Pandering in Paris

With President Nicolas Sarkozy closing the gap in the run up to elections, challenger Francois Hollande is falling back on the tired, old Socialist battle cry.

"Clomp! CLOMP! Clomp! CLOMP!"" That's the sound of French President Nicolas Sarkozy's high-heeled boots as they grow closer, closer, closer to Francois Hollande, the gentle lamb offered up by the hapless Socialist Party in next month's presidential election. Six months ago, Hollande lead Sarkozy 39 percent to 24 percent in the polls. Four months ago, it was 31.5 percent to 26 percent. And earlier this week, it was...Sarko, 28.5 percent, Hollande, 27 percent. Hollande still holds a strong lead in a hypothetical run-off between the two men, but Socialist partisans are beginning to tremble. Last week, the president debated Laurent Fabius, a leading Socialist standard-bearer, on television. "Sarko destroyed him," a leftist policy intellectual said to me grimly. Clomp!

Much of the press attention here has been focused on Sarkozy's utterly shameless courtship of France's xenophobic voters, most of them followers of the far-right National Front. In the debate with Fabius, Sarkozy said that France has too many foreigners, and repeated a proposal he had made to cut the annual number of legal immigrants almost in half. After National Front leader Marine Le Pen made the absurd suggestion that all meat in the Paris region was being slaughtered according to Islamic rules, known as halal, Sarkozy declared, with a straight face, that "the biggest concern of French people is halal meat." The New York Times accused Sarkozy of taking "the low road" in a way that will be "damaging to French society," if not necessarily to his own electoral prospects.

But the low road is where Sarkozy lives. He made a name for himself in 2005 by calling immigrant rioters racaille, or "scum," and more recently proposed deporting gypsies from France. Sarkozy is, in American terms, a little bit of Rudy Giuliani and a great deal of Richard Nixon. "The French recognize in him something that is in them, too," says Marc Weitzmann, a French novelist whose work captures modern political life. "That's why the French vote for him, and hate him at the same time."

But what's wrong with the Socialists? In 2007, they nominated Segolene Royale, an eccentric figure whom Sarkozy feasted off in the presidential debates. Hollande is, bizarrely, her ex-unmarried-spouse. He is, however, a much better candidate -- a careful thinker and a gentleman, witty and wry in the French manner. The one thing he lacks, unfortunately, is the all-important gift for the visceral -- this in the face of a man, Sarkozy, with a dark genius for the lowest common denominator. Hollande has been coasting on the public's overwhelming desire to get rid of Sarkozy, but it now seems that he won't be able to coast all the way to the Elysée.

This time around, France is in the midst of an economic crisis for which Hollande must come up with convincing answers if he is to close the sale with voters. France's unemployment rate is hovering around 10 percent, and its growth rate is around zero. Earlier this year, Standard & Poor downgraded France's credit rating (along with that of eight other European countries). Sarkozy ran in 2007 as a man prepared to wrench France into the future, and he still enjoys that reputation. Hollande, too, has tried to present himself as a modernizer and a pragmatist. "He's not stuck in nostalgia for the 20th century, or the 19th century for that matter," as one Socialist leader recently put it. His platform emphasizes fiscal prudence, economic growth and relatively modest expansion of the public sector (through he plans to hire 60,000 educators).

That is, in effect, one side of his reaction to France's predicament. But it is the quieter side. In public, he is the tribune of public outrage over the lords of finance. At his first campaign rally in January, Hollande declared that his "real adversary" was not Sarkozy but rather the "faceless rulers" of global finance. And when pushed into a corner, he has darted left. In late February, with Sarko closing in, Hollande unveiled a proposal to create a new tax bracket for those annually making in excess of 1 million euros, or $1.3 million, with a marginal tax rate of 75 percent. Even Ed Miliband, the leader of Britain's Labor Party, blanched at the proposal. Hollande seemed to be playing to French resentment of capitalism and wealth as cynically as Sarkozy was with the immigrant issue. Having spooked the forces of finance, the Socialists quickly backpedaled by having Fabius declare that the new tax rate would be probably just a temporary measure.

France does have an economic justice problem: According to Julia Cagé, an economist with the Ecole D'Economie in Paris, the wealthiest 5 percent of French citizens pay taxes at a lower rate than the very poor. Sarkozy cut taxes on the rich, and continues to defend their privileges, thus creating a very large opening for a populist attack (or "class warfare," as we say on this side of the Atlantic). But France also has a competitiveness problem, and Sarkozy at least preaches the virtue of the "German model" of liberalized labor markets as a means of giving the country an economic jolt.

