The strangest thing for a Brit looking at the French political scene is having to forget all your assumptions about left and right. The concepts of left and right are so different here that it’s hard to find equivalents.
The easiest way to illustrate this is all the comparisons to Tony Blair. Nicolas Sarkozy has met with him and is a well known anglophile, Segolène Royal is credited with a Blairesque transformation of French socialism and when I went to see Francois Bayrou speak one of his supporters tried to convince me that the UDF candidate, with the same mix of support for free markets and passion for social justice, was the true “French Blair”.
As a student at Sciences-Po (the Institute of Political Studies), I often get asked how I’d vote if I could. The tendency for the parties here to straddle what seem, to a Brit, to be fairly fundamental divides makes identifying an equivalent of my centre-left stance quite difficult.
The French social state is very comprehensive (as my monthly housing benefits demonstrate) and none of the candidates are talking about significantly cutting it. Despite numerous visits to the ‘banlieues’, none of the main candidates are prepared to tackle the serious social inequalities that divide France. Instead they all subscribe to the republican dream of an indivisible French identity which comes across as both overly idealistic and very conservative in thinking to a Brit raised with ‘equal but different’ as watchwords..
However it is on the subject of the economy and, more specifically, globalisation where the candidates seem so at odds with their British equivalents. Sarkozy, often labelled as an economic liberal (possibly the worst insult in French politics), is lukewarm in his acknowledgement that France has to compete in the global market, rather than try to isolate and protect itself.
However, it is Royal’s approach that seems strangest to me, as someone who’s grown up with the UK Labour Party of the 1990s. Despite her modern reforming image, it’s still far from clear that she’s accepted that the superb French social system needs a thriving economy to finance it. Even the ‘third’ candidate, Bayrou seems stuck at the level of gimmicks with his policy of two tax-free jobs for every company in France.
If some of the rhetoric and policies seem alien, students involved in politics are reassuringly familiar. During a debate in a recent lecture, the Sarkozistes were perfect French equivalents of Tory Boy!
Unsurprisingly for a school like Sciences-Po, the level of political activism is pretty high, with posters everywhere and regular meetings for the different party groups. However it was when Jean-Marie Le Pen came to talk at Sciences-Po that the true level of political passion came out. Thousands of students amassed in the street and in the university buildings. I suppose it just goes to reinforce the stereotype that the French are most passionate when saying “Non” to something…