Wednesday, January 25, 2012

French Elections: Neither Nicolas Sarkozy nor François Hollande is talking about the perspective for painful change

What kind of country would France be if it abandoned its 35-hour work week (it actually kills jobs), set up an affirmative action program for its Muslim immigrants (featuring a zero-tolerance framework for their assimilation), and scaled back its ambitions for Europe as a global political force to more attainable goals?
asks John Vinocur flippantly in the International Herald Tribune.
Answer: An imaginary one. There are no signs of it happening.

…100 days before voting in an elimination round April 22, and then in a final ballot on May 6, the French presidential election campaign so far involves back and forth on possible variations in French comfort — tinkering with, adjusting and applying new coats of paint to familiar and nonthreatening aspects of national life.

There’s something surreal here. Neither Nicolas Sarkozy, who has been a brash president for the last five years, or the presumedly bland François Hollande, named Socialist candidate on Oct. 16, is talking about the perspective for painful change.

… For all of France’s accomplishments and uniqueness, a sense of lost identity and decline resonates.

At a moment that seems to command existential choice, the candidates are responding piecemeal and with calculation in a manner the French call “petit bras” — taking hesitant, little strokes where a full swing is needed.

… Their refusal so far to confront sweeping structural change reads as if [Mr. Sarkozy and Mr. Hollande] agree with the notion that the French perceive almost any change in the system as a threat because virtually everyone’s self-interest is wired to a state-protected status quo. The biggest issue of avoidance for the election campaign is structural reform of the labor market.

… Mr. Hollande thinks that by avoiding a clear set of campaign commitments, he can circumvent anything specific that might threaten his wide lead over Mr. Sarkozy in current polling. The president concentrates on casting himself to the French not as a dispenser of much-need reform medicine, but as their worldly, combative protector.

That common burst of subterfuge means an election campaign poor in meaningful, coherent ideas. In this country, normally so productive in inventiveness and nerve, there’s nothing new or promising going on as it stutters and drifts toward choosing a president.