Tuesday, March 22, 2011

France's Brave New Political World

The political scene in France this morning is a shambles. Polls that suggested the emergence of the National Front as a major player have been strongly confirmed by Sunday's local elections, and the ambivalence of Sarko's UMP is there for everyone to see: wanting the FN's voters, the UMP managed to promote the its ideas to the point where significant numbers of voters are leaving the UMP for the FN, in effect asking, Why not go for the real thing? This becomes easier to consider as Marine Le Pen proves so much more canny than her father in banishing the more offensive parts of his message while sending a clear signal that hers is still a France for 'the French' (defined along the narrowest lines of race, religion, origin) and her movement a vindication of the white, Christian, and chauvinist identities of another age.

In response the UMP and the French Right in general still can't decide where the lines of respectability ('republican' is the term of choice) are to be drawn. This leaves considerable confusion as to whether the Right intends to team up with the Socialists against the FN, or leave open by default (i.e., abstention in the second round) an ambiguous space in which an unstated alliance with the FN can continue to form.

This dilemma is oddly mirrored on the Left by the success of Jean-Luc Mélenchon's Front de Gauche. Though given little attention in the MSM, consumed as it is with the marquee drama of Le Pen and her vague bleu Marine, JLM's success on Sunday is no less impressive. The FdG, barely 2 years old, stands at something more than 10%, with candidates in play for more than 200 local seats; it is, as its leaders proclaim, the clear second force on the Left, the fourth largest force nationally--and though they aren't saying so right now, a bloc without which the Left may never claim the national presidency it so desperately covets.

In yesterday's press conference the FdG's leadership strongly urged an alliance with other Left forces--the Socialists, but also Europe Ecology/the Greens--in order to exclude the FN as widely as possible from winning seats in next Sunday's second round. In the longer run, though, will the FdG be able to support a PS whose candidate is none other than the director of the IMF, one of the most visible leaders of the global capitalist system the FdG so deeply deplores? Conversely, can the PS hope to capitalize on its situation--Sarko's unpopularity, the enduring economic crisis, the threat of the FN--without running a centrist like M. Strauss-Kahn? While the Right's dilemma is all over the front pages today, the quiet triangulation between Left, Far Left, and Center (and also between socialists, communists, and ecologists) is at least as thorny.

Trying to untangle this knot I find myself turning to an unlikely source, Valérie Pécresse, a hack politician on the Right and a junior minister. With reference to the UMP/PS/FN dilemma, Mme. Pécresse makes a distinction between "differences of ideas" (that divide UMP and PS, républicains all) and "differences of values" that make an unbridgeable gulf between the UMP and the FN. Wherever this leaves the Right, its logic applies similarly to the Left. For some JLM and the FdG are symmetrical with the FN--suspiciously descended from totalitarian Communism, republican by convenience but with values fundamentally incompatible with the PS. Decades of PCF participation in the 'republican' rituals of governance may have tempered this criticism, but they haven't put it to rest.

What I hear JLM and the FdG saying today, though, and in the campaign to come, is that they represent a challenge to Center-left Socialists at the level of ideas but not of 'values.' Far from contesting the basic values of republicanism, they intend to revitalize the PS and the Republic by addressing, within its institutional framework, the dissatisfactions and the despair that are driving voters outside that republican framework and into the waiting arms of Mme. Le Pen. While it is erroneous (as polling data shows) to claim that the FN's new strength is coming from apostate voters on the Left, it is probably true that those voters in play are demographically close to the PCF's traditional base. Can JLM reach them and bring them into an enlarged alliance within a Left that really challenges current assumptions (and cannot be dismissed with Le Pen's sardonic term 'UMPS')? Are his 'values' not compatible with those of the PS to which he belonged for nearly all of his long career? The Left has a year to negotiate these difficult waters, but after Sunday it will no longer be useful or possible to ignore the existence of a well-formed bloc to the left of the PS's center of gravity.


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