French voters prepare to elect a successor to outgoing President François Mitterrand
THE END OF ANERA
French voters prepare to elect a successor to outgoing President François Mitterrand
There is a majestic flair to the way François Mitterrand has orchestrated his retirement from the French presidency after two terms and 14 years in office. He has travelled Europe delivering valedictory speeches, exhorting the next generation to carry on his dream of building a united Europe. This month, he presided over the ribbon-cutting of the new National Library in Paris, the last of the grand architectural monuments to his presidency (even though the building will not be finished for another two years).
And through numerous interviews, he has tried to polish, revise, explain and rationalize the actions of a lifetime, while at the same time offering the French public a stream of metaphysical musings. His latest encyclical, a self-portrait-in-dialogue called Memoir in Two Voices, is the transcript of conversations with his friend and Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel in which the two men reflect on religion, literature, war and childhood.
The book was on display everywhere in Paris last week. In a country where philosopher kings can double as pop celebrities, it even merited its own showcase in the mammoth Virgin music store on the Champs Elysées, just under the poster for Céline Dion’s number 1 album The Color of My Love. The mortal Mitterrand may be ravaged by cancer, his 78year-old face a pallid mask. But the younger Mitterrand that stares back from the numerous magazine covers and books summarizing his impact on French politics is the face that history will remember, the one that will be sculpted on statues and busts: pensive, seductive, with a hint of mischief and more than a bit of mysticism. All the attention given to Mitterrand’s political passing makes it impossible to ignore that an era is ending in France. What is difficult to gauge as voters prepare to choose his successor on April 23 is what will follow.
For as much as Mitterrand was a political chameleon—right-wing Catholic activist in his youth, socialist agnostic later on; Vichy government official and decorated Resistance fighter both—he had one stirring political idea to which he was always faithful: France had to build a united European federation that would wipe out the scourge of nationalist wars. But politics is now adrift in the country that gave the world the revolutionary rights of man and tried to offer a “third way” during the Cold War. No bold new ideas drive its debates. Its presidential candidates prefer to pander to voters with promises of state-guaranteed
jobs and painless budget cuts. ‘There is a very tempered liberalism among French voters,” said Romain Pache of the B.VA polling firm in explaining why no tough deficit-cutting message has emerged in France as it has in North America. “They still want the state to play an active role, to guarantee social security and to do something about unemployment.”
Of course, voters still have plenty of choices on the political fringes. There are nine presidential candidates, spanning the spectrum from Trotskyites and eco-activists to far-right nationalists and, until the Constitutional Council rules on his eligibility, a candidate who was convicted of stealing money from an Alzheimer’s victim. But the three main contenders—conservatives Jacques Chirac and Edouard Balladur along with Socialist standard-bearer Lionel Jospin—all subscribe to the same orthodox platitudes. In general, they all favor a stronger France in a united Europe. They all promise to clean the corruption out of politics. And they all insist that the state has a duty to provide social safety nets for its citizens. As Interior Minister Charles Pasqua likes to point out, France is a profoundly conservative country, both on the right and the left. “The French like to believe their own myth that they are open to innovation,” says Maurice Levy, chairman of the advertising agency Publicis. “But the fact is they hate real change.”
The result is that after months of cam-
paigning, as many as 40 per cent of French voters are still undecided on how they will vote. Lacking an ideological divide, the presidential campaign has adopted some of the hallmarks of hated Anglo-Saxon-style politicking. Candidates’ personal lives and wealth have been scrutinized as never before in France. Anti-European campaigner Philippe de Villiers complained last week, as trailing candidates tend to do when their message does not take hold, that the election has been “all about marketing, all about image.” Certainly, the campaign has been marked by a rise in personal attacks on opponents, what the weekly magazine Le Nouvel Observateur bemoaned as a “disgusting war” (the candidates sound most wounded when accused of “demagogy,” which has been hurled with great frequency). The heaviest slanging has gone on between Balladur and Chirac, two men who have been friends for 30 years and used to exchange birthday gifts. Their friendship collapsed when Balladur, the current prime minister and, until recently, the most popular French politician, entered the race for president, allegedly breaking a private agreement with Chirac not to run against him.
