There’ll be many familiar faces in French politics leaving the national scene after the presidential election that begins this weekend. It is one of the few great certainties in the voting where the polls tell us there are four real contenders at the ballot box, any two of whom may be the ones to go through to the run-off on May 7.
Most of those disappearing will be among the legion of deputies and ministers who have already announced that, after the presidential election and the assembly vote a month later, they will leave the national scene for retirement or the relative oblivion of local politics. For many this is an admission of failure. Some stumbled in their attempt to seize the top job in their party, others slipped when it came to letting their hands dip unobserved into the public purse, yet more gave a parliamentary majority to, or ran a government whose trajectory in terms of popularity since 2012 could not defy the simple rules of electoral gravity: break your manifesto promises and you go down, not up.
One or two, though, have simply reached the end of their political careers. Those I shall miss the most are the ‘Brothers Bocquet’ as everyone calls them. Both Communists, Alain is a member of the outgoing, directly elected Assembly and Eric a member of the indirectly elected Senate. They will be missed because they have been at the forefront of seeking to get a debate going in France on the key question before all democrats today: what do we do to counter the power of international capital?
That is to talk about not the impact on our lives of some force as natural and independent of human influence as the tides or the turning of the earth, for what is at issue is the conscious decisions of a relative handful of human beings who, through private sector institutions or public and international bodies shaped in their interests, shift money and profit across the global economy, dictating and enforcing policies upon states, most of whom are weaker financially than the agglomerations of capital these individuals can manipulate.
Alain’s final speech to the Assembly in February after 39 years as a deputy was to push one last time in the French parliament the brothers’ joint argument for a new, global approach to taming this overwhelming private power. Even a state as powerful as that of France cannot contemplate autarchy. Going solo just won’t work these days. Yet what’s the point of an election if your programme for public spending and employees’ rights is promptly bulldozed aside and your hopes for change ground into the dust like those in Greece?
In a book last August, Sans Domicile Fisc, a play on the French term for the homeless, sans domicile fixe or “of no fixed address”, the Brothers Bocquet used the model of the UN conferences on the environment – the Conference of the Parties series that reached number 21 in Paris at the end of 2015 – to argue for a similar approach toward ending the fiscal paradises that enable big money to become yet bigger and to bend governments to its desires.
Their challenge is reflected in an election manifesto, Future in Common, that is currently in the top ten in the Amazon France best seller list of books: it has been bouncing around between number 4 and number 8 over the past few weeks. L’avenir en commun is the programme proposed by Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the left candidate now among that final four with their hats in the ring for the ultimate presidential bout.
And surprise, surprise – as the right woke up to the way he has been inching nearer the final run-off, the media gates have opened and the airwaves filled with talk of “danger”, “potential catastrophe”, “utterly unrealistic proposals” and even “ruin and destitution”. Financial sources have whispered that banks were beginning to worry and funds were thinking of shifting. Just like the “bankers’ ramp” when Harold Wilson was still acting as if he would back Tony Benn against the oil majors over the new North Sea fields.
His political enemies have been scouring the 120 pages and 83 propositions of Avenir en commun to spot any potential weak point. Ah ha, they cheered at the end of last week: he wants France to join ALBA! That’s an alliance bringing together, among others, Venezuela and Cuba. Mélenchon, the old Trotskyist, wants France to submit to Havana, they jeered.
But you don’t catch an old fox so easily. Political leaders and commentators in “the Hexagon” rarely think of the parts of the French Republic beyond the European mainland. With whom does France share its longest land frontier, he asked a giant rally in Toulouse this past Sunday (70,000 present, 50,000 more watching live on YouTube and another 250,000 watching the video that evening alone).
The answer is that the French department of Guyane, which has been on general strike for three weeks now in protest over the impact on it of the Hollande government policies, shares the frontier with Brazil. And, Mélenchon pointed out, any hope for real development in Guyane needs not just money from Paris but also cooperation with those states in Latin America which want to live as something more than a compost heap in Washington’s back garden.
Others on the right have comforted themselves with the memory that in 2012, Mélenchon also climbed in the polls only to fall back before the actual vote. But that was when voters on the left were listening to François Hollande’s talk of challenging high finance, the moment when, as he told journalists once he was in power: “People want to dream. There is a bit of a dream in every election. Afterwards the dream is more difficult to realise.” That Hollande turned the popular dream into something of a nightmare is why he could not stand again.
Attentive readers of Tribune will recall that in February I made the point that combining the poll positions of the two left candidates, Mélenchon and Benoït Hamon for the Socialist Party, gave a percentage putting one or other of them ahead of all their rivals. And that includes the longstanding front runner, the racist Marine Le Pen, and the whizz kid from the financial world, Emmanuel Macron, both of whom have stalled in the polls, and the right wing Gaullist candidate François Fillon, collecting more accusations of corruption as each week passes, who has now slipped well behind them.
At first, the way forward for the big two on the left, Mélenchon and Hamon, seemed to be for one or other of them to stand down. Hamon achieved that with the Green Party candidate and has since signed deals with three other small parties on the centre left. But between him and Mélenchon that has not worked. They agreed not to be aggressive toward each other. Unity, though, was another matter despite the wide agreements on policy.
For Hamon, perhaps, the key problem has been the need to try to keep control of the fragmenting Socialist Party machine. There will be a party congress in the autumn and he does not want those who have scuttled off to Macron’s bandwagon to be able to just jump back onboard again and retake control.
There are real differences between the two. Hamon has published a draft treaty for democratising the Euro zone. For that to have any effect on what happens in France, the other member states would have to be prepared to do a deal, and they are not. Mélenchon is more direct: French democracy will be meaningless if a government elected to deliver and anti-austerity programme is blocked by Brussels. He would take the issue to the electorate again with a referendum on leaving the relevant EU treaties. Remember that the French voted ‘No’ in this way to the original Lisbon Treaty, the scarcely revised version of which lies behind Brussels’ current powers.
Mélenchon has also matured and learned. He is at ease before his audience, chatting and joking his way through a presentation of one theme of another. His TV performances have been rated the best of all the candidates. He has built up a huge following on the internet with a core of supporters who have not forgotten how Hollande dashed those electoral dreams. If both stayed in the race it was always going to be one of other of Hamon or Mélenchon who moved ahead. In the event, it is the better orator and the one representing the clearer break with Hollande who is winning out.
So what now this weekend? French elections are as much a tactical game as a clash of programmes. The concentration of power in the hands of the President and the two-stage election process, with only two in the race at the final hurdle, forces electors to vote not only for whom they want but also to block those they do not want. That should help Mélenchon pick up more votes from Hamon. And Mélenchon’s combative mobilisation against global finance may help some former left voters who have turned to Le Pen since 2012 to think again.
If that happens, Hollande’s quip about electors having a bit of a dream could turn out to be true for those on the French left. And the Brothers Bocquet might find to their surprise that they have a potential president ready to carry on their campaign.