Jun 9, 2005 | 18:30 GMT

9 mins read

Will Political Fragmentation Lead France in a New Direction?

In the aftermath of the May 29 French rejection of the EU constitution, both the left and right sides of the political spectrum are in disarray. Combined with the impending end of the Chirac government, the country stands at the cusp of a generational change in political alignment.
On May 29 the French rejected the EU constitution in a bitterly contested referendum. Among those bitter contestants were a plethora of senior leaders from mainstreams of both the French left and right who deserted their parties' official pro-Europe lines. Some of these political betrayals came to a head June 4 when the Socialist Party voted to remove one-time Prime Minister Laurent Fabius and a dozen of his supporters from the party's executive committee as part of party leader Francois Hollande's effort to craft a "homogenous leadership." He got his wish, but at the cost of splitting the party down the middle: His Fabius-stripping motion only received the support of 167 of 307 delegate votes. If anything, the situation is worse than it seems. Not only was the French left badly broken before the EU constitution issue ripped it apart, but the French right is equally in disarray. With the entire political spectrum up for grabs, France appears to be moving toward a generational shift in its political makeup. La Gauche Francaise Fabius was strategic in staking out the "no" ground within the Socialist Party. He clearly has presidential ambitions and has a credibility problem with the left of the party. Having been called a "Blairist before Blair" for his willingness to move to the center, he is keenly aware of the damage that Lionel Jospin suffered in the 2002 presidential election when the far left deserted the Socialists and left Jospin to come in third after French President Jacques Chirac and Jean-Marie Le Pen. The problem, of course, is that the left overall only picked up slightly more than 10.5 million votes in the first round of the 2002 presidential election while the right brought in more than 15 million. Even in the off chance that all of the 3.3 million additional voters who showed up in a panic in the second round of voting to vote down Le Pen were leftists, that still leaves the right with a numerical edge over a combined left. And there are no clear leaders. The two most popular figures are either retired — Jospin — or dead — Francois Mitterrand. Hollande has the personality of a cold fish, according to his own supporters — the mark of death in a political world dominated by charismatic personalities. The far left has no shot at fielding a candidate capable of drawing more than 10 percent or 15 percent nationally and the Greens, who hold only three seats in the National Assembly, have never been a real force in the country. Any presidential candidate coming from either the far left or the Greens and making it to the second round of presidential voting would be soundly defeated in a reverse of the 2002 Le Pen scenario anyway. That leaves no one to "lead" the French left but the recently ejected Fabius. The ultimate obstacle for Fabius is that, to have a shot at the presidency in two years, he will need to unify the left and appeal to the center. Problem is, he just destroyed the unity of the mainstream left. Backing the "Non" campaign may have been Fabius' best shot to regain credentials with the far left while not necessarily staking out a policy position that he will be tied to in a presidential campaign, but it has come at the cost of breaking apart the moderate left. Fabius' challenge now will be to either somehow seize control of the Socialist Party or construct a competitor to it. In short, the splitting in the left is still crescendoing. Fabius will be spending his time between now and the 2007 elections fighting for leadership of the left — and most likely fracturing it more in the process. Le Droit Francais Three years ago, coming off the disintegration of the left position in the aftermath of the 2002 elections, it was at first glance difficult to imagine the French right having much in the way of difficulties. Take a closer look. When the left collapsed — leading to the Chirac-Le Pen runoff — Le Pen succeeded in garnering 17.8 percent of the vote. Such a proportion — nearly one-fifth of the French electorate, or put another way two-fifths of the French right — was never part of Chirac's rightish coalition in the first place. Translation: the right went into the 2002 election more fragmented than the left, and only a quirk of statistics and the initial apathy of the left gave the right a first-round win, and thus the presidency. Three developments also combined to break apart the French right. First, Nicolas Sarkozy, Chirac's one-time protege, joined the government in 2002 as interior minister and proceeded to make a name for himself. By 2004, however, it was clear that Sarkozy maintained presidential ambitions himself, so Chirac transferred the upstart to the