Thursday, August 21, 2014
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France’s Dissonance Quartet

PARIS – Mozart’s “Dissonance Quartet” is arguably one of the most beautiful pieces of chamber music ever written. The title, linked to its highly unusual first movement, describes perfectly the far less beautiful state of French politics today.

A quartet of figures currently dominate France’s political stage: two on the left, François Hollande and Manuel Valls; and two on the right, Nicolas Sarkozy and Alain Juppé. It is an understatement to say that contrary to the prerequisites of chamber music, they do not play together, but more or less openly against one another.

On the left, catastrophic results for the ruling Socialists in municipal elections in March revealed the depth to which Hollande’s popularity has sunk. With the Socialists facing a similar drubbing in the upcoming European Parliament election, Hollande had no choice but to install his highly popular interior minister, Manuel Valls in the Hôtel Matignon (the prime minister’s office).

For the first time in the history of the Fifth Republic, power seems to be dramatically shifting away from the Elysée Palace (the seat of the presidency). The letter and spirit of France’s constitution makes the prime minister the country’s second in command – “my collaborator,” as Sarkozy said of François Fillon – whose key role is to protect the president. But now Hollande is completely dependent on his prime minister.

The dissonance on the left, in power since 2012, began as soon as Hollande assumed office. The far-left denounces his administration’s “social-liberalism,” which is even more clearly pronounced with Valls leading the cabinet. Despite his many declarations to the contrary, Valls – sometimes described as the “Sarkozy of the left” because of his restless dynamism and, yes, opportunism – really does seem to be in charge.

Hollande has placed himself in a terrible predicament. If Valls succeeds, the triumph will be his, not Hollande’s, reinforcing his transparent ambition to become President himself in 2017. If Valls fails, his defeat will further weaken Hollande’s chances of winning a second term. Many on the left, facing only unattractive scenarios, feel increasingly betrayed and dispirited.

On the right, Sarkozy, despite his defeat two years ago, still views himself as the only alternative. But he faces an uphill battle. Though he is a consummate politician who is clearly missed by many of his party’s activists, the rest of France’s voters have even more clearly rejected him, mostly over issues of personality, and see no reason to modify their stance.

Power, like nature, abhors a vacuum. Overwhelmingly reelected as Mayor of Bordeaux, Juppé, a former prime minister under Jacques Chirac (and once Sarkozy’s foreign minister), has reemerged as the most popular political figure in France, with sympathizers on the left and in the center.

Juppé, whose efforts nearly 20 years ago to impose badly needed reforms made him one of the country’s most unpopular politicians, might be forgiven a bit of schadenfreude. His age (he is 68) might prove to be a handicap in 2017, but it could also be an advantage: he is the only reassuring statesman-like figure in a quartet whose other members are an uninspiring incumbent and two power-obsessed men in a hurry.

But this quartet is not alone on the stage. A fifth player, Marine Le Pen, the leader of the far-right National Front, offers the audience a radically different score. Le Pen is only too happy to capitalize on the succession of petty scandals hitting both the left and the right (attributable partly to the climate of near-civil war prevailing in both camps in recent years). The latest scandal, for example, cost Hollande a key adviser, who was forced to resign after left-wing media exposed a conflict of interest.

At the heart of this dissonance in mainstream French politics is Europe. Some segments of the left – who said “No” in 2005 to the proposed European Union Constitutional Treaty – oppose Europe for a combination of social and economic reasons, often resorting to appeals to national sovereignty. The right is equally divided on the issue of Europe, even if it does not include many anti-capitalists in its ranks. Like the EU’s leftist opponents, they denounce “diktats” from the European Commission in Brussels and the French government’s acquiescence in them.

Unfortunately, one consequence of these multiple layers of dissonance is becoming all too clear. The National Front, the only party to present a coherent, united, and purely negative position on Europe, is predicted by many public opinion polls to win next month’s European Parliament election. If it does, France’s political cacophony will become a problem for Europe as well.

Read more from "Europe's Ever-Closer Disunion"

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