It’s a bit odd to say that the French election campaign is wanting for leadership. After all, French citizens are getting ready to elect someone to be their president for the next five years, and few presidents in the world have powers as broad and sweeping as the leader of the Fifth Republic. Yet, the French are searching for someone who is ready, willing, and able to tackle France’s myriad problems and restore the country to its former place in the heart of Europe. So far, the presidential contenders have not impressed the public, a third of which is thinking about abstaining from the first round of elections altogether. Passion and vision have been muted, and no one has voiced the call to arms that the European crisis seems to warrant - except for one of the second tier candidates, François Bayrou, the doomsayer.
The Bonapartist character of the French system is alive and well: with both the elections to the presidency and the National Assembly now taking place every five years (the presidential election previously occurred every seven), the legislative vote follows in the wake of the presidential one. Yet, by so doing, the substantive content of the presidential election tends to give way to a flurry of rhetoric. The nitty-gritty is left to the legislative candidates; the contenders for the presidency bring the style and ideas. And above all, they do so in their own name—the “we” of “the people” is lost in a sea of egotistic competition, in a battle of narcissistic wills. The current president, Nicolas Sarkozy, is no exception. He has not come up with any set program but rather “one idea a day.” Meanwhile, the other prime candidate, Socialist François Hollande, has offered up 60 propositions.
And this battle of wills has done nothing to elevate the debate. In fact, it has done quite the opposite. In their opening salvos, both major candidates recognized the urgency of the crisis confronting France: the dire straits in which the French economy finds itself, squeezed between ruthless global competition and dwindling strengths, limited innovation, and disadvantageous specialization. Both then turned to figures and measures, some of which are very reasonable and structural. Nicolas Sarkozy depicted himself—along with Angela Merkel—as the savior of Europe and of the euro, playing up his role in forging an agreement to bail out struggling Greece, among other things. He did not forget to reflect on the difficult days ahead and laud the cohesion reached by the Europeans on the occasion. Sarkozy did not shy away from more sacrifices, more cuts, more initiatives. And he called upon the German chancellor to support him in his reelection. In other words, the French election was to be a European one. This was certainly to his advantage, but nevertheless, using Europe as a trump card? That was almost unheard of.
Europe, though, has since been abandoned; the payoff was simply not large enough. Brussels bashing is now the rage. Exit Angela Merkel, and enter criticisms of open borders and calls for the necessary revision of the Schengen Agreement to increase EU border controls (never mind that the revision is already under way). A slew of statements on immigration and border controls followed, partially accounted for by the intrusion of a third man into the campaign. Exceeding all expectations, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, a former Trotskyist and Socialist senator, has reinvented himself as the herald of the Left. Not that Trotskyism is foreign to France—all previous elections saw a flurry of left-wing candidates from the Ligue communiste internationale (LCI) to the Communist Party. What is new is that Mélenchon is rallying all this enormous potential, including the hapless Greens, behind his name. By so doing he is skewing the whole political debate, not only forcing François Hollande to come up with the idea of levying a 75 percent tax on those earning above € 1 million, but also pushing the incumbent toward the left. Sarkozy’s latest hit is a fuel subsidy aimed at relieving the plight of ordinary people. Both major contenders now gloss over cuts and reforms, and their figures remain fuzzy. François Bayrou points out that €62 billion is missing from Nicolas Sarkozy’s total calculations. Sarkozy, who recently hailed the end of the crisis, portends an attack on the markets should François Hollande be elected.
Not only does this hark back to France’s long tradition of populism and rebellion—this time not with the Internationale, but with Bastille Day and the Commune as a reference. But it also stirs up an air of provincialism: Europe and the world are shut out, globalization is demonized, China and India are ignored. Meanwhile, Paris is struggling. After Spain and Italy, France is indeed the next weak link in Europe. It is, however, the most important weak link, not only because it is the second-biggest economy in the European Union but because it has, so far, been Germany’s main partner, interlocutor, and supporter. Should France weaken and collapse upon itself, it would tear apart the Franco-German partnership on which the entire eurozone has been hinging.
The next French president will certainly not be able to ignore the crisis. But a number of questions remain: Will the future president be able to muster the courage to enact all the necessary reforms? Will he have the backing for them? Will the supporters of Mélenchon or of the far-right National Front’s Marine Le Pen take the streets to fight back? And will the markets falter after losing trust in the leadership?
What is required, then, is leadership. Leadership that can build a stronger France that tackles its domestic problems, redefines its industrial base, boosts its research and development, sharpens its economic specialization, and looks beyond its borders. Regardless of who emerges victorious, the next president should promise blood and tears—something no one has promised for the past thirty years, though the middle and lower middle classes have indeed shed enough. Yet while doing so, the next president should remember the broader stakes: in a changing world in which Europe’s voice is dwindling, the European Union must recalibrate its added value and reinvent itself.
Anne-Marie Le Gloannec is a senior research fellow at CERI, Sciences Po, Paris