French lessons for the North American Left?

Today is Bastille Day in France, a national holiday that marks a key event of the French Revolution. It’s the perfect time, especially in this year marking the 40th anniversary of les événements – France’s most recent near-revolution – in the summer of ’68, to look across the Atlantic for some political inspiration for North America’s beleaguered political Left.


On one level, France is suffering under a rather familiar conservative regime. Nicolas Sarkozy is a shorter (at only 5’5 he’s been dubbed le petit Nicolas), flashier version of Stephen Harper. They are both shrewd and obsessive micro managers who are loyal to, and enamoured with, the United States and its warmongering administration. And they both harbour Napoleonic ambitions to conquer what remains of Canada and France’s respective welfare states.


In this mission, Harper must not envy the obstacles in the French president’s path. In France, there remains a relatively organized and militant working class movement. In May and June, a wave of strikes by public sector workers and their allies protested against Sarkozy’s attempts to attack pension benefits and undermine the 35-hour week. Last November, too, there was a series of general strikes that nearly shut down the country. These labour actions have forced the government to retreat on some of its neo-liberal agenda.


The president remained braggadocios despite this resistance, saying, “From now on, when there is a strike, no one notices.” This prompted Francois Bayrou, a moderate opposition politician, to question "whether President Nicolas Sarkozy lives in the same world like the rest of the French people."


This type of arrogance from “bling-bling” Sarkozy – like Tony Blair, he makes no secret of his admiration for the super-rich and their lifestyles – could help explain his recent plummet in the polls. What’s most interesting about the growing opposition to Sarkozy, however, is the political form it’s taking, and what this tells us about the importance of electoral reform, among other things.


In contrast to the “race to the centre” that passes for electoral politics in the United States and for the most part in Canada, in a number of European countries the Left has found new ways to organize and speak out in its own name.


In France, in particular, this voice has found an audience. Improbably, Olivier Besancenot, a 34-year-old radical socialist postal worker, now tops the popularity polls amongst all opposition politicians in France. The spokesperson of the far Left has even become a regular in the mainstream media, and his profile is generating interest in his organization’s project to build a “new anti-capitalist party.” You can now turn on the TV or pick up a daily newspaper and you will find Besancenot, who denounces capitalism in no uncertain terms and proposes a radical participatory project for defeating neo-liberalism.


There are cultural and historical explanations for this phenomenon, but differences in the electoral system also play an important roll. France’s presidential elections offer a buffet of choice for the electorate. In the last election, for instance, progressive voters had no less than three Trotskyists, a Socialist, a Communist, a Green, and an independent global justice activist from which to choose.


It’s a run-off system, so that in the first round of the election voters are free to vote for the candidate that actually represents their values and policy preferences. The top two finishers then compete in a second round, in which supporters of the other candidates can choose to stay home or to cast a ballot for the lesser evil of the remaining candidates. Parliamentary elections in France use a hybrid “first-past-the-post” and run-off system, wherein a candidate must win 50 per cent of the vote for a first ballot win or else face a second round run-off vote. The important thing about this system is that it allows for a genuine range of choice, and for honest political debate, rather than endless pandering and triangulation.


Speaking of which, of course, we can witness the dismal spectacle of U.S. presidential politics, where Obama has been cavalierly sprinting to the right. There was his going on bended knee before AIPAC, telling that warmongering lobby everything they wanted to hear about Iran and the Middle East. Then there was his stunning flip-flop on the FISA bill in support of telecom immunity in cases of government wiretapping.


Where does Obama get this audacity to dash the hopes of so many progressives? Precisely from the rigged system he’s working in. It’s only because the two corporate parties have such a death grip on U.S. democracy that a perennial third party challenger like Ralph Nader is considered quixotic at best, and often denounced viciously by liberals. Nader’s main platform points – bringing the troops home (including the mercenaries), reducing the military budget, finally implementing single-payer health care – are all issues that have majority support in polls. And yet they won’t even get a hearing, save for a whisker of a chance that Nader could be included in the big Google – You Tube debate in September.


In Canada, without proportional representation (PR), our parliamentary system is not much better. During the election campaign itself, voters are treated to the “choice” of liberal Conservatives or conservative Liberals, and/or Liberals talking like social democrats, depending on the situation. And the Left is pressured into the misnomer of “strategic voting.”


Without PR, our democracy increasingly becomes a game involving only another sort of PR – public relations. Stay within the “message box” and those talking points at all costs. The professional communications staff and the leaders’ advisers often wield something close to veto power over party policy, convention resolutions and grassroots opinion. In a neo-liberal age where the "centre" has been pulled so far to the right, real democracy atrophies under this set-up.


I find it refreshing and hopeful that there can still be popular oppositional campaigns that actually call things by their right names. Faced with an in-your-face capitalist as president, the French people have picked an in-your-face anti-capitalist as their favourite politician from the opposition camp.


The Besancenot phenomenon might just indicate that when faced with a right-wing onslaught, people want a leader who will lead a real fight back, not a “respectable opposition” that offers only tepid and token resistance. I’m sure the young postie’s success has forced many in the French Socialist Party to start reconsidering their centrist agenda and discourse.


We won’t really know here in North America until we are freed from the debilitating scourge of lesser evilism. On this Bastille Day, let’s resolve to continue and intensify our campaigns for electoral reform, despite the setbacks we have suffered. Without it, the game will remain rigged, and true liberté, égalité, fraternité for all will remain beyond our reach.


Derrick O’Keefe is the editor of

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