France’s presidential election, scheduled for April 22, just got a lot more complicated: JosÃ© BovÃ© — the feisty founder of the militant farmers’ union ConfÃ©dÃ©ration Paysanne, an environmental leader who is recognized world-wide as a major figure in the anti-globalization movement, a best-selling author, and a media star popular with a large slice of French public opinion — will announce his candidacy for president of France today. In an interview last night on France 2 public television news, BovÃ© said that the only thing now that could stop him from becoming a candidate would be “falling under a subway train.”
BovÃ© wants to be the candidate of the anti-capitalist “left of the left” — the disparate coalition of small left political parties, Socialist Party dissidents, the anti-globalization movement, environmentalists, students, left-wing intellectuals, and ghetto activists that in 2005 gave the French political establishment a huge slap in the face when it successfully defeated the proposed European Constitution — supported by the major parties of both left and right — in a national referendum, leading the campaign for the “Non” vote. (see my article, “A Political Revolt in France: What Rejection of the European Constitution Means,” May 29, 2005.)
BovÃ©’s entry into the race has to give heartburn to the Socialist Party’s presidential candidate, Segolene Royal, who beat two lackluster male competitors from the party’s old guard (the aging party barons are known as “les Elephants“) by winning 60% of the vote for the Socialists’ nomination by the party’s membership (but only after the Socialists initiated a well-advertised join-by-Internet program that brought dozens of thousands of new members, mostly yuppies with only the vaguest of socialist commitments, into the party.)
A significant chunk of the left electorate isn’t thrilled with the candidacy of “Segolene,” as she is universally referred to in French media. She is noted for her centrist politics on a host of social issues, for having lavished praise on her model Tony Blair and his centrist “Third Way”, and for co-opting some of the right’s favorite themes — including a hard line on law-and-order and espousing “family values.” For example, her proposal that all juvenile delinquents should be turned over to the French army for “re-education” was widely ridiculed. Segolene was a staunch supporter of the proposed EuroConstitution — which exit polls in 2005 showed was rejected by the traditional Socialist electorate by 56-44% (it was seen by a majority of left voters as building a Europe for the corporations, not the people.)
To secure her nomination by the Socialists, Segolene had to change a number of her positions. For example, she was largely detested by gay activists for having campaigned against gay marriage, which her party last year endorsed (same-sex marriage is supported by two-thirds of the French in opinion polls); now she’s for it. And many haven’t forgotten that, as Family Minister in the Socialist government of Lionel Jospin, she had pro-condom TV spots designed to help prevent AIDS censored as “pornographic” and a danger to children.
Segolene was anointed by the media, which gave her an incredible push toward the Socialist nomination by the kind of uncritical coverage of which most candidates only dream. The result was a lightening-fast progression in the opinion polls that forced some of her opponents to drop out before the Socialist Party nomination vote (“Elephants” like Jospin and former Culture Minister Jack Lang) Segolene then easily defeated former Prime Minister Laurent Fabius, a pro-capitalist yuppie technocrat and aging dandy whose sudden conversion into leader of the party’s left was never terribly convincing) and former Minister of the Economy Dominique Strauss-Kahn, who represented the party’s right and had had a number of unpleasant encounters with financial scandals). Against such opponents, Segolene won in large measure because — to paraphrase the old campaign slogan of former New York Mayor John V. Lindsay forty years ago — “she was fresh and everyone else is tired.”
It also didn’t hurt her chances of nomination that her partner in life and the father of her children is the Socialist Party boss Francois Hollande, the party’s First Secretary, who controls the party apparatus with a very firm hand, and who helped her corral the support of the powerful local bosses of the regional Socialist Party federations. (Indeed, Segolene’s campaign for the Socialist nomination was marked by accusations of the stuffing of membership rolls, vote fraud, and other pro-Segolene manipulations on the part of those local bosses).
For over a year, public opinion polls have shown Segolene neck-and-neck with the inevitable candidate of the Right, the demagogic, hardline law-and-order Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy. “Sarko,” as he is known, called “the First Cop of France,” is infamous for having inflamed the ghetto riots of November 2005 that set all France aflame, when he poured verbal kerosene on the fires, dismissing the ghetto youth in the most insulting and racist terms and calling for a policy of repression (see my article, “Why Is France Burning? The Rebellion of a Lost Generation,” November 6, 2005.)
