The Problems of France
France has recently concluded the first round of its presidential elections. The top two candidates, Nicholas Sarkozy and Segolene Royal, will be proceeding to the runoff election next month.
The election seems to be driven by a desire for change. Change is something that apparently every candidate in France wants; the only thing they can agree on is that something is rotten in the state of France.
Their ideas for change of course vary widely. Sarkozy aims to make the French work harder and to improve the economy through a stronger private sector. Royal prefers increased state regulation, increasing the minimum wage, and other such policies (not too surprising, since she is the Socialist Party's candidate.
There were two other candidates, however, who had significant impact on the election. Jean-Marie Le Pen, a far-right French nationalist, made it to the runoff in 2002, much to the shock and horror of the French. As usual, Le Pen has been calling for stronger restrictions on immigration — but the desire for change in so many quarters is so strong that he appears to even have the backing of some French citizens who migrated from other countries because they believe Le Pen would give them priority as French citizens.
Then there is Francois Bayrou, a centrist candidate with not very clear policies (although they were clear enough for everyone to know that he was somewhere to the middle, between Sarkozy and Royal). Bayrou initially did not make much headway, but his campaign gained momentum as the election neared, and he eventually placed third with 18% of the vote.
Le Pen has had monumental influence on French politics because a number of his ideas have been co-opeted by Sarkozy and Royal. Both have promised to crack down on crime and preserve the French national identity; Royal has proposed military camps for juvenile delinquents, while Sarkozy is intent on setting up some ministry whose role would be to protect the French identity.
Neither of the two remaining candidates seems very satisfying. That both have adopted somewhat silly policies in an attempt to pander to the Le Pen camp is one black mark against them, but their economic policies also do not appear very convincing.
The main issue for France at present is their economy, because they have a very sluggish one. Workers are strongly protected by the law; they cannot be fired easily, and thus unemployment is rife amongst youth who can't get jobs because the labour market isn't open. When it was proposed to ease these restrictions last year, what did the French do? They rioted.
The other main issue is immigration and identity — again, the French made news for a different sort of riot, when angry and unemployed French youths, most of them immigrants or children of immigrants, went on a rampage. How to integrate these people into French society is another pressing question for the French.
But will either candidate really be solving rhese issues? Sarkozy might have a shot at the economy, but it's questionable whether setting in stone some definition of a French identity is the right idea for an increasingly plural society. Royal definitely won't loosen the tight laws that keep France's economyy panting for breath, and it's dobutful she has much of a concrete idea about how to resolve the issue of immigration and identity.
Bayrou has recently announced that he will not be supporting either candidate for the runoff, precisely because of this. He might have lacked clear policies, but not clear principles, and his statements resonate with me because they indicate he may have the right stuff to change France the right way.
Bayrou declared that he could not support Sarkozy, because Sarkozy was intent on focusing on big business, while ignoring the small and medium enterprises that are more and more important in most economies, and also because Sarkozy posed a threat to French democracy with his Orwellian ideas. Meanwhile, Bayrou hinted that he was closer to Royal on ideals, but also stated that he completely rejected her idea of increased state intervention as a means of rescucitating the French economy.
In the end, Bayrou found that he could not support both candidates for their irresponsible emphasis on heightened state spending, and also stated that he would not join the French cabinet if Royal was elected.
It's a pity that Bayrou did not make it to the second round. As a result, the French are forced to make a choice between the potential economic reforms, but also anti-democratic changes, of Sarkozy, or the increased statism but also idealism and democracy represented by Royal.