Monday, March 23, 1998

The French Malaise: Why The National Front Still Does Well In Elections

The French Malaise: Why The National Front Still Does Well In Elections

by Anne-Elisabeth Moutet
Special to The Wall Street Journal
March 23, 1998

Early in the movie "Primary Colors," there is a scene in which the Clintonesque character campaigns for the Democratic nomination in a run-down New Hampshire factory. A good half of his audience have been laid off and the rest know more downsizing is on its way . "I won't lie to you," the candidate says. "Your jobs are gone for good and you won't get them back." His platform is education, he tells them -- the economy is now global, borders have opened up worldwide, and their old Rust Belt "muscle jobs" have gone to the Third World -- "which is why you must develop another set of muscles, the ones between your ears."

Such a speech (and the applause that greets it; the screenwriters are at pains here to establish the public merits of their character) would be unthinkable when portraying a Left-wing French politician. Or a Right-wing French politician, for that matter. Telling unpalatable truths on the stump? Even once in office? You're more likely to hear assurances to the French that their comprehensive health coverage, fat unemployment benefits, and pay-as-you go pension system is not at risk, even though the simple servicing of its debt takes up one fifth of the nation's budget.

No one dares dispute the Received Canon -- the State can create jobs, working shorter hours can fight unemployment... Our so-called wise men point out to the 1995 six-week transport strike as the fate automatically befalling a French government that tries, for instance, to align State employee benefits on those of the rest of the workforce.

It would be interesting to find out if straight-talking -- which hasn't been attempted since Premier Raymond Barre two decades ago -- would indeed prove fatal to French politicians. For certainly equivocation doesn't seem to have served them. Abstention levels reached unprecedented heights -- close to 47% -- in last week's regional and local elections. Of those who bothered to cast a ballot, over a quarter voted in protest, for extremists or weird lists - 4% for a Hunting and Fishing party, 5% for the Trostkyite Lutte Ouvrière, and of course 15.5% for the racist and xenophobic Front National. The traditional parties, left and right, were neck to neck with about 35% of the vote each. The only clear message sent by French voters seems to be one of mistrust and disenchantment with their politicians.

There is an element of kabuki in the ritual dance performed by French political parties. Only with a very familiar script can the inconsistency of reconducting a Left-wing regime in a right-wing-voting country be durably overlooked. Add up the votes of the FN and of several smaller parties to those of the moderate right, and you reach a solid majority of some 58%. Even with the help of the Greens and the Trostkyites, the Left falls short of anything approaching a quorum.

For even though many of its economic indicators are back in the black -- growth is predicted at 3% this year; the trade balance has record surpluses; inflation is kept below 2%; the budget deficit will be kept below the EMU-required 3% -- France is in a deep funk.

Unemployment stands at 12.2%, with European record peaks for long-term and youth unemployment. (One out of four French people between the ages of 18 and 25 are out of a job.) One full third of the country's workforce is employed by the State (in the civil service, education or State-owned monopolies such as the post office or railway system), with guaranteed job security and perks; while the others struggle in a difficult labor market. Taxes and social levies have reached 50% of income without reducing the health, welfare and pension system's deficit, it is regularly saved from the brink by new "exceptional" taxes that are never rescinded.

Economists have calculated that an amazing 70% of France's FF 8 trillion GDP transit through the hands of the State, two-thirds of which are public spending, and the rest divided between welfare and health payments and State-owned and partially State-owned industries (France still owns 80% of France Telecom (telco), 40% of Renault (cars), all of Aérospatiale (planes and missiles), etc.

This mammoth conglomerate, bound closer than any Japanese keiretsu to the MITI, is ruled by an amazingly homogeneous elite of upper civil servants and former upper civil servants, 80% of whom graduated from only one of two schools, Ecole Nationale d'Administration (ENA) or Ecole Polytechnique ("X"). The same account for two-thirds of for the private or recently privatised sector bosses -- or for Cabinet ministers of both Left- and Right-wing governments. There are no premiums on original thinking in France.

