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France's moment of truth approaches

Behind the cut is an article from the Comment page of last Friday's Financial Times, written by Dominique Moisi, senior adviser at the French Institute for International Relations.  While I'm transcribing the piece primarily for the benefit of dominiquelechic and sarkolegrand, I think that my RL French friends who follow politics may also be interested.


France's moment of truth approaches

The presidential campaign has already begun in France, even though elections will not take place for another 18 months.  President Jacques Chirac has not openly announced it but, with health concerns underscoring his age, he will most likely not run for re-election in 2007.  The left should return to power, considering the morose mood of the country.  But the deep ideological divisions within the Socialist party and the open and self-destructive personal ambitions of its various leaders could pave the way for a more unlikely and original duel, between the two main proponents of the right.

No Hollywood scriptwriter could dream up two more opposite personalities than Nicolas Sarkozy, the interior minister, and Dominique de Villepin, the prime minister.  Their rivalry, which now dominates the French political scene, illustrates the dichotomy -- in both France and Europe -- between the need for radical change and reluctance to implement it.

Mr. Sarkozy's bet is that the French are ready for change and are longing for what he calls "modernity".  Mr. Sarkozy wants to effect a radical rupture with the past.  His character is defined partly by pride in his partly foreign -- Hungarian -- roots and as someone who did not attend the elite training schools, and was never a senior civil servant.  For his policies, he wants to learn from other countries' successful experience -- particularly those in the Anglo-Saxon world -- in the economic and security fields.  This is a deliberate choice tht makes him the favourite of the French business establishment.  Lately, Mr. Sarkozy has also toughened his policies on immigration and security issues, which has drawn the support of the political right if not part of the extreme right, at the risk of alienating the key "centrist" electorate.  For the moment Mr. Sarkozy enjoys the full support of the UMP party machine and huge popularity among young party members.

Nature abhors a vacuum and, until recently, nothing or no one could have stopped Mr. Sarkozy's steady rise.  No one, perhaps, except himself and now maybe, his unlikely rival -- Mr. de Villepin, appointed prime minister by Mr. Chirac as what could be called his "last weapon of mass seduction" to block Mr. Sarkozy's rise.  The 2007 election is still far off but already, one cannot exclude the possibility that Mr. Chirac's bet will succeed.  This is for three key reasons:  because of what France is, and because of what Mr. de Villepin and Mr. Sarkozy are.

Contrary to Mr. Sarkozy's calculations, the French may not be ready for the radical plunge into "modernity" that he represents.  From that standpoint, the shocking images emerging from New Orleans -- with their powerful combined message of state impotence and incompetence -- may have played more in favour of Mr. de Villepin.  For it is the prime minister who symbolises the traditional French reliance on a strong, efficient and protective state.  If the French want to balance change with a reassuring dose of continuity, Mr. de Villepin fits the bill.  His motto could be "vote for me, because of what I am".  His striking good looks, his size and natural elegance not only fit the requirements of our media age but also, perhaps, nostalgia for another period, when politics was not the monopoly of politicians.  Mr. de Villepin's strength is a formula that is both magic and ambivalent.  While he makes the French dream, in the most Gaullist and Gallic tradition, of another world, he also provides a reassuring sense of continuity, if not a comfortable excuse for their refusal to face the need for change.  As an aristocrat and a poet, Mr. de Villepin would probably be an irrelevant player in the Anglo-Saxon world.  But not in France, where "panache" is to the country what Henry V's "greatness" is to Britain.

In France, Mr. de Villepin can transform his liability into a strength.  Because he was never elected, he can present himself not as a politician, but as a statesman, in fact the man who represents a genuine departure from Mr. Chirac and François Mitterand, even if he claims every day his loyalty to the president, presenting himself as his faithful political "son".

Mr. Sarkozy instead presents the image of an immensely gifted politician but not necessarily a reassuring man.  And at the end of the day, the decisive factor will be the personal one.

