Tuesday, March 8, 2011


My readers tell me not to panic. The cantonals are coming, we'll see how strong the FN really is. The PS shouldn't change its timetable. Such a move would just signal disarray. A 14-month campaign is too long. People won't pay attention. All these are reasonable points, but consider a few points in rebuttal.

First, the presidential contest is not like other elections. It is the choice of an individual, not a party. That individual has to establish a firm identity in the minds of voters. Television and other modern media have changed the way in which the link between voter and leader is established. The final push of the campaign is only a small part of the courtship. A would-be president needs to become part of the landscape, to appear frequently, to comment on the fleeting issues of the moment.

One politician who understands this is Copé: look at how ubiquitous he has made himself, already running for 2017. One sees him more often than Fillon. He is establishing his "brand." It won't appeal to all (it certainly doesn't appeal to me), but it will serve him when he does run. In my view, no PS candidate has such presence, except Royal, and her "brand" is now negatively noted, I believe, in a majority of minds. That is why I think the PS needs to choose a candidate soon and start its campaign early.

Of course it needs to do more than that: it has to find a candidate who has a knack for insinuating him- or herself into the national conversation on a daily basis, and it has to equip that candidate with the right mix of issues and messages to establish a distinctive position. This is an art. One can be competent in economic management, as DSK is, and yet incompetent in communicating with the public, even on the issues in which one is well-versed. I think DSK needs practice on this score. Hollande is, in this respect at least, more skilled. Aubry, in my opinion, is not.

Second, I don't think it's a signal of panic to respond to a restive electorate. I think one of the things that frustrates the less politically sophisticated citizenry is the sense that elites are isolated from their everyday concerns. There are, to my mind, two substantial voting blocs that will decide this election. One lies in the center of the political spectrum. It includes greens, third-way socialists, social liberals, "good government" advocates of accountability, fiscal transparency, etc. (think of those who gravitate toward Bayrou and Arthuis, MoDem and Center Alliance), etc. These people aren't voting for Le Pen, they're thoroughly disgusted with Sarkozy, and they're looking for a place to settle. They will vote for a candidate of their own in the first round unless they're presented with a compelling reason to voter utile.

The second floating bloc is drawn from les classes populaires, comme on dit. It consists of people who no longer know what makes them angriest. One day it may be the bosses, another day the Eurocrats, still another the connivance between fat cats and politicians of various stripes, or the serving of halal food at the local Quick, or prayer in the streets, or a candidate with a veil. One way to attract the votes of this group is to feed its anger, to reinforce its sense of victimization. There is no shortage of aspirants to this role, and their success varies over time, as the salience of the various sources of anger waxes and wanes.

But angry people may not simply want to have their anger fed. Even more deeply they may want to be calmed, to be taken seriously, to be told that their complaints have been heard and will be addressed in specific ways. This was what Mitterrand was able to do in 1981. The substantial support that de Gaulle had enjoyed among the popular classes had been eroded by changes in the global economy that had led to the demise of much heavy industry in France. Mitterrand knew how to address the disaffected without condescension. In 1995, Chirac's talk of social fracture courted the disaffected of Mitterrandism. Sarkozy was able to retain this group in 2007 by emphasizing themes of security and labor and affecting a populist style. But his support here is fraying by the day. The challenge for the opposition is to appeal to this bloc without alienating the centrists.


David A. Bell said...

I agree entirely with this, Art. Sauve qui peut! Obviously, Marine Le Pen has a very small chance indeed of becoming President. And I would say, not a very large chance of coming in first in the first round. But if she makes it into the second round, it may well have a far more "legitimating" effect for the FN than papa's performance in 2002. It will push the political field as a whole in very much the wrong direction, and confirm the fragmentation, disorientation and disenchantment of everyone on the left. I agree entirely that the best chance to avoid this is for the PS to field a single candidate, early, with a vigorous program that distinguishes him or her clearly from Sarko and keeps all my friends from throwing up their hands in disgust and voting for a Green or a Trotskyite. But for the moment, the chances of this happening seem depressingly slim. David Bell

Massilian said...

Plus le temps passe, the more I think that the later DSK moves in, the better his chances. Right now, right and left, the whole scene is a stincking quagmire.

bernard said...

