Theodore Dalrymple, who lives in France, says that the presidential frontrunner faces an awesome range of problems — unsettlingly similar to those that will confront the Prime Minister unlucky enough succeed Gordon Brown
During the height of the Dreyfus affair, a cartoon appeared depicting the setting of a bourgeois dinner party before and after it had taken place. Afterwards, the room was wrecked, as if a platoon of marauding soldiers had passed through it. The problem was that the guests had talked about the affair.
The current French election is a little like this. The word Sarko is enough to raise the temperature and the heart rate at any family gathering. He is the best of men; he is the worst of men. He is a true patriot; he is an unscrupulous opportunist. He is the only hope; he is a dictator in the wings.
The word Ségolène, on the other hand, has the opposite effect, a little like the tranquillisers that the French take in larger doses than any other nation in the world. Everyone, even those intending to vote for her, agrees that she is a nonentity, with not an idea in her head, even if she is an ambitious nonentity. These days, and not only in France, ideas and ambition are incompatible.
Bayrou excites no emotions: his very absence of high profile may yet prove his greatest asset. I remember a Peruvian peasant’s reply when asked why he had voted for Fujimori in the most important election in the country’s history: I voted for him, he replied, because I don’t know anything about him. This implies a rather pessimistic view of the moral qualities of politicians in parliamentary democracies, one that is now almost universal in countries where elections are held with any kind of regularity; but it makes Bayrou a distinctly possible future president.
As for Le Pen, the word is virtually unmentionable, at least in decent company. I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone who admitted to voting for him, and can therefore only conclude that the French electoral system in its counting is massively rigged in his favour.
Sarko promises a break with the past, as if he were a new man who had no connection with that very past, though actually has been around almost half as long as Chirac, which is saying quite a lot. (My wife, though late-middle-aged like me, can’t remember life without Chirac.) His posters claim that ‘Together, everything is possible’, though this is not really a proposition that has much empirical content, or bears much examination. What, after all, is its contrary? That divided, everything is impossible, or only that some things are impossible?
Ségolène, on the other hand, set out to prove that she was not the cold, calculating and shallow person she is portrayed as being, even by her own supporters, but that most monstrous invention of the modern world, a caring person. At the very outset of her campaign, she swore not to forget a single Frenchman, all 60 million of them, as if she were some kind of Christ figure. But what, one wants to know, was she going to do for the xenophobes, the racists, the misogynists, the multi-millionaires, the prisoners, the drug dealers and so forth? During a televised question and answer session with members of the public, she walked over to and put her hand on the shoulder of a woman in a wheelchair, as if she were touching for the King’s evil. This spectacle of conspicuous compassion, which was enough to make good men gag, was subsequently discussed as if it demonstrated her human side. It is as if, in this least Catholic of Catholic countries, politicians thought they had to expose their hearts as Christ did in the religious iconography of old. Is this a correct estimate of the public mood? Give me the peasants in Maupassant any time!
Not surprisingly, a lot of commentary in France has remarked on the triumph of presentation over substance in this election. To adapt slightly the phraseology of latter-day French philosophers, the politicians are powerful signifiers who yet seem to signify very little. That is why people can be passionately pro- or anti-Sarko without really believing that he will change very much if he were elected: for they are arguing about symbols, not things, which (in the French state at least) are more or less eternal.
In promising a break with the past, Sarko is at least acknowledging that something is profoundly wrong with France. The question is, how profoundly? When I think about it, I swing in my mind like a pendulum, between Pangloss and Schopenhauer.
On the one hand, France is still in many respects a more pleasant and civilised country to live in than Britain. Where I have a house, people take three hours off for lunch, and I simply don’t believe that their productivity would rocket if instead they furtively ate a sandwich between telephone calls of allegedly supreme importance. French productivity per hour of labour, after all, is far higher than British. Activity is not real work, and much activity actually obstructs real work.