Also in the eyes of many Frenchmen, Mr. de Villepin, as the man who said No to the US at the United Nations Security Council two years ago, may be in a better position than Mr. Sarkozy, dubbed by some critics as the "American", to represent France in the world.  The die is not yet cast, for the challenges ahead for Mr. de Villepin are enormous.  He may be rapidly destroyed by the country's social mood of discontent that could lead to paralysing new strikes, as it did in 1995.  He may not be able to surmount the formidable handicap of not having a party machine behind him.

For Mr. Sarkozy, the ambiguous result of the German elections did not augur well.  German voters yesterday, like French voters tomorrow, may have seen the need for change but wanted "soft" -- not radical -- change, a formula that Mr. de Villepin may embody more effectively than Mr. Sarkozy.


( 14 comments — Leave a comment )
Oct. 6th, 2005 07:18 pm (UTC)
Thank you for transcribing the article.
It was very thoughtful of you.

So it seems people are searching for good looks in a politician...as if this would make them safer or boost the economy...oh well...
(Deleted comment)
Oct. 7th, 2005 12:31 pm (UTC)
When there are RPG characters commenting in this LJ, watch the formatting. If the text is italicised (or if you see "OOC" anywhere), it's the person playing the character who's really talking. If the text is normal, it's the RPG character's opinion, and you should expect sarcasm and snark, lol.
Oct. 7th, 2005 09:13 am (UTC)
"Style over substance" ... I think that's the phrase that could be applied here. And I'm sure you're familiar with all the studies that demonstrate that good looks in men and beauty in women have an unstated but direct bearing on career opportunities, pay, etc., etc. Sad but true. Still, you mustn't be too discouraged. It's going to be a long 18 months, I think, and the prime minister has had his share of problems in recent days.
Oct. 6th, 2005 08:00 pm (UTC)
There is one thing that puzzles me about this article, and that is that it seems to be pretty misinformed. I mean, it's superficial but not entirely uninteresting, except that it's based on the assumption that both of them have openly declared their desire to run for presidency. De Villepin has actually been saying a lot of things that go against that assumption when it comes to himself. Of course, one may question his resolve not to get involved in the run for the presidency, but the fact is that he's said over and over again that one can't be involved in the current government and run a campaign, and that as for himself, he has way too much on his plate as Prime Minister to even think about running for president. It doesn't mean he won't, but it still means this article is... jumping a bit ahead of itself, maybe?

Also, I would have found it interesting had it been a little more precise in its depiction of the diverging policies (supposedly diverging) of both men. As it is, it's so very vague, it's hard to understand what Sarkozy is promoting exactly and what de Villepin himself has to answer to his policies. For example, yes, Sarkozy's slogan is change, but it's rather interesting to see that on the one hand he wants to look to such countries as the States when it comes to the economy, (capitalism and the power to the upper class and the strong powerful industries), but is trying to give more power to the law, the state and the police when it comes to matters of safety and such. He's kind of a paradox, I think. He's proclaiming change and modernity but if you look at his policies, you'll see they're more about going back to more traditional ways.

Personally, I think he's dangerous. On the one hand I think we need him to be our wake-up call and show us just how close to catastrophe we are by emphasizing some of the things that are foremost on the people's minds, but on the other hand I am very very scared that people won't see the extremist in him and that we'll head straight for danger and self-destruction (as with him at the wheel, it'd be what would be waiting for us). He's very much like Le Pen if you ask me.

At the moment, everybody's waiting to see what de Villepin will have to answer to the people after last Tuesday's strikes. His "we will address those issues and the people's worries concerning employment and salaries shortly" is not exactly satisfying. I don't really have high hopes, though. *sigh*

Oh, and another thing I find tiresome is the way the media seem to be intent on depicting the people as more preoccupied with the way a candidate looks than what he has to offer. That is silly and I don't think it's true. I might be an idealist but it seems to me that the people have never really cared for the way a politian looks or leads his/her private life, here. We've always cared a lot more about actual politics.