Hollande favors cutting taxes on small business -- a good idea -- and establishing a public investment bank to direct funds to potential growth sectors, a maybe not-so-good idea. But he has advocated partially rolling back increases in the retirement age mandated by Sarkozy, and he has supported the 35-hour work week, the Socialists' poisoned gift to the French economy. And he has rarely spoken about labor market reforms, despite the growing gap between French productivity and that of Germany and other northern countries. I asked several people to explain Hollande's "contract of generations" designed to spur youth employment, but none of them had heard of it, and the language is so fuzzy I couldn't make any sense of it.

Hollande, like Sarkozy, is playing to his base, and probably he's wise to do so. France's allergy to the marketplace really is remarkable. In the last election, Segolene Royale was heard to say something nice about the British economic model, and then had to defend herself from allegations -- certainly unfair -- that she was a convert to "liberalism." As Nicholas Dungan, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, puts it, the French generally -- and the Socialists above all -- "don't consider the markets to have any valuable message to convey." Market failure, that is, may trigger calls for more spending and higher taxes, but not for market reform. Dungan takes the view that the deep French commitment to social solidarity, Fraternite, recoils at the creative destruction of capitalism.

It all kind of makes one yearn for Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the former head of the International Monetary Fund and Socialist hero, whose political prospects evaporated after he was accused of raping a hotel maid in New York. Had he run for the presidency, Strauss-Kahn might have been able to convince the French that economic liberalism was not incompatible with social justice, and that the accumulation of wealth was not inimical to broad economic growth. Without him, the Socialists have reverted to their instincts.

And what if Hollande loses? What if, that is, the Socialists can't beat the most hated leader in modern French history at a moment when the economy is failing and the very concept of Europe, itself a great French legacy, is in danger of collapsing? Would that force a shift to the center, as with Tony Blair's Labor Party? (Blair, by the way, is supporting Sarkozy.) That seems unlikely. Martine Aubry, who lost out in the Socialist Party's nominating contest, derided Hollande as a "soft Socialist." Defeat would probably bolster those who argue for a more blunt appeal to French workers, and to French anger at globalization and liberalism.

Defeat, that is, could turn nostalgia for the 20th century, or even for the 19th, into the Socialist's platform. A Sarko victory might also enrage the students and workers who view him as the handmaiden of French plutocracy, and could plunge France into the kind of social unrest which is becoming endemic across Europe. And since France's president only knows one way to deal with disorder, that French solidarity could be put to a very grave test.


Terms of Engagement

Will the Good BRICS Please Stand Up?

You can call them respectable democracies, but India, Brazil, and South Africa will be judged by how they act abroad. And on the Syria question, it's been shameful.

As global power has shifted away from the West, the emerging order has come to be identified with the BRICS -- an unofficial geopolitical bloc consisting of Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa. But the BRICS are equally divided between autocratic and democratic states. The growing reach of powerful autocracies is nothing to celebrate, but the rise of stable and increasingly prosperous democracies in the developing world -- India, Brazil, South Africa, Turkey, and Indonesia, among others -- has been the single most encouraging phenomenon in the world over the last generation. Those first three countries, in fact, have established an informal bloc known as IBSA. This, too, should be a profoundly welcome development. But it hasn't been, at least in Western capitals. In global affairs, it turns out, emerging democracies often behave a lot like Third World autocracies. And IBSA is turning out to be not so very different from the BRICS.

In a fascinating real-world laboratory experiment, all three IBSA countries served on the United Nations Security Council in 2011; India and South Africa remain on the council this year. All three were thus forced to take a position during the hugely contentious debates on military intervention in Libya and political intervention in Syria. The result has not been edifying, at least from the viewpoint of Arab and Western publics. India and Brazil abstained from Resolution 1973 authorizing the NATO operation in Libya, and all three refused to vote for a draft resolution last October condemning the "grave and systematic human rights violations" committed by Syrian security forces against civilians. India and South Africa did, however, vote for a similar resolution this February, which Russia and China -- the other BRICS members on the council this year -- vetoed.

This week, I met with Hardeep Singh Puri, India's ambassador to the United Nations. For those who knew his predecessor, Nirupam Sen, a hard-left Bengali Brahmin prone to delivering windy and condescending lectures before gumming up the works of the day's debate, Puri, a blunt and hard-headed Sikh, constitutes a very welcome change in the diplomatic weather. But diplomats and human rights experts say that, throughout 2011, India sought to block efforts by the United States, France, and Britain to raise Syria's growing assault on civilians in the Security Council, provoking some very ill will. "They were," says a diplomat from one of the five permanent members of the Security Council, "obstructive and not helpful."

