The French Disconnection

The side entrance to Charléty, a stadium on the outskirts of Paris where the French presidential candidate Ségolène Royal will soon deliver a May Day address to 40,000 supporters, looks more like a riot in progress than a press gate. A throng of journalists brandishing press cards, reinforced from behind by a stream of spectators already turned away from the stadium's main entrance, crowds the chain-link fence, shouting and shoving in an attempt to convince the overwhelmed staff to open the gate.

Despite my better instincts, I work my way up the side of the narrow staircase until I'm pressed against the barrier, in perfect position to be crushed to death in the increasingly likely event of a panicked stampede. Moments later, when the crowd does in fact surge forward and I realize I'm about to die, the gates inexplicably open. I dive into the human current and surf to relative safety, only to find the way barred a hundred yards further on by another frenzied throng of journalists, this time trying to force the glass doors of the press loge. A few feet away, a prominent American television journalist appears momentarily stunned, as much by the surrounding chaos as by the possibility that she might not gain entry to the event. "It's always the same," she says incredulously. "The right is well-organized, and the left is a mess."

In France, the left is not just a mess, it's an angry mess. This was made clear a few hours earlier at the May Day "manif" that, each year, mobilizes all the major unions, as well as an alphabet soup of political parties from "l'extreme gauche" -- the revolutionary far left that has disappeared from American politics but maintains a small but vocal presence here. The march from Place de la République to Place de la Nation also serves as a yearly demonstration of the unions' ability to get people into the streets. And that is something they don't hesitate to do, anytime the government attempts to roll back"le modèle français" -- the country's social safety net.

The mood at the demonstration this year was more combative than festive. Chanted slogans and music pulsing from loudspeakers combined to create a wall of sound resembling battle drums. In first-round voting just nine days before, the far left had divided its 10 percent total among three Trotskyite candidates, the mainline Communist Party candidate, the Green Party's nominee, and a farmer turned anti-globalization activist. Now, with the second round of the election less than a week away, there was just one name on everybody's lips. Unfortunately for Ségolène Royal, it wasn't hers.

If someone's responsible for unifying the far left, it's Nicolas Sarkozy, the governing UMP's candidate for president. Sarkozy's promise of political "rupture" has turned him into the champion of those who believe that France needs to lighten the burden of its welfare state, liberalize its labor regulations, and reduce its government bureaucracy in order to jumpstart an economy stifled by sluggish growth and high unemployment. His emphasis on work and the work ethic, as well as his get-the-job-done style, directly challenge the French cultural aversion to risk, innovation, and social mobility (associated here with precariousness, loss of tradition, and rank ambition).

But if these qualities have won him the title of the most "American" of French politicians, it's his brand of confrontational, divisive politics that's won him the title of "Sarko le facho" -- Sarko the fascist, a far left bogeyman. A measure of the kind of dread he inspires was the anti-Sarkozy graffiti that accompanied every leg of my trip, first to Paris and later to the "manif" itself: "Sarko = Danger" on a highway overpass, "Non à la $arkologie" on the metro wall, "Nicolas Sarkozy, 2007-2012: We won't survive it and neither will you" on a bathroom stall. Not to mention the "Stop Sarko" stickers plastered by the thousands on street signs, lampposts, t-shirts, and even foreheads at the rally itself.

Taking no chances, the far left has already begun preparing the "third round" of the election, a euphemism for the legislation-blocking street demonstrations Sarkozy was referring to days earlier when he talked about "liquidating" the heritage of May '68. As a flyer handed out by the League of Communist Revolutionaries -- whose candidate, Olivier Besancenot, won almost 5 percent of the first-round vote -- proclaimed, "Sunday the 6th, if Sarko is elected … Everyone at la Bastille at 9 p.m."


The suggestion, heard as a chorus from American observers, that France is somehow "broken" ignores the areas (most notably the health care and transportation systems) where, in fact, its nationalized bureaucracies function exceptionally well -- not to mention the fact that French productivity matches that of the United States. But it's also true that in a competitive, globalized economy where robust social welfare systems remain the exception rather than the rule, France's very generous one comes at a cost, in terms of both investment and initiative. And while there are perfectly valid arguments for emphasizing security over opportunity, tradition over innovation, and quality of life over earning power, the French instinct for heavy-handed market intervention can prove genuinely startling to an American sensibility -- even to an American progressive who instinctively resists the neoliberal attacks on the French model.

Indeed, the far left's militance notwithstanding, there is a broad consensus in France today that change is necessary. This is especially the case among the centrist voters that Royal must win over to have any chance of being elected. At stake in this election is what kind of change it will be.

"Nicolas Sarkozy is preparing a society of confrontation and fracture, whereas Ségolène Royal proposes dialogue and negotiation," Arnaud Monetebourg, one of Royal's spokesperson and a leading advocate for reform within the Socialist Party, told me later on Tuesday, when things had calmed down at Charléty and we'd all made it into the press loge. "It takes longer, but you end up with more durable reform."

When I pressed them on just what kind of reform that will be, both Montebourg and Jack Lang, the Minister of Culture under François Mitterand and another of Royal's spokesmen, discussed modernizing "le social" and streamlining governmental institutions, while avoiding mention of anything that might raise red flags on the left. Royal's Presidential Pact is similarly vague.

So far, despite some grumblings about her between-rounds flirtation with the center, the anti-Sarko line has held. But a Royal victory based on a substantial anti-Sarkozy vote -- a possibility borne out by opinion polls -- raises the question of whether she will have a mandate for any reform at all. Dominique Strauss-Kahn, a former Minister of Finance who ran against Royal for the Socialist Party nomination, dismissed the idea. "Voting for Ségolène Royal is the same as voting against the platform of Nicolas Sarkozy," he replied coolly, while shooting me a look that made it clear why he's been mentioned as a possible Prime Minister should Royal win. "It's the same thing."

When she finally addressed the crowd, Royal spoke at length about her vision for governing France. She talked about "reform without brutality," about avoiding the kind of political deafness that leads to explosions of popular discontent (as seen in May '68), about maintaining a dialogue with the unions to effect change. It was a safe speech, long on imagery, pretty short on substance -- hardly surprising for the home stretch of a long campaign.

When I'd asked him earlier whether an election whose dominant theme was change might, after all was said and done, result in political paralysis, Jack Lang was adamant. "Not a chance. One way or another, there's going to be major change. France is going to move."

A Socialist party insider standing beside me during the speech wasn't so sure. "Of course, there's the risk of paralysis. Because we all want a new dynamic. But we don't know what that means yet." The line seemed to perfectly capture what Ségolène Royal is offering: change, yes, but without the anxiety-causing details.

I skip the after-speech concert, along with a good part of the crowd, and make my way back to the commuter train, wondering whether the choice France faces this Sunday isn't actually between marching down a dead-end street and marching over a cliff. On entering the station, I feel a pang of anxiety. But the crowd is remarkably self-controlled, pausing patiently on the stairs long enough to allow each passing train to clear the platform before inching ahead -- as if an hour of listening to Royal speak was all it took to transform the frenzied rush of the mob into the calm resolve of solidarity.

The advantage of marching down a dead-end street is that you can always back up and try another route, as long as you can convince the people marching behind you that it's the only way out.

Originally published in The American Prospect online edition.