As for change... I don't think it's so much a question of "soft" or "radical", but more a question of changing for the positive, for something better. What Sarkozy has to offer might be radical, but it certainly doesn't look like he's offering a change for the better to the masses. On the contrary, outside of his safety reforms (which can be alluring to the masses), what he has to offer in terms of the economy would only really be profitable to the higher more powerful classes.
Oct. 7th, 2005 09:57 am (UTC)
When I read the article I thought it was very much a puff piece for de Villepin. I mean, honestly, the writer is practically drooling over the man. Gushing over a politician's looks and background certainly isn't an American thing to do, although it would be interesting to see what the American press and media coverage of JFK would have been like had he been in politics today rather than 35 years ago.

As you say, it's a long time until the elections. There'll be plenty of time for the press to talk about philosophical and policy differences between the candidates once it's known who those people will be. I don't think that was the intent of this writer or this article at all.

If I were a betting person, I'd say that if Chirac decides not to run again de Villepin will certainly throw his hat in the ring as an alternative to Sarkozy. He's protesting just a bit too much, in my view. That's something we see all the time in American politics, so we have a tendency to discount those kind of self-effacing remarks.

In the meantime, all this is certainly interesting from an outsider's perspective.
Oct. 6th, 2005 08:01 pm (UTC)
Also (because it didn't all fit in one comment, lol)concerning de Villepin, I was reading this earlier which made me think of this article and which I thought you might be interested in. Let me know if you want me to try and translate. :-)

Villepin: "on peut difficilement déclarer sa candidature à l'Elysée et rester dans le gouvernement"

AP | 06.10.05 | 23:14

PARIS (AP) -- "On peut difficilement déclarer sa candidature à l'Elysée et rester dans un gouvernement qui s'est fixé pour mission jusqu'au dernier jour de servir les Français", a noté jeudi soir le Premier ministre Dominique de Villepin au sujet de Nicolas Sarkozy. "S'il décide d'être candidat, il quittera le gouvernement. C'est lui qui l'a dit". Pour le reste, "je n'ai pas de plaisir particulier à brouiller ma famille et qui plus est mon gouvernement" et "ce qui passionne le microcosme (...) ne m'intéresse pas". Alors qu'on lui demandait quand il comptait présenter éventuellement sa candidature à la présidentielle de 2007, le Premier ministre a assuré: "je ne me pose pas ces questions" car "j'ai suffisamment de problèmes sur la table". AP

Oct. 7th, 2005 10:03 am (UTC)
Thanks! Let me tackle it first with my trusty dictionary at hand, and if I get stuck I'll call for help. :-)
Oct. 7th, 2005 09:24 am (UTC)
(Thank you!)

Weapon of mass seduction...oui, j'aime ca!

Yes, zis article is quite accurate. I already know I am good-looking, and zat everyone perceives zis. I am quite modest about it.

I have told you before zat I have no shame about my unelected status, zat I prefer to be ze statesman instead of ze scrappy vote chaser politician. I zink I actually made a post about zis last month, possibly ze one about Alain Juppe, I'll have to check...

Nicolas's problem is zat he does incarnate change but not ze good kind. For so long, all ze peasants have wanted tout sauf Jacques. Over ze last year, his popularity has gone down faster zan Tony on an Olympic Committee judge. And Nicolas's popularity went up because he picked ze fight wiz Jacques, because zrough his opposition and insolence, he cast himself as ze anti-Jacques, as ze 'somezing different', as 'Change', and zat paid off. When zings are going badly, people always look to ze person who is in opposition.

But now, zat fails. Ze reason, Mademoiselle, why Jacques has not resigned in zese past few months was because if he did, and we had elections zen, Nicolas would have won. But 2007, 2 years, it is a long way. Anyone's game. And zis zeorie has been proven correct far more quickly zan I zought: just 4 months in, and Nicolas has gone down, and my approval rating is up. People are seeing zat Nicolas's 'changes' are not necessarily for ze better, zat zere are now other options (i.e. me). It is what happened in Germany. Everyone hated Gerd's government, Angie cast herself as ze antidote, and back last year, if elections had been held, she would have won. But on campaign, ze people found out more about her, zat she is not what zey had hoped, zat simply it is better to stick wiz ze evil zat you know.

