As I recently wrote to my e-pen pal Elise, I appear to be going trough some kind of political midlife crisis. I've always considered myself as left of center, clearly more liberal than conservative, definitely a Democrat and not a Republican (to put it in US terms). Not surprisingly, then, when we arrived in France in 1990, my sympathies were with the socialists (whom I really should call "social democrats" because the term is less apt to frighten those Americans to whom the word "socialism" still evokes state-run industries, possibly gulags, and a kind of purgatory on the way to communism. The truth is that since the latter part of the 19th century, European socialists have essentially been social democrats).
Back home, I consistently voted for Democrats: Clinton, Gore, Kerry, and Obama in the presidential races, but I also favored democratic candidates for the House of Representatives and the Senate. This not only corresponded to my political beliefs; it was also a way not to reward what can only be described as unsavory campaign tactics of the American political right. It used to be that a political debate was based on issues, on how one proposed to address various problems confronting one's constituents. In an unfortunate trend that, I believe, began during Richard Nixon's electoral campaigns, Republicans have become better and better at mudslinging and hitting below the belt.
More and more, political campaigns are fought with buzzwords, innuendos, and sound bites. In an effort to discredit a political opponent, the Republicans did not hesitate to besmirch John Kerry's Vietnam record, for instance. This is all the more despicable as it was done on behalf of a candidate who had shirked his duty and had taken advantage of every conceivable loophole in order not to have to serve overseas. More recently, there were all the (naturally unsubstantiated) allegations regarding Barack Obama's birth. Obama had not been born on US soil, so the rumors went, and he was therefore not eligible to serve as president. Another persistent rumor: Obama is a Muslim! What is particularly insidious about this one is that it only appeals to those bigoted individuals to whom being a Muslim is something reprehensible and worthy of contempt. Those who spread this type of rumor know better, but they shamelessly exploit the bias of a portion of the population in order to discredit an opponent. How sick is it to see a portrait of President Obama with a painted-on Hitler moustache?
It's hard to imagine similar excesses coming from the Democrats. They at least try to be above this sort of thing, but the fact remains that they are incredibly inept at furthering their own cause. It took the catastrophic presidency of George W. Bush to get a man like Barack Obama into the White House and achieve a democratic majority in Congress. Instead of taking advantage of this mandate, Obama and the Democrats tried to extend a friendly hand across the political aisle. Needless to say, the Republicans took advantage of this and blocked every initiative they could; they thus maneuvered themselves into a position from which they could claim that Obama had not achieved what he set out to do. For example, Obama has not created the jobs required to breathe some life into a faltering economy. And why not? Because this would have required injecting enormous sums of money into the economy (the so-called stimulus was far too small), and the Republicans blocked this as much as they could. Yet, temporarily increasing the already gigantic deficit seems to be the only way out. The reason the United States were able to emerge from the Great Depression was certainly not that Roosevelt injected enough money into the economy. He had the same problem Obama faces: his political opponents wouldn't let him. The game changer was World War II. Such a conflict is a situation in which one spends now and thinks later, and that is what pulled the United States out of the depression. In fact, it did it so well that 15 years after the end of the war, the US had a huge economic surplus. Consequently, the 60s were a period of unprecedented growth and middle-class prosperity in America.
Of course, the Republicans know this full well, and they are clearly aware of what needs to be done. In the short term, however, they are far more interested in seeing Obama fail than in solving problems. After all, the Democrats might get credit for any successes achieved now. It is far better to allow the Democrats to fail; the Republicans can then campaign on the current administration's failures and come forward as the party saving the day... by pushing for the very things they are blocking now. Why do they get away with this sort of thing? Partially because Americans are woefully na´ve when it comes to politics, partially because the Democrats are as inept at politicking as the Republicans excel at it. Goofy meets Machiavelli!
