Patrick Smyth: French left facing unpalatable choices

‘The tension between the republican, secular state, caricatured as Paris and its elites vs rural France, is very much alive in its politics and daily life’

‘Forty years on, this very French, eclectic gathering, lubricated by copious wine and fromages to die for, provided some telling snapshots of the country’s, and particularly its left’s, uncertain, confused, and depressed mood and the langueur of its politics.’ Photograph: Getty Images

‘Forty years on, this very French, eclectic gathering, lubricated by copious wine and fromages to die for, provided some telling snapshots of the country’s, and particularly its left’s, uncertain, confused, and depressed mood and the langueur of its politics.’ Photograph: Getty Images

 

Paris in the springtime. Around the tables in the country garden on this balmy evening, pals, old schoolfriends, and family celebrated last weekend one of our number’s 60th.

Not quite Generation ’68, but we are its successors, from years whose graduates were schooled in the febrile debates of les événements’ aftermath, many of us also to be drawn to radical politics. Now, easing towards retirement, the fires of revolution are perhaps more glowing embers; there are among us a banker, teachers, government officials, journalists . . .

But 40 years on, this very French, eclectic gathering, lubricated by copious wine and fromages to die for, provided some telling snapshots of the country’s, and particularly its left’s, uncertain, confused, and depressed mood and the langueur of its politics.

Even here faint echoes of Dublin’s own referendum celebrations could be heard, and provoked both enthusiasm and some amazement from my companions at how smooth it had all been in “Catholic Ireland”.

France had been convulsed in 2013 when Socialist president François Hollande pushed through same-sex marriage and gay adoption against mass street demonstrations, some violent, of hundreds of thousands, mobilised by Catholic groups and the far right, exposing rifts in French society that are far more profound and angry than Ireland’s.

The tension between the republican, secular state, caricatured as Paris and its elites vs rural France, is very much alive in its politics and daily life.

Haste and insensitivity

That deep resentment of Hollande even among those most sympathetic to the left, ran like a leitmotif through our discussion. One quiet admission by a former Trotskyist, that he had rejoined his local branch of the Socialist Party provoked astonished gasps and indignation. Even his wife professed bewilderment.

Not, he confessed, that he had found anything to write home about in the party whose inner life was dull and pessimistic, with its debates dominated by full-time party officials and elected politicians.

Another guest, who had worked in a senior public administration role, confessed he had not paid his membership this year.

The prospect that Hollande’s dismal performance will almost certainly now mean a 2017 second-round presidential run-off between the National Front’s Marine Le Pen and the resurgent former, – and, we all thought, disgraced – Nicolas Sarkozy for the UMP – rebranding itself controversially as Les Républicains – is particularly preoccupying, presenting, even this far ahead, an acute dilemma for many liberals and leftists.

Despite themselves

Lionel JospinpèreJacques Chirac

This time the dilemma is more acute. Le Pen has polished up the NF’s reputation and is on a roll, eating into both respectable middle-class and angry working-class votes. And, for many, Sarkozy is scarcely any better than her. The result – widespread probable abstention by the left in the second round – could hand the presidency to Le Pen.

On Sunday a poll in Le Parisien found Sarkozy ahead by 59 to 41 per cent against Le Pen in a hypothetical second round (first round Le Pen 30 per cent, Sarkozy 25 per cent and Hollande 17 per cent). It is a very sharp narrowing of the gap on 2002 and is causing considerable alarm.

For one of my companions it prompted the utterly heretical observation that she and other more pragmatic Socialist members were thinking seriously of signing up to take part in the right wing’s US-style public primaries next year to back the more centrist former PM Alain Juppé against Sarkozy for the right’s presidential nomination.

The same poll was saying that while Sarkozy would beat Juppé by 16 points in a poll of UMP members, he would be beaten by 10 points by Juppé in the broader primary (assisted no doubt by socialists -in-sheep’s-clothing).

“No way,” one horrified friend retorted, “Sarkozy and all the UMP are racists through and through . . . no way could one sign a declaration sharing their values to get a primary vote.”

But, if he would not dissemble, how would he vote in the second round? “Ah . . . Encore du vin?”

The French presidential election is still two years off.

psmyth@irishtimes.com

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