Happy election day! Today is the first round of voting in France’s presidential contest, after which incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy and Socialist Party candidate François Hollande will likely face off for the ultimate seat.
I’ve followed the election with interest, but also in a state of befuddlement. This is due to language and cultural differences, and also inconsistency and laziness on my part. Going to the above rally for Trotskyist candidate Nathalie Arthaud came out of pure happenstance. On a whim, I starting talking to a guy on the street who was selling Lutte Ouvrière’s monthly newspaper for one euro, which led to us exchanging phone numbers, and then to us meeting several times to talk about French politics and communism.
It’s been absurd, but ultimately informative to learn about French politics through a fringe, far-left political party. For instance, I hadn’t quite realized how influential communism has been in this country, and still is. Nathalie Arthaud has been polling under 1% for the first round, as has her predecessor, Arlette Laguiller in the six previous elections she has run in. Yet it still seems as if both ladies have a relatively high profile. Wikipedia says Laguiller is known in France on a first name basis, and one teacher who saw me reading the Lutte Ouvrière pamphlet told me that she was the Sarah Palin of France. Since they have completely different views, what I took away from that was that they’re both notorious, charismatic women, and if Palin represents a part of the American electorate that we can’t ignore (try as we might), then maybe Laguiller means the same for France.
The Lutte Ouvrière presidential platform involves such proposals as forbidding layoffs and continually dividing labor to ensure employment. Oh, to live in such a world! But candidates with way more popular support have also touted proposals like these. For example, Front de Gauche candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon is also for promising a ban of layoffs, and he’s expected to poll third or fourth in the first round. Furthermore, his party is partly made up of the former Marxist French Communist party, a further testament to how much more accepted communist groups and their ideas are in France.
When I started teaching here, I was surprised a how differently France and the US administrate their educational system, but still ended up with the same mediocre results. I feel that way about both countries’ economies, too. If the US is inflexibly, reflexively individualistic, pro-small government and anti-taxes, then France is bullheaded as well, but in the opposite direction. And one can argue that its economy is even worse off than America’s. I’ve come across articles in the English-language media recently that accuse French politicians of being dishonest about their country’s economic reality, proposing supposedly crazy plans like a 75% income tax on the rich, instead of being honest about how necessary austerity is. When I mentioned this opinion to another teacher while he drove me home from our school, he dismissed it as a typical Anglophone attempt to get France to liberalize at the expense of its social services, of its people.
I’m inclined to agree, especially when the Economist is involved. It would definitely be tragic for the country to lose its generous social welfare system, and I also like taxing the rich. Still, I’m less inclined to even support the Front de Gauche, or even the Socialists, based on what I’ve observed in this country, namely about how low the salaries are, and how it’s already so hard to fire workers here that companies don’t hire enough in the first place. It’s complicated, for sure, but I think there’s a point to be made about how inefficient France’s economy is, and how it needs to become a leaner machine, somehow. But what do I know? I made that last sentence intentionally vague because I haven’t taken an economics class since sophomore year of college.
But bringing up the ban on layoffs again, during the first time we hung out, I tried to ask my communist friend about how Arthaud would actually make policies like this work for the government. His reply: “I’m not sure.” In fact, it doesn’t seem like Lutte Ouvrière is that interested in saving this government, what with all its mentions of “dismantling the capitalist system” and “revolution,” which my friend clarified as meaning a spontaneous proletarian uprising, only with a better end than in the Soviet Union or in China.
I guess that’s the benefit of being on the fringe. You don’t have to lie about the endgame.