In the last week, however, Sarkozy — a clever, diminutive man with a Napoleonic complex and a dictatorial style, but a master media manipulator and a close friend of France’s press barons, who insure him favorable coverage — has opened up a not insignificant lead over Segolene, anywhere from 5 to 9 points, depending on which poll you look at. In part this has been because Segolene’s campaign has been plagued by internal dissension, mis-steps, programmatic emptiness, and a lack of focus. Two weeks ago, Segolene had to suspend one of her campaign’s most prominent spokesmen, the reformist deputy Arnaud Montebourg, after he joked on television — when asked what was Segolene’s biggest fault — that it was “her partner,” party boss Hollande, who has been the target of Montebourg’s barbs and reformist crusading in the past.
Lacking any foreign policy experience — and it has shown in her many verbal mistakes — she recently made an ill-advised trip to China, during which she invented non-existent Chinese proverbs before the TV cameras. The trip’s itinerary was entirely planned and orchestrated by the Beijing regime, and Segolene was widely criticized for failing to raise with her hosts in a visible way the Chinese government’s scabrous record of human rights violations.
On a recent trip to Israel, Segolene — in a blatant appeal to France’s Jewish electorate, which favors the pro-Israel Sarkozy — endorsed the Wall of Shame that fences off Palestinians and divides their communities, thus outraging both the electorally-significant Franco-Arab communities (in which there was a major post-riot voter registration drive) and a large section of French public opinion that is sympathetic to the cause of the stateless, starving Palestinians (over half of whose children suffer from malnutrition.) And on many issues she has taken no position at all, content to repeatedly mouth her slogan, “My position is the position of the French” (which is rather like the old joke that says, “There go the people — I must follow them for I am their leader.”) It’s no wonder that, for many left voters, the nomination of Segolene confirms the French Socialist Party’s transformation in recent years into a tepid and programmatically bankrupt centrist party whose primary vocation now is taking and holding on to power.
Meanwhile, Sarkozy has ably outflanked Segolene on many issues — this week, he even went to London to receive the enthusiastic embrace of Segolene’s model, Tony Blair. In fact, Segolene has never met Blair — while Sarko has had eight different meetings with the British Prime Minister, albeit up until now away from the eye of the cameras. But now that Sarko is his conservative party’s official candidate, a beaming Blair willingly lent himself yesterday to this blatant Sarkozy campaign photo op.
Fed up with having been told by the media for over a year now that their only real choice was between Segolene and Sarko — and feeling that the two candidates’ policies resemble each other more than they differ — more and more French voters are beginning to take seriously the candidacy of Francois Bayrou, leader of the smallish, centrist UDF party founded decades ago by former French President Valery Giscard-d’Estaing. Once French President Jacques Chirac’s coalition partner in the current conservative government in power, Bayrou has become one of Chirac’s sharpest critics. Bayrou is an articulate, mediatic politician whose “franc-parler” — meaning a discourse that seems to embrace unpleasant truths in a frank way and contrasts sharply with the traditional wooden language, or “langue de bois,” of the French political classes of left and right — plays well with the cynical French. And this week there are polls showing that he has finally made his breakthrough, and crediting him with 14% of the vote (twice what he got in the 2002 presidential election.) A lot of the new Bayrou voters are drawn from the disaffected middle-class portions of the Socialist electorate, to Segolene’s dismay.
Comes now BovÃ©, whose insouciant and much-publicized acts of bold, non-violent civil disobedience, for which he has served brief prison terms — like dismantling a McDonald’s, or destroying genetically-modified crops (of which the food-conscious French are justifiably highly suspicious) — have made him and his ample moustache instantly recognizable to the French, and highly popular too. A poll this week for the daily Le Parisien showed that 39% of voters support his ideas and wished to see him present himself as a presidential candidate.
But has BovÃ© made his move too late, with only 11 weeks left before the first round of voting in the presidential election?
For over a year, the network of local committees and “collectives” which had sprung up to campaign for a “Non” vote against the proposed EuroConstitution, and which had transformed themselves into local anti-capitalist committees, had led an effort to have a unity candidate of the “left of the left,” a process in which they joined with the Trotskyist Ligue Communiste Revolutionnaire (LCR), whose 2002 presidential candidate, the attractive and articulate young postman Olivier Besancenot, had won 4.25% of the vote; with the Communist Party (once France’s largest political formation, the Communists — sanctioned by its electorate for having been the Socialists’ governing partner in successive government that pursued center-right economic policies — got only 3.37% in 2002); with a faction of dissident Socialists led by left-wing Socialist Senator Jean-Luc Melanchon; and with a dissident chunk of the Green Party (disgusted at the Greens’ participation as a very junior partner in Socialist-led governments that did little for the environment.)
