The first round of French elections are coming this Sunday, followed by another (and deciding) one two weeks later.
The field is unusual for France. As Jane Kramer points out in the New Yorker, all three leading candidates are relative outsiders, and all are in agreement that France is broken and needs fixing, quick. This in and of itself is somewhat unusual; the French are not especially known for self-criticism.
The candidate who interests me the most is Nicholas Sarkozy, the leader in the polls. But the situation is very fluid, because the large undecided group—in some polls, half of the electorate, a truly formidable figure—makes predictions impossible.
According to Kramer, Sarkozy makes many French people uneasy, for reasons they can’t articulate very well. I think it’s because he isn’t quintessentially French–his father was Hungarian, his maternal grandfather a Greek Jew. He is a blunt speaker in a world exquisitely sensitive to PC circumlocations, an action-oriented candidate focused on results, an extoller of the value of work in a welfare state, and an Americaphile in a country steeped in anti-Americanism.
One of Sarkozy’s rivals, the geriatric Le Pen (78), is capitalizing on the perception of Sarkozy as a foreigner, calling himself the candidate of “the native soil” as opposed to Sarkozy. Le Pen also points out that his own standing is probably higher than polls reflect because people are ashamed to say they’re voting for him—a strange thing for a candidate to say about himself, but Le Pen is probably correct.
There’s an even more basic disconnect from French perspective in Sarkozy, and it’s his attitude towards equality:
We’re in a crisis that comes from a very false idea of solidarity—the idea that you have to give as much to the person who doesn’t work as to the one who does. The élites have been wrong about this for decades. They have betrayed the idea of equality and given us egalitarianism.
If I understand Sarkozy correctly, he is coming down on the side of equality of opportunity over equality of results, something that makes him more akin to conservatives in this country than to liberals. But France’s “liberte, egalite, fraternite” has always seemed to have the accent more on the “fraternity” part (as in “brotherhood,” socialist style) than on the “liberty” part (as in “libertarian belief in individual freedom”).
In line with this idea, Sarkozy is quoted in this article in American.com as saying that the French do not value those who are successful:
This attitude is explained by the French desire for egalitarianism, the fascination with leveling out, and, frankly, jealousy… Success is more often criticized than presented as a model.
When I was in Paris last fall for the France2 trial, this was an idea I heard voiced many times—that somehow, in French society, it’s not good to stick out in such a vulgar fashion. This is in marked contrast to the US, where the veneration of the successful is probably at least partly responsible for Europe’s disapproval of this supposedly crass and brash country.
The next few weeks in France promise to be “interesting.”