THERE'S a lot to be said for France.
Most of it has been said by the French, but you can hardly blame them. Despite all their travails, and despite three horrific wars in fewer than 150 years, they have held stubbornly to the belief that nationhood and civilisation are ideals worth keeping. Don't tell George Bush, but they even have a word for panache.
The French have the best national anthem ever written. In the words liberte, egalite, fraternite they have the finest tripartite statement of common purpose yet achieved. They have, above all, a republic, one of those ideas whose time has always come. What the French don't have is a system for picking a president that satisfies anyone.
Tomorrow, they will make their first attempt at sorting wheat from political chaff. It should be straightforward. Nicolas Sarkozy is, by common consent, the most detested leader the Fifth Republic has seen. His Socialist challenger, Francois Hollande, is not a figure liable to set the garrigue on fire, but in a country whose very social fabric is under pressure, the result should be a foregone conclusion. That's not the case.
"Le changement, c'est maintenant!", says the centre-left's candidate, somewhat superfluously. The presumed idea is to invoke Obama, or even Blair, but asserting – roughly translated – that "the change is now" hardly amounts to a policy for national recovery. Mr Hollande can seem radical to tired British eyes – a 75% tax band for the super-rich, the preservation of retirement at 60 – but the idea that he can become a figurehead for a European alternative to austerity is probably wishful thinking.
True, Mr Hollande insists he will renegotiate the Brussels eurozone treaty. Granted, he has had plenty to say, both obvious and accurate, about the iniquities of "neo-liberalism". But the economy he will inherit, if victorious, is in dire shape – whether measured by youth unemployment exceeding 23%, or by a public debt level due to hit 87% of GDP this year. It is an economy, above all, in thrall to what has come to be called the German model.
If Mr Hollande wants France to change course he will have to persuade the eurozone to do likewise. To turn that wallowing tanker around he will have to face down Chancellor Angela Merkel, a politician wedded to the idea – whatever anyone thinks in Athens, Dublin or Madrid – that what is good for Germany is good for Europe. Few truly believe Mr Hollande, a born functionary, is the man for that task.
Some of his party are not even convinced he can win. Despite the unpopularity of "Sarko", an unusually high number of voters were still undecided this week. A disturbing number – 17%, by one poll – have persuaded themselves that Marine Le Pen of the National Front is politically respectable. A real socialist, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, might yet take 15% in the first round of voting.
A two-stage system is supposed to resolve these complications. In the second round, on May 6, Mr Hollande should be in a straightforward contest with Mr Sarkozy. The fact is, however, that the Socialist candidate begins this weekend on 29% in the opinion polls, versus Mr Sarkozy's 24%. Within the usual margins for statistical error, that's hardly a comfortable lead. Nor does it provide a guide to the likely movement of votes from the supporters of those who fail to make the cut.
Mr Sarkozy did well, meanwhile – if such a thing is possible – from the aftermath of the horrific killings in Toulouse. He behaved as a president is supposed to behave, measured yet decisive. In France, this matters in ways near-incomprehensible to a British electorate. This weekend, the French will begin to elect a head of state, not a mere prime minister. Many doubt that Mr Hollande, for all that he invokes Francois Mitterrand, has the gravitas.
The consideration should be irrelevant. Sarko has been both comical and sinister often enough, with his "bling bling" and vast alimony bills, his eagerness to pick on immigrants and nosy journalists, his hazy notions – in France, this matters – of how the sacred language should be spoken. The fact remains that the French right, in its various permutations, has held the presidency for 17 years. The risk for the Socialist Party is that voters will stick, for better or worse, with what they have.
Those voters have not rebelled, in any significant way, against austerity. They have not rejected the claim that France's social model is unaffordable, and in need of reform. They have had plenty to say about "Anglo-Saxon" capitalism, but they have not been galvanised by the cautious Hollande. Sarkozy cannot be written off: he's the devil they know. As in Britain, the claims of the centre-left alternative are not self-evident.
Given the aftermath of the financial crisis, this ought to count as odd. The problem for the French left, however, is that few believe in Mr Hollande's ability to restore the economy and, above all, to create jobs. Apathy is more likely to derail his campaign than Mr Sarkozy's scaremongering over immigration – ironic enough, from the son of immigrants – and Islam. One recent poll for a Paris newspaper suggested that a quarter of the electorate won't bother tomorrow.
In Britain, these days, that would count as near-normal. In France it means that precisely those whose support is most needed by Mr Hollande are disinclined to buy his "Mr Average" rhetoric.
The British Labour Party, if it has not already grasped the point, should be paying close attention. Ritual assaults on austerity or neo-liberalism don't count for much if those who suffer most refuse to believe that "change is now".
The fundamental choice for French voters this weekend is between incessant austerity and economic growth. The fundamental problem is that the choice is being offered by a pair of party hacks for whom a triple-A rating is more important, as a national status symbol, than youth unemployment. In that, the parallels with Britain are near exact.
Mr Hollande would have it that he means to challenge the bond markets and the banks. He therefore leaves the impression that, if president, he would dispute both the German and the "Anglo-Saxon" world-view. He has not convinced the French republic that he means what he says. He has certainly not convinced voters that the ineffable French way of life can be preserved, no matter what.
When Mr Mitterrand came to office at the start of the 1980s, having cobbled together a socialist party from almost nothing, three dozen banks were nationalised at the snap of presidential fingers. Such things are neither unthinkable nor impossible, despite the drumbeat of corporate propaganda. That the old rogue reversed himself in short order is, in one sense, neither here nor there. A lot depends on what you mean by le changement.
A Britain obsessed with American affairs should be watching all of this with some interest. Mr Hollande is no-one's idea of a standard-bearer, even on the French left. But whether his campaign succeeds or fails it has crystallised arguments over globalisation, turbo-capitalism and social decency in ways that Britain, or most of it, has not even begun to attempt.
France's dilemma flows from the failures of its party system. That much will be demonstrated, once again, as voting begins tomorrow. But then, who are we to talk?
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