08 March 2012

Contrarian Notes on French Elections

If you have seen any recent news item on French elections, you probably know that the Socialist Party candidate François Hollande has what appears to be an unbeatable lead over the incumbent, Nicolas Sarkozy.

Actually, last month, I was shown a couple of internal polls taken by major polling firms and they indicated that, especially in the run-off elections, Hollande would beat Sarkozy with a double digit lead. And this was true for all possible scenarios and combinations.

Besides presiding over what looks like a failed presidency, two thirds of the population has a highly negative opinion of Sarkozy. There is chronic high unemployment in a stagnant economy, consumer confidence is at an all time low,  France lost its coveted Tripe A credit rating and there is a widespread perception that, during his first term, Sarkozy did nothing but party with his rich friends and his posh wife.

Just a few days ago, while campaigning in Bayonne, he had to take refuge in a bar for an hour as the crowds turned against him, hurling insults and eggs. It is no exaggeration to say that a majority of French people really, truly, madly hate him.
The French simply dislike him.(...)

Mr Hollande said that on his travels around France there were always, of course, supporters who came up and said how much they wanted him to be president. 
But far, far greater were the number who came up to Francois Hollande and said they just wanted to be rid of Nicolas Sarkozy. 
That is perfectly believable.
Yet, given my contrarian nature, I think that Nicolas Sarkozy might just pull off the seemingly impossible and get reelected.

How Do You Win Elections?

When Nicolas Sarkozy was a candidate in 2007, I predicted that he would become president. My French friends were not as convinced. They thought he had a funny name, he was short and he was not a sympathetic figure. They found my earnest explanations, such as "business classes are fully behind him" rather quaint. So I came up with a silly joke. Whenever they dissed my explanations, I would tell them that I stood by my prediction because I knew that when the going gets tough French people turn to short foreigners. Remember Napoleon?

Lame Corsican jokes aside, my contrarian prediction was based on that fact that, in modern times, you need two elements to win elections. This is not an ironclad universal rule, it is just a notion that help explain electoral results in most Western countries in the last three decades.

First, you need to convince business classes that you will not be a threat to their interests. They are very important, as they can make your government impossible by shifting resources around, moving their businesses elsewhere, withdrawing investments and manipulating markets. Moreover, in the last three decades they began to buy up most media outlets, which means that they are in a position to control how your message reaches the general public. In short, you don't need to be a disciple of Marx to know that, without their support, you are toast.

The second group you need by your side is the white working classes. By working classes, I don't mean the dwindling factory workers but people employed in all three sectors of the economy in non-managerial and non-supervisory positions. You need them because they are the one who provide the actual ballots. In a democracy you have to have a majority of the voters vote for you. And that usually means that you need a majority of these people to vote for you.

The question you face as a candidate is how to convince these two groups simultaneously to support you. After all, their interests are hardly aligned. Business classes would like to reduce their labor cost, working classes would like to earn more. Business classes would like to pay less taxes and working classes would like them to pay their fair share. Business classes would like to move their businesses to any country that provides them with a cost advantage, working classes would like them to keep those jobs at home.

The answer to this conundrum was first formulated by the GOP during Nixon's presidency and successfully implemented by Reagan and every other Republican candidate and president ever since.

Let me explain this idea with an example. Dogs are sociable and good-natured animals. To turn them into ferocious guardians a technique is needed. It is a simple one. They keep the dog in a cage them for months and regularly poke him with a stick. The dog feels threatened, vulnerable and scared all the time. When they finally let him off the cage, he is so shy and so fearful that he attacks anyone that even looks at him. Anyone, except the guy who poked him with a stick all that time.

In the last three decades, businesses became truly global, jettisoning in the process all the regulatory frameworks associated with the nation state. This globalization was accompanied by extensive deregulation at home providing them with all the freedom they wanted.

The flip side of this coin was increasing insecurity for working classes. They witnessed well paying manufacturing jobs move to China. They watched helplessly the steady decrease of their real income. They saw their benefits taken away. Working two or three low paying jobs, it slowly dawned on them that they no longer had any safety net, unions to protect them or health coverage if they get sick.

So, you have the fear factor in place.

