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The right's spell is broken in France

The Socialist Party’s Francois Hollande has become the president of France by ousting the conservative incumbent, Nicolas Sarkozy, in one of the most bitterly contested and polarising election campaigns in recent European history. This breaks the Right’s spell over the French presidency since 1995. This is good news for the 17-nation Euro-zone, now gripped by its worst-ever crisis, and also the larger world.

The small margin of Hollande’s victory in the second round of voting—barely 4 percentage-points, and much less than that forecast—means that he wasn’t able to garner many of the non-Sarkozy votes cast in the first round, except for the 12 percent which favoured the Far Left led by Jean-Luc Melenchon. In some regions, Sarkozy managed to win 50 percent or more votes.

This could spell political uncertainty. Many French regions and cities, which enjoy a degree of autonomy from the centre, continue to remain under conservative influence. The Socialists aren’t sure of winning the national legislature elections due in June. Nevertheless, the end of Sarkozy’s reign and his larger political project calls for celebration.

Sarkozy was a boorish politician with an offensive street-fighter style who attacked social inclusion and catered to anti-immigrant prejudice and Islamophobia, while weakening the welfare state. He aligned France closely to the US and advocated militarist approaches to conflicts. Under him, France rejoined the NATO military command, which it had quit under De Gaulle. He led the Western coalition which attacked Libya last year, deposing Muammar Gaddafi.

Ironically, it has been revealed by a highly credible media-watch organisation that Sarkozy was paid Euro 50 billion by the same Gaddafi for his 2007 presidential campaign.

In Europe, Sarkozy strengthened Right-wing forces and formed a close alliance with German chancellor Angela Merkel (creating the 'Merkozy' axis) which advocated and implemented a tough austerity regime in the European Union’s 27 member-states through a fiscal compact. This is at the root of the severe erosion of welfare spending, withdrawal of public services, and growing unemployment, deprivation, homelessness and poverty evident in most EU countries.

In France itself, Sarkozy carried crony capitalism to new heights, and privatised a number of core public assets. He raised the pensionable retirement age of employees from 60 to 62 years, and lengthened the statutory working week. The 35-hour week was one of the greatest achievements of the Left, which gave people more leisure and created more jobs. Sarkozy reversed it after launching a vicious campaign against the very idea. The trade unions were cornered.  

Sarkozy made immigrants, especially France’s 5 million Muslims from the Maghreb and sub-Saharan Africa, feel particularly unwelcome and insecure. This had a terrible impact on social cohesion and encouraged xenophobic Far-Right currents like Marine Le Pen’s Front National.

Sarkozy personified a semi-authoritarian, highly divisive form of rule which provoked fear and loathing. He was brazenly exhibitionist and had an ostentatious lifestyle. He boastfully flaunted his close connections with rich industrialists and foreign dictators. His critics despised him far more intensely than any other French conservative.

As social scientist-activist Harsh Kapoor, a long-time resident of France and an acute observer of its politics puts it, Sarkozy’s rule will also be long remembered for three things: media manipulation, shady campaign finance, and the practice of confrontationist (some would say, gutter-level) politics.

Sarkozy blatantly meddled in the print media, appropriated to himself the power to appoint the heads of France’s public television channels, and cynically exploited his business connections to manipulate publications like Le Figaro, France’s biggest-selling daily, as well as a host of smaller papers, to build a media empire. Sarkozy controlled two-thirds of the French media through his business friends. In this, he came closest to Italy’s disgraced Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi—with the difference that the latter actually owned many publication and channels, and Sarkozy didn’t.

Sarkozy injected an element of sleaze into the financing of conservative political campaigns through payoffs made in arms deals between French companies and foreign governments, thus strengthening the legacy inherited from his UMP party.   

Even worse was his anti-consensual, macho, confrontationist style of politics, his contempt for elected parliamentarians, and his undermining of democratic institutions. This was particularly evident in the manner in which he handled the civil unrest of 2005, triggered by North African immigrant youth, as the interior (home) minister. When even bigger protests broke out in 2009 under his presidency, he was yet more bellicose. Instead of healing social divides, he widened them.

