Sunday, April 5, 2015

The Conservatism of the French

There is no doubt that the steady rise of the Front National over the past two years is worrisome, but too many observers are losing their sang-froid. Why, some ask, doesn't Hollande veer sharply to his left? For these analysts (including several commenters on this blog), the message of "the French people" is clear: the FN's diagnosis (which shares many particulars in common with that of the extreme left) is correct, France has surrendered too much of its sovereignty in economic matters to the EU, it is too subservient to Germany, and the left has dissolved into the right by accepting the need for "structural reforms" intended to enhance French "competitiveness" by broadening the tax base, shifting the burden from firms to individuals, revising the labor code, etc. In short, "Vallsism"--nothing more than a French form of Blairism with a dose of Sarkozy-like authoritarianism and grande-gueulisme thrown in for good measure--is the root of all evil.

Those who believe this analysis, or something like it, will be pulled up short by this recent IFOP poll, which shows that 61% of the French do not think that Valls should be replaced or that the course he has set in economic policy should be changed.

Having just translated Tocqueville's Souvenirs of 1848, I am perhaps unduly influenced by echoes of that era, when the vociferous cries of the Paris proletariat temporarily drowned out the conservative murmurs of the vast majority. One should never underestimate the conservatism of the French electorate--or perhaps most democratic electorates. People are rarely completely happy with their governments, but even more rarely are they prepared for radical change.

But it's not just conservatism that the support for Valls reflects. It's also realism. Instinctively, people sense that the deep problem is not one of loss of economic sovereignty. Keynesianism in one country didn't work in 1981, and France is too deeply integrated into the global economic system to think that it can save itself by throwing up an economic Maginot Line, as Le Pen proposes. Few people really believe in "economic patriotism," even if some mouth its slogans to rally their flagging spirits. Many long for a bold solution but in their hearts recognize that none may exist. The political mood is therefore dispirited but not radical.