Presidential election in France reveals plenty of jaded voters

PARIS -- In France's presidential election, which takes place on April 22 and May 6, the incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy is running far behind his challenger, Francois Hollande, in a contest that has more to do with personal character than issues. Sarkozy has always been a man of action rather than theory or ideology, and the French Socialist Party, which Hollande headed for more than a decade, has been intellectually moribund for years.

Hollande's major challenges to Sarskozy in the campaign thus far include a promise (difficult to fulfill) to renegotiate the latest European growth and stability pact, signed last week. He also promises to hire 60,000 additional teachers (the teachers' unions have always been faithful supporters of the Socialist Party).

He declares that his personal enemy is "finance." He has just announced that he wishes to impose a 75 percent tax rate on everything a French citizen earns above a million euros a year.

France has far fewer millionaires than the United States or Britain, but the threat is an incentive to those it still has to leave for London or Geneva, no doubt to the cheers of the poor. Assuming, of course, that Hollande does not back off from this, as he already has done with the promise to hire new teachers, explaining that the total hires would actually be over the five years of his presidential term and will include teachers who would have to be hired anyway to replace those retiring or otherwise leaving.

The teacher promise could ricochet against him because of mounting middle class hostility towards the teacher unions among voters who complain of demoralization, absenteeism and declining standards in the state system, and who recently have made a sharp turn towards private schools. In the current scholastic year, these have been unable to accommodate all of the new applications for places, especially in Paris.

In the past, private schools were either religious schools or high-pressure cramming institutions for students failing in what traditionally has been an intellectually demanding state system.

They promise coaching to get students through the crucial secondary-school final test, the baccalaureate, the key to higher education in France. These parents are not ready to vote for favors to state teacher unions.

The Left in France blames Hollande for having allowed the Socialist Party to promote Dominique Strauss-Kahn as a potential presidential candidate despite his record (known but hushed-up by party leaders and press) as a sexual predator. Hollande has also failed to reform the party. The British, German and Italian Socialists have all faced and survived the ideological crisis of Marxism's collapse, but among many French Socialists the class war is alive. In the last presidential race, the Socialist candidate, Segolene Royale, scandalized many Socialists who should have been her electoral supporters by her politically incorrect refusal of party shibboleths (notably her proposed boot camps for delinquents, and ending her rallies with a rousing "La Marseillaise").

She, of course, lost to Sarkozy, but Sarkozy this time looks like he will lose to Hollande (Royale's estranged longtime "companion" and father of her four children) for equally idiosyncratic reasons, in his case social and intellectual snobbery.

He is the son of a Hungarian immigrant, who abandoned his French wife, daughter of a surgeon. He was schooled as a lawyer rather than attending one of the meritocratic "grandes ecoles," leading to a high civil-service appointment, from which ambitious middle-class young people transfer effortlessly into politics.

Sarkozy began professional life in the prosperous Paris suburb of Neuilly, eventually became mayor, was made a protege by Jacques Chirac, leader of the political right, and despite falling out with Chirac by supporting a challenger in the next presidential re-election, managed to win a high cabinet post in the final Chirac government. In 2007 he declared his own candidacy for the presidency.

He won, due to his manifest energy and personal magnetism, and quickly ruined his reputation by displaying the characteristics of a parvenue social climber (which he was) through his much-publicized ("bling-bling") addiction to the company of the rich and famous, and by doubling his presidential salary, announcing his admiration for the United States, taking France back into the NATO military structure, and marrying (as his third wife) a glamorous (and intelligent) beauty, who also was Italian and rich. He thus did all (except the last) that in France was considered socially or politically unacceptable. He wholly lacked the gravity and good manners that the French expected from a President of the Republic.

In the present campaign, he now is playing the immigration card in the hope of picking up right-wing voters from Marine Le Pen of the revived National Front.

He also did a good job in office. He mended many of the social hostilities that had given France its reputation for labor unrest; he initiated a long-overdue reform of the school system as well as a university reform granting institutional autonomy to university presidents. He intervened to stop the absurd war that resulted from Georgia's attempt to seize disputed territory from Russia. He joined Angela Merkel in pressing the European Union's members into dealing with the great credit crisis, saving the euro from the speculators.

He launched the French Air Force into Libya to save Benghazi and the rebellion there from Col. Ghadhafi, forcing Barack Obama into the war against Obama's will.

But the French voter has never forgiven him for not being a proper president. They like Hollande better, but not really. By 66 to 68 percent, voters currently say that this presidential campaign offers little hope that France's problems are going to be solved -- whoever it is that wins. They have always been a pessimistic people.

(Visit William Pfaff's Web site for more on his latest book, "The Irony of Manifest Destiny: The Tragedy of America's Foreign Policy" (Walker & Co., $25), at http://www.williampfaff.com.)

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