A Further Perspective

De Gaulle’s Mantle

In the France's first-ever primary campaign, the Socialists have chosen their candidate.

By 10.17.11

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It did not come as a surprise that Mr. François Hollande yesterday won the nomination as the Socialist candidate in the election scheduled for next May for the French presidency. With some 56 percent of the primary votes against his rival Martine Aubry, the former party first secretary stated in solemn tones yesterday evening at the Socialists' rue de Solferino headquarters -- a handsome old hôtel particulier in the 7th arrondissement -- that the hour is grave, the task is heavy. He announced that the task ahead is to beat the incumbent, Nicolas Sarkozy of the People's Party (Union pour une Majorité Populaire, in French), and restore the French dream.

Although this requires further research, it appears this is the first time a presidential candidate in the famous old nation that is separated from England by the Channel evoked "the French dream," and it undoubtedly will be much commented in the weeks and months ahead. Who in the past has ever spoken of the French dream? Or is it that, having introduced a five-year presidential term in 2007 to replace the seven-year term Charles de Gaulle preferred when he founded the Fifth Republic (in earlier regimes the presidential term was seven years, but the office was largely ceremonial), the French are evolving in an American direction (despite all the mean things they say about us), with party primaries to boot?  In that case, perhaps there must be a French dream to keep up with the American dream.

There is to be sure a certain rhetorical tradition in France that uses the make-dreams-real trope. This is fairly common in democratic societies or even non-democratic societies whose regimes wish to base their legitimacy on the popular will. You have to keep things in perspective, however.

If you can dream -- but not make dreams your master…

Pending his clarification of what he means to do to restore the French dream, Mr. Hollande is dreaming out loud, saying that his priorities are "young people" and "education." With the French public debt approaching 90 percent of GNP, an unfinished war in Libya, nearly complete loss of control over their own borders, entire neighborhoods in major metropolitan areas occupied by aliens, it would seem the first order of business for his campaign staff is to straighten out what comes first when you are president of France.

It is none of our business, what with France being our staunch ally in the war against terror, but given the uncertainty regarding the eurozone and everyone and his cousin offering plans to change the European Union financial rules, the markets here as well as in Europe and Asia will be listening keenly for hints of just what the next French government, whether it is Sarkozy II or another, plans to do to the banks, or for the banks, or both. However, Mr. Hollande of all the possible Socialists was probably the one closest to Mr. Sarkozy -- though neither man will ever say so -- regarding the importance of firming up the euro and not letting Greece or any other failing economy go into bankruptcy. Of interest will be how the French react to German proposals, when these are clarified, for a stronger "Euro-finance" ministry with power over individuals member states in matters of economic policy.

Still, it was a happy day for the elephants, as the Socialist Party bigs are known. Despite a gloves off primary season, they all came together on Sunday evening speaking of unity against the common adversary, the incumbent. In polite news coverage, Mr. Sarkozy is usually called mercurial or hyper-active to indicate that he sometimes seems addicted to both multi-tasking and micromanagement -- to use fashionable American terms -- but in France he is referred to in terms unprintable in a family magazine like TAS.

Mr. Sarkozy's main problem is that he is not much better liked on the right than on the left. This is due to the perception of him as a vulgar person, the kind of person who, in New York, spends his summer weekends at Jones Beach wearing gold chains. It is also due to the fact that his fairly radical reform program has not succeeded in reforming much. His campaign will emphasize that you cannot reform education, an expensive social welfare system, rigid labor laws, immigration, the mission of the armed forces, the role of France in Africa, and other items that Mr. Sarkozy has tackled, in five years, especially given the difficulties caused by the global credit crisis.

Mr. Sarkozy could, but probably will not, point out that it has taken Mr. Andy Murray a long time to get from the No 4 ATP ranking to the No. 3 spot, which he did in a strong and steady final against David Ferrer yesterday -- even as the ballots were being counted in every precinct of France -- at the Shanghai Masters. Which is another thing, how to deal with China, which Mr. Sarkozy has had to ponder. As a short-attention span man, that must have been a tough one, but maybe he has Henry Kissinger's last book at bedside. On the other hand, maybe he can point to the two top 10 French players in the ATP rankings, best showing for the bleus in a generation. Whether he deserves any credit is another issue, but one which can be debated in due course with all the seriousness that will be accorded to the other indicators of France's destiny.