When I asked Puri why he had declined to endorse the resolution last October, he pointed out that as president of the Security Council a few months earlier, he had written a "presidential statement" with almost identical language. He was making an active effort to stop the violence, he said. But the October resolution was unacceptable because it referred to Article 41 of the U.N. Charter, which authorizes the use of sanctions and other coercive measures. It sounded like a flimsy rationale because the measure made only passing reference to Article 41. More to the point, India, like Russia, took the position that the council had no business trying to coerce Syrian President Bashar al-Assad by any means at all to stop the killing. In the official explanation of his vote, Puri said, "While the right of people to protest peacefully is to be respected, states cannot but take appropriate action when militant groups, heavily armed, resort to violence against state authority and infrastructure."

I was aghast when I ran across this statement, which parroted Damascus's own grossly cynical line. I asked Puri whether he still believed that, to which he said, "If the protests are peaceful, why would you want to use weapons against them?" Syrian forces would never fire on unarmed protesters. This was the kind of language Chinese diplomats used to deploy to explain their defense of Khartoum during Security Council debates over Darfur. Had India adopted China's skewed view of international human rights law?

It's precisely because the IBSA countries are respectable democracies that they can prove so useful to the less respectable. Philippe Bolopion, the U.N. director for Human Rights Watch, says, "For months, they enabled Russia and China to use their veto and block any Security Council action." It was far easier for the veto-bearing countries to claim that they were acting out of principle when they had India and others on their side. Of course, Russia and China wielded their vetoes again last month when India and South Africa shifted their votes, but it's striking that, since that time, both Moscow and Beijing have sought to distance themselves from Damascus. They've lost their cover.

India's behavior served the cynicism of others, but it was not, itself, altogether cynical. Unlike Russia, India has no real political or economic interests in Syria (or Libya). What is has are ideological reflexes left over from the era of the "Non-Aligned Movement," of which it was a founder. C. Raja Mohan, a leading Indian foreign-policy commentator, recently ascribed India's Syria policy to its long-standing preoccupation with "the anti-colonial theme" and to "solidarity" with the Arabs against Israel. Countries like India that long chafed under imperial dominion tend to see the West's moral activism as a new species of colonialism. India is thus a zealous defender of the principle of state sovereignty and reflexively opposes any intrusion into it. Puri says that he feared that the West was looking for an excuse to go to war in Syria, as it had in Libya, but Article 41 only authorizes the use of nonmilitary forms of coercion. He wasn't standing up to "humanitarian intervention" in Syria, which in any case had zero support in Western capitals last fall; he was defending Syria's right to do as it wished to its own citizens.

Why did India change its vote last month? Puri says that the resolution, which endorsed an Arab League plan designed to ease Assad from power, included a specific proviso excluding the possibility of military action. But Russia and China saw the new resolution as little different from the previous one and vetoed it too, implicitly defending their own right to do as they wish to their citizens, whether in Chechnya or Tibet. (India, too, is loath to set a precedent that could later justify Security Council action in Kashmir.) David Malone, a senior Canadian diplomat and the author of Does the Elephant Dance?, a book on Indian foreign policy, suggests a less legalistic explanation for the Feb. 4 vote: Once the violence grew worse and the Arab League more strident, domestic public opinion, in the form of pundits like Mohan, forced New Delhi's hand and persuaded it to look beyond the obsession with sovereignty. In this regard, of course, the IBSA countries do resemble the Western democracies: Policy responds to public opinion. Russia and China can smother or ignore the public in a way that India and Brazil cannot.

This raises the intriguing question of where the IBSA countries, as well as other emerging democracies, are heading. It's hard to predict. As one Western diplomat put it, anti-colonialism is in South Africa's "founding myth," and the reflexes associated with it will not quickly subside. Brazil, on the other hand, seemed far less comfortable defending Syria than India or South Africa, perhaps because Brazilian public opinion is more open to Western norms. All these countries have been wary of the principle that states have a "responsibility to protect" (R2P) their citizens from mass atrocities, as well as an obligation to act on behalf of people threatened with atrocities elsewhere. Puri says that India accepts the first part, but thinks that the second "needs to be addressed." But with Arab states like Qatar citing "R2P" to justify action in Libya and Syria, public opinion in non-Western democracies may begin to move beyond the anti-neocolonial reflex.

All three IBSA countries are candidates for permanent membership in the Security Council. Puri says that he is confident -- it's not clear why -- that India, at least, will gain that status soon. He is not troubled, he says, by the thought that giving aid and comfort to Russia and China will harm India's candidacy with the United States, Britain, and France, which could block it. One of the fundamental questions about the post-Western world we are moving toward is whether countries like India will be "socialized" to Western norms or whether things will work the other way around. The legatees of that system, above all in the United States, will feel a great deal more comfortable about the prospect of sharing power if the newcomers accept the obligations understood to come with that power.

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