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.


Susan Bultman said...

Which components of Éric Zemmour's "Le Suicide Français" resonates with you?

bernard said...

Simple: the root of all evil is high unemployment for several decades. Back in the late eighties to early nineties, the French NAIRU - I use the technical term in the hope of not attracting too much scorn... - was estimated to be somewhere around 8%. I strongly doubt it has come down in any substantial way.

That said, I can't resist this one : Blair, je ne pouvais pas le blairer, quand à Valls, j'ai envie de l'envoyer valser... And yet I voted Labour in local elections and I vote PS in French elections.

Quite simply, you compare one with the alternative(s) and the choice is easy to make: NKM versus Hidalgo etc... And if UMP are really going to nominate Sarkozy in their primaries, well, compare Hollande or even Valls to the two alternatives and the choice gets equally simple. Juppé would probably be a decent president and has the advantage of being clear on republican values, but he is a very poor campaigner.

Mitch Guthman said...

And yet the party that jettisoned its longstanding commitment to neoliberalism and its opposition to the social welfare state rises while the party that abandoned the social welfare state in favor of neoliberalism suffers a series of crushing defeats and almost certainly won't feature in the second round of the next presidential election. A lot of people may profess to admire Valls's Tory sensibility but what they desperately want, and consistently vote for, are the Whig policies of Jaurès.

FrédéricLN said...

"Instinctively, people sense that the deep problem is not one of loss of economic sovereignty" : I feel so. Outside of militants, I never heard people in the street asserting that belonging to the EU might be the source of our evil. BTW, even the most ignorant of news have heard that Germany's foreign trade remains brilliant, everybody knows that Greece crooked financial institutions and got over-indebted, and some may have heard that the UK created around 1.5 million jobs in the last 4 years… it is the same EU. Sovereignty is there, as far as sovereignty means: ability to take decisions which are key to success or failure.

Many people in the street criticize the ruling people (not in Brussels — in Paris, or in our town) for "letting the foreigners do what they want", but that relates to (effective or feared) robbery or fraudulent obtention of welfare allocations — not to any Frankfurter diktat. And complaining that way implies that you hold ruling people for able to rule indeed when the decide to.

IMHO, preference for letting Mr Valls in charge may just mean that, after 3 years of hollandism, people don't feel anything might change, and changing the name of the Nr2 would just be a waste of time. Said otherwise: many people consider Mr Valls as an energetic person, willing to act (even if nothing comes out): if somebody should be removed, he would not be the first one on the list.

FrédéricLN said...

And regarding Tocqueville and 1848: I am still surprised by a kind of Taylor-like separation of tasks within French democracy, between protesters, who are expected to protest vigorously and reject compromise in the name of superior values; and "people in charge", doers, who are expected to share "sens de l'État", pragmatism, willingness to bypass law as needed for things to get done and civil peace maintained.

Some parties are clearly on one side of the line (PS, PRG, UMP or UDI in the second group; militant left and Greens in the first group); other ones have an unclear status that may falsify the model (PCF always tried to play both roles; Marine Le Pen's FN too; François Bayrou's MoDem was happy to be qualified by Le Monde in 2006 (or by an advisor quoted by Le Monde, it is unclear in the paper) as "protestation constructive").

Maybe that is only a traditional point in political science and beyond, viz. Weber's ethic of ultimate ends vs. an ethic of responsibility. But according to Weber, a politician should join both, or find compromises between both. Might be France specific in distributing tasks more that others between decision-makers, heirs of the Ancient Regime's aristocracy, and protesters or ideologists, heirs of the clerks?

The first round in elections may be often considered as open to protestation, you choose with who you agree most, while at second round you hire an appointee for the job.

In May 1968, students demonstrated in Paris "une sorte de jeu exactement contraire à celui de l'imposture" (a kind of game exactly opposite to that of imposture — as Domenach wrote in June 1968), while Sheila had just described herself as "petite fille de Français moyen" — "Quand je travaille, oui je me sens bien. Et la fortune viendra de mes mains !"

So, maybe there is some dialectic complementarity between the Parisian proletariat's heat in 1848, and the still work of peasants and craftsmen in the country? Mmm, unclear afterthoughts of 23:40 Paris time.

James Conran said...

"...people sense that the deep problem is not one of loss of economic sovereignty. Keynesianism in one country didn't work in 1981..."

Well, wasn't Keynesianism abandoned in 1982 not because it didn't work but because it was incompatible with the ERM, i.e. with the (voluntary) loss of economic sovereignty? Similarly today, even if one accepts the OECD-estimated NAIRU of 9.2%, unemployment could be reduced by a fiscal stimulus (and the bond markets suggest France has plenty of "fiscal space" for one). Of course it's true that doing so would involve defying Eurozone rules....