As the Bush presidency continues to crumble, it is perhaps ironic that good news for conservatives comes from France, the land they have spent so much time maligning–”freedom fries,” anyone? In an apparently clean election, in which a near-record 85% of the voters participated, the French chose Nicholas Sarkozy as their new president, rejecting Segolene Royal’s bid to become the first female president of France, and the first socialist in twelve years.
Now, Sarkozy is not your typical American conservative—he’s in favor of legalizing civil unions for same-sex couples, ending homelessness by building more low-income housing, and wants to integrate the country’s large Muslim minority (Islam is now the second-largest religion in France) by instituting an affirmative action program. And he has already chided the the Bush junta for its refusal to take global warming seriously. But that’s about where the good news ends.
Like American conservatives, “Sarko l’Americain,” as he is called in some quarters, looks back to the pivotal years of the late sixties and wants to roll back the changes that happened then. In case you’ve forgotten, that happened here in America in 1980, when Ronald Reagan was elected. And, in case you’ve forgotten, the countercultural movement in France in 1968 was far more widespread and focused than its American equivalent. We had a Love-In in San Francisco; they went to Paris , put up barricades, and invited the working class to join them—and, unlike American “hard hats,” two-thirds of the French working class joined the general strike and nearly threw out President DeGaulle, who ultimately resigned a year later when Constitutional changes he advocated were rejected in a nationwide referendum. But, I digress…and it wasn’t even to be funny.
Although the May ’68 uprising fizzled out in the short term, in the long term it changed the dynamics of social discourse in France and, ultimately, the rest of Europe, leading to a common assumption that it is the job of government to take good care of its citizens. This is why European countries have national health care systems, (and high-quality social welfare systems in general), good public transportation, shorter workweeks with higher productivity than the US, government-mandated long vacations and family leave time, and a standard of living similar to America’s, that only uses about half the energy.
Sarkozy is not going to be able to change all that, any more than Bush could privatize Social Security, but it is his stated belief that French workers need to cut back on their standard of living in order to remain competitive, and now he has the initiative. This is not good, especially since it isn’t true, any more than wage/benefit cutbacks and social service safety net erosion have been necessary for American workers to “remain competitive”–it’s not about “remaining competitive,” it’s about putting more money in the pockets of the already wealthy, and yes, Sarko wants to cut estate and inheritance taxes.
So, how does a guy who wants to make life worse for the majority of his countrymen manage to get himself elected? Besides cheating, like the Bush junta did? The answer is the same combination of four-letter words Karl Rove has taken extreme advantage of: PLAY THE FEAR CARD. Sarkozy rose to fame and notoriety when his derogatory remarks about unemployed Muslim youth and his strong-arm police tactics helped trigger the Paris riots of 2005. Nothin’ like fear of brown-skinned furriners to galvanize the electorate!
Unfortunately, this is not just posturing on Sarkozy’s part. In an interview with philosopher Michel Onfray, Sarkozy revealed that he believes that criminal/deviant tendencies (such as pedophilia, suicide, and drug use) are genetic, not culturally learned, a belief that flies in the face of mainstream psychology but marches in goose step with Nazism and France’s perennial far-right bogey man, Jean Marie LePen, whose thunder Sarkozy effectively stole. What this means, in practical terms, is that there can be no correction, only punishment—and this seems to be a widely-applied view of Sarkozy’s. He does not take criticism well, and has reputedly used his connections with France’s conservative media barons to derail the careers of journalists who have disagreed with him. He has also been criticized for using police power to violate the civil rights of political protesters. He wants to test three-year-olds for “behavioral disorders,” and, presumably, medicate them if “necessary.” His election does not bode well for the future of open society in France. Oh, and did I mention he wants to increase France’s reliance on nuclear power? Yeah, you figured as much.
He also benefited from weak opposition. Segolene Royal, the Socialist candidate, talked about fostering a more nurturing government, but ran to the right, joining Sarkozy in advocating ratification of the European Constitution, which the French public has rejected by popular vote, and in calling for crackdowns on crime and tightening immigration standards, although she did advocate retention of taxes on the rich and a higher minimum wage. Many French voters said they liked her platform more but voted for Sarkozy anyway, because he seemed like a better leader. It doesn’t take much analytical ability to see a certain sexist bias operating here.
There are two responses to change. You can either accept it and open up to it, or close down and reject it. In either case, change will happen, but the open option is the smarter one in the long run. In the face of massive global social, political, ecological , and economic changes, France has chosen by a narrow margin to shut down and fight. There’s still a little time left to change your minds, guys….
music: Eliza Gilkyson, Material Man