DSK is visibly stuck at the IMF and cannot move prior to the G20, or he will be attacked relentlessly by the right for abandoning his duties (they'll do that anyway of course, but later is better for DSK). Past events have shown that the right will stop at nothing to discredit him. Does anyone expect a twice condemned political operative to stop and hesitate at character assassination? And they will be joined gleefully by the idiots of the ultra-left, who know nothing of the pro-poor tilt in IMF programs since DSK went there, and would prefer Le Pen as it would surely prove that they were right, in their armchairs. So, as much as I respect DSK and his capacity for policy-making, I am very uneasy at whether he will have the capacity to appeal to the electorate. Certainly, if he does run, he had better surround himself wth people capable of talking to the electorate. I don't much know the rest of policy, but certainly on the economist side, I see no one right now in France capable of conversing with the public, ie capable of framing an economic issue in terms that the public can understand, Krugman-style so-to-speak. Certainly, there are good economists in France whithin left-circles, but none appears capable of being heard by the public. Perhaps DSK should draft Krugman as an adviser.

I disagree that a successful candidate needs to adress the angry. I think he/she needs to adress the scared, to wrap a blanket around them.

None are probably more scared than the old, who even saw this year a dramatically wrong retirement reform. The old will be the key electorate in this election in my view. They are the increasingly large population group, they are by far the segment of the population which votes most, and the war in Algeria has not passed for them and has remained their secret throughout their adult lives. Events, especially when repressed, have a way of resonating down history. The old are the fuel that Le Pen ignites.

Arthur Goldhammer said...

Good points, Bernard.

Mr Punch said...

Many good points here, including Bernard's - agree on scared/angry, especially from PS perspective. My sense, from a distance, is that DSK's best chance is to make himself as visible as possible without becoming a candidate, for as long as he can. This strategy often fails, but precisely because he's not a skilled electoral politician, he's likely to lose luster if he wages a long campaign. If he is to win, it must be as the pair of safe hands from outside the intraparty squabbles.

bouillaud said...

Thanks for your reaction. In many ways, you are right.

But, on your first point, I don't think that any candidate-to-be of the PS is able to make anyone dream or fancy about his/her character.No spin is possible on these desperate cases. DSK, Aubry, Royal, Hollande, are all very old personages of the political play. It is not one month, semester, or even year, which will change that.

On the second point, I do not even fancy that the PS will have any serious discourses aiming to give reassurance to the many losers of globalisation. Whatever I have heard from the PS since 2007 is quite far away from what would be necessary to woo again these angry people. They are speaking of "juste échange" for example, but who would believe them among the losers? After 9 years in opposition (2002-2011), there is not a hint of solution.

Anonymous said...

I was watching "c dans l'air" and a question seriousy asked by the audience is "does MLP really belong to the radical right?"
Here's one problem: people don't think she's as dangerous for democracy as Le Pen was.


Anonymous said...


FrédéricLN said...

May I translate that post into French on my blog?

I agree with almost all of it, except the last sentence. If the left parties did indeed answer the expectations of the people, a responsive and accountable way, instead of "se regarder le nombril", we at the center would fully agree with them. We would not be alienated at all.

(Many of us have already tried alliance of common work with non-Communist Left parties, as the Centre démocrate already did in 1973, the year when young Bayrou took his card there!)

We have just given up with that kind of hope. The "coup de Jarnac" of Ségolène Royal against "Le Rassemblement" (Hue, Cohn-Bendit, Peillon, Sarnez) has given evidence of the Left's preference: splendid isolation, and bet that they may win alone, whatever crippled ideology and unbelievable perspectives they might put forward.

Arthur Goldhammer said...

FrédéricLN, Yes, of course you may translate the post. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

Thank *you*!

Here his my humble translation http://demsf.free.fr/index.php?post/2011/03/09/Paniquer

The translator's difficult job starts at the title: panique, or paniquer? I used the first sentence of the text to choose "paniquer", but… said otherwise, all your improvement (or additions!) to the translation would be very welcome!

FrédéricLN said...

oops - Anonymous' name is FrédéricLN.

DavidinParis said...

The only scary thing is that this is taking place in France. As such, the ability to swing (very) far to either the left of the right is indeed a reason to panic...a bit.