Op-Ed: Rainy day reflections on France’s looming power vacuum
The failure of Socialism to adapt to the modern world and the real prospect of its eventual disappearance would be of no importance if it weren’t for the fact that there is nothing to replace it as an effective fail-safe against political extremism.
It’s Saturday morning and it’s raining outside under a dark and dreary sky. Most of the country is covered in clouds and the French are at home, uncomfortably aware that summer is over and that tonight sees the clocks go back an hour to winter time. The darker months are nearing, the streets are deserted and there’s a bleak and eerily silent feel to it all.
It strikes me that the weather metaphor could be applied to the country’s political and social issues. The pension reform has been voted and the burnt-out cars
from the riots have been cleared away, the strikers who blocked petrol refineries and prevented people from getting to work have gone back to work themselves, public transport is back to normal, the smashed windows in looted shops have been repaired and the piles of rotting rubbish have been cleared away. The riots and protests
are over, their instigators defeated and licking their wounds.
Indignation at the government’s treatment of the Roma
has turned into general indifference as the planes transporting them back to their countries of origin roar down runways at Roissy airport and take off, unnoticed. The country’s massive debt is under crisis management and the opposition doesn’t have a word to say on the government’s policies now that the financial crisis has faded into the past, along with the bitter recriminations about whose fault it was.
There’s a bleak and eerily silent feel to all this too.
The current situation could be seen as representing a victory for the political right – and it is in a way of course – but it is also indicative of a deeper malaise.
The chaos has subsided, but the political terrain is now barren. It has become clear that France’s opposition Socialists, Communists and other left-wing parties have not offered any alternatives to current government policies. Indeed they haven't held presidential power since Mitterand and have forgotten what it's like to run a government too. Opposition tactics consisting of noisy full-frontal opposition to everything and without offering alternatives have not persuaded the French public
that they are a government-in-waiting. On the contrary, although polls show President Sarkozy at his lowest popularity level ever, they also show even deeper dissatisfaction with potential Socialist alternative candidates.
As is the case all over Europe, Socialism is in full retreat in France, its tired and unbendingly dogmatic principles in tatters, its dreams shattered. The frenzied last-ditch radicalization of Socialism in an attempt to put it back on the political map has only alienated it even more from the people.
Socialism is in the middle of a deep crisis, and, ominously, Socialists themselves are beginning to predict its possible demise. Consider these sad words
from a well-known French Socialist militant; “Discredited, bruised and battered, confused and powerless…such is the image of our party today.”
She said that in the context of a plea for Socialists to rally around Ségolène Royal, the highly controversial losing candidate in the last presidential election. The problem is though that Royal herself has said on several occasions that if things continue as they are now, the Socialist party might do better to consider, or have no alternative to, auto-dissolution. And she is not the only Socialist to have uttered those dreaded words, to have raised the specter of the end of Socialism in France, as is happening elsewhere.
The Socialist party is already looking shaky and is far from being in a position to challenge Nicolas Sarkozy in the 2012 elections. They have organized primaries in order to choose a candidate in a desperate effort (ironically) inspired by the American system to avoid the awful in-fighting which marred their last candidate selection process. This initiative is already in trouble however, with bitching being the name of the game and no general policy outlines anywhere to be seen. The party seems quite simply incapable of coming up with unified policies adapted to the modern world.
In other words, things are looking very bad for French Socialism. But if you dislike Socialism, I wouldn’t be jumping for joy and wishing for its disappearance if I were you. Because if Socialism fails totally, there will be no credible democratic alternative to the slightly right-of-center governments that have slowly increased in frequency in France and in Europe as a whole. But the need for healthy and effective opposition will remain.
Not convinced? Well try this. If that kind of a power vacuum happens and there is no democratic opposition party to fill it, France will leave itself wide open to another form of opposition, a form of opposition much less palatable than Socialism here has ever been.
That opposition is called extreme right-wing nationalism. France’s fascist National Front party is basing its 2012 campaign along anti-globalization lines
with strong relents of xenophobia and a visceral objection to anything foreign, with Anglo-Saxon countries and immigration at the top of the list. Polls are already predicting a larger National Front vote in 2012, and it is strongly suspected that at least some of this vote will come from angry and disappointed Communists and Socialists.
France is currently like a battlefield upon which a lull has occurred in the fighting. But the people are still angry, still bitter, about policies they do not agree with and their frustration with not having an effective opposition party to channel their demands in a democratic way will not simply disappear if the Socialist party refuses to reform itself and implodes. They will turn to the only alternative - the National Front - in increasing numbers, as they are doing elsewhere in Europe.
The end of Socialism? Don’t ask for it, you might just get it. And that would be much more depressing than mere dark clouds on a dull and rainy day.