Sunday, May 06, 2007

Ségolène vs Sarkozy, week 1

The campaign in France has told us much about how divided the Left is in Europe. In Britain, are we so hypnotized by Blair (and Brown) and their pact with the devil, otherwise known as the Murdoch press, that we fail to see what is happening?

So, that's the attention-grabbing first paragraph out of the way. As I feared, this is now part of the post-mortem. Ségolène did quite well in the debate Wednesday night, but I still thought she had less than a 20% chance of winning on Sunday (curious, after writing that, I checked on the odds and found that Ladbrokes were offering 5 to 1).

On Sunday (22 Apr), as the results of the first round were announced, BBC Parliament carried live coverage from one of the French  TV channels (TF1, I think). Olivier Besancenot called for a vote for Ségolène Royal in the second round, even before she made her speech about an hour and a half after the announcement of the results (21:30 CET). It was quite a long speech: she committed to a new referendum on the EU constitution, positioning herself against Sarkozy's proposal for a mini-treaty and promising that the French people would not have the decision taken behind its back (à son insu).

The BBC's Mark Mardell says that, privately, Britain's Labour government is hoping for a Sarkozy victory, since the last thing they want is another referendum (election special on Radio 4).       

Election présidentielle : les résultats du premier tour. One of the far-left candidates, Olivier Besancenot, took 4.1 % of the vote. The 5% threshold is significant, since if a candidate gets more than that he gets funding of 5 million, otherwise 800,000 Euros. This was mentioned by Philippe Gelie, of Le Figaro on C-Span (22 Apr). Details are available on Wikipedia (though I couldn't get their figures to add up): Élections présidentielles sous la Cinquième.

Sarkozy caused some waves in Europe by speaking out against "unrestricted free trade", but according to the Financial Times (31 Mar), one of his advisers has said that he is protectionist in areas where he would be constrained by the EU and "liberal" in areas he could change - in domestic policy. This has not gone unnoticed by the French. J-M Colombani in his editorial in Le Monde:  "Nous eûmes donc les allers-retours de Nicolas Sarkozy, se proclamant libéral avant de redevenir classiquement colbertiste. A moins que, comme le disent les Britanniques, il ne soit libéral quand les affaires marchent, protectionniste quand l'Etat est impuissant."

Both candidates have taken positions that move beyond the French consensus on the US and Iraq, Sarkozy in his Press conference on foreign policy in March, Ms Royal longer ago. However, at her rally the Thursday before the first round vote, she is reported to have got her biggest cheer by speaking about France not going down on its knees to the United States. There is more fairly predictable stuff on her website. But if Sarkozy can be allowed to say one thing and mean another on the economy, then maybe Ségolène can be allowed her meaningless posturing on this.

On Turkey, Ségolène has been fairly courageous in taking the unpopular position of favouring their entry to the EU. (*)  (Here we might compare the position in Germany, where many of Angela Merkel's foreign policy positions are more attractive than Gerhard Schröder's, but she is far more opposed to Turkey's entry than he is.) Sarkozy has always been opposed to Turkish entry, but, in an interesting sidelight, Michel Barnier, former FM and now adviser to Nicolas Sarkozy, interviewed on Thursday, said he used to support Turkey joining the EU, but changed his mind after the French rejection of the EU constitution in the May 2005 referendum.

But Turkey is, literally, peripheral to the discussion about Europe. You may have heard that the Socialists have been accused of conducting the campaign on the basis of Tous Sauf Sarkozy (anything but Sarkozy). In fact, when it comes to Europe, it's more like anything but Britain, i.e. anything but the anglo-saxon, ultra-liberal, model. This view is shared by some quite surprising figures, such as Bernard Kouchner. Even after ten years of Blair government, this is still what Britain means in France.

So, the French look to restart the Franco-German "motor". Here the Socialists may have some advantage, since Sarkozy has made some remarks which, apart from not being strictly true about France having nothing to be ashamed of in its history, are rather insensitive towards Germany:
Le discours musclé sur l'identité nationale, les petites phrases répétées dans lesquelles le candidat Sarkozy a renvoyé à l'Allemagne son passé nazi - "la France n'a pas rougir de son histoire, elle n'a pas commis de génocide, elle n'a pas inventé la solution finale", a-t-il dit à Nice le 30 mars - ne sont pas passés inaperçues. Même si les commentaires sont restés limités. Le Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung s'est contenté de relever les critiques de l'ancienne ministre socialiste Elisabeth Guigou, qui a reproché à M. Sarkozy d'attaquer l'Allemagne. ('La campagne porte en germe des conflits profonds entre Paris et Berlin', Le Monde, 19 Apr)
But the Socialists' call for "reform" of the European Central Bank may well be seen by the Germans as a demand for a more lax monetary policy. Furthermore, Sarkozy's proposal for a mini-treaty to take forward reform of the EU, is more in line with Ms Merkel's position (not to mention Mr Blair's).