No wonder that all the government has so far offered as solutions is still more regulations and taxes. The country's bosses are up in arms against the most recent measure, a bill limiting the workweek to 35 hours. Department of Labor inspectors (who traditionally have wide powers with which even the relevant Minister, in this instance Martine Aubry, cannot interfere), have decided the bill should be strictly applied to executives, and recently started clocking raids in various large companies, interrupting executives working late or during meetings with customers.

In one very recent Kafkaesque instance, the Human Resources director of Thomson Radars et Systèmes, the electronics company, was personally fined FF 100 million for contravening working hours regulations -- which the company is forbidden by law to pay for him. The rationale is that companies will be forced to hire more if they stick to the legal 35-hour workweek. It hasn't given rise to much hope among the very people for whom it was supposed to create jobs.

The French awareness of all this can be summed up in one word: lassitude. It's the same discouragement which variedly pushes some to vote for the Front National and others to leave the country. A poll taken last January by the newsweekly Valeurs Actuelles showed an amazing 64% of young French people ready to expatriate themselves to look for a job. (Until very recently, France was one of the lowest emigration countries in the world, with fewer than 2% expatriated citizens: the French used to hate learning foreign languages and changing their comfortable lifestyle.)

The new French brain drain goes well beyond the usual college graduate crop. British hotels and restaurants employ thousands of young French people. (The number of registered French nationals at the Consulat de France in London has trebled to 100,000; in San Francisco it has jumped to 40,000 from 17,000.)

Today, the Front National shines its headlights so brightly on the rabbits of the moderate political spectrum, frozen bleary-eyed on the road to political alliances, that no-one seems to have made the fairly simple calculation that it, too, is a victim of French disenchantment. Its 15.5% score last Sunday is equal to previous results in past years: simple mathematics prove that if FN voters hadn't abstained in equal proportions to the rest of the electorate, the FN ought to have scored much higher. That it didn't could mean it has reached its all-time high for good -- the French are no more ready to believe in its backwards solutions than they trust the old-style politicos. This could be a reason for hope, but only if the rest of the political class seizes the opportunity for real reform.

© The Wall Street Journal & Anne-Elisabeth Moutet, 1998.

Sunday, March 1, 1998

Le Zippergate

When Harry, the eponymous hero of Woody Allen's latest movie, quips back to his sister who's just accused him of believing only in "cynicism, sarcasm and orgasm" that in France, he could "run on that platform," audiences in packed Paris movie theaters howl in appreciative laughter.

"After all," one spectator joked coming out, with no hint of reproach in his voice, "that was indeed François Mitterrand's unofficial platform."

Deconstructing Harry is tipped for the César of the Best Foreign Film in a few days: we French adore Americans who understand us so well.

At for all the others, those who fuel the Monicagate furore and seem to want to get rid of Bill Clinton for a mere peccadillo, we shrug in Gallic incomprehension. Then sly enlightenment dawns on our faces: once more, in true Gaullist tradition, we'll be able to smugly sock it to the Yanks.

Besides, the French like their leaders to have a sex drive. Widen this to a sensual drive. We like them to eat, drink, and be merry. We prefer by far Talleyrand, with his corruption and womanising, to Robespierre, who lived blamelessly in a tiny walk-up apartment on rue Saint-Honoré, from which he would walk to the Revolutionary Assembly and sentence hundreds of people to the guillotine daily. One of favourite kings was Henry IV, the Religious Wars peacemaker whose second most favourite quote is "Madame, until age 40 I thought it was made of bone."

In a country that thought a good rap on the knuckles would have been amply sufficient punishment for Richard Nixon, "the most brilliant player in world policy at the time," Le Figaro's then foreign editor, Robert Lacontre, used to write the idea of impeaching a leader who presided over a fall of the unemployment rate to 4% (ours is at 12.2%) and the doubling of the Dow Jones index is absurd.

Our pols can be straight or gay (both the former spokesman of the Socialist party and the Mayor of Marseilles are gay): all that matters is that they're getting some. We want them potent, in every meaning of the term.

