End of the Champagne Socialists?

29th July 2003, Comments 0 comments

These are interesting times in French politics.


A few months before the stunning event this year of a presidential election fought between Jacques Chirac and far right leader Jean-Marie Le Pen, a French friend of mine predicted that the country was heading for a shock, "a sort of 1968 in reverse". Philippe is in his early seventies, and he's seen a few remarkable events in French history.

 His point was that the then ruling left had lost all reasonable contact with ordinary folk, and that the deep frustrations many people felt found no answer in the promises of the right. The water was boiling, and the lid was tightly closed.

One of the big issues of the election was crime. The media were accused by the left of hyping the problem during the election campaign, of playing into the hands of the extremist right by exagerated reporting of the subject.

A dinner party conversation I had, after the elections, with what I'd describe as a Parisian Champagne Socialist (which the French call 'la gauche caviar') seemed to sum up the rage and isolation of the French intellectual left; she reckoned the media, with the right-leaning TF1 TV channel leading the charge, were largely guilty of a plot against former prime minister Lionel Jospin, when they "bombarded" the public with stories about events like hold-ups, rapes, shootings and urban riots in the run-up months to the elections.

Staring at me with what I'm sure was sincere outrage, she asked; "after all, have you ever had a problem with crime?" She obviously had not, and that's not altogether surprising given a lifestyle based in a comfortable city centre apartment and punctuated by taxi rides between cocktails and chic restaurants.

"It's true," she admitted, "that the criminality in immigrant neighbourhoods was brushed a little under the carpet, for fear of sounding racist. But that is something different. That problem doesn't make crime a national suffering."

Prime minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin is now just months into government, but he has wrong-footed his opponents with all the spin-doctor aplomb of Britain's Tony Blair. Only, in France, this means he is marginalising the left.

When Raffarin's interior minister, Nicolas Sarkozy, presented his new bill of anti-crime measures, there was an outcry from the left that this was an attack on the poor and vulnerable with its clampdown measures against beggars, prostitutes and squatters. The comment is undoubtedly partly true, but what is also just as true is Sarkozy's retort that the underprivileged also include many people who have to live, day and night, with crime.

As Sarkozy presented his bill, an all-too familiar urban riot in a Strasbourg suburb left local people's cars burnt-out and firemen attacked. He could not have scripted a more timely illustration of his argument. When Sarkozy took to the floor of the National Assembly, he coldly put down one of a group of Socialist members of parliament jeering at his proposals, by exposing him as someone who had, just days earlier, confided to him his approval of recent new government policing intitiatives in his circumscription.

Now, Sarkozy is no choir boy — indeed, the hardly-hidden agenda of this hardened Gaullist is to ultimately take over from Jacques Chirac. He, like many of his government colleagues, have an equal responsibility in the deep social crisis France has fallen into, the result of years of fiddling while a lot of burning was going on.

But the fact is, whether or not it's political opportunism, France's new right-wing government is grappling with the problems its Socialist predecessors preferred to ignore. Whether it's Sarkozy's crime bill or the financial funds released this week to redevelop the thousands of delapidated housing estates across the country, prime minister Raffarin is doing something about the conditions which the Parisian left wing intellectual elite don't even appear to recognise as reality for millions of people.

The key to this refreshingly populist approach is undoubtedly Raffarin himself, a self-effacing, pragmatic politician credited with a rare simplicity. After all, who would have thought Chirac, engulfed in the most fearsome sleaze scandal facing any leader in the Western world, capable of leading a rennaissance of French politics? Well, the answer is no-one, not even many of his own followers.

The prospect for the left is unclear. If Raffarin is successful in winning support for his social policies in low income areas, the battle front will be taken to his urgent economic reforms, particularly the staff trimming and privatisations of the public sector. This is likely to be a complex issue, and quite different - contrary to Socialist hopes - to the disastrous confrontation with the unions in 1995 led by Gaullist prime minister Alain Juppé.

There is no forgone public sympathy, at a time when many private sector employees are struggling on low wages and job uncertainty, with the cushy and outdated privileges of public employees. Furthermore, the current government initiatives are being cleverly spun to bank public support before such a crunch comes.

In sum, the right has the left on the run, and however superficial the new government's policies may prove to be, the intitiative is currently with them for the first time in a generation. A generation, that is, of Champagne Socialists.

October 31 2002.

(This article was written by Graham Tearse former editor of Expatica France).

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