As elections approach, France contemplates a bonfire

As elections approach, France contemplates a bonfire

It’s too early to hear the sound of the tumbrils rolling, but don’t bet that a modern bonfire of the pretensions of the very rich won’t happen, and maybe soon. 

The French allusion occurs because the presidential election campaign opened officially there earlier this week, and the first round of the two-stage voting process will take place on Sunday Apr. 22. From the results of that first pass for the French people, we should see something of central interest and concern to our times, with an import far beyond France. We’ll see how mad people are, and how deeply (or not) they feel they shouldn’t take it any more.

The smart money remains on one of the two front-runners in the race: President Nicolas Sarkozy, the candidate of the right, who’s campaigning as if his life depended on it; and François Hollande, of the Socialist Party, an altogether more laid-back man whose travel-to-work transport was, until recently, a scooter (the kind with a motor – modesty has its limits). They have both been hovering below 30 percent in the polls, while 10 percent is taken by François Bayrou, a veteran campaigner and a liberal.

It’s the other 30 percent of the electorate where the fascination of moderates lies – and also maybe the fear. Marine Le Pen of the anti-immigrant Front National, has faded from a high of near 20 percent to around 15 percent – perhaps because Sarkozy has stolen many of her garments, promising in some stump speeches something akin to a fortress France, keeping out cheap goods and immigrants alike.

Yet in a poll midweek for Le Monde, just over a quarter of 18-to-24-year-olds said they would vote for her. Commenting on the poll, Ms. Le Pen said the surge in youthful support was because of her criticism of the current economic model, which had been “massively rejected by the youth, who are shocked by the cynicism of the political elite.”

Now in an increasingly impressive third place, with over 15 percent of the votes and rising, is Jean-Luc Mélenchon, a former Socialist minister who left office and the party in disgust at its refusal to be radical and who has gathered together what remained of the Communist Party, together with other leftists, and created the Front de Gauche (the Left Front). 

Young men and women, in France as elsewhere in Europe, bear the brunt of the jobs crisis, with nearly a quarter unemployed. 

Over the past several decades the Western world has not got poorer, and large parts of it have got considerably richer. It’s different now. It isn’t just resistance to mass immigration, and above all to Muslim immigration. A malaise has spread much more widely through the working and middle classes, as once secure jobs vanish and once thriving small businesses collapse.

A new trend has emerged: economic suicide. In Greece especially, but in other Mediterranean countries as well, some men (especially) and women appear to have reached the limits of their ability to tolerate a life with no work, or no business, and with an apparently endless vista of dependence on a state that can hardly afford dependents. 

Unequal societies get by because most members of them get by, and can mostly say that they live better than their parents and certainly their grandparents did. No more. When that stops happening, people look at the yachts and the Ferraris and the golden, nine-digit goodbye packages and cease to say: One day for me? They begin, instead, to mutter: Never for me, and what have they done to deserve it anyway.

They mutter the more, because the promise is shrinking. Democratic, centrist politicians of the right and the left are struggling to show their egalitarian bona fides. They can see that there’s a gathering tide that begins to resent wealth and corruption more bitterly, with less inclination than in the past to shrug and say: Oh well, nothing to be done.

It’s a delicate, even perilous, moment. It may pass as the hot summers of the late sixties passed, leaving behind aging leftists who either rail impotently against opportunity lost, or more often have adapted and carried on with their lives. Or it may be deeper, with less of that well-founded hope for better times that kept the bulk of working people off the streets in the sixties and seventies, in the reasonable belief that the system would serve them better than the would-be revolutionaries ever would.

Come Apr. 22, when France – which still sees itself as the world’s weather vane, first through the door of the future – gives its first vote, we’ll get some indication of how bitter people feel.

*John Lloyd co-founded the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford, where he is Director of Journalism. This abridged article was taken from Reuters