Inside/Out: Expatica weighs in on Round One

20th April 2007, Comments 0 comments

The decision for the next president of the République will effect the lives of all who live here — and that includes us. But an endorsement per se seems silly when expats don't vote. Instead, the Expatica France edit team weighs in on three of the leading campaign issues relevant to our community. News Editor Damien Lézé delivers the perspective of a French voter; Contributing Editor Clair Whitmer counters with the viewpoint of a French resident, but non-voting expat.

From Nicolas Sarkozy's vow to open France's economy and heal relations with the US, to the possibility of the first female president of the République, to the surprise rise of Third Man François Bayrou and his quest to break with the Left-Right cleavage that has long defined French's been a long and action-packed campaign. 

Which of these four will make it to Round Two?

And a suspenseful one: one in three French voters was still undecided this last week before Round One, leaving this as the most unpredictable presidential race in decades.
But it's an awkward thing for expats, many of whom have passionately held opinions on French politics...but who can't vote. Rather than endorsing a candidate, we're contenting ourselves with offering these reflections on three questions relevant to our community.

This campaign was supposed to be all about Big Change. Are the candidates ready to deliver?

Damien Lézé: The question in France remains: what exactly will Nicolas Sarkozy's rupture, Francois Bayrou's révolution pacifique or Ségolène Royal's somewhat forgotten démocratie participative change?

*sidebar1*Sceptics see little but catch phrases and even an aptitude for creating new words such as 'bravitude', a word Royal uttered several months ago on the Great Wall of China during her controversial visit. (The word enjoyed a short-lived recognition when it was given a Wikipedia entry, later removed at the request of users.)

But what do the candidates offer? What will they change? Other than François Bayrou's vision – a largely discredited vision, as the polls would have it – of a coalition government disregarding the Left and Right cleavage, as a French voter, I fail to see what is fundamentally different in this election.

Sarkozy offers a rupture from previous right-wing programs only in that it takes the reasoning a step further and does not try to hide it.

What's new about Sarkozy's candidacy is his persona, not his programme. I cannot recall when was the last time a French presidential frontrunner was despised to such extent by a whole segment of the population, namely, French people of immigrant origins, who have massively registered to vote, many of them for the first time.

Royal's programme, like many Socialist programmes of the past, begs the question: How much will it cost and where will the money come from? The only real novelty Royal offers is her gender, which considering the under-representation of women in French politics, is indeed a novelty.

Still, the French political spectrum seems to be divided in the same two groups it always has been: those who fear globalization will destroy the French way and see all beloved acquis sociaux disappear.

And those who fear that globalization will pass France by, that the rigidity of the economy will make France unattractive to investment, that France will inevitably become a second-class country crawling under the weight of its own institutions.

What is new in this presidential election is not in the programmes of the candidates. What is new about this election is the voters and their renewed interest in politics.

Clair Whitmer: What's strange is that it seems the only demographic in France not convinced of France's 'decline' are foreign investors, with 2006 seeing a record number of new projects and jobs created and with American firms at the top that list.

But it seems to me one thing hasn't changed a whit: an abiding French cynicism about both politicians and the economy.

None of the 12 candidates have managed to stir widespread, unalloyed enthusiasm. And after all the discussion of change, change, change, none has proposed a single Big Idea that addresses the fundamental question: why is the French economy underperforming, even when compared to neighbours like Germany?

Arguably, all the platforms contain some good ideas—but nothing as sweeping as the 35-hour workweek, which love it or hate it, was a radically new idea that significantly altered the direction of the country and the daily life of its citizens.

Ségolène has been obliged to blatantly play the gender card: vote for me because I'm a woman. But French voters don't seem convinced that electing a woman counts as Big Change in and of itself, as even female voters aren't choosing along gender lines.

Nicolas Sarkozy, for all his talk of la rupture, has limited himself to tinkering with the existing formula, although if he can tinker the unemployment rate to five percent as promised, he'll deserve the gratitude of the nation.

François Bayrou has a Big Idea, an alliance between Left and Right, but the mechanics and, finally, the purpose other than getting him elected are vague, a handicap that has left him stalled in third place.

Besides, Royal is also proposing similar institutional changes, namely the non-cumul de mandats, so politicians won't be able to hold several elected positions at once, and proportional voting in the Assemblée Nationale to facilitate the participation of smaller parties.

These are good ideas but won't deliver the one change everyone agrees France needs: fatter salaries across the board.

All this means I agree with Damien that Sarko is the most likely to deliver change, but no so much because of his programme but because his casseur temperament will spark a backlash. If he's elected, I think France will change; but there's no telling how.

Which, if any, proposals will directly effect the expat community?

DL: It depends on one's occupation. A foreign entrepreneur living and working in France or someone working for a foreign multinational should probably try to convince his/her French friends to vote Sarkozy.