In no small part, France is more productive because it is less plentifully populated with aggressively and triumphantly ignorant people than Britain (though a fast deteriorating educational system might yet reduce the difference). Ordinary social interactions are also more pleasant in France than in Britain, and since most of life is a succession of small things, this is important. Its everyday culture is markedly less crass and vulgar than Britain’s. Mass public drunkenness as the highest form of entertainment seems scarcely to exist. In marked contrast to the British, the French seem actually to like their children, with the unsurprising result that their children are more likeable than their British counterparts. And, oddly enough, for a country which is often criticised for its hostility to entrepreneurship, small shops seem to do better here than in Britain.
Yet France’s problems are deep and intractable. Under Chirac, its public debt has doubled, and the money borrowed has been used solely to pay for les acquis, the social and economic privileges that have been granted to large numbers of workers, especially in the swollen public service, such as long holidays, the 35-hour week, early retirement (at age 50) on three quarters of final salary, generous unemployment pay and prolonged sickness entitlements. No wonder three quarters of young Frenchmen say they want to be public employees.
The problem with these privileges is that, once granted, they immediately achieve the metaphysical status of inalienable rights, and any attempt to rescind them becomes a matter of violent contention and confrontation. Arrest without trial would probably cause less disruption in France than a rise in the retirement age of train drivers, and the motto of the republic under Chirac should probably have been Après nous le déluge rather than Liberty, Equality, Fraternity.
Meanwhile, and not entirely unconnectedly, the situation in what I am tempted (having spent some time in my early adulthood in South Africa) to call the townships is terrible, worse than almost anything to be found in Britain. Indeed, I never experienced in the black townships of South Africa the sheer concentrated hatred, the malignity, directed not only against me but against the larger surrounding society, that I experienced in the banlieues of Paris. And this was well before the tumultuous riots there that transfixed the world.
Of course, the authorities in France have one great advantage compared with those of apartheid South Africa: they represent the great majority of the population, at least when in confrontation with those whom Sarko famously, or infamously, called la racaille (rabble), a word that soon reverberated around the world. This, no doubt, explains why I was able to travel hundreds of miles in France during the riots without seeing so much as one burnt-out car, and was able to dine in a provincial city in an excellent restaurant, surrounded by bourgeois talking of their relationship problems, while being within walking distance of some of les jeunes who were expressing themselves pyrotechnically. It was as if the diners were sure that between them and the disgruntled young stood the CRS (the Compagnies Républicaines de Sécurité), whose commander was reported as having said that the worse things were, the calmer the CRS became: a statement that les jeunes, badly educated as they no doubt were, knew they should take seriously.
These, then, are the problems that any French president will have to face: a spiralling public debt, youth unemployment caused by a rigid labour market, and social alienation of a catastrophic depth, intensity and frequency.
Is Sarko the man to deal with all this? Certainly, he can talk tough; but when the Prime Minister, Dominique de Villepin, took the first very timid steps to reduce the inflexibility in the labour market that keeps unemployment so high in the townships, Sarko lost no time in trying to reap personal political advantage by failing to support him. The one and only correct political prediction I have ever made in my life was to foresee that if the government tried to alleviate the situation in the townships, there would be rioting on the Boulevard St Germain; and when there was such rioting, Sarko voted for surrender. It remains to be seen whether he is made of sterner stuff when he has no rival (as the Prime Minister then was) to outflank or betray.
While the rioting continued, however, I kept an eye on the bourse. It continued to rise steadily. How come, I — who am no economist — naively asked myself. The country seemed on the brink of disintegration, if not now, then next time (and there will almost certainly be a next time). How could the bourse rise as if nothing at all were happening?
Many French companies, among them some of the best in the world, directed by the genuine elite turned out by the grandes écoles, were doing extremely well, with record profits. The explanation for this is that they are increasingly shifting their activities abroad: last year, France was the largest exporter of capital in the world. Whether this is good or bad for France I leave to others to decide.
Though we in Britain like to think of France as a very different country from our own, as the French think of Britain (when they think of it at all), many of the questions confronting the two countries are very similar. Will any of our politicians have the courage to face up to the wealth-consuming vested interests that they themselves have created, or will they just speak hard and carry the small stick?
If I were French, would I vote Sarko? I would, if only in the hope that he might prove my brother-in-law wrong, who says that in France serious reform comes only by violence. If he wins — not a foregone conclusion — he will be a canary in the long dark tunnel that will face any post-Brown government.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated March 31, 2007