By the end of this week, Nicolas Sarkozy will most probably have announced his decision to run for a second term as French president. The campaign itself has been running for number of weeks and some candidates, such as the Green’s Eva Joly, are already struggling to make themselves heard.
As already commented on this blog, the current crisis in Europe has pushed political life towards both technocracy and populism: more technocracy at the national and the European level, with large swathes of policymaking bound up with pan-European rules and regulations, and more populism at the national level as charismatic individuals rally against the loss of national sovereignty and the seeming capitulation of mainstream parties to the diktat of markets and private investors. National leaders in Europe tie their budget-setting powers to increasingly complex European deals: excessive spending becomes the concern of the European Court of Justice and governments expose their fiscal policies to a kind of pan-European naming and shaming exercise. Governments also inscribe into their constitutions rules about what they can and cannot do with the national purse and technocratic administrations rule in Italy and in Greece. At the same time, populist claims about challenging this hegemonic pan-European consensus proliferate at the national level. From the street violence and protests in Athens and Madrid to the anti-Euro rhetoric of the French National Front, the political fringe is growing in volume.
Greece is the extreme example of how the crisis is transforming national political life. The most recent vote on reforms intended to guarantee the next chunk of EU bail-out money has pushed political parties into freefall: around 40 MPs were thrown out of their parliamentary group because they refused to tow the party line on the vote. According to one report in Le Monde (15/02/12), the two main Greek parties – the rightwing New Democracy (ND) and the centre-left Pasok party – are splitting down two lines: support for the technocratic government on the one side, and a rejection of the whole bail-out/austerity package on the other. Legislative elections in April have been the focus of the ND leader, Antonis Samaras, whose criticisms of the EU package in the past have annoyed EU officials and other European governments. Samaras has moved from opposing the EU deal to supporting it in the most recent vote, his calculation being that this would be most likely to help him win the next elections. But it has cost him the support of many of his close collaborators and the party is deeply split.
A key question in France is to what extent any of these trends and pressures will reshape electoral politics. As already commented upon on this blog, the current economic crisis is having an uneven and erratic impact upon national politics and upon national electoral outcomes. Before the campaign kicked off in France, there was some suggestion that the real contest would be fought between Jean-Luc Mélenchon and Martine Le Pen: the populist of the Left versus the populist of the Right. With the main parties indistinguishable in their fight for the political centre-ground, attention would turn to more colourful figures. In 2002, the surprise result of the first round was the success of the far Right National Front and the marginalisation of the Socialist Party. In 2007, it was the success of the centrist candidate Françcois Bayrou, who with over 18% in the first round, promised a radical shake-up of traditional French party politics.
In the end, the surprises of the elections did not translate into any fundamental change in the nature of the party system: the eruption of new faces was short-lived. So far, in 2012, a striking feature of the campaign has been return of traditional bipartisanship. This, of course, is the wish of Hollande and Sarkozy: they both want the campaign to become a two-horse race where from the start voters have to choose between their different programmes. A more varied landscape only makes their job more difficult. But the dominance of the Socialists and Gaullists thus far owes itself to more than campaign strategy. A feature of the current crisis has been the way it has struggled to give rise to fundamentally new political ideas or movements. 2011 was a year of protest in Europe: demonstrators filled the streets of Athens, Madrid, London and Amsterdam. But the electoral results have empowered mainstream figures and parties.
This is unfortunate give that neither side will really engage with the key questions of our time. Neither Hollande nor Sarkozy challenge the dominant reading of the European crisis as a problem of deficit spending. The Socialists want more focus on growth and to combine austerity programmes with a measure of Keynesian pump priming. Their justification, however, is tied to deficit reduction: only growth can cut government deficits, not austerity. The Gaullists are using the crisis as an opportunity to reform France’s labour market and to shift the burden of social contributions from the employer to the general taxpayer (Sarkozy’s famous “social VAT” proposal). Their commitment to the pan-European deficit reduction deal is demonstrated by Chancellor Merkel’s support for Sarkozy’s re-election.
At The Current Moment, we’ve argued that the debt problems faced by Western European and North American governments are not just problems of government profligacy, to be solved either by imposing more stringent rules on elected representatives or by trying to stimulate the economy through some kind of neo-Keynesianism. These problems express a particular set of social relations that form the basis of contemporary society, one rooted in both public and private debt. Debt is a relationship between individuals and collectivities, not just an amount that can be measured and quantified in an impartial way. Focusing merely on debt reduction policies leaves us none the wiser about how and why debt has become such a fundamental feature of contemporary capitalist societies. A Hollande vs Sarkozy election is unlikely to shed much light on these issues.