What you needed was a way to redirect this fear and insecurity to appropriate "others." Instead of realizing that their income was reduced, their jobs were shipped overseas and their benefits removed because of the needs of the business classes, they had to be told that the remaining menial and low paying jobs were being taken away by immigrants and minorities. "Them people" were also responsible for disappearing benefits as they exploited the system so much that it was no longer possible to provide them for everyone else.

The strategy coincided with a radical change in media ownership. In the last three decades, large conglomerates began to buy up TV networks, news channels, radio stations and newspapers. In countries where there was established state owned media outlets, like BBC in the UK and CBC in Canada, they became the target of relentless campaign to push for their privatization (they failed in these two cases though they still try, elsewhere, like France they were all successfully privatized and taken over by large companies).

News divisions once regarded as public utility organizations were turned into shallow and for profit enterprises. News reports became short and pointless to be almost unintelligible: "the length of the average TV sound bite had dropped dramatically, from 43 seconds in the 1968 presidential election to a mere nine seconds in the 1988 election."

The entity that perfected all of these trends and turned media outlets into outright propaganda machines is the News Corporation.

All of these trends are old news to North Americans. Michael Moore famously explained in Bowling for Colombine how fear spread by the media was the causal element in US violence (and not gun ownership) by contrasting it with low incidence of violence Canada where such tactics were much less evident (despite relatively high gun ownership).

As the Bene Gesserit litany goes, fear is the mind killer.

Sarkozy and the Politics of Fear

When I came to France in 2004 I could see the same scenario being set in motion. My French friends had no clue and didn't suspect a thing. They had quixotic notions about debating the issues. Sarkozy had other ideas and he became the first French presidential candidate to use fear successfully as the sole motivating factor. Through that he got the support of the white working classes. He ran on a platform of tightening immigration laws and restricting immigrants' access to welfare benefits. While his rival, Segolene Royale (former life partner of Francois Hollande) emphasized the root causes of immigration (pdf) and wanted to help those countries develop, Sarkozy wanted to stop them at the border. He also wanted a strict policy of assimilation and made the French identity the cornerstone of his presidency.

Throughot the campaign, business classes and the media were solidly behind him.

His current problem is that he lost the support of both of these groups. Business classes came to the conclusion that he mismanaged the economy and took steps that were contrary to their interest. They believe that he should have taken the advice of his dull but competent Prime Minister François Fillon, when he declared in 2007 that France was broke and could no longer afford generous subsidies and salaries. Instead of promoting fiscal discipline during those relatively properous years, Sarkozy chastised Fillon and refused to control spending. His return to fiscal disciple after the crisis broke out was an equally stupid step and as a result, French economy stopped growing.

He also lost the support of the working classes as he forgot to continue to deliver the message of fear after the elections.

But he is making a come back. I realize that most opinion polls are showing Hollande increasing his lead but those projections are mostly for the run-off elections. Tellingly, in the first round, they are separated by only two points, which is statistically insignificant.

In this process, Sarkozy is helped enormously by the hapless Hollande. A week or so ago, feeling spontaneous or giddy (not to say incredibly stupid) the Socialist candidate blurted out that if he wins he would impose a 75 percent tax rate on people whose annual income exceeds a million euros.

It was a colossal mistake on many levels: First off, such a tax would not generate much additional revenue for the state. Secondly, a high tax rate on affluent people s is no longer a popular notion in today's France, where social solidarity is replaced with aspirations to get rich, à la American Dream. And thirdly, such a measure would most certainly displease the business classes.

Right after that, Sarkozy went for the white working class support with a one-two punch. He declared that there were too many foreigners in France and, if reelected, he would make sure that number is halved. He also promised to work tirelessly to reduce the benefits immigrants receive from the state. Shades of Tea Party.

For his second punch, he reversed his previous position on halal meat and began pushing for a clear labeling for halal and kosher slaughter. That is a dog whistle to let his supporters know that he will not tolerate the so called Islamisation of France. The halal meat thing was extreme right wing Marine Le Pen's issue and by taking it over Sarkozy sent a clear signal to those groups who hate "them others" that he was on their side.

He has seven weeks. If the business classes begin to think that Hollande is serious about his pointless proposal, I expect to see a shift in the way Sarkozy is covered in the media. If he is allowed to push his message more freely and without much filtering, he could continue his gains among the extreme right voters.

My guess is that after Hollande's tax gaffe, Sarkozy has a very clear shot at reelection.

One of these days, I will write about his ancestry in the Ottoman Empire. It is quite a tale.

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