Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Panic?

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.

The Seven Percent Solution

Jean-François Copé has a simple solution to the Marine Le Pen problem: it vanishes, he says, if you add the seven percent of the vote attributed to Dominique de Villepin to Sarkozy's 20-22%. A score of 27-29 is enough to make everything right with the world: Sarko is back on top, the PS finishes third, and we're back to the good old days of 2002. Would it be churlish to point out that this was considered a catastrophe at the time?

Meanwhile, Bruno Le Maire, a former Villepin aide who now works for Sarkozy, is still trying to diminish the distance between the two, as he did when he was Villepin's chef de cabinet:


 La voix de Bruno Le Maire, ancien villepiniste désormais figure montante de la majorité, est intéressante : "Nous devons ménager Dominique [de Villepin], tenir compte de ses critiques, être capable de reprendre ses propositions",explique au Parisien celui qui est désormais en charge du projet du candidat pour 2012.
Alors que Dominique de Villepin vient d'être reçu à l'Elysée pour la seconde fois en quelques semaines, son ancien soutien précise qu'il refuse "catégoriquement demonter les Français les uns contre les autres".
I'm not sure how you take account of DDV's critiques and adopt his positions when the critique is as blunt as Villepin's was: Marine Le Pen's rise in the polls, he said, marked "l'échec d'une politique." He didn't say whose policy that was, but the target no doubt felt the blow while caressing his butcher's hook.

La Patrie en Danger

The tocsin has been sounded. Marine Le Pen's astonishing rise in the polls signals a rejection not just of Sarkozy but of the existing political class as a whole by a substantial and growing segment of the electorate. If the Socialist Party wants to win the next election, it should react now by advancing the date of its primary to June. This will oblige Strauss-Kahn to fish or cut bait. The time for dithering is over. The candidate of the Socialist Party needs to be chosen soon and needs to be in the trenches from the date of the primary, fighting to stop the ras-le-bol defections to the extreme right.

The challenge is particularly acute for DSK. The economic populism that the Front National has lately made its fonds de commerce is diametrically opposed to what Strauss-Kahn stands for. He needs to make a forceful case for France's continued engagement in the global economy, and he needs to look working-class voters in the eye as he makes that case. And if he doesn't have the stomach for this, then he should stand aside and let someone else try. And whoever does make the run should seek to create une union sacrée: do what it takes to bring the ecologists on board, perhaps woo Mélenchon back into the fold (I don't discount the possibility), and make an ouverture to the center--more importantly at the level of the rank and file, perhaps, than of the leadership. There should be many nervous voters in the center susceptible to an appeal for un vote utile in the first round.

I have no doubt that Marine Le Pen will not be the next president of France. If she does eliminate the candidate of the center left or the center right in the first round, the remaining candidate will win. But a president by default is not what France needs. If the left wants that president to be someone other than Sarkozy, it needs to show that it cares what people say even when it isn't election day.