Sunday, 17 June 2012

These elections have killed off the demagogues of French politics

Voting is now over in the French legislative elections, the results are in, and the collective sigh of relief is almost audible after the four months of relentless political campaigning which have finally ended with the election of François Hollande as president and a socialist government with an absolute majority.

So much for the bare results, but, political choices aside, these elections also show that after years of vicious political backbiting, scandals and personal spats the French have had more than enough of their more ego-driven political demagogues, and have thus rejected them more or less en masse.

The first victim of the public's backlash against politicians who ride roughshod over the public's tolerance was Dominique Strausse-Kahn, who fell from his pedestal even before the presidential campaign had officially begun.

Widely tipped to be the Socialist presidential candidate this year - and polls even made him the early favourite to win the presidency if he stood - his dreams ended with his arrest in New York on charges of sexually assaulting a hotel maid. The French press and public defended him at first, shocked as they were by photos of him in handcuffs. The sympathy was mainly inspired by the fact that the publication of photos showing handcuffed suspects is illegal in France, where it would be considered to be degrading treatment.

The mood quickly changed however when the French suddenly seemed to pinch themselves and wake up to the fact that DSK was widely reputed to be an aggressive and boorish womaniser as well as a champagne socialist. At the same time he was considered to have used his power and authority in order to try and get his way with almost any woman who took his fancy. The old story of his affair with a female IMF staffer resurfaced, as did the allegations of attempted rape by journalist Tristane Banon. The game was finally up, and he was forced to withdraw his candidacy after polls showed that over 70% of French voters no longer wanted him to be involved in public life. Strauss-Kahn has since slid into political obscurity, although he is still in the news because of his alleged implication in a prostitution ring.

The next victim of voter ire was the man with the biggest ego in French politics - Nicolas Sarkozy. Ironically, he was elected in part because of his pledge to put an end to the aloof and distant presidential style of Jaques Chirac, which had irritated many voters, but he mistakenly took his mandate to mean that he had carte blanche to do and say whatever he wanted. The result was that Sarkozy's bling-bling brashness, blunt words and vulgar attitudes quickly led to disenchantment, and it wasn't long before the public began to regret Chirac's departure.

Succour finally came for the French when François Hollande astutely decided that he would use the 'normal president' line as a campaign theme in order to highlight his belief that voters would prefer his style, and his victory demonstrated that the public had had enough of Sarkozy's I-me-mine way of presiding.

Next up for the chop was the hapless centrist François Bayrou, whose crime was his unwavering belief that he could continue indefinitely to flip-flop on his choice of policies depending on which major party he was supporting. Bayrou had no qualms about changing horses in the middle of a presidential election campaign if the polls showed that he was supporting the wrong candidate. His main objective became clear as elections came and went however, and it was nobody's secret that all he wanted was to be in the right camp at the right moment and be rewarded with a cabinet post.

It was not to be, alas, and he was eventually and unceremoniously dumped by voters in the first round of the presidential election with only 9% of the vote, which was a pitiful showing given that his 2007 score was exactly twice as big - 18%. His fall from grace was completed today when he lost his parliamentary seat after holding it for 16 years.

But at least Bayrou made it to today's second round vote, that which was not the case for maverick hard-left candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who made the fatal error of believing that voters wanted a man with not much more than a personal vendetta against Marine le Pen as policy.

His presidential campaign for the Front de Gauche was characterised by a vicious running battle with the equally vicious Front National leader Marine le Pen. When the first round results came in however he was shocked to find that he had completely misjudged the mood of the very working class voters he was hoping to seduce, and he was easily out-distanced by Le Pen, who had rightly estimated that working class voters were fed up not with her, but with politics and politicians in general. His disappointment was compounded by the knowledge that Le Pen had obtained a much higher proportion of working class votes than he, their self-styled champion, had managed to get.

But the worst was yet to come, and Mélenchon's hatred of Le Pen inexorably led to his irrational and suicidal decision to get himself parachuted into the 11th parliamentary constituency of the Pas-de-Calais, where she too was a candidate. He took Le Pen on in the enemy territory which was the small town of Hénin-Beaumont, where Le Pen is an opposition figure in the town council, and he was hoping for revenge. But the people were having none of it and, manifestly disgusted with Mélenchon's decision to foist his personal agenda upon them, voted massively against him and for Le Pen. It is always sad to see colourful personalities like Mélenchon go, but his massive ego finally led to his undoing.

Which leads us to another massive ego and controversial politician, the socialist Ségolène Royal. A bitter loser to Sarkozy in the 2007 election (she was angry enough to call for the French to take to the streets against Sarkozy the very night of her defeat) Royal has never been far from the front pages, and for all the wrong reasons.

She went on to contest the leadership of the Parti Socialiste in 2008 and found herself up against Martine Aubry, who eventually won what turned out to be a very close race. Not happy with the result however, Royal noisily announced that there had been malpractice and that she would contest the result in court. That decision, which threatened to result in the party's reputation being dragged into the mud in court, was not appreciated by voters. She has never to this day carried out her threat, but neither has she formally withdrawn her allegations of cheating. This episode was just one of many controversies which led to her failure to be nominated as the party's presidential candidate in the recent election, and she obtained just 6.9% in the primaries, which were of course won by François Hollande.

Hollande, Royal's former boyfriend, went on to win the presidency. She supported him during his campaign, a clear sign that her anger over the split was waning. But another reason for her apparently magnanimous support soon became apparent.

It emerged that Royal would most likely be given the post of Parliamentary president - indeed she had very publically expressed an interest in the job - and it was believed that Hollande had already promised her this prestigious position. But there was just one problem - she was not a parliamentary deputy, a prerequisite for any candidature.

So off she went to what she thought would be a safe place to get herself elected, La Rochelle. Accusations that she had been parachuted in, although technically well-founded, were tempered by the knowledge that La Rochelle is in the Poitou-Charente region, of which she is President.

But it was in La Rochelle that she finally got the political comeuppance that may well sound the death knell for any hopes she may have nurtured of becoming a national figure in French politics after years in the wilderness.

The cruel irony of her defeat was that during her doomed presidential campaign she had unsuccessfully defended the 'Tout Sauf Sarkozy' ('Anything But Sarkozy') campaign slogan, and it was precisely that slogan which was taken up today by right-wing opposition voters, who took the 'Tout Sauf Royal' line at its word and voted for her dissident socialist opponent, who came in miles ahead.

At the end of the day however, the big winner in these elections is François Hollande. He wanted to create as calm a political climate as possible in which to conduct his presidency, and he has largely succeeded. These results have removed some major political thorns from his side, they have given him an absolute majority, and there are no major demagogues in parliament to taunt him.

But this is France, where politics are volatile, and I'll bet that the demagogues, be they those who have lost out in the recent elections or others who may eventually start blipping on the radar, will surely be back one day....

No comments:

Post a Comment