John R. MacArthur is publisher of Harper’s Magazine and author of the book You Can’t Be President: The Outrageous Barriers to Democracy in America. This column originally appeared in the Providence Journal on April 18, 2012.
It’s presidential-campaign season and once again I find myself impressed by the wealth of choices among the many candidates. There are center-right and center-left candidates of considerable standing, a true centrist candidate independent of the major parties, a far-right candidate who sometimes sounds like a left-winger, and a charismatic far-left candidate who appeals directly to supporters of the far right. Then there’s an acidly articulate Green candidate, who though low in the polls is hardly marginal, and four other fringe entries who seem worthy of attention.
I’m describing the French presidential election, which through the good fortune of dual citizenship affords me full participation. Indeed, I’m more excited about casting a ballot this Saturday at New York’s French Consulate, in my maternal language, than I am about casting it in November in my father’s native tongue.
Unlike voting in New York state, where the Electoral College votes are already pretty much guaranteed to go to President Obama, I feel that my French vote really counts, since France provides for direction election of its president. Moreover, in the French election there are two rounds of balloting, the first permitting the luxury of either a tactical or principled vote. Last time, in 2007, I was dissuaded from a principled, but wasteful, vote for José Bové, the radical environmentalist jailed for leading the “dismantling” of a McDonald’s under construction. Instead, I voted for François Bayrou, the “centrist” whose candidacy was promoted by some of my left-wing friends as a way to break the two-party domination of an overly bourgeois Socialist Party and Nicolas Sarkozy’s increasingly rightist UMP party.
If Bayrou, rather than the Socialist candidate, Ségoléne Royal, had come in second to the favored Sarkozy, he might well have won in the second-round run-off, thus killing two birds with one stone: the hated right-winger and the largely establishment Socialist, thus allowing the rise of a stronger, more authentically “left” party.
As it happened, Royal had more staying power than expected, so Bayrou came in third, and I felt obliged to vote for the losing Socialist in the second round. Since that election, the winner, Sarkozy, has disgraced himself to many on both the right and the left, with his penchant for consorting with the rich and famous (the French call it “bling-bling’’) and his endlessly contradictory strategic maneuvers that one day make him look like a National Front immigrant basher and American-style free trader, and the next a fearless French nationalist who stands up against international finance. I dislike Sarkozy’s sucking up to the Bush family, his implied repudiation of President Jacques Chirac’s refusal to join the invasion of Iraq in 2003, and his cynical support of Obama’s Afghanistan catastrophe. Also annoying, Sarko has lately been appealing, Nixon-like, to his “silent majority’’ to come scream for him at mass rallies.
This year, however, I needn’t resort to such a tactic because, though Bayrou is back, there is a better than symbolic candidate on the left, the Socialist renegade Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who, with Communist backing, is pushing the soft Socialist, François Hollande, to make more aggressive statements against big banks, the superrich, and such American/NATO military interventions as Afghanistan. In many respects a left-wing nationalist—a throwback to the Jacobins of the French Revolution—he also denounces “free trade” and “liberal” economic theory, which he rightly sees as anti-democratic and anti-working class. So Mélenchon can poach on the turf of Marine Le Pen, the ultranationalist, anti-immigrant, anti-European leader of the National Front who wants to restore the franc. For years, Le Pen and her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, have been attracting support from disaffected former Communists by attacking free trade, globalization, and job outsourcing.
But Mélenchon, unlike Le Pen, is no spoiler; although campaigning hard, he’s essentially pledged to throw his support to Hollande if the pro-Europe Socialist makes the first cut with Sarkozy, and has signaled he may run in June for a seat in the National Assembly to advance his Left Front. Mélenchon has also shown integrity by declaring he won’t accept a position in a Hollande cabinet as compensation. For someone like me, Mélenchon presents a principled, guilt-free alternative—or does he?
The French do not universally love their political system. Many would no doubt agree with the headline on a recent Economist editorial saying that France is “in denial,” with all the candidates “completely” ignoring the “grimmer” “fundamentals” of high public debt and public spending and undercapitalized banks. Eric Chol, editor of Courrier International, calls the current race a perpetuation of “a big farce: the myth of the omnipotent president of the republic,” who, like Charles De Gaulle, can change society through sheer personality. After the election, writes Chol, “Reality will soon quickly reassert its rights,” a reality that includes a well-ensconced European Union backed by a powerful lobby of free traders, plutocrats, and pro-American supporters of NATO.
All this is relative: Not even the candidates of the “right” propose rolling back France’s excellent national health-care system, or devolving centralized government power to France’s “départements” à la American states’ rightists. But the cleavage over American-style capitalism as applied in Europe, NATO, and Afghanistan is sort of thrilling.
So I detoured to Paris on Saturday just to soak up the atmosphere. Over drinks at the Odessa Café, in Montparnasse, I encountered stirrings of disillusionment with Mélenchon, whom my friend, Guy, called idiotic for letting slip his possible run for the National Assembly a week before the presidential balloting—a concession before the vote and almost the same day of his final mass meeting in Marseilles. Another friend, Jean-Philippe, jokingly predicted a Mélenchon-Sarkozy runoff. The polls indicate Hollande is just ahead of Sarkozy, with a surging Mélenchon placing third.
After some good Bordeaux, my choice did not seem simple; things got worse the next day when my Air France hostess reminded me of the risk of helping the right with a vote for the hard left. What if Hollande didn’t reach round two and Le Pen sneaked by both leftists to face Sarkozy, as her father did in 2002 to face Chirac in an all-right finale?
I could abstain, like the left-wing intellectual Michel Onfray, who hates people like Sarkozy and Hollande with their admiration of aspects of American capitalism but objected this week, in a widely publicized essay, to Mélenchon’s supposed tolerance of Cuban, Iranian, and Chinese “dictatorships.’’ But I can’t stand Sarkozy, so maybe I’ll go for the safe vote and save my principles for another day.