|Over the course of the past four months or so, Dr Ivaldi and I have provided what (we hope) are in-depth analyses of the progress of the campaign and electoral prospects of the 10 candidates on the 22 April ballot paper.|
As a blogging novice, one of the things which struck me was the ease with which we managed to convey future prospects as well as retrospective explanation. And generally, our take on what would happen turned out to be correct, give or take. Some predictions were more striking than others – our Marine Le Pen forecast, for instance, received most coverage, probably because it featured a model, a decimal place and some measure of serendipity. Others were a bit wider of the mark – Jean-Luc Mélenchon, for instance, did well but our guess that he might do better was optimistic (or pessimistic, if you happen not to be a Jean-Luc Mélenchon supporter). For the second round, François Hollande’s victory seemed obvious,and from an initial position of 55-45 calculated from putative voter transfers immediately after the first round, the expected narrowing of the gap resulted in 52-48 or thereabouts – a score tweeted by us, and many others.
Given we are political francologues blogging about French elections, you’d hope that we would be ball-park correct on most things. Moreover, one of the projects to which 500signatures.net is contributing is a monograph on the 2012 elections, together with our colleague Prof Jim Shields, which precisely considers as one of its themes how foreseeable the outcome of these elections was. In one sense, I’m happy to say: very. But this is not a reflection of any technical prowess on our part, or status as the ‘Nostradamuses of French Politics’, to quote another colleague. Rather, it suggests to me a salutary but nonetheless worrying lesson about the nature of this election, and the current state of French politics. In short, we were pretty accurate about the outcome because we’d seen it all before.
Any student of French politics rapidly grows sick to death of being told about the bipolar quadrille, the bipolarisation of the party system, the growing bipartisme amongst the PS and UMP, and the challenge – short-lived, as it turned out, if it was ever there at all – of far right tripartition to this monolithic dyad. In 2012, the monolith remains. A 52-48 run-off with 80% turnout between a candidate of the Socialist left and the Conservative right is difficult to beat as an exemplar of two-bloc politics. The vote breakdowns already betray the classic sociological split between Hollande’s supporters – younger, classe populaire, intellectuals and public sector cadres, unemployed, secular – and Sarkozy’s – older, richer, haute bourgeoisie and self-employed, and (if you can find them) the practising Catholics. For Hollande, there is an education split – the least and most educated; for Sarkozy, a territorial split – the most rural, and the Île-de-France. Ideologically, Hollande represents the universalist, cosmopolitan left, Keynesian economics (if possible), socially liberal, regenerative, collective; Sarkozy the hierarchical authoritarian right, small-state austerity (for now), socially illiberal, critical, individual.
In a period when left and right are regularly described as defunct, when there is a ubiquitous sense of accelerated progress through technology, globalisation through social media (good) and multinational corporations (not so good), the entrenchment of a clash of civlizations in many people’s rhetoric, and the world just generally being turned on its head, the traditionalism of the final confrontation on 6 May should beggar belief. France has swapped one political stereotype for another. Not archetype – the right exemplar has undisputably failed (it lost the election) and the left replacement has yet to succeed (it has only just won). French voters have identified with what has become commonplace shorthand for left and right political camps, and voted accordingly.
France’s political system has returned to a format and content which characterised 1978 and 1981, and mimeographed the programmes. That there are no new ideas is an old complaint, to the point of cliché, and for the Socialist victor this would not be accurate. Hollande has identified sufficient novelty in his promises of a gender-parity government, the disavowal of nuclear power, withdrawal from Afghanistan, celebration of youth, and so on. But let us be clear – many of these are a continuation of ideas first put forward by la gauche plurielle of the 1990s, the celebrated if flawed pluralism of Socialists, radical left and Greens under one coalition umbrella. These are ideas which have been with France for a while, and this is simply the first time the left has had a chance to try them out. Today, we witness a return to alternance, probably – more forecasting here – with complete control of power to the left after the legislatives in June. (I ignore here the desperate calls from the UMP to the electorate not to let the left monopolise executive power, which from the party which altered the electoral calendar to ensure precisely that outcome is, to use the political science term, rich.)
Furthermore, for all their inherent value, these are the leftist equivalent of the authoritarian window-dressing used by Sarkozy and UMP five years previously. At the heart of governing remains the economic crisis – not just the eurozone crisis of the past three years, but the broader structural problems which Sarkozy and the UMP were elected in 2007 to address. The approach changes, but the challenge remains the same. “How will Merkel and Hollande work together?” ask the commentators. Again, we see echos of other Franco-German left-right partnerships: Schmitt and Giscard, Kohl and Mitterrand, Schroeder and Chirac. This time, they will work together, rest assured, because there is no option not to: whether one comes from the left or the right, faiblesse oblige.
No wonder that commentators have not been shocked by the outcome, then. To steal a line from Yogi Berra via Mike Lewis-Beck (in the French politics context), it’s déjà vu all over again. But when old ideas are celebrated for the sea-change they represent, their only possible justification can be to deliver results. Perhaps François Hollande really does only have 45 days to deliver his New Deal. If so, we will know very shortly whether the understandable joy of the Socialists in Place de la Bastille last night will turn rapidly to disappointment. As an outcome which determines the wellbeing and livelihoods of many people, that is one forecast which I shall not presume to make. But I cannot help thinking that politics should not be this predictable. Lacking any shock, in either the colloquial or econometric sense, the sense of a turning-point – however glad many people are to see the back of M Sarkozy – is absent. Is the solution to a modern crisis simply more of one you made earlier?
Whilst you work that out, Dr Ivaldi and I shall return to the more prosaic task of predicting the next batch of electoral dynamics – a far right party blackmailing its weakened centre-right competitor; a far left party criticising any centre-sway by the Socialist Party; a small centrist party looking to capitalise on its Janus position. Given we’ve seen it all before, it shouldn’t be too difficult.
I hope I’m wrong.