March 29, 2012 7:34 pm
France votes to shut out the world
Not so long ago François Hollande was a racing certainty to win the Elysée. In the wake of the terrorist outrage in Toulouse, France may be having second thoughts. The Socialist leader is still ahead in the polls, but Nicolas Sarkozy is not yet beaten.
What strikes outsiders about the presidential contest is its organising assumption – many would say pretence – that France is an island. Forget the rest of the world – the rising states of Asia, the eurozone crisis, Germany’s pre-eminence in Europe – the next leader of the Fifth Republic will strike out as he pleases. Never mind globalisation. France commands its own destiny.
There is something of such denial in elections everywhere. National politicians can scarcely admit that whatever they say on the campaign trail is contingent on events and circumstance in the world beyond.
But France’s choices are now more limited than at any time since the second world war. A half-century-long struggle to hold on to past status and influence in the world is becoming ever tougher.
To say the voters do not much like Mr Sarkozy is something of an understatement. For some it’s the bling, for others the fact that he has never been part of the establishment. France is a monarchy in republican dress. The president, one hears at gatherings of the Parisian elite, did not attend the Ecole National D’Administration. Worse, he trained as a lawyer. Mr Hollande may be a leftie, a French acquaintance told me the other day, but at least he is an educated man.
That he is cultured is about as much as we know about the Socialist candidate. Mr Hollande rose through the ranks of his party without leaving much of a trace. Even among supporters there is a lively debate about his convictions. His loathing of the plutocrats of finance seems real enough, but these days such sentiments are widely shared across the political spectrum. So is the promise to tame the excesses of the banks. A top rate of income tax of 75 per cent may go a bit far, but is there a politician of any colour who wants to side with the financiers?
Populism on the campaign trail is one thing. Once installed in the presidency, would Mr Hollande really take a serious lurch leftward to break with the economic discipline imposed on Europe by Germany’s Angela Merkel? Or, after an initial skirmish with Berlin, would he follow in François Mitterrand’s footsteps by tacking back to the centre? I have heard both views from French policy makers. The second is by far the most common.
Mr Sarkozy’s electoral pitch is that of the seasoned statesman. As he showed during the Toulouse crisis, he carries it off well.
You may not like me, he tells his fellow citizens, but France needs energetic and decisive leadership. Mr Hollande’s love of culture, this text continues, isn’t enough for the Elysée.
The president, of course, has his own bundle of contradictions. He has done more than is sometimes credited to modernise France’s economy. Strange though it seems in the Anglo-Saxon world, it was quite something to raise the pension age to 62. A big part of his economic manifesto has been a call for France to match German competitiveness and flexibility.
On the other hand, the mercantilist impulse runs deep in France. Mr Sarkozy wants a “buy European” act to keep out cheaper Chinese imports. He also wants to put more locks on the doors of the border-free Schengen area.
Most of Europe is backing the devil it knows. At a Brussels summit this month Ms Merkel was overheard discussing the French opinion polls. Nicolas, as she called him, was difficult enough to deal with, she confided to a fellow leader. But Mr Hollande? He would be impossible. The Socialist candidate’s promise to reopen the fiscal compact that Germany has set as the price of the eurozone bailout has won him few friends in Berlin.
David Cameron has had his (often very public) differences with Mr Sarkozy, but when Mr Hollande visited London a little while ago the door of Downing Street remained firmly closed. One suspects that Mario Monti sees a potential ally in Mr Hollande in his quiet campaign to get Ms Merkel to add a smidgen of economic growth to her prescription for the eurozone. But the Italian leader has thus far kept a diplomatic distance.
For their part, Messrs Sarkozy and Hollande conspire to turn their backs on the world. What’s missing from the campaign is even the slightest glimmer of recognition of the constraints imposed by globalisation and the shifting geopolitical balance.
The uncomfortable reality is that the strategy for influence France has pursued since the mid-1950s has run out of road. The same, incidentally, is true for Britain.
In the aftermath of the debacle at Suez, France saw the leadership of Europe as the instrument of its international influence. Britain thought it could play Greece to America’s Rome.
Both nations have been overtaken by events. The pretence that France is Germany’s equal has been exploded by the eurozone crisis.
The Elysée’s choice now is between agreeing with Berlin or leading Europe’s second-tier south. I have not met a single French policy maker who would choose anything but the former. But submission to Germany will not be easy. As for Britain, the focus of US geostrategic interest has turned to Asia. The welcome Washington still affords British prime ministers is as much a substitute for, as a sign of, influence.
The uncomfortable truth is that these two once-great powers have slipped their moorings. Sooner or later they will have to navigate a more modest course. But these are things that cannot be said during elections.
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2012