Saturday, August 9, 2008

Trouble on the Left and the Right

I won't repeat my strictures on anecdotal evidence, but anecdotal evidence suggests that the Socialist Party is in dire trouble. I talked to a variety of Socialists, from militants de base to an erstwhile Jospin staffer. None saw much hope for the party, and none mustered much enthusiasm for changing it. Faut-il le saborder, alors? The closer to the grass roots my conversations went, the greater the interest in something new. Might that be Besancenot's New Anticapitalist Party, I asked? Surprisingly often, the answer was yes, though not a very robust yes. I would characterize it as more a visceral expression of disgust than approval of Besancenot's course. Often it was a yes compounded of fundamental contradictions, since the person expressing it was likely to have concluded only a moment before that the PS was hopeless because its internal divisions made it unlikely that it could defeat even an unpopular Sarkozy. When I asked if the same person thought that a new party born on the extreme left and led by Olivier Besancenot would have any chance of defeating Sarkozy, the answer was invariably, "Of course not." The logic seemed to be rather: If we cannot defeat Sarkozy, we should at least enjoy the compensation of denouncing him and all he stands for without compunction or compromise. This did not seem to me a very promising sign of reform on the Left anytime soon. But my sample was extremely limited.

As for Sarkozy, it was interesting to discover that there was no consensus among these various left-wingers about why exactly his popularity had plummeted. I had expected the tax package to be cited most often as the fundamental mistake, but actually it came up relatively rarely except in conversations with the more economically literate. Among the rank-and-file it was more common to hear about faults of taste and style.

Curiously, I heard from one connoisseur of politics a similar story about right-wing voters in the small southern town from which he sprang (he is now a well-connected Parisian). There, he says, the "solid middle class" of small businessmen and professionals voted enthusiastically for Sarkozy and supported him through the summer of 2007, but these people were profoundly disturbed by the divorce and quick remarriage, the verbal dérapages, and the gaudy lifestyle. There is in la France profonde a persistent yearning for a man of probity and discipline, whether mounted on a white horse or not, to "restore" a moral order honored more in the breach than in the observance. It is a yearning that cannot be satisfied, however, by a president whose behavior is perceived as adolescent. If the Socialists have alienated their base by bickering and dithering, Sarkozy would thus seem to have alienated (part of) his base by dalliance and buffoonery.