Wednesday, August 24, 2005

A Singular Triumph of Immobility and a Strange Political Status Quo: Running France is above all a conjuring trick

In no major European country have politics remained as frozen since the Cold War's end as in France, where the old guard has proved largely impervious to the remaking of the world
writes Roger Cohen.
Britain got New Labour and Tony Blair with their slick market-oriented makeover of a tired socialism. In Spain, Felipe González's elegant refashioning of the left helped lay the basis for post-Franco democracy.

Italian politics could never be the same after the Berlin Wall fell because the system had revolved around keeping the Communists from power: the vehicle designed to that end, the Christian Democrats, disappeared. As for Germany, it incorporated a collapsed state, East Germany, and seems about to elect a woman raised there.

While all this happened - not to mention the complete reinvention of central Europe - France managed to pass power from a man who first served in government in 1944 to another who first did so in 1967. Even for a country attached to its traditions, this amounts to a singular triumph of immobility.

The passage of the presidency from François Mitterrand to Jacques Chirac was presented as one from left to right, but as Chirac has in general governed as a social democrat the distinction has proved less than startling.

…The result is a paradox: a country more attached to ideological debate than any other in Europe, yet operating in an environment where "left" and "right" are often almost meaningless labels and where governance tends to consist of saying one thing — the state is a force for good — while trying to do another — privatize. Running France is above all a conjuring trick.

It is perhaps because the art of the illusionist has lain at the center of French politics since 1945 — beginning with the depiction of wartime events and the Vichy regime — that it has been easier to maintain the various illusions that have preserved this country's strange political status quo.

But, as the political season begins again in France after the summer break, there are signs of increasing strain. To the left and right, pressures are growing for clearer political positions that would offer the French at least the semblance of a real choice between distinct ideas.

…Michel Rocard, a former Socialist prime minister, put the situation bluntly in a recent interview with Le Nouvel Observateur, saying it was time to "cast Marxist dialect into the trash can" and calling a growing leftist force in the country, the antiglobalization movement known as Attac, "a monument to economic and political stupidity."

His comments had a ring to them. But the fact is … the French are dreamers when it comes to politics, and the success of Attac's ideas, which include dismantling NATO, suggest that the appeal of the quasi-utopian is not about to die on the French left.

As a result, the embattled Socialist leader François Hollande and other moderates like former Finance Minister Dominique Strauss-Kahn will not find it easy to unite the party around a clear message.

After all, the moderates offer only the real world — the European Union, the trans-Atlantic alliance, the market tempered as best it can be to ensure that freedom is balanced with essential support for those who need it. Which French heart will beat faster to such a message?

…But my sense is that the French electorate is tired of such conjuring and wants politicians with the courage to make their views clear. Certainly, the success of Nicolas Sarkozy on the right of the political spectrum suggests the French are finding new merit in clear, declarative sentences of almost Anglo-Saxon ring.

Sarkozy, the interior minister, is trying to do something Chirac has always avoided: spell out what the right wants. He is moving carefully, for tactical reasons, but his influence suggests a time of political candor is coming.

If that happens, to left and right, France will move out of its political torpor. Other countries should then watch out: if France can achieve what it has through decades of conjured immobility, imagine what it could do once unbound.

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