But Bahadur’s collapse from his 63-per-cent approval rating last fall has been striking. The most crushing blow came this year, when his government was snared in a complicated phone-tapping scandal of such skulduggery that Oliver Stone would drool at the conspiracy prospects. Once lauded as the calm captain at the helm of state, the prime minister is now widely mocked for his attempts, like those of former U.S. president George Bush, to show that despite his enormous personal wealth he is a man of the people. Riding the Paris I subway, he remarked, “The Metro,
0 it’s warm,” leaving the impression
1 that he needs cue cards to talk to ordinary voters. He now finds himself with less than 20 per cent support, battling with Jospin for second place and the right to face off against Chirac in the runoff round of balloting on May 7.
Chirac seems sure to advance to the last round. Initially dismissed as a “loser,” because of two previous ill-starred runs at the presidency, he now polls a steady 27 per cent among voters. Opponents criticize the longtime Paris mayor for lacking political convictions— “Chirac has one foot on the zig, one foot on the zag,” says far right candidate Jean-Marie Le Pen. And indeed, he has ridden every political vogue of his generation: a central planning Gaullist in the 1970s, a tax-cutting free marketer in the 1980s. “It is like a Beaujolais nouveau—every year he tells us that the Chirac nouveau has arrived,” said Patrick
Devedjian, a leading Balladur supporter.
This year’s model is offering homes to the homeless and jobs to graduating students with such assurance that Chirac has earned the nickname “Chi,” a play on his name and that of Marxist revolutionary Che Guevara. Chirac’s campaign formula is simple: whenever an issue is raised, throw money at it. AIDS is the second-highest issue among young voters. Chirac offers to remove the sales tax on condoms. His slogan is “A France for all,” and no voter goes without a promise. He has pledged more spending on culture and education, and increased benefits for the unemployed. For the nationalist crowd that likes to see France punch above its weight internationally, there is a policy to resume testing nuclear weapons.
Just how Chirac squares the spending spree with his other promises to cut taxes and curb the deficit goes unexplained. But his strategy of pandering to traditional leftwing voters is working. Convinced that socialist candidate Jospin cannot win and that Balladur would cut a deal with extreme rightwingers such as Le Pen to hold power, many on the traditional left are casting a tactical vote for Chirac. Even many of the leading lights in the artistic community such as actor Gérard Depardieu, once firmly in the socialist bosom, are supporting him. “Culture has been an affair of state since Louis xrv,” said Florent Leclercq, a political writer with L’Express magazine. “The arts community has no affection for Chirac, but they want to stay out of the ghetto. And right now, he has the air of a winner.”
Some critics have nagging worries that Chirac is raising expectations to levels he can never fulfil—and that the days of reckoning are just being postponed. For one thing, countries wishing to participate in the common European currency being planned for later this decade (a plan that Chirac hedgingly supports) must reduce their budget deficits to three per cent of their gross domestic product. France’s deficit stands at 5.7 per cent of GDP.
Even more worrisome, French politicians leave the impression that they can be bullied by any special-interest group willing to take to the streets in protest. Bahadur’s prime ministership was marked by one climbdown after another—Air France employees, farmers and students all succeeded in reversing policies they did not like by staging demonstrations. That lesson will not soon be forgotten. In April, the presidential campaign has been marked by a wave of strikes: postal workers, and bank, airline and transit employees all hit the bricks demanding job security and higher wages. With Mitterrand’s retirement, France is losing a leader whose political views were shaped by the tragedy of the Second World War. For his heirs, the formative experience was the near-anarchy of the worker-student street rebellions of 1968 that eventually toppled Charles de Gaulle. They give every impression of being haunted by those ghosts. □
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