Even our Reds are no Puritans: the Communist union leader Henri Krasucki worried comrades and foes alike by staying single and living with his elderly mother until well in his fifties - then everyone heaved a sigh of relief on the day of his marriage. CP historical leader Georges Marchais lived openly with his mistress until the early Eighties - the kind of conduct that could have sent an East German or Soviet pol into disgrace. The only disgrace some can find in themselves to ascribe Clinton is the distressing lack of sophistication of his pants-dropping wooing style. "But does he get results like that?" one bemused, faintly supercilious senior Elysée aide asked me as I explained the alleged circumstances of the Paula Jones incident.

Similarly, the only thing that shocked the French about the Bank of England sex scandal (when deputy governor Rupert Pennant-Rea's career came to an abrupt end after it transpired he was having a torrid affair at his office) were the squalid logistical details. No Frenchwoman would do it on Governor Trichet's Banque de France office carpet (it helps that the Republic provides Trichet with a 9000 sq. ft flat at the Palais Royal, the most beautiful location in Paris.)

Not only do we want our men to have cojones we want our women to have them too. Monicagate managed to raise yet higher, if it was possible, Hillary Clinton's popularity in France. We love Hillary. Hillary could be French: she's razor-sharp, sophisticated, elegant, ruthless if need be, and a lioness to defend her man.

Even for those who understand that the issue is less sex than lying and perjury, the reaction doesn't vary. "But whyever ask him in the first place?" inquires Conservative député André Santini. "Any man will lie if asked whether he has a mistress. It's kinder to everyone involved. Nobody needs lose face over it."

"Wanting to know everything about a man is the mark of the totalitarian mind," the leader writer of the provincial newspaper "Sud Ouest" wrote, echoing André Malraux's famous quote: "What is a man but a miserable little heap of secrets?"

And the right to keep one's own secrets is deeply valued by the French, to the extent that our country, where habeas corpus is unknown and the police enjoy rights unknown in England or America, boasts one of the most extensive laws against cross-referencing electronic databases. We are old Catholics and do not believe in Perfect Man an idealistic, Reformation notion. One of our few favoured Bible quotes is "who aspires to be an angel becomes a beast."

Yvette Roudy, a Socialist député and former (quite militant) Minister for Women's Rights, says those who would accuse Bill Clinton of sexual harassment, be it over Paula Jones or Monica Lewinsky, are doing women a "true disservice. Sexual harassment is a real evil that must be stamped out. It can include loss of job and health, deep depression induced over months of pressure and bad treatments on the workplace. Demeaning the accusation by using it over a case in which Clinton took no for an answer at once; or another on which both parties were major and apparently willing, makes women look ridiculous and hysterical."

Madame Roudy, let's face it, in one of the very few to look seriously at the possible consequences of "Braguettegate" (Zippergate), as it is called here.

Most politicians, commentators, and private citizens are just enjoying the giggle with a vengeance. Early on, the widely popular satirical puppet show Les Guignols de l'Info showed, on prime time, a police line-up of line-drawn penises, one largely tattooed with a saxophone, in which Mss. Lewinsky & Jones had to pick the guilty party. Left- and Right-wing députés who a week before had come to fisticuffs on the floor of the House over the Dreyfus affair, paraded for TV cameras in happy harmony. Newspapers all ran headlines punning on various equivalents of the English verb "blow."

Of late, though, a more thoughtful note has crept into the comments: "The real pity would be if Clinton's little bit of fun affected his foreign policy performance," says Michel Gurfinkiel, the editor of the newsweekly Valeurs Actuelles.

On Friday, after president Chirac (who shares with Clinton a love for food and various romantic links, the latest to the actress Claudia Cardinale) decided to support the US over the Iraqi threat, the Guignols de l'Info puppet anchor blared "Clinton conclusively proves the 'butterfly effect' in chaos theory: Unzipping a fly in Washington causes steel rain in Baghdad."

© Copyright Pittsburgh Post-Gazette & Anne-Elisabeth Moutet 1998