Meanwhile, back in Paris: the election edition

I’m on sabbatical leave this semester, and for the last few weeks I’ve been back in Paris– back to the same rowdy, down-at-the-heels Château Rouge neighborhood I usually stay in, and back to my usual routine of libraries, seminars, and general hanging out. Mostly I’m getting a new research project up to speed, but it’s also a chance to reconnect with the country and its moods. If you’ve read some of these posts, you’ll know I’m a big believer in the being-there theory of knowledge. My line is, it takes an awful lot of reading to match what you learn about a place just by walking around and talking to people. (It’s one reason the Clinton presidential campaign was such an epic disaster– poring over the data at mission control doesn’t give you the same kind of knowledge, and maybe doesn’t give you real knowledge at all.) That effect is multiplied here, because life is so crazily intense. I got here a month ago, and I’ve already attended more academic papers than I do in a typical year back home, plus a lot of conversations with friends and non-stop people-in-the-street interactions.

And then, there’s the extra excitement of France’s upcoming presidential election, featuring French versions of the type-casting we’ve already seen in the Obama, Brexit, and Trump elections. You’ve got the Dangerous Nationalist with authoritarian tendencies– anti-immigrant, possibly racist, and like Trump she’s accused of being soft on Russia; there’s the Rich-Guy Christian Conservative– he represents the traditional French right wing, and this being France he even lives in a château; there’s the Official Socialist, whose own party establishment is attacking him for being too much of a lefty (basically, it’s what would have happened if Bernie Sanders had won the primaries, which basically did happen here); and rounding out the new millenium cliché field, there’s the youthful, dynamic, media-friendly Technocratic Newcomer, who talks about how we need to get beyond the old talk of left wing and right wing, and whose speeches nobody can quite understand– he’s also a former banking star.

There’s a half-dozen others, but these four are the only ones with a remote chance of winning. The half-dozen no-hope candidates are in it because France has a two-round voting system, where more or less everyone gets to play in round 1, then the two top vote-getters face off two weeks later. As the numbers work out, it’s pretty much guaranteed that Dangerous Nationalist will make it to round 2, so the real action in round 1 is who’s going to come in second– right now the favorite is the glamorous Technocratic Newcomer. One other background detail, it all happens very fast. The big parties only wrapped up their nominations in late January; the first election round happens April 23, and round 2 comes two weeks later.

So it’s a really different electoral system from what we’re used to, and lots of other things about France are even more different. That makes it fairly amazing that the candidates here seem to come from our US central casting line-up. All along in these posts, I’ve argued that historians over-estimate the force of culture and under-value social and political forces, and this seems like a case in point– big social forces seem to explain more about this election than culture and values.

Of course the obvious big social force here is racism. I’ve written before about my impression of Paris as a segregated city, at least comparable to US cities, in some ways maybe worse, and it’s clear that racism moves lots of Dangerous Nationalist’s voters.

But I think it’s wrong to fixate on the racism issue, not because it’s unimportant, but because it’s (almost) universal but (usually) latent. The current examples on everyone’s mind are the US counties that voted Obama in 2012, then went Trump in 2016, about one-tenth of all the counties Trump won. It’s a complicated issue, but examples like that show racism isn’t a sufficient explanation, just as it doesn’t explain how so many former Communist Party voters here have now started voting for the Dangerous Nationalist. Something had to change to make racism the deciding factor.

It’s two other big social forces that I think are really at work in France, powerfully enough to overshadow the cultural differences and give French politics a look so similar to our own. First, there’s the impact of global capitalism, and the sense lots of people have here that it’s screwing them over. On that one, the campaign language here could come straight from the Brexit and Trump/Clinton campaigns. The Dangerous Nationalist talks about limiting capitalism, dismantling international free-trade agreements, going back to a national currency, all those ideas we’ve become familiar with in the last couple of years; just as in Ohio and the English Midlands, that’s the talk that’s won over so many former Left Wing voters. Her likely round 2 opponent–Newcomer Technocrat– basically personifies the other side. He’s loudly pro-economic freedom, pro-European integration, and all the rest, plus he’s had the high-flying banking career; he even looks the part.

The other big social force is the strange transformation that’s taken place among the people who run things, what the French call the “political class.” The issue’s had a lot of high-wattage coverage lately, because the Rich-Guy Christian Conservative has been caught in a series of cheesey scandals: getting his wife and kids high-paying, no-show jobs, running a consulting company that’s designed to profit from his political career, accepting some dubious loans. (Google penelopegate for the details– and by the way, how great is that as the name for a scandal?) Since his whole campaign was about bringing decency and morality back to public life, the revelations have been a blow, and he’s dropped to third in the standings. But he’s still in the running, and his supporters are actually more fired up than ever. They’ve been asking variants of the old, old questions: what’s really the big deal here? isn’t this just part of normal political life? isn’t some level of shady financing standard operating procedure? isn’t this a witch-hunt?

They have a point, at least in the claim there’s nothing new about this sort of thing, and it’s even possible (possible) that this guy’s not a lot worse corruption-wise than some of his competitors. But I think there’s also something distinctive and twenty-first-century going on here, which ought to resonate with anyone who followed the Clinton fiasco: penelopegate is a mild version of the phenomenon we keep seeing all over the west, that anyone who wants to be a mover and shaker now has to be really, really rich, able to speak on terms of some equality with the billionaires at the top. Otherwise you risk being viewed as just a low-rent menial. At least that’s the best I can come up with to explain the relentless money-making we’ve seen from the Clintons, Tony Blair, and others. It’s not that the political class is more corrupt than it used to be, but that the ambition is so much bigger, and so far beyond the scale of ordinary life.

In France that’s still happening at a pretty low level– the dollar totals for penelopegate are a tiny fraction of the totals that the Clintons and Blair have racked up, and the distance from ordinary life is less insane. The polling all says that either Newcomer Technocrat or Rich-Guy Christian Conservative would trounce Dangerous Nationalist in a second round matchup. There’s less anger here about global capitalism and the new global rich it’s helping create. But the anger’s real, and nobody should get too confident about what the outcomes it might generate.

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