The French Left and the 2009 European Elections

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INTUITIVELY, GIVEN THE ROTTEN STATE of the capitalist economy
in this period, one might have predicted that the voters
in the 2009 election for the European Parliament, the only
institution that is directly elected by popular vote in the
highly bureaucratic European Union (EU), would have
punished the Right for its direction of the economy.
With the sole exception of Greece, European voters did
exactly the opposite. A majority of them voted for the
Right and against the Left.
Although France has a multi-party system, sustained by a
history of diverse ideological orientations and an element
of proportional representation in the electoral system, traditionally
two parties have been dominant in the past two
to three decades. The two dominant parties have been the
UMP (Union pour un Mouvement Populaire), the conservative
or right-wing party now headed by President Nicolas
Sarkozy, and the Socialist Party, now led by Martine
Aubry. The Socialist Party has not held the presidency
since the two terms of Francois Mitterrand from 1981-
1995. The party has, at times, been strong in the National
Assembly, and is very strong at the local levels. It has a
majority in 20 of the 22 regional councils, and controls
many municipalities, including Paris. But it has not been
able to translate that strength into control of the national
presidency. At the European level, it did exceptionally well
in the last elections for the European Parliament, gaining
28.9% of the votes. It should be understood that no party
gets over 50% of the votes in these multi-party elections.
But in the European elections in June of this year, the
vote for the Socialist Party fell by almost 50% to 16.48%,
while Sarkozy’s UMP and it’s coalition partner, the Nouveau
Centre, got 27.87% of the vote. The combined percentage
of all of the Left, and I am excluding the environmentalist
ticket, was only a total of about 29%. The
Greens, called Europe Ecologie and led by Daniel-Cohn
Bendit (known as ‘Dany the Red’ during the 1968 student
uprising for which he served as a catalyst) received
16.28% of the vote and wound up with 14 of France’s 72
seats, the same number as the Socialist Party. These elections
were a stunning gain for the Greens, as well as being
huge success for Sarkozy’s UMP that won 29 seats. This is
very ominous for the Socialist Party that must face regional
elections next year where its majority control at the
regional level will be at risk.
The answer cannot be sought uniquely within France
because the Right beat the Left in almost all of the countries
of the EU. Part of the reason has to be that the Left is
simply not convincing the voting public throughout
Europe that they have a program and/or a sufficiently
competent list of candidates that can deal with the complex
issues, like the economy and immigration. Some of
it certainly is a backlash against immigration and the feeling
that the Left is too sympathetic with immigrants and
their cultures and too soft on crime. Indeed, it is fair to
say that the major reason that Sarkozy rose to where he is
was his tough law-and-order line on immigrant youth
when he was Minister of Interior, and thus head of the
National Police. The issues of race and cultural differences
have been played skillfully by politicians on the
Right throughout Europe.
But there are also issues specific to France. The French
Socialist Party has become a bit like the British Labour
Party in that it has lost a sense of vision. In the 1970s,
while it was still obliged to share the space on the Left
with the Communist Party and the former Parti Socialist
Unifie (PSU), it was forced to negotiate with them to
come up with common programs for substantial change.
After the severe decline of the Communists and the disappearance
of the PSU, the imperative to define itself programmatically
seems to have dissipated. It has relied too
heavily upon “party loyalty.”
A related problem is that the party has been factionalized
around specific personalities. That was even true back
in the 1970s and 1980s when I did much of my research
on the French Left. It took a very skilled politician,
François Mitterrand, to both work the party internally and
appeal sufficiently to the voters to capture the big prize in
French politics, the presidency. But Mitterrand was at once
pragmatic and programmatic in his approach to politics,
and he was skillful in his maneuvering with the Communists,
which he helped weaken (e.g., by joining with the
Right in portraying them as racist) after the coalitions were
no longer useful to the Socialists. On the other hand,
prominent members of the PSU were simply absorbed by
the Socialist Party.
Yet another problem for the Socialist Party has been
that many of its traditional voters, middle-class people like
teachers and other professionals, just deserted it in these
elections. Some simply abstained. There was an unusually
high 59.35% abstention rate of eligible voters in this election.
Polls have found that a disproportionate number of
these people were usual Socialist Party voters. But the
party was not giving them much except the usual pretty
faces to vote for. So, why do it? Why vote at all if you don’t
like what the others are offering either? The Socialists were
not the only ones turning off the voters, however, even on
the Left. A friend of mine who always had voted Communist
was in a quandary and asked me, an American, for
advice as to whether to vote or abstain. No party seemed
to offer anything to the majority of eligible voters.
One party, however, did offer enough to pull some
voters away from the Socialists. That was the Greens.
One might think that the Greens would be too specifically
issue-oriented to have that much appeal. But the
French Greens are more than a single-issue group.
Rather, they see the ecological approach as a lens that
captures a whole host of problems that transcend the traditional
right-left cleavages and that transcend national
boundaries. Cohn-Bendit himself manifests this. He
holds dual French and German citizenship and he has
been a German representative to the European Parliament
prior to his successfully running for the seat in
France. In 2002, he was elected co-president of the
Green Parliamentary Group in the European Parliament.
Cohn-Bendit also crosses the Right-Left divide and has
compared himself to Obama as a unique change agent.
Though he comes out of a very radical left-anarchical past
in the 1960s and 1970s and still retains very “left” positions
on what we Americans call “social issues” and on
immigration, he supported military action in Bosnia and
Afghanistan and he has been very open to free markets,
including a willingness to consider privatizing the
extremely efficient French railroad system. Furthermore,
he has maintained very good relations with President
Sarkozy himself who both calls him on the phone periodically
and invites him to his office. Very recently Sarkozy
has even begun to adopt the Green’s environmental
rhetoric. It is obvious that Cohn-Bendit’s “beyond the traditional
politics” aura has appealed to a lot of voters,
including some more conservative centrists but, unfortunately
for the Socialist Party, to some of its usual voters as
well. After all, that was just the intention. There was also a
bit of the cult of personality here, both because of Cohn-
Bendit’s very daring actions and image in the 1960s and
his charismatic media presence.
While Cohn-Bendit helped to give rise to a kind of
French “New Left” in the 1960s, he may now be helping
to definitively do in the one remaining sizeable structure
of the Old Left in France. Of course, those in the small
parties to the left of the Socialist Party, which managed to
win 5 seats in the European Parliament, will not shed any
tears over that party’s demise. But neither will they
embrace the triumph of ‘Dany the Red’ morphed into
‘Dany the Free Marketeer.’
Next year’s regional elections in France will be particularly
significant in framing the ideological spectrum of
French domestic politics.

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