Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Wallerstein on France

Commentary No. 209, May 15, 2009
"France: The End of Gaullism?"

Nicolas Sarkozy, just elected President of France, asserted in his initial post-election statement that France has chosen change. To claim that one stands for change is not unusual among those who come to power. Did Sarkozy mean it, and if so, what did he mean by it? His election is being interpreted in the United States as that of the most friendly French president in the history of the Fifth Republic. No doubt he is, but does this mean that French foreign policy will change?

We should start by analyzing what accounts for his election. In Western electoral systems, there usually are two principal parties, one more to the left and one more to the right. This is true of France as well, where the mainstream right is represented by the Union pour un Mouvement Populaire (UMP), Sarkozy's party, and the mainstream left by the Socialist party, whose candidate was Ségolène Royal. Normally, in most elections, the base of each party votes for its candidates. In France, with a two-round system, this is surely the case. To win an election, there are three places to locate changeable votes in the second round - the further left, the further right, and the center. The center refers to those voters who are ready to switch between the two parties, and often do. The further left and further right normally choose between the mainstream party and abstention.

When François Mitterand won as the Socialist candidate in 1981 and again in 1988, he clearly drew his extra votes from the center. When Jacques Chirac won as the right-wing candidate in 1995, he ran on a "social" platform and thereby also drew his extra votes from the center. This is not what happened this time. The further left voted for Royal. The center seems to have split the way they usually do - two-thirds for the right and one-third for the left. Where Sarkozy got his extra votes was from the further right. Despite the explicit request of Jean-Marie Le Pen, the major candidate of the further right, that his voters massively abstain in the second round, they didn't listen to him. They voted for Sarkozy.

The question is why they voted for Sarkozy. Most of these voters are unconcerned with France's relations with the United States. And they are largely unconcerned with the kind of conservative economic measures Sarkozy has promised. They voted for him primarily because he represents in their eyes the kind of anti-Muslim position important to them. He did this in three specific ways. He promised to be tough on crime in the banlieues (the French ghettos). He promised to tighten controls on immigration. And he promised to stand strong against Turkish membership in the European Union. He will almost surely fulfill all three promises, and hence the further right voters will get what they wanted.

What, however, does this imply about the rest of his program? Not necessarily very much. The UMP is a party whose historic roots are primarily in Gaullism. What is, or was, Gaullism? Charles De Gaulle, in his first period of power, right after the Second World War, stood for three things: an assertion of France's right to a major, independent role in world politics; dirigisme, a kind of Keynesian economic policy with a major role for the French state; and internal anti-Communism.

When he returned to power in 1958, he still stood for the same three things. When he spoke about French nuclear weapons, he said they were designed to defend France tous azimuts, meaning in all directions. He withdrew France from the NATO command structure. He nonetheless always insisted that France was on the same global side as the United States, that is, anti-Communist. He remained committed to a French welfare state. France has had four other presidents since De Gaulle. None of them has really deviated fundamentally from this Gaullist trinity of positions - French independent power, pro-welfare state, anti-Communism - even though only two of the four claimed to be Gaullists.

Will Sarkozy's call for change really be a repudiation of this trinity of positions? I doubt it. On the United States, he has said that France was "arrogant" in the way it handled the U.S. demand for intervention in Iraq, but that he agreed with the basic position. This is rather akin to Angela Merkel's line - speak more politely to the United States, but nonetheless pursue a somewhat independent policy. Merkel has shown this most recently by using suave language with Washington but simultaneously expressing her strong opposition to the U.S. intention to locate nuclear interceptor devices in Poland and the Czech Republic.

Lord Palmerston, British Foreign Secretary in the middle of the nineteenth century, famously said: "Britain has no permanent allies; she has permanent interests." What are France's interests? In fact, France needs little from the United States. It is rather the United States that needs French support. France's primary interests are in the shape of Europe, and its relations with its former colonies in Africa. In Europe, France's interests are best pursued by a continuing close relationship with Germany. Merkel may well serve as a model for him, far more than Mrs. Thatcher. As for the former African colonies, they have openly shown their discomfort with Sarkozy's election, precisely because of his stands on the issues of concern to France's further right. Sarkozy's prime foreign policy priorities will be to work out his relations with Germany and to repair his image in the former French colonies.

Abandoning the Gaullist heritage will not help him do either. To be sure, he can be expected to put through some economic measures, such as eliminating the 35-hour work week, and enacting various tax reforms. But this is far from destroying the welfare state. He has also used as a theme in his election the repudiation of the heritage of 1968, which seems to be a 2007 way of being anti-Communist. What this means in practical terms is hard to see as yet.

In terms of internal politics, Sarkozy is moving to dismantle as much as possible of the organized group in the French center that wishes to take distance from the mainstream right by creating a "true" center party. He will probably succeed in this. And the disarray in the Socialist party will no doubt help him confirm his electoral base for future elections. All this, however, is far from a fundamental break with the political consensus on which France has operated since 1945.

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