Voting day today for two candidates promising change. At the same time, both are promising to maintain the status quo.
The man polls suggest most likely to win declares grandiloquently he will enact bold and dramatic change, quietly followed by a meek retreat to more consensual policies. He calls the 35-hour working week a ‘general catostrophe.’ Then he says he will keep it. The government has added one-million bureaucrats since Mitterrand in 1992, he says. Yet his enthusiasm for a roll-back of the state is tempered to a gentle non-replacement promise of one retiring civil servant in two. No debate over which services need more investment, and which ones need to be cut. Sarkozy may be hailed as the most market friendly candidate, but the French social model is safe in his hands. His program is full of subsidies and short of spending cuts. Normal perhaps in an election, but the national debt isn’t going to shrink under this platform.
Nor have the Socialists come up with an answer. Despite having shaken up her party (she has done more in six months than the previous 15 years according to sociologist Loic Wacquant writing in Liberation yesterday), Segolene is hampered by an entrenched us-verus-them attitude among her supporters. Anyone who criticises is considered a traitor. Anyone who points out that things could be done better is given the cold shoulder.
The left ‘needs to accept the confrontation of ideas,’ Segolene’s special advisor Julian Dray told RFI radio yesterday after La Candidate went a bid mad in an RTL interview, suggesting an Armageddon stype situation if Sarkozy is elected. He said he is not ‘one of those who consider that Nicolas Sarkozy is a threat to the French Republic and tomorrow we will have to form a resistance.’
Sarkozy puts it like this (in an interview with France Inter four days ago):
‘The French left has this fantastic idea that anyone who does not share exactly their ideas is illegitimate. If I am not in agreement with them, I am brutal. I am a danger for democracy for the sole reason that I do not have leftwing ideas.’
A fairly healthy, if a little limpid, economy has helped France avoid difficult choices about how to adapt to a changing world. If its leaders avoid a real discussion, then the country is just one recession away from being forced to face up to it.