PARIS--We are eight at a long, leisurely lunch in the charming 14th arrondissement apartment just off the Place Denfert-Rocherot. Our host is a Le Monde journalist whose long career has taken him from Cambodia in the last days of the Indochina wars and the killing fields of the Khmer Rouge to John Major's London and to Washington, straddling Clinton and Bush. The afternoon begins with a fabulous hard yellow cheese and a rich white wine from Catalonia down by the Pyrenees separating France from Spain where our hosts have their country cabin. The dishes are passed around, the wine glasses filled and refilled, the main course, a succulent cassoulet de canard and all the trimmings. But the centerpiece, as is the case these days when any two or more Europeans gather, is the Presidentielles the national elections for the first new President de la Republique in five years. The first round will be held in just 11 weeks. This watershed vote comes amidst another downward spiral in a French economy already battered by the three-year global recession. These two all but inseparable subjects, fused into a complexiry only the French can master, continue to mesmerize this nation that, even in the best of times, never takes its politics in stride.
At the table is an eclectic mix of journalists, writers, diplomats, and translators--a former chief editor of one of the two great French business dailies, La Tribune, which published its dernier numero (last issue) the day we boarded our plane to Paris five days earlier; her husband, a senior French diplomat newly returned from a diplomatic post at the Holy See; a distinguished Italian journalist who has spent much of his life in France and is the author of numerous books holding up an amusing and irreverent mirror to the foibles of his adopted nation; and his wife, an Argentine translator of volumes of Israeli poetry into Spanish. So the paramount question--will it be the rightwing incumbent, Nicolas Sarkozy and Francois Hollande, the bland, but quite brilliant Socialist, who will manage to eke out the leading pluralities in the first round and then duke it out in a two-way finale two weeks hence? Or will there be a spoiler--the radical right-wing Marine Le Pen, daughter of the founder of the Front National, or Francois Bayrou, the centrist leader of MoDem (Mouvement Democrate) and darling of many political intellectuals, whose electoral prospects seem to extend little further than an annoying horsefly in a four-person derby.
"I don't at all exclude that people at the moment they vote will tire of Hollande, be bored by him," says the former Tribune editor. "Apparently he is quite droll in private, but that does not translate, helas, to his public discourse. Still, I don't know how a president can be re-elected if unemployment continues to rise here in France, as it does. It is not imaginable."
"And the price of petrol rises as well," the Italian cuts in. "So you have more and more unemployed facing higher and higher petrol prices."
There is a general consensus that Sarkozy has indeed done little to address these problems at home, while succeeding in arriving at a condominium with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, one newspaper headline describing the pair as strolling "hand-in-hand."
"Nowhere have there been more bills that have passed Parliament that will never be implemented," snorts our host, who has covered legislative processes in both Britain and America. "If Sarkozy is reelected, it is still not sure he will implement them, and if he is defeated, they will be repealed. In France you have between a third and two-thirds of the bills that are never implemented. So you have, since January 3 of this year, a rebate on gas and electricity for poor households. But the implementation regulations haven't been finalized. Voters want a benign monarch and not a clown." Not much different, of course, from the American system--which has caused untold consternation in the United States--where an item may be approved by Congress in a budget measure, but won't be funded unless it appears in the next appropriations bill.
Many of Sarkozy's landmark initiatives have fallen flat. Mass demonstrations met his move to raise the retirement age to 62 from 60. And earlier in his presidency, his move to increase employment by imposing a 35-hour work week led to an initial burst of hiring but didn't solve the unemployment problems in some industries.
"For the French newspapers, the 35 hour week was the beginning of the end," says the Tribune editor. "It destroyed an already very fragile industry." Newspapers were already forced to give the mandated eight weeks annual vacation. They could not afford overtime as well. Nor could more beat reporters be trained quickly and effectively. Indeed, few newspapers can be published by journalists working just seven hours a day. Instead, vast comp time began to accumulate, which must be entered as a cash debit on balance sheets. "When I left, I had 12,5 weeks of vacation accrued," the editor smiled ruefully. "In the auto industry, you might be able to produce more cars to cover this, but you can't produce more...