finance ministry in an attempt to discredit him. The effort backfired and only made Sarkozy more popular — the traditionally sniping French press has even begun affectionately calling the maverick "Sarko." Chirac clashed with Sarkozy again in November 2004, which resulted in Sarkozy leaving the government to head up the Union for a Popular Movement (UMP), the political machine that launched Chirac's own presidential bid. The result was a president shorn of his party and a right split not by ideology, but personality, between two charismatic men. The second crack mirrors the most recent development on the left. Opposition to the EU constitution ranged across the entire spectrum of the French right, splitting people off laterally across the Chirac-Sarkozy divide. Finally, Chirac's effort to preserve his government has further alienated the bulk of Frenchmen. Instead of reaching for allies of traditional rightist political leaders such as Valery Giscard d'Estaing, Chirac surrounded himself primarily with yes-men like (now) Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin and Foreign Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy. They are people he knows from experience lack the power base and skills necessary to challenge their leader. Of his new government, only the surprise inclusion of Sarkozy — which could well prove to be a poison pill — seems to be part of a meaningful effort to knit the right back together. As such the Chirac government — with the notable exception of Sarkozy — is grossly unpopular across the French political spectrum. Barring a heroic performance capable of impressing a hostile French electorate, Chirac is — at best — a lame duck. France's Future Though STRATFOR prides itself on its forecasts, calling an election two years before it happens is a bit of a stretch. But let us assume for the moment that both the French left and right are truly in as much disarray as it appears. After all, Fabius first sat in the prime minister's chair 21 years ago; Chirac 31 years ago. The entire French system is overdue for a generational — not merely political or ideological — change, and if either leader is going to attempt to continue leading, he will need to form a new political alliance to support his ambitions. Barring dark horse candidates, both sides are more or less spent politically, or at least deeply fractured. Unlike in the U.S. system, in France smaller parties can still win seats in Parliament, and different parties can control the Parliament and the presidency. Presidential elections are usually the strongest force fostering cooperation among factions, but the presidency is not always enough of a prize to pull together enduring coalitions. Under other circumstances we might expect France to wander in an Italianesque political wilderness. But when an entire wing of a political spectrum shatters, often the party reforms under a new dominant personality and refocuses as new ideas displace some of the old. Good examples include the shattering of the American Democratic or U.K. Labor parties in the early 1990s. In both cases the rise of the New Democrats and New Labor occurred, incorporating more free market principles as opposed to more socialist precursors, and heralded the emergence of the powerful leaders of Bill Clinton and Tony Blair. Considering the disarray of French politics, France is extremely ripe for precisely this sort of reformation. The likely beneficiary of such a reformation is Sarkozy. By any French measure, Sarkozy is an odd choice. Though French by birth, Sarkozy is actually half-Hungarian, quarter-Greek and quarter-Jewish. Though hailing from the "French right," he sees the old statist model as outdated and responsible for France's current economic problems, and is about as pro-American as someone in France can be. Both ideas — like many of his others — are extremely un-French Or, at least, un-French in the tradition of Charles de Gaulle. And therein lies the rub. An end of de Gaullism might, just might, be what France is facing. When de Gaulle formed France's Fifth Republic, its founding tenets included a strong statist element in the French economy and the goal of creating a trans-European power that could challenge the United States. Under Chirac — a die-hard Gaullist — France has sunk into economic torpor, European unification has stalled if not died, and the Americans are more powerful than ever. The Cold War world in which de Gaulle forged modern France has now been gone for 15 years, and only now are internal French politics beginning to adjust to that global evolution. Between Chirac's failures and the shattering of both the French left and right, France is at an inflection point in its political development that could well take the country in a radically different direction. And at present the only person who has the wherewithal to seize the day is Sarkozy — someone quite convinced of the necessity of precisely that radically different direction.

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