2007 is a long way off, but already people are losing interest in Nicolas. He tries to up his publicity by picking a public fight wiz me, I ignore him, he looks bad. What's more, I am now beating him at his own game. Nicolas stood out 2 years ago wiz ze 'Sarko show': his tour de force mediatique, which was relatively unknown in France before, due to our "republican monarchy" and strict privacy laws. Jacques could never manage to copy his technique, no matter how Claude tried, wiz all her silly meeting-France's-youth-on-tv ideas. Zey always backfired and made Jacques look silly and old-fashioned. But now I am Nicolas's competitor, and I can create ze media spectacle while maintaining ze dignity and my 18th century zeitgeist. Ze best of both worlds.

And let us not start on Nicolas's actual policies! Firstly, while he is called a liberal, it does not have ze connotation zat it does in ze US. Zey mean he is economically liberal. He is more in favour of American style free trade zan our beloved dirigisme. Socially, he is more conservative zan any of us, wanting to reduce our laicte, France's separation of church and state. Alzough he is quite unlike Angela in personality, he shares her views, and zis is what will condemn him.
Oct. 7th, 2005 09:31 am (UTC)
sorry, that was terribly rambling!
Oct. 7th, 2005 11:18 am (UTC)
Not a problem!

I think that once I finally get my Angela application finished, submitted, and (hopefully!) accepted, I'll cross-post these newspaper articles to worldaffairs (through Angela) as well as to my own LJ. Right now it's a little odd to be responding seriously to a comment from a real person crazybutsound, and responding with my "snarky" hat on to a comment from an RPG character in the same LJ, lol.
Oct. 7th, 2005 11:08 am (UTC)
(You're welcome! I'll do this anytime I see something interesting.)

If I wanted to be cynical, I'd ask how much you paid to have this article written. The author is practically drooling over you.

Everyone hated Gerd's government, Angie cast herself as ze antidote, and back last year, if elections had been held, she would have won. But on campaign, ze people found out more about her, zat she is not what zey had hoped, zat simply it is better to stick wiz ze evil zat you know.

Strictly speaking, Angie did win, since her party got four more seats than the SPD did. And from everything I'm reading in the paper now, she's on the brink of being named chancellor in the grand coalition. All that's left to work out is what sops the SPD will get in return for Gerd finally facing facts and agreeing to step down.

As for your own political future, the past few days haven't been the best for you, have they? First there was the ferry incident, then Tuesday's strikes. These things make maintaining that air of dignity you speak of a little difficult, don't they?
Oct. 10th, 2005 06:56 am (UTC)
Practically drooling over me? Hardly. It only mentions ze truth. Zat it talks about my striking good looks is no flattery. Even articles zat are nasty and mean towards me acknowledge how dashing I am.

And I'm quite enjoying ze turmoil actually. Ze strikes, well, all ze strikers are Communists! What do you expect? Perhaps I should follow Vlad's advice and have zem all shot in ze name of ze Republique!

(I think Vlad is definitely having a negative influence on Dominique!)
Oct. 14th, 2005 04:42 pm (UTC)
That really is a nasty article. I notice the author is hiding behind the cloak of anonymity.

Oops! Sorry. Just strike that. I forgot that my voice isn't welcome any longer, even if I happen to be agreeing with you.

Oct. 15th, 2005 03:03 pm (UTC)
(It's from the Daily Telegraph. That should explain the negative tone!)

I'm not angry at you. It's Vlad zat is ze problem. I'm starting to zink zat maybe you were right about him...I just refused him judo and he has started talking about calling Gerd or Jacques (!!!). Do you zink he doesn't love me?
( 14 comments — Leave a comment )