Many in this “left of the left” coalition dreamed of BovÃ© as their ideal unity candidate. BovÃ© was clearly tempted, but engaged in a hesitation waltz, declaring himself “available” but making no overt moves on his own behalf. By last November, the “left of the left” coalition had begun to fall apart. The Trots of the LCR decided they could better build their own party by re-nominating postman Besancenot in 2007, and pulled out of the coalition. This left the way clear for the Communists — in a typical maneuver reminiscent of old Stalinist tactics — to stuff the voting rolls of the local committees born in the Non campaign on the EuroConstitution, which the party sent their cadres to massively infiltrate. Given these circumstances, the handwriting was on the wall — the Communists would have the upper hand in the coalition’s designation process — and so BovÃ© definitively took himself out of contention shortly before the “left of the left” primary, which was held just before Christmas. And sure enough, when “left of the left” coalition members voted, thanks to the Communists’ ballot-stuffing they narrowly chose the Secretary-General of the Communist Party, Marie-Georges Buffet, as their candidate with 55% vote against three lesser-known candidates.
But the outcry and deception among the “left of the left” coalition’s rank-and-file at the Stalinist-style maneuver that had won Buffet that vote was enormous. Buffet, tainted in the eyes of many anti-centrist leftists by her serving in the Socialist-led Jospin government as Minister of Sport and Youth, got her political training as a fervent disciple of the Communists’ ultra-Stalinist, dictatorial former leader Georges Marchais, a slavish defender of the Soviet Union for whom Buffet edited the party’s ideological journal — a fact which many anti-Stalinist leftist voters haven’t forgotten.. The best-selling libertarian philosopher Michel Onfray, who with his talented pen had been one of the most ardent advocates of a “left of the left” unity candidacy, declared — in a much-talked about, lengthy interview with the daily Le Monde — that, after Buffet’s trick nomination by the manipulated “left of the left” primary, “a vote of conscience” in the presidential election was no longer possible for left-wing voters, who would now have only to choose between casting a blank protest ballot or supporting Segolene to block Sarkozy and the right.
It is in this context that BovÃ© today will declare his candidacy. Does he have enough time left to mobilize the left-of-the-left electorate behind him — especially when it is already divided by the candidacies of the Trots Besancenot and Laguiller and the Communist Buffet?
Moreover, BovÃ© faces another major hurdle — to gain a place on the presidential ballot in April, he must gather sponsoring signatures from 500 of France’s 35,500 mayors. And Socialist boss Hollande has proclaimed that any Socialist mayor who signs for anyone other than Hollande’s domestic partner Segolene will be severely disciplined and expelled from the party. The Socialists have no desire to see a repeat of the 2002 presidential election, in which the two Trot parties (the LCR and the highly sectarian Lutte Ouvriere, represented by their perennial candidate Arlette Laguiller) got a combined total of 10% of the vote, taking enough disillusioned left protest voters away from the Socialists’ presidential candidate, then-Prime Minister Lionel Jospin, to rob him of a place in the run-off (Jospin notoriously had declared during the campaign that his was “not a Socialist program.”). Instead, it was neo-fascist Jean-Marie Le Pen and his race-baiting Front National which made the runoff against incumbent conservative Jacques Chirac. This led to the bizarre situation in which the Socialists, for fear of Le Pen, found themselves obliged to support the re-election of Chirac! (A popular slogan at the time in the wide-spread anti-Le Pen street demonstrations that mobilized millions of French leftists was, “Votez l’Escroc, Pas le Facho” (“Vote for the Crook, Not the Fascist.)
Thus, even if BovÃ© can find 500 mayors willing to sign to put him on the ballot (no easy task), the fear of a replay of the 2002 result — Le Pen, now 78, is once again a candidate this year and moderating his discourse — may well keep many left voters sympathetic to BovÃ© from casting their ballots for him. Still, BovÃ©’s declaration of candidacy today has Segolene sweating — because you can be sure she will be the target of his effective, witty barbs, and because he can appeal to left voters who would not consider voting for the Trots or the Communists. Moreover, BovÃ© has an extraordinary talent for attracting media coverage — and the broadcast media controlled by the right will be sure to give him lots of air-time to help torpedo Segolene. BovÃ© is thus the French presidential election’s wild card.
Doug Ireland, a longtime radical journalist and media critic, runs the blog DIRELAND, where this article appeared Feb. 1, 2007.