Bastille Day: France’s Ultra-Confused Present
Every year, France celebrates on July 14 the fall in 1789 of the Bastille, then the main prison in Paris. The celebration is meant to mark the end of the so-called Ancien Régime. It unifies the country around what are referred to today as Republican values.
The first time there was such a celebration was the very next year in 1790, one that was dedicated to peace and national unity. Bastille Day, however, did not become an annual celebration until 1880, when the legislature of the Third Republic proclaimed July 14 the fête nationale (national festivity), which it has remained up to today. But this year, the Republic is anything but unified, its immediate future could not be more uncertain, and there is much debate about exactly what constitute Republican values.
The present constitution is quasi-presidential, making the choice of a president politically crucial. However, at the same time, it establishes a system in which there are two rounds of voting, unless someone gets a clear majority on the first round. In the second round there are only two candidates, the two with the highest votes on the first round.
The object of this system is to allow for every political grouping to show its strength on the first round and then vote on the second round for one of the two principal parties (center-right versus center-left). The problem is that this system works if there are only two main parties. If there are three of approximately equal electoral strength (as there are at present), the system is transformed. In this case, the three main parties must stay united on the first round and urge the smaller parties to make a “useful” vote on the first round so that their preferred second-round party will actually be on the second-round ballot.
The result is confusion and havoc, first of all within the three main parties and then within the smaller political tendencies. Each of the current three main parties – the Socialists (center-left), the Republicans (center-right) and the National Front (far right) – is having an internal struggle over strategy and each risks secessions. At the same time, the smaller parties are splitting up precisely over whether they should cast “useful” votes on the first round or not. The biggest one on the further left has fallen apart over this issue.
One of the substantive issues under debate is the construction of Europe, including the euro as currency, the freedom of movement within the European Union (EU), and the reception and treatment of immigrants from outside the EU. This is of course a major debate everywhere in the EU. France’s position is somewhere in the middle of the range of European views, both that of the governments and that of public opinion.
In addition, France has had for a long time concern with maintaining and augmenting its role both in the world-system as a whole and within Europe. One of its strengths heretofore has been the de facto arrangement it has had with Germany to constitute a duo whose agreed-upon preferences became the basis of Europe’s collective policies. This worked as long as Germany was divided in two and France was the country with nuclear weapons and a permanent seat on the U.N.’s Security Council. But in the last twenty years, Germany has become so comparatively strong economically that it needs far less the legitimation that a Franco-German duo offered Germany. The duo no longer makes EU rules and policies.
France’s relations with the United States has also been an issue since at least 1945. On the one hand, the United States, and particularly the U.S. Congress, have been very critical of what they considered France’s too accommodating attitude toward first the Soviet Union and now Russia. On the other hand, France has been highly critical of what it considered the U.S. abandonment of the defense of human rights (as for example in Syria).
The recent vote of Great Britain to leave the EU has provided still further uncertainty in France. Is this a plus or a minus for France? France is seeking to present itself as a good haven for businesses (and especially financial structures) that may be seeking a calmer, less unsure environment. But France is also worried about the quasi-forced repatriation of French citizens now resident and working in Great Britain. In the forthcoming negotiations of Great Britain and the EU, France is unsure if she should push for efforts to keep Great Britain still tied to the EU in some way, or not. The appointment of Boris Johnson as British Foreign Minister weakens any sentiment favorable to Great Britain.
So, the confusion returns us to the forthcoming presidential elections. The National Front has been seeking to draw votes from the two classical centrist parties by downplaying its racist language and actually ousting members who refuse to do this. Notably, its leader Marine LePen has purged her father and long-time leader of the National Front, Jean-Marie LePen, for refusing to do this. But this risks losing some of its previous supporters to breakaway parties or to abstentions.
The center-right Republican Party, led by former president Nicolas Sarkozy, is trying to pick up National Front votes by shifting its rhetoric in their direction. This is strongly contested by two other candidates in the forthcoming party primary, Alain Juppé and François Fillon. If Sarkozy wins, Fillon may withdraw support from the party. Juppé is generally thought to be the one most likely to win the second-round national election because of his more “moderate” views on the main issues. But to be in the second round, he must win the party’s nomination in its primary, and to do this he has shifted his rhetoric to the right.
Finally, the current president François Hollande is in the most difficult position of all. The Socialist party is under pressure to participate in a primary that is a primary of the entire French left. Hollande doesn’t want such an “open” primary, as he seems quite likely to lose it. So, he is pushing for a decision to be made by the party’s convention on a more rightward platform that he believes will enable him to win the second round. He has thus pushed through new legislation that weakens trade-union rights. This is unpopular both with the left of the party who are grumbling and with two of his own presumed allies, Minister of the Economy Emmanuel Macron and Prime Minister Manuel Valls, both of whom are maneuvering to become the Socialist candidate, if not in 2017 then in 2022. Macron feels that Hollande is not going far enough right.
The multiple uncertainties within the parties in France make the recent back-stabbing within the British Conservative Party pale by comparison. Given that France’s economy is also in parlous condition, 2016 seems hardly a moment to celebrate national festivities based on common Republican values.
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