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Sarkozy proved to be as cynical a politician as Mitterrand, though lacking the latter’s elegant style. During his five years at the Elysée he further diminished the prestige of the presidency. At various times he became the target of eight different criminal investigations. Six of the prosecutions were eventually dropped, but even today ex-President Sarkozy — who denies everything — remains under investigation for bribing a judge, and is awaiting trial for electoral fraud.

The contrast between this year’s election and the euphoria that greeted Mitterrand’s victory in 1981 is striking. The downward spiral has left voters with the impression that presidential elections have become a struggle between a succession of second-rate figures, intent on acquiring power rather than committing themselves to the national interest. During that time the country has had many honest and competent political leaders from Left and Right — people of integrity like Jacques Delors, former president of the European Commission, Simone Veil and Phillipe Seguin, and prime ministers such as Michel Rocard and Raymond Barre. In their failure to reach the very highest office all had one thing in common — they were outmanoeuvred by more brutal or less scrupulous opponents. The result of the first round of this year’s presidential election, when the leading candidates of the two parties that have shared power in France for the last 36 years fell by the wayside, was the foreseeable culmination of this disastrous cavalcade.

France’s two main political groups have failed for contrasting reasons. Mitterrand’s Socialist Party is now in an advanced state of decomposition. This is partly due to the incompetence of François Hollande, who was the party’s general secretary for 11 years. Hollande has been described by Ségolène Royal — his fellow Socialist leader, former partner and mother of his four children — as “a man who has never been able to make up his mind about anything”, and by another former Socialist minister, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, as “by far the worst president of the Fifth Republic”. Another reason for the party’s disintegration is the success of Mélenchon himself. If he had not run this year as an independent candidate in the first round, and taken seven million votes off the official Socialist candidate, a Socialist rather than Marine Le Pen might possibly have survived into the second round.

With his extreme left-wing solutions Mélenchon appealed to many of those who have watched the gap widen between rich and poor in France. Between 1983 and 2015 the average income (adjusted for inflation) of 99 per cent of the population increased by 25 per cent, while for the richest 1 per cent it doubled — despite the fact that for 20 of those 32 years the Socialist Party was in power. Socialist measures, such as the wealth tax, introduced in 1989 to pay for increased welfare benefits, failed to slow this process, and the 35-hour week, introduced in 1998 and intended to reduce unemployment, was equally ineffective. Hollande promised to reduce unemployment significantly during his five years in office; in the event the level rose to a 20-year high.

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