Now I live in France, and what do I observe? That the very same social democrats I used to admire are now the ones who are the obstructionists, the ones who argue in bad faith, who try to block overdue reform for the wrong reasons (making the Sarkozy government fail is more important to them than making sure that what needs to get done really does get done), in short, the ones who play the role of spoilsports the Republicans play on the other side of the Atlantic. Thus, I find myself in the somewhat difficult position to reluctantly support a government that should, for all practical purposes, be distasteful to me. Naturally, I wonder: is this because there are grounds to feel the way I do or am I just becoming fossilized? I am forced to admit that Nicolas Sarkozy is taking on issues that should have been tackled years ago, but that his predecessors were afraid to touch. The recent debate on retirement is a good example.
The basis for the current retirement scheme goes back to the end of World War II when Charles de Gaulle had to make all kinds of concessions to the communists to be able to govern the country. Since then, the minimum retirement age (at full benefits, assuming that one has contributed during the prescribed amount of time) has not been changed in spite of a significant increase in life expectancy. The Sarkozy government proposed to raise this minimum retirement age from 60 to 62. At the same time, it suggested an increase in the number of quarters people have to contribute in order to be able to retire at full benefits. The socialists (or, more accurately, the coalition of socialists, communists, anti-capitalists, and, inexplicably, environmentalists) did everything they could to block the reform.
There was one strike after another, the dock workers in Marseille refused to unload ships, the employees in the refineries stopped working, the truckers threatened to block major roadways, the high-school students, mobilized and enflamed by the left, were getting involved (to protest a reform designed to ensure that they will some day be able to retire)... it was all terribly messy. The whole thing struck me as deeply undemocratic. We have a legally elected government that proposed an unpopular but necessary change, and we have an opposition that was trying to cripple the country in an attempt to blackmail the government into withdrawing this needed and overdue reform. Opponents even tried to destroy the career and reputation of Eric Woerth, the minister of Labor, Solidarity, and Civil Service, the man responsible for the retirement reform. They linked him to a huge scandal involving illegal campaign funds. Not a single proof was put on the table; the whole thing was conducted in the best swiftboating tradition. Had Mr. Woerth resigned over this, it would in all likelihood have derailed the retirement reform, but he hung on, and so the laws were passed. From that moment on, the attacks stopped immediately. Note that I am not at all saying that this proves that Mr. Woerth is innocent of the charges levied against him; what it does show is the motivation of those who sought to discredit him: if you cannot win on issue and substance, find some real or imaginary dirt that may do the trick.
What does the left propose in the area of retirement? Not much. It's the same old mantra: tax the banks, tax the major corporations, tax the rich. It's a bit simplistic as well as eminently counter-productive because the French workforce is not very competitive as it is. French labor law, aggressive unions, and constant strikes are not apt to make big business want to invest in France. Consequently, many jobs have already been lost because companies have gone elsewhere. What the socialists don't appear to realize is that with every new demand that is made of those who provide the jobs, the risk of losing those jobs increases, and the fewer people are employed, the harder it is to fund things like retirement. It's not exactly rocket science.
So... I am torn, for while I believe the Sarkozy government needs to be watched carefully because it would be easy for them to go overboard, it's refreshing to see a government put the interest of the country above its desire to be reelected. I find myself grudgingly obliged to applaud and even admire the government's willingness to tackle extremely unpopular issues just because it needs to be done. Naturally, I wonder whether this is just a case of the old saw that when one is young, one votes left with one's heart whereas once one gets old, one votes right with one's head. The fact remains that if the 2012 French presidential election were held today, my vote would undoubtedly go to Sarkozy's party. It's actually something I worry about. On the other hand, having a direction, even if it is not one's preferred one, is probably better than to drift aimlessly. Clearly, this is where the similarities end: while the Republicans definitely have an agenda, it's hard to see where the political left in France is going. The campaign for the 2012 presidential election is going to be interesting indeed.
Chapel Hill, North Carolina
November 26, 2010
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