I was reminded of this dilemma when I read this morning Sarkozy's remarks about the presidential campaign now in full swing:
"Rien n'est plus important que de promettre des idées neuves aux Français", explique M. Sarkozy dans son interview. Ce nouveau positionnement, le chef de l'Etat le justifie en expliquant qu'il faut quitter le terrain économique, qui enlise les candidats dans des discours très techniques dont aucun ne sort vraiment vainqueur. Quant à la méthode, celle du référendum, elle répondrait "au problème de la pratique démocratique", selon un responsable de la majorité. "Les Français veulent reprendre le pouvoir d'une façon ou d'une autre", dit-il.Stendhal's law applies with "economics" substituted for "politics": apparently Team Sarkozy's strategy is based on the assumption that any discussion of his (failed) economic policies will "mortally offend" half of the electorate and "bore" the other half. Hence he has settled on the less soporific choice of introducing "new ideas" about the "values" that he, Claude Guéant, Patrick Buisson, Brice Hortefeux, and the other deep thinkers in his entourage think define "French civilization" and demonstrate its "superiority" ... to the rest. Mind you, not to any other "civilization" in specific--to name names would be to "offend mortally." It's more profitable, electorally speaking, to compare oneself advantageously to a generalized "Other," who in all respects does not measure up. And it beats talking about unemployment.
Indeed, when it comes to unemployment, it is far, far more flattering to the superior values of the French to shift the discussion from the "mortally boring" terrain of economics to that of French civilization's disdain of "l'assistanat." This term was introduced into political discourse most recently by Laurent Wauquiez, the most brilliant of the younger generation of the Right, who tried it out on recipients of the RSA. The opposition's outcry was muted, so Sarkozy has taken the defense of this French value one step farther, applying it to les chômeurs, whom he proposes to send to mandatory retraining schools in exchange for their dole of relief. To treat the working poor as spongers was bad enough, but to extend the contempt to the involuntarily unemployed in the depths of a recession is a sign of genuine audace.
So there can be no doubt: Sarkozy has decided to fight the first round of the election on the far right end of the battlefield. The tactic seems to have been effective, in that Marine Le Pen's poll numbers have been decreasing, but that may simply reflect the fact that as election day approaches, those who were previously willing to express a protest against the status quo by registering support for its most extreme opponent have now decided to voter utile. But the PS nevertheless seems delighted that the race is narrowing into a two-person contest, which it is confident of winning:
"Même pas peur!", glisse Jean-Christophe Cambadélis, député de Paris, soulignant là un choix stratégique. Alors que le chef de l'Etat tente de rééditer le coup de 2007 et de faire tourner le débat autour de ses idées, les socialistes entendent "ne pas lemettre au centre de la séquence", explique M.Cambadélis. D'autant que le terrain choisi à l'Elysée laisserait à M. Hollande, selon un intime, "le rôle du rassembleur, bien plus que celui du seul candidat de la gauche". "Contre l'ostracisme et la mise au pilori des chômeurs, il parlera de la République à tous les Français", dit ce proche du candidat.Indeed, not only will Hollande appear to be the rassembleur, he will be the only candidate speaking to the concerns of the majority of the French, who, according to polls, are far more interested in economic issues in this election than in so-called "values." Sarkozy could have played rope-a-dope by engaging Hollande on the economic terrain, where the contradictions inherent in the Socialist program are most manifest, and where the conservative case could be made with a certain logic (in comparative terms, France's economic performance in the crisis has not been terrible compared with any number of its neighbors).
In the end, the "values" discussion will have been a mere diversion, and Stendhal's more sober point will seem more prescient than his dubious concert simile: to paraphrase, "if a candidate in a campaign does not talk economics in the midst of a recession, he will no longer appear as a mirror in which voters can see themselves," and they will reject him and his attempt to divert the debate onto the roiling terrain of values.