If polls reflect the pulse of a people, the French appear to be on the verge of a nervous breakdown. In late January, the Center for Political Research at Sciences Po released the findings of a nationwide public opinion study. More than half the respondents think that France is now locked into an "irreversible decline," while three out of five fear that globalization threatens France. Two-thirds describe France's democracy as "malfunctioning," while an even greater proportion insists that politicians seek only their own personal gain -- a revelation, perhaps, on the order of Captain Renault's shocking discovery in the film Casablanca that gambling was going on at Rick's.
Yet there is one finding less easy to dismiss: Nearly nine out of 10 respondents lament the absence of "authority" in France and think that the country needs a "vrai chef," or real leader, to "re-establish order." Historian Michel Winock, who has written extensively on the history of political extremism in France, is disturbed by these findings. The survey, he warns, contains all the necessary ingredients for making the volatile brew of populism. For this reason, the poll's results are unfortunately far from groundbreaking: France's past is littered with ligues, or movements, that have sought to harness the power of popular disenchantment with politics.
The tinder for the cauldron is plentiful. Jacques Chirac, who served as president from 1995 to 2007, was found guilty in 2011 of diverting public funds for political purposes while he was mayor of Paris in the 1980s. His successor, Nicolas Sarkozy, is enmeshed in a number of corruption cases that include, among other juicy details, thick envelopes of cash exchanging hands at the mansion of the L'Oréal heiress Liliane Bettencourt. Perhaps even more importantly, critics have accused Sarkozy of playing the populist card by repeatedly raising the issue of national identity and enflaming the French public's fear of Islam. And though President François Hollande has proved immune to such politics, he has also left the impression, even in the wake of France's intervention in Mali, that he is not à la hauteur, or equal to the challenge, of events.
More worrisome, for Winock, is that disgust with traditional politics and the longing for order spill far beyond the ranks of the extremist National Front of Marine Le Pen. He fears that there may well be movements yet to be formed, demagogues yet to be heard, that will act on the deepening sentiment that the entire system is morally and ideologically bankrupt. Moreover, the poll's findings agree with trends in France dating back to the early 1990s that reveal both a growing distaste for the individualist ethos of 1968 and a "growing demand for public order." In fin-de-siècle France, there was a deepening of what Chirac called la fracture sociale, or social inequality, provoked by persistently high levels of unemployment, particularly among the beur population -- youths whose families are of North African origin -- along with growing unease over the place in French society of its 5 million or so Muslims. With the explosive wave of riots that swept the cités, or suburbs, in 2005, the fracture sociale appeared unbridgeable.
Yet, at the same time, the poll raises not just fears, but questions. Clearly, the French are desperately seeking a real leader. Less clear, though, is precisely what kind of leader they want. France's past, it turns out, offers more than one candidate.
The best known, perhaps, is the Bonapartist model. When the smoke and confusion settled in the wake of 18 Brumaire Year VIII -- or Nov. 9, 1799, for those unfamiliar with the French revolutionary calendar -- Napoleon Bonaparte bequeathed France, and the world, a certain idea of leadership. His successful coup against the First Republic inaugurated the opening phase of a dictatorship that convulsed the West's physical and political landscapes. No less importantly, the Napoleonic experience forged a new type of leader, one who embodied the nation's destiny and bridged its political and ideological divisions. The image of the man on horseback, immortalized in Jacques-Louis David's painting of Napoleon crossing the Alps, was irresistible for a country as thirsty for national glory as it was for public order. Equality was granted; as for liberty, it could wait.