French Lessons

I don’t follow French politics closely and haven’t drawn any sweeping conclusions from the recent election of Nicolas Sarkozy, who replaces outgoing Jacques Chirac as President of France. But E.J. Dionne writes that progressives can find lessons in the elections, while Newt Gringrich sees clues for conservatives.

E.J. Dionne says that the election of a right-winger in France is part of a trend; moderate-left parties throughout the world are being battered by “the forces of globalization and discontent over immigration.” However,

There are some countertrends toward the left, notably in Australia, according to recent polls. A populist left (quite different from the moderate European variety) has gained ground in Latin America. And Democrats might take heart that France and the United States have moved on opposite electoral cycles ever since Socialist François Mitterrand won power in 1981, just a year after Ronald Reagan’s election.

It does seem to be a universal phenomenon that when one party or faction is in power for a while, eventually it runs out of steam and is overtaken by another party or faction. But in the case of France, voters replaced one conservative with another; Chirac is hardly the far-left firebrand that American righties make him out to be. It may be the case that Sarkozy is further right than Chirac, in which case the political pendulum in France is not swinging in a new direction but moving a bit further in an old direction.

This brings us to the lesson learned by Newt Gringrich:

Incumbent French President Jacques Chirac had been twice elected, has served a total of 12 years in office, and is very unpopular. Coming into this election, people were very tired of the Chirac government and there was a sense that there had to be change.

But the opposition on the left, the Socialist Party, failed completely to capitalize on this desire for change. They nominated a candidate of great achievement, Ségolène Royal, but she proved herself to be the candidate of the status quo, not the candidate of change. She was actually committed to keeping all the bureaucracies that were failing and all the policies that were creating unemployment. She was committed to avoiding the changes necessary for a French future of prosperity, opportunity and safety.

Please note that this is Newt talking, and you have to take anything he says about what is failing and what isn’t with a grain of salt; nay, the whole saltshaker.

And here’s where American Republicans really need to pay attention: In France, voting for change meant voting for the party in office, but not the personality in office. And voting to keep the old order meant voting for the opposition, not for the incumbent party.

If Republicans hope to win the presidency next year, they better find a candidate who is prepared to stand for very bold, very dramatic and very systematic change in Washington. Not only that, but they had better make the case that the left-wing Democrat likely to be nominated represents the failed status quo: the bureaucracies that are failing, the social policies that are failing, the high tax policies that are failing, and the weakness around the world that has failed so badly in protecting America.

The only failed bureaucracies, social and tax policies, and the “weakness around the world” that plague us now are the direct result of the Bush Administration and a rubber-stamp Republican Congress, and I think a majority of voters are catching on to that.

If Newt is saying what I think he is saying — that Republicans need to fall back on their tried-and-true election campaign strategy of smearing Democrats — I say bring it on. The problem with being the party of power is that after a while people start to suspect it’s your fault if the nation is deteriorating. At that point scapegoating the other party becomes much less effective.

Recently Newsweek pollsters asked Americans “Are you satisfied or dissatisfied with the way things are going in the United States at this time?” Only 25 percent said yes; 71 percent said no. I don’t believe there was any time during the Clinton Administration that more people thought the nation was going in the wrong direction than in the right direction.

So yes, Republicans; dig out your old talking points from the 1980s and 1990s. Go ahead and act like the political zombies you’ve become.

I’ve seen some Mitt Romney ads on New York City television, which is exceeding strange considering that it will be many months before the New York primary. I figure he must be trying to build up a base among moderate northeastern Republicans. There’s got to be, oh, half a dozen or so who haven’t switched parties. The ads are mostly a rehash of Reagan-era rhetoric — taxes are too high; government is too big. Please.

Dionne and Gringrich generally agree that in France, socialist candidate Ségolène Royal was out of touch with voters and had nothing new to offer. For example, her big immigration initiative was that all French citizens learn the words to the Marseillaise. E.J. Dionne continues,

It would be a mistake to draw too many American lessons from the troubles of European social democrats. For one thing, the social insurance system is much weaker in the United States than in Europe, where even conservatives support substantial government provision for health care and child care. If European voters seem willing to gamble on a bit less security because they have a lot of it, American voters now seem inclined to ask for more because they have so little.

That said, “the forces of globalization and discontent over immigration” certainly are at work in U.S. politics as well. Republicans and neoliberals like the Clintons are on one side of the globalization issue; progressive economic populists like Sherrod Brown are on the other. The “solution” of the Republicans is mostly to ignore the problem, or to pretend that manufacturing washing machines in Mexico to sell in India will create lots of high-paying jobs in the U.S. I’d like to see them explain how that will work in a PowerPoint presentation. Regarding immigration, Democrats need to be very clear that our first priority is to protect American labor and wages. But the right-wing “solution” of punishing illegal immigrants while protecting the corporations that benefit from hiring them is not helping.

2 thoughts on “French Lessons

  1. Newt would like his party to learn the lessons of France, but I don’t think it’s in the cards. The GOP’s candidates are to varying degrees crazy and unappealing even to those within their base, let alone moderates and independents. Meanwhile, the Boy King refuses to change course in his disastrous war. The net effect is to make the GOP radioactive for at least one election cycle, possibly more.

    The Dems, for once, have a strong bench of candidates. I keep reading about how moderate Republicans are flocking to them. I also read about how certain far right figures, such as Rupert Murdoch are also cozying up to candidates such as Hillary Clinton. My big fear is that, knowing the Republican brand is doomed, the right will co-opt the Dems, by supporting a centrist figure such as Hillary. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.

    In the meantime, I really believe that the fix is in for the Republicans. Newt can prognosticate all he wants, but I see them losing big in 2008, even if they manage to get behind an effort to evict Bush/Cheney before Jan 20, 2009.

    And so the right gets a centrist Democrat who won’t rock their revolution too much, the Republican brand goes into rehab for awhile, as they regroup for their next assault.

  2. Well, comparisons are difficult since the political center in most European countries is to left compared to the USA.

    In comments on American blogs, I´m always saying that German Conservatives can be roughly compared to the US Democrat party. How to compare the German Social-Democrats…:)
    One a center-right party, one a center-left. But with overlap in the center so in rare circumstances – like now – a coalition between them is possible. Leaving the smaller parties in opposition for now.
    And by the way, if Schroeder hadn´t called for early elections in 2005, it is possible that he might won the regular election in late 2006. He lost primarily because of the economy which started to really grow in 2006, one year too late for him.

    It´s a bit more complicated in France as far as I understand it.
    The two “big” parties are Sarkozy´s UMP (former Gaullists), a (European) right-wing party and Royal´s left-wing Socialist Party. With a smaller centrist party UDF (Bayrou) in the middle. The Socialist Party itself has two wings, a Social-Democrat wing probably closer to the center and a left Socialist wing. Which means that France doesn´t have a real center-left party in the European sense.

    But now to Dionne.
    If by American Progressives he means Democrats, they would be conservatives in Europe. Second, he didn´t mention Italy or Spain? Conservative governments there lost the last elections?
    The British local elections he mentioned had a LOT to do with Blair and Iraq, not globalization or immigration.

    And Sarkozy?
    Here is a opinion from a “Financial Times” (both Germany and UK) columnist.

    I think he has point when he says that a new centre-left party in France – similar to the centre-left in Germany or Northern Europe – would in fact be to the right of Sarkozy. From a liberal [in the European sense] Anglo-Saxon or German perspective, Sarkozy is definitely left-wing on economics, and right-wing on law and order and tolerance – an unusual combination.

Comments are closed.