(I've put up my article on the French presidential debate over at Bits of News a few hours ago. There's already a number of interesting comments, so make sure to check out the original here.)
With every passing minute of yesterday's interminable debate between the French Presidential candidates – which went on for an exhausting two hours and forty minutes – it became clearer that the disagreements between Ségolène Royal and Nicolas Sarkozy are actually rather insignificant.
Economically, the differences between the candidates are far, far smaller than is suggested by those who compare Sarkozy to Margaret Thatcher. Yes, he wants to reduce inheritance tax, limit cumulative taxation of individuals to 50 % over the course of a year and “give value back to work” by exempting from tax any time worked in addition to France's 35-hour week. But these measures hardly amount to a revolution of French economic policy.
Royal proposes some recognisably social democratic initiatives, such as to encourage companies to give school dropouts a chance of proving themselves in a steady job by paying for their first six months of wages. But her most memorable line about the economy is hardly the stuff of which a traditional leftie's speeches are made: “I want the French to become a people of entrepreneurs”. On the main economic issues she, in any case, got Sarkozy to acknowledge that his policies wouldn't substantially differ from hers.
More worryingly, both Royal and Sarkozy fail to realise that France needs to push back excessive interference by the state in the social as well as the economic sphere. Both, alas, are unreserved believers in the moral authority of the state, which, they seem to think, is solely responsible for solving all social evils. Little distinguishes the populist left-authoritarianism of Royal, who wants to re-educate young trouble makers in military-style barracks, from the populist right-authoritarianism of Sarkozy, who wants to "hoover" the "scum" of the suburbs by means of sheer force.
A good example of this is Sarkozy's misunderstanding of the French educational system. Internationally, it is infamous for suffering from antiquated top-down teaching techniques and an overreliance on learning facts off by heart. But Sarkozy's vision for France's schools is yet more dusty, yet more hierarchical: it revolves around notions of “respect”, in which students must jump to their feet on sighting their teacher. It is not surprising, then, that his final credo was to “resolve France's moral crisis”, when what he should be promising the French is to let them resolve their moral crises for themselves.
Royal, on the other hand, seems deeply embedded in a model of left-wing politics which is more interested in being seen to care for the weak and the meek than in actually empowering them. At the beginning of the debate, for example, she tried to put Sarkozy on the defensive by attacking his record as Interior Minister – a strategy which shows her choice to challenge him by appearing even tougher than him, rather than offering a vision of France less focused on law-and-order.
In France, at the worst of times, state employees have a well-nigh Soviet attitude. They can treat you as they wish because it is impossible for them to lose their job. And lodging complaints is widely recognised to be useless as there are few or no independent watchdogs. Especially the police is virtually beyond reproach, making even law-abiding upper-middle class Frenchmen wary of dealing with authority any more than absolutely necessary – imagine, then, what the relationship of immigrant youth in Paris' tough banlieus to the state's most visible manifestation must be.
The result of this is an exacerbation of the problems created by France's overregulation. Dealing with a load of bureaucracy in order to, for example, open up a company is bad enough; but doing so whilst being frustrated at every step by moody bureaucrats who have no desire or incentive to help you along the process is far worse. The Presidential campaign would have been an opportunity to ask for a change of attitude in this respect. But for all Sarkozy's talk about “work”, neither his rhetoric nor his policies touch on these fundamental problems. (Neither, of course, do Royal's proposals.)
François Bayrou, the centrist candidate who gained an impressive 18 % of votes in the frist round but failed to qualify for next Sunday's run-off, nicely expressed his objections to the two main candidates. “I neither want France to be all-state a la Royal, nor do I want France to be cruel a la Sarkozy”. Insofar as the social sphere is concerned, it seems, his legitimate fear could have been put even more bluntly. Whether Royal or Sarkozy take power, France is likely to get social policies that are both cruel and all-state. What France really needs is a liberation of its social sphere from statist micro-management – but yesterday brought the definitive proof that, whatever the outcome of the elections, it will be headed in the opposite direction.
If the vote of most French people this Sunday is going to be directed against the candidate they dislike more, rather than for the candidate they agree with, they have good reasons for such a negative attitude. As a voter who is still undecided told me: “Whenever I hear one of the candidates on TV, I change my mind. Listening to Sarkozy, I want to vote Royal. And listening to Royal, I want to vote Sarkozy”.
If many people share that logic, then Sarkozy won a few votes yesterday. Two and a half hours into the debate, it seemed that it might never end because, in a clear violation of its meticulously negotiated rules, Royal continued to be about three minutes ahead on speaking time. “Don't worry about it”, Sarkozy said magnamonously, “I give these three minutes to you as a present”.