Argument

France on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown

Think Americans hate their politicians? The moody French are disgusted -- and looking for a new de Gaulle.

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.

Half a century later, Napoleon's nephew, Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte, re-enacted the 18 Brumaire. When he overthrew by force in 1851 the Second Republic that he had served as president, Napoleon III launched what scholars identify as the chief ideological vehicle for political populism. It was an authoritarian movement that adapted democratic practices like universal manhood suffrage and referendums, all with the goal of legitimating the rule of a charismatic leader who stood above mere politics.

At the end of the 19th century, Bonapartism morphed into a more toxic movement, Boulangism, that heaved a different model of the vrai chef into the world. In fact, this year marks the 125th anniversary of the stunning rise and flaming fall of the man who bequeathed his name to this ideology. In many ways, 1888 seems a rehearsal for France's current predicament. The fledgling Third Republic was lurching from one political scandal to the next, anxious over its ability to compete in a new global marketplace, preoccupied by the influx of immigrants, and prey to racist demagogues whose target was not the Muslim, but the Jew. Public disgust with politics was widespread, as were doubts about the very viability of the republican model.

At that moment, Gen. Georges Boulanger strode across the national stage -- or, more accurately, rode across it on his white steed. Hailed by many on the left as well as right, seen as the guarantor of national glory and restorer of political authority, the general, who cut a dashing figure on horseback, handily won a series of national elections. By the end of the year, Boulanger's popularity seemed so great that many observers waited for him to simply claim power by marching on the National Assembly. He failed to do so, but he had nevertheless united for a brief moment a remarkably varied collection of groups united only in their desire for a strong leader, their hatred of traditional democracy, and their readiness to overthrow the established political order.

This has since become the standard French model of populism: nationalistic, anti-liberal, and anti-democratic. And it was the very model that many believed Charles de Gaulle revived when he came to power 55 years ago. The extraordinary presidential powers he placed at the heart of the Fifth Republic -- an authoritarian presidency based on the Bonapartist tools of universal suffrage and referendums -- were designed to institutionalize the sway of a vrai chef. But it turned out that Gaullism without de Gaulle was mostly an empty ideological shell, while even the monarchical powers of his republic were unable to resist the social and economic changes sweeping across his country.

In turn, de Gaulle leads us, quite literally, to a third kind of leader. In 1946, he made a pilgrimage to a village in France's Vendée region. At a modest gravestone, the leader of the Free French paid homage to the great republican leader Georges Clemenceau. Defender of Dreyfus and enemy of the church, Clemenceau is most famous, or infamous, for his authoritarian policies when he was in office. Although a republican, he fiercely suppressed massive labor strikes in 1905 to restore public order, and his near-dictatorial rule as prime minister in 1917 yanked France from its growing defeatism and pulled it to victory.

Whereas Clemenceau was an atheist and man of the left, and de Gaulle was a Catholic and man of the right, the two men shared a few crucial traits that suggest what a vrai chef means for most French. They were equally indifferent to their own wealth, equally scornful of party politics, equally committed to the greatness of France, and equally convinced that they alone could guarantee that grandeur. These qualities are always unusual, to be sure. But their absence is felt with particular anguish today. Hollande's rating in public opinion polls in 2012 seemed locked in a death spiral. For many French, it seemed that the president's nickname, "Flanby" -- a custard desert popular with children -- was all too apt. While his numbers have improved since he ordered French planes and soldiers to Mali, they are not inspiring. Slightly less than half of the respondents in a recent poll think Hollande capable of making the right decisions for France, while scarcely one in three believe he can unite the nation.

Clemenceau once remarked that war is too important to be left to the generals. But as France's past reminds us, this does not mean politics is too important to be left to politicians -- or, put differently, that real leaders cannot be politicians. Unlike the men of the Bonapartist or Boulangist tradition, Clemenceau and de Gaulle were supremely political and selfless. The frame of their political vision dwarfed their own ambitions. Both men saw themselves as leaders not of a party, but of the nation; as guarantors not of their private fortunes, but of France's republican fortunes. The frame for Clemenceau and de Gaulle, in a word, was France. It may well be that this is the sort of vrai chef the French are seeking today.

Frederic Nebinger/Getty Images

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