That person might see his/her work better rewarded in the future but should stay clear of the so-called difficult neighbourhoods since Sarkozy hatred is unlikely to diminish in these parts were he to be elected.

On the other hand, American expats who came to France escaping the somewhat Darwinist and do-or-die American model should fear Sarkozy. He has clearly stated, on several occasions and once in Washington with President Bush by his side, that France could learn a lot from the American model.

There is no doubt Sarkozy intends to import part of that model and his discourse on work has at times an aftertaste of that of American conservatives such as Senator Phil Gramm, who in 1984 reduced the American people to those who work and pay taxes and those who wait to collect benefits. Meaning working men should blame the unemployed for all their troubles, not the government.

Gramm once asked, in a question that might remind many French nationals of Sarko: "Has anyone ever noticed that we live in the only country in the world where all the poor people are fat?"

While a bit of American flexibility in the employment market might do France some good, I fear that Sarkozy's ideal France might be too American, even for some Americans.

CW: Lots of us long-haulers would like to vote here, at least in the communities where we pay property taxes. British residents are particularly frustrated by this as many have been gone from the UK long enough to lose their voting status there and yet still can't vote here.

Ségolène Royal (Proposition 75), François Bayrou and all of the Left (Olivier Besancenot, Gérard Schivardi, Arlette Laguiller, Marie-George Buffet and Dominique Voynet) favour the right to vote for foreigners with variations on the details (only municipal elections or national elections as well, five years of residency or 10?)

All of the hard-right candidates are against; Nicolas Sarkozy has said he personally has no problem with this idea, but it's not in the official programme.

But don't hold your breath no matter who wins. Jacques Chirac came out in favour of this idea in 1979 and François Mitterrand included it in his 110 Presidential Propositions in 1981.

Ségolène Royal is unique among the front-runners, however, in backing the legalisation of homosexual marriage, which would obviously allow the influx of gay mixed couples.

The Socialists have said that Nicolas Sarkozy's proposal for a Ministry of Immigration and National Identity is a sign of his xenophobia and racism. Is there a threat here for the expat community?

DL: Sarkozy has been accused of Clientélisme – behind-the-scenes arrangements between politicians, companies and citizens or the favouring a group against another  – so many times it's hard to believe he hasn't, at a time or another, fallen for these obscure practices.

This Ministry would, for the most part, deal with immigrants and I doubt that a fully employed foreigner with a reasonably good situation qualifies has an immigrant in Mr. Sarkozy's eyes.

To be brief, so long as you are working and not claiming the RMI (unemployment benefits), so long as you are productive member of the French society you should be in the clear.

(In fact I wouldn't be surprised is Sarkozy came up with a way to calculate who much annual revenue is required in order for an expat to get a way without speaking a word of French and expressing blatant disregard for French culture.)

CW: Having promised to remodel the economy along more "Anglo-Saxon" lines, Nicolas Sarkozy has got to be the candidate whose policy logic is the most familiar to the English-speaking expat.

Still, something still jars with all this talk of National Identity. It reminds me of when they came up with the phrase "Homeland Security" in the US after 2001.

On the one hand, it's just a name.

Many on the Left would agree that immigrants should adopt the French language, values, culture and lifestyle. So what's the difference between that and simply labelling all of the above "National Identity"? What's wrong with Sarko's insistence in his official campaign ad that "loving France" should be a pre-requisite for benefiting from its social services?

Newcomers who want a carte de séjour already have to sign a Contrat d'accueil et d'intégration, which includes lessons in French civics and a requirement to prove basic French-language skills.

Sarkozy hasn't really proposed anything so different from the widely accepted French model of integration: living in France means not only paying your taxes and obeying French laws, it means, over the long haul, blending in. This is why 'communitarianism' is a bad word across the spectrum of French politics.

In fact, his model of "immigration choisie et pas subie", already passed into law, makes it easier for highly educated expats with specific skills to enter the country, a profile that happens to correspond to the Expatica reader.

On the other hand…let's remember that the banlieues are full of families who were choisies 30 years ago; they were invited here because France was short of manual labourers. It's only a generation later that the country decided, all in all, it was too much of a good thing.

France doesn't find us English-speakers threatening in the same way it does immigrants from Arab-speaking, Muslim countries or North Africa because a lot of this is about blatant racism. So it's over-reaching to put ourselves in the same boat.

But still, how much of our own cultures and languages will our children retain should they stay in France? Shouldn't we be advocating an immigration model based less on conforming and more on tolerance and multiculturalism? Shouldn't we be trying to teach France to differentiate between these principles and the affirmative action-style quotas they reject?

And I can't see how having a single, state-defined model of National Identity could possibly help with that.


20 April 2007

Copyright Expatica

Subject: Living in France, French presidential campaign, Nicolas Sarkozy, Ségolène Royal, François Bayrou

0 Comments To This Article