Change, of course, is the banner under which the Socialists intend to go into united formation against the center-right, or as one might say more accurately, liberal-right, government led by the handsome Nicolas Sarkozy. Handsome lies in the eyes of the beholder, and there are those who describe the president as a vain little man with a Napoleon complex who wears platform shoes and enormous watches (he put them in the drawer on his wife's advice, lately), but I see I am digressing. What matters is what the Socialists mean by "change."

Mr. Hollande's main opponent in the primary, Martine Aubry, who is mayor of the northern city of Lille and is anchored politically and temperamentally in the social-democratic/labor-union tradition of that region, represents, according to the President's supporters, the "hard" left. This is utter rot, but it is true that by comparison with the "mushy left," as they term Mr. Hollande's faction, the supporters of Mrs. Aubry are more likely to favor policies that sock it to the rich and that sort of thing. However, both the Aubristes and the Hollandais, who earned their elephants' hooves as activists or junior ministers during the Mitterrand years, have at least nominally made their peace with capitalism. Like Tony Blair, the successful leader of Britain's New Labour in the 1990s who removed the famous clause four from the party manifesto, they do not propose to do away with the private ownership of the means of production and exchange, as the renown line had it.

If I may digress -- again -- it is worth thinking about yonder old clauses and their subs. The famous old phrase, adopted if I am not mistaken during World War I, is etched in the memory of every man who ever walked and talked with the likes of Irving Brown, Joe Godson, Sam Fishman, Al Shanker, giants who have left in their wakes pygmies to run today's American labor movement. It says:

To secure for the workers by hand or by brain the full fruits of their industry and the most equitable distribution thereof that may be possible upon the basis of the common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange, and the best obtainable system of popular administration and control of each industry or service.

Admit it, this may be mad, but it is poetry. Now this is what Tony Blair replaced it with:

The Labour Party is a democratic socialist party. It believes that by the strength of our common endeavour we achieve more than we achieve alone, so as to create for each of us the means to realise our true potential and for all of us a community in which power, wealth and opportunity are in the hands of the many, not the few, where the rights we enjoy reflect the duties we owe, and where we live together, freely, in a spirit of solidarity, tolerance and respect.

With all due respect, and without giving an inch to the Blair fantasists like Robert Harris (whose novel The Ghost Writer inspired the eponymous Roman Polanski film), the glaring contrast in these formulations strikes me as worthy of consideration. With Mrs. Aubry, or with the other strong primary vote getter, Arnaud Montebourg, even with the weak primary vote getter, Ségolène Royal (Mr. Hollande's former girlfriend, though I doubt that is the politically correct term on the mushy-left, and the mother of his four children, all of whom he adores according to reports), you sense a nostalgia and even more than that for the old school. What is a political program, after all, that aims to "realize our true potential" and other Jerry Brown type smoke? When François Mitterrand led the Socialists to victory 30 years ago, it was with manifestoes that for all intent and purpose read like the old Clause Four. He did not believe a word of it -- at least not as much as he believed in getting re-elected, seven years later, even if it meant pretending that old time religion had never really existed. Mr. Hollande will have the comrades to his left reminding him of the dreams they all shared once, when Mitterrand sang lullabies.  He will be pressed to sing them too -- while hoping they sound innocuous enough to serve as an all-purpose "French dream."

However, it is a four way race now. President Sarkozy is in the saddle, and his line is going to be that you should not change horses in midstream (somehow this always struck me as a ridiculous image because how would you get to the horse to unseat the horseman if they are already midstream?). There is unfinished business and, compared to his challengers, he has experience, he knows the great and mighty of this world (not to mention all the richest people in France, to one of whom he once complained that the presidency was okay but as soon as he got out he was going to make some real money).

The ecologist-Greens, under the leadership of the irreproachable and profoundly decent magistrate, Eva Joly, will impress everyone with their irreproachable decency.

The National Front, led by Marine Le Pen, will hammer away at the venality, the corruption, the shabbiness, all the sins all democratic politicians have been blamed for by national-right parties in Europe since the 19th century, plus laxity in the face of the Muslim threat, the American threat, the threat of s*x madness in TV commercials, and they will garner a fifth of the votes, forcing a runoff.

The Socialist candidate, who is 57 -- the exact same age as Al Pacino when he played a Mafioso in Donnie Brasco, so go figure -- will insist that France is in need of "change" and that priority must be give to "youth" and "education." It will be quite a show, and it will be interesting to see how many public schools, in many of which Jewish teachers are physically assaulted as "Zionist vermin" by their own students, he visits during the campaign.

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About the Author

Roger Kaplan, a Washington-based writer, covers the Middle East and Africa (and tennis) for The American Spectator.