On the last workday of the year 2006, the Financial Times of London published an editorial fretting that every candidate in the 2007 French presidential elections is “running against the system,” even “the leading contenders from the two mainstream parties — Ségolène Royal from the opposition Socialist party and Nicolas Sarkozy from the ruling UMP party.”[1]  -- But surely a socialist candidate cannot be faulted for running against the system?  --  Perhaps what the disenchantment of French voters means is that the system needs changing, a possibility the Financial Times, a complacent advocate of the status quo, fails to contemplate.  --  What it fears is not radical reform, but rather that “by railing against the system . . . Ségo and Sarko will only further exacerbate the divisions between the Parisian élite and the provincial voters.” ...


Comment & analysis

Editorial comment


Financial Times (UK)
December 29, 2006


One towering worry overshadows next year's presidential elections in France, as a Socialist party grandee privately admits. What does it say about the health of French democracy that all the candidates -- in their varying ways -- are running against the system?

Naturally, the extreme right and extreme left parties are calling for a complete overhaul of the French political system. That is their job.

They claim they are speaking out on behalf of the millions of French voters who feel alienated from the institutions and practices of the Fifth Republic.

But even the leading contenders from the two mainstream parties -- Ségolène Royal from the opposition Socialist party and Nicolas Sarkozy from the ruling UMP party -- are demanding a complete break with the past. They too are seeking to dissociate themselves from a system with which they have both been intimately linked -- in different ministerial jobs and elected positions -- for the past quarter of a century. They are also attempting to divert the blame for France's ills on to others by taking cheap shots at the European Commission and the European Central Bank.

The danger is that by railing against the system -- however much it superficially enlivens the campaign -- Ségo and Sarko will only further exacerbate the divisions between the Parisian élite and the provincial voters. They also risk provoking even more friction within the European Union. The hope is that a full-blooded debate between them about what ails France could point the way to a real healing of the country's "social fracture" and reconcile the country with Europe, following the rejection of the EU's constitutional treaty in a national referendum last year. Sadly, however, there are -- as yet -- few signs that such a debate is under way.

For her part, Ms. Royal has run a brilliant tactical campaign to seize the Socialist party's nomination and to position herself for the presidential elections next April. She has understood that voters are angry about high unemployment, job insecurity, and social alienation, and are fearful of globalization. She has lent a sympathetic ear to their complaints.

But so far she has outlined no convincing policies to address these concerns, nor set any strategic goal. On key issues, moreover, such as Turkey's accession to the EU, she has declared that "her opinion is that of the French people" -- whatever that may be. Such opportunism may help win her short-term popularity but it is an abdication of her responsibility for leadership. As a former French prime minister noted: to govern is to choose.

It had looked at one stage as though Mr. Sarkozy was planning to present a coherent policy platform explaining how he intended to liberalize labor and product markets and scale back the omnipresent French state.

In his bolder moments, Mr. Sarkozy has admitted that there is no external force preventing France from reforming itself. The rancid state of the country's suburban ghettoes is not the fault of globalization. France's flawed education system cannot be blamed on Brussels.

However, Ms. Royal's dazzling ascent seems to have encouraged Mr. Sarkozy to obfuscate rather than clarify.

It is easier to condemn the European Commission for not having a sufficiently aggressive trade policy than to acknowledge that the French government -- of which Mr. Sarkozy has been a senior member for most of the past five years -- has failed to make the French economy flexible enough to adapt to a fast-changing world.

It is simpler to blame French industry's lack of competitiveness on the ECB's tough monetary policy than to accept that a lack of competition within France has hampered its ability to compete abroad.

Some simple truths need to be spelled out in the remaining four months of the campaign. First and foremost, France remains the mistress of her own destiny. The country's main economic and social problems are the result of domestic failings, not external forces.

Even within the institutional limitations of the Fifth Republic, and the constraints of the EU, the country's politicians have the power to redress these failings. They just need the vision, courage, and cunning to do so.