Left and Right. The electorate is looking for something else and Bayrou is positioning himself as someone who can in fact overcome the ideological posturing which traditionally accompanies French party politics. In this respect, he is quite obviously looking more toward the Socialist Party.
He is starting to appeal to a loose coalition in French public opinion which has been referred to as ‘anybody but Sarkozy’ which means that they are not sure that they want Royal but they definitely do not want Sarkozy. At the moment in the polls, people are really very evenly divided between Royal and Sarkozy, both about 28%. But there has been feeling that in order to stop Sarkozy it may be in fact more effective to vote for Bayrou.
IA-Forum: As the campaigns are drawing to a close, do you think there’s any one issue that’s going to swing the election one way or the other?
Dr. Doyle: No, I can’t see one single issue. But it may yet surface. I think that one thing that doesn’t seem to have come up much is the issue of the generational divide. The fact that, like all Western countries, France has an aging population. It also has, like all European countries, a system of social security and retirement benefits tied to employment and which has been fairly generous for the generation which is now retired or about to. But more and more, young people are not getting the secure employment that is the key to all those social benefits.
That has been associated with another issue that has come up in the press and that’s the issue of the ‘brain drain.’ That is the decline of France’s capacity to innovate- scientifically, technologically and so on in a globally competitive way. There have been discussions that France is losing its brightest young people to London for example. There is clearly a strong divide in the youth population- there are those that live on social benefits and can’t seem to get any form of work, which is in part related to the failures of the education system which is really in need of reform. On the other you have the youth educated in the elite educational institutions that is dynamic and mobile and which other countries like the United Kingdom try to attract. None of the candidates have really tackled the problem of the education system, nor more widely that of business innovation. The fact that this issue has not come up, I think, frustrates the electorate. It might yet come up- the need for France to modernize itself to be able to maintain its standing in the context of globalization.
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