Vain, venal elite is France's ruin, but Le Pen is not the cure

South China Morning Post  |  May 4, 2002

By Sin-ming Shaw

TOMORROW FRANCE GOES to the polls again to choose a president. The choice is between the incumbent Jacques Chirac and Jean-Marie Le Pen.

Many French people call Mr Chirac a thief. He has been dogged by money scandals for many years. Mr Le Pen, on the other hand, is pegged as a racist. He is opposed to immigration - a code word for non-whites - and he says the Holocaust was a mere detail of history.

Mr Chirac got 20 per cent of the popular vote during the first round last week, while Mr Le Pen got 17 per cent. Every poll indicates Mr Chirac will win by a landslide this weekend.

Mr Le Pen, unlike Mr Chirac or the defeated Lionel Jospin, the French socialist Prime Minister, is an outsider. He is not from the same social and educational background that political leaders, senior civil servants and corporate chiefs usually come from.

Mr Le Pen attacks the exclusive fraternity of the privileged. It is a criticism particularly embarrassing to a country proud of being the intellectual birthplace of liberty, equality and fraternity.

The French establishment recruits its members from the upper-middle class. Mr Chirac and Mr Jospin are both graduates of the Ecole Normale Superieur, one of France's top colleges - as were most post-World War II prime ministers.

If Mr Chirac wins as predicted, the French will once again hold their heads high and declare Mr Le Pen does not represent the civilised French.

His success is largely down to the arrogance and complacency of the political leadership that has been ruling France for over half a century.

France is a country of great talent. It is pathetic that the country is living well below its potential because the ruling elite is cynical, corrupt, arrogant and self-serving.

It is a country unwilling to cope with globalisation, insisting that the French way is the Third Way between capitalism American-style - caricatured as unmerciful - and the inhumane, corrupt ways of communism.

Labour practices are so restrictive they are hurting new entrants to the job market. Business Week estimates 30 per cent of the young in France are leaving the country every year to seek jobs abroad, while immigrants from Eastern Europe and Africa face an even tougher employment hurdle.

Welfare payments in France are notoriously generous, funded by a punishing tax system that hurts mainly the salaried middle class and small businesses.

Petty crime has ballooned and insecurity, a euphemism for street crimes committed by non-whites, is a major campaign issue, an important source of dissatisfaction among those who voted for Mr Le Pen in the first round.

A quarter of the French population is non-European. But you would not know this by looking at the composition of the French political, social and corporate elite. There the non-European French are invisible. But by focusing on the racial differences, Mr Le Pen falls into the trap set for him by the establishment that delights in labelling him a lunatic racist.

Mr Le Pen's supporters are not just racist. They are often owners and employees of small- and medium-sized firms who find it impossible to compete against giant state enterprises run by the same elite members that control the executive and legislative branches.

Mr Le Pen even finds supporters among those who traditionally vote for socialists. These blue-collar workers feel threatened by the forces of competition. Their fears have been channelled against the immigrants, not against the anti-growth policies of the elite.

The French ruling class has over the years made a devil's pact with trade union leaders: "You let us run France and we will legislate the kind of policies you like." France alone among the richer nations has imposed a maximum 35-hour working week and has unemployment benefits that are blatant bribes to buy off workers.

The inevitable result is economic stagnation and high unemployment. Real living standards have fallen behind those in Britain and France's other northern European neighbours.

France's traditional leadership in science and culture has diminished. Even in the fashion industry, once a legend, the best designers today at French high fashion houses are foreigners. In science, France is not even on anyone's radar screen. Its universities are large, impersonal and badly managed and its industries are no longer at the forefront.

Mr Le Pen will no doubt be defeated. But France will still need to confront its underlying problems.

The largest peaceful demonstration in France in living memory occurred on May 1 in Paris to remind people to vote for Mr Chirac. However, two common banners read: "Cast the vote for Chirac with plastic gloves and clasped nose" and "Better a voleur than a Fuhrer", voleur being French for thief.

Jacques Chirac will get his presidency reaffirmed. But to many of those who will vote for him he remains a voleur.

Sin-ming Shaw teaches a course on globalisation at the American University of Paris