One problem for Ségolène Royal is that, unlike Blair, she has not had three years to establish a new image and policies for her party. So, although she may come across as fairly Blairist when interviewed, much of the time,  in the long discussions on radio (which I mainly hear) and on TV (I presume), it is others who speak for her. Many of these put forward fairly unreconstucted views on the economy, which it is easy for Sarkozy and his people to demolish as presaging continued stagnation for France.

Ségolène may be the party's candidate for president, but she is not its leader. This is different from the way we do things in Britain, but, bizarrely enough, more similar to the way things are done in the US.

On the face of it, the two candidates' policies on the 35-hour week are not too different: Sarkozy is not actually promising to scrap it, while Ségolène has promised to be flexible in its application, extending it to smaller companies only after negotiation with the "social partners". But the rhetoric on each side is very different. Sarkozy claims to favour for those who get up early (de bonne heure) to go to work. "Work more to earn more"... The Socialists are criticised for having a vision where work is a fixed quantity, a cake to be divided up. On the Socialists' side, the argument is that they are all in favour of people working more, but not of a society where some have the opportunity to work overtime, while others are spectators, in unemployment. Unemployment is the major problem for France, especially among the young, especially among the immigrant communities. Yet it is doubtful that the 35-hour week helps to reduce this, since the restrictions it imposes are detrimental to the performance of the economy. Also, the 35-hour week may not be too popular, especially among the lower-paid.

Ségolène Royal may have had the Spanish PM Zapatero at her rally the Thursday before the first round, but Sarkozy made a tellingly point in an interview several weeks ago, when he described how he asked Zapatero whether he was planning to introduce a 35-hour week in Spain: "he laughed in my face."

All the same, what Sarkozy proposed to mitigate the effects of the 35-hour week, exempting overtime worked from tax, seemed so bizarre that I thought I had misunderstood it, but I later heard it confirmed on the BBC.

I commented about the Contrat Premier Embauche previously. Here Ségolène could do well to take a leaf out of Tony Blair's book. As I noted at the time, Emmanuel of Ceteris Paribus pointed out last year, showing more knowledge of the subject than most people in Britain, how the Blair government modified the employment laws from the Thatcher era.

If we could get beyond the vague rhetoric - about "ultra-liberalism", globalisation and so on, we might see some concrete issues and some proposals that many would find attractive, even in Britain.

Let's have another look at some of the ideas put forward by the minor candidates in the first round. Some of them, admittedly, are not too impressive. Olivier Besancenot, on 19 Apr, had the slogan "pas de subventions aux licencieurs", which might be literally translated as "no subsidies to job-cutters", but probably means rather "no job-cuts by people who receive subsidies". Bernard Kouchner later described Besancenot as being "d'un talent formidable".

José Bové, on 17 Apr, said that the European constitution had been rejected in France was not because people were against Europe as such, but because they were against the Europe that had been presented to them, against an expansion that had left new entrants able to use tax competition to attract jobs. Marie-George Buffet (PCF), on 18 Apr, also spoke about harmonisation fiscale.

Nobody can defend the idea that workers in the "old" countries of the EU have a god-given right for their jobs to be defended against competition from eastern Europe. But the erosion of the tax base by countries aggressively competing against each other to attract companies by cutting the tax rates on them is something around which people could find common cause.

A campaign against tax avoidance might not seem very exciting, but somebody has to pay taxes, and if the rich do not, the poor have to (or see their services cut).

Yet in Britain, we end up with a Labour government that is secretly hoping for Ségolène Royal to lose. Why? Because then they do not want to face having to have another referendum on the European constitution. Why? Because the Press would be largely hostile to the new constitution. Why? Because of  the very "social" elements that Ségolène would seek to include.

Aside from the issue of corporate taxes,  London and South-East England has become a very attractive place to live for billionaires from Russia and elsewhere, in large part because of a tax regime that lead many to describe the UK as being virtually a tax haven.

On the other side, even internationalists like Bernard Kouchner insist on seeing issues in national terms - France and Germany versus Britain (**).

* Eventually, I found this on her website:
"La lettre" n°22 - Vendredi 13 octobre [2006]
A propos de l’adhésion de la Turquie à l’Union Européenne, Ségolène Royal a rappelé que le processus "se terminera par un référendum. Un certain nombre de conditions doivent être remplies, par rapport à l’inquiétude des opinions sur la stabilité des frontières de l’Europe. Cette question sera débattue. Il faudra pour que le peuple français se prononce, avoir entre-temps apporté un certain nombre de garanties. Le référendum ne sera pas facile. Il va falloir beaucoup de travail, d’évolution, pour que le peuple français se prononce positivement. Ce travail est entre les mains de tous",
(my emphasis)
As I understand it, Chirac had a law passed requiring a referendum before France approves any further enlargement, beyond the two countries that are already close to joining.

- Envoys hope for a ‘friendlier’ France -

** 'Le Franc Parler', France Inter, 23 Apr.


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