Sarkozy, then, leaves behind a toxic and retrograde legacy. The French voted powerfully against it rather than positively for Hollande. Migrants, progressives and advocates of inclusion are naturally celebrating Sarkozy’s defeat in the streets in a festive manner.

Besides the promise of social inclusion and equal treatment of all citizens, a key factor in Hollande’s victory was his opposition to the harsh austerity measures enforced by Germany on the Euro-zone’s most crisis-ridden countries. These measures are slowing down Europe’s recovery from the post-2008 Great Recession, and impoverishing people.

The worst example is Greece. Massive cutbacks in state spending, on top of a vicious, protracted financial crisis, have caused acute social distress and hardship to the Greek people, with unemployment running at 20 percent and civil servants’ salaries slashed by one-half. The very day the French threw out Sarkozy, the Greeks voted out the main parties responsible for the hated austerity programme, throwing up a badly fragmented parliament in which both conservatives and a Left coalition are vying to stitch together a government.

Hollande’s opposition to austerity is well founded. What Europe needs is more, not less, state spending so that more purchasing power is put into the hands of the people, stimulating a recovery. That said, Hollande doesn’t have a programme which can radically alter the direction of the French economy and society.

Hollande and his cabinet will take a 30 percent salary cut—a welcome move. He is committed to balancing the budget over the next five years. But what France, like the rest of the EU, needs is an expansionary policy. More state spending even with some inflation would be preferable to a 'double-dip' recession. A deflationary policy obsessed with balancing the budget will further depress the economy.

Hollande, in keeping with his 'Mr Normal', non-controversial personality, and generally cautious approach, is only promising a 'soft' Social Democratic programme which won’t rock neoliberal capitalism’s boat too much. This 35-point plan is far milder than the proposals of the Socialists’ candidate in the 2007 presidential elections—and Hollande’s former partner—Segolene Royale.  

Hollande wants to renegotiate the Euro-zone’s fiscal compact to promote growth, social security and ecological concerns. He has promised Euro 20 billion additional social spending and the creation of 150,000 new jobs, including 60,000 teachers’ jobs. He would like to give workers the right to retire and earn a pension at the age of 60 if they started working at 18. He wants to invest in renewable energy and reduce the role of nuclear power. He would also advance the pullout of French troops from Afghanistan by a year to end-2012.

The most radical measure Hollande proposes is a 75 percent tax on individual income above a million Euros. But that would only affect a small number. Yet, the new president will face countless hurdles, including resistance from Merkel to a change in the fiscal compact, pressure from Nato on Afghanistan, and opposition from corporations and finance capital.

Such opposition would be similar to but more intense than what the Manmohan Singh government faces today for even proposing General Anti-Avoidance Rules, minor taxes on jewellery and in the Vodafone case. Finance minister Pranab Mukherjee has caved in to corporate lobbying and scare-mongering about falling markets and fleeing investors. Hollande shouldn’t.

France has already lost its AAA credit rating. The bond markets will groan as the government borrows Euro 200 billion-plus in medium-term loans by the year’s end. Hollande is aware of the odds. He recently said: 'My real adversary has no name, no face, no party. It will never be elected. Yet it governs. The adversary is the world of finance.'

However, how Hollande intends to fight finance capital isn’t clear. But fight he must—unless he wants to go the way the rulers of Greece, Ireland and Spain have gone. He has good fighting allies in the Far Left led by Melenchon, the trade unions which also oppose austerity, and France’s depleting, but still substantial, progressive intelligentsia.

The fight will become easier if the Socialists win the legislature elections. But even if they lose, Hollande must wage a determined struggle against neoliberalism and to bend capital investment to the ends of a just and equal society. The fight will be hard, but worth waging. On it will depend the fate of the entire Socialist project in Europe, and eventually, the world.
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