Dan Simpson: I’m worried about France

It seems to be stagnating with no clear path forward

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There is no question but that France is in a mess. Unemployment is more than 11 percent, economic growth barely topped 0 percent in 2013 and, worst of all, the French believe that their current leader, Socialist President Francois Hollande, whom they elected to a five-year term in 2012, has shown no ability to act in the face of the problems.

My clever brother-in-law, who lives in Paris part of the year, skewered the situation when we arrived in Paris last week, saying that it was a question of nul (“zero”) in the form of Mr. Hollande, as opposed to sal mec (roughly, “cheap punk”) in the form of former Union for a Popular Movement President Nicolas Sarkozy, who is threatening to run again in 2017, with no one else who would offer much hope waiting in the wings.

“Nul” has also offended the French sense of style, infinitely broader than Americans’ in terms of tolerance of outside-of-marriage romantic activity, in his manner of changing partners. He dumped Segolene Royal, former Socialist Party candidate for president and the unmarried mother of his four children, in favor of television journalist Valerie Trierweiler, whom he subsequently cheated on and dumped in favor of a young actress, informing Ms. Trierweiler in an email. Paris gossip says the actress is pregnant and that’s why Mr. Hollande dumped Valerie, although others deny that particularly juicy morsel.

In any case, the whole business came to a very nasty crunch on Sunday in the second round of France’s municipal elections. For the French, the municipal elections are a little like America’s mid-term elections in that they provide voters an opportunity to show what they think of the performance of the various parties partway through the term of a president. They also tell the parties and their leaders what their prospects are at that point for the next presidential elections.

The Socialists got tromped on Sunday. They lost some 155 towns, including longtime strongholds. The UMP did best, although the right-wing National Front, now led by Marine Le Pen, slightly less forbidding than her father, took 11. The National Front — sort of the French Tea Party — always scares people, usually in the first round of elections, by looking like they are going to do better than they actually end up doing. The French are able to shift gears politically but generally shy away from actually voting for the crazy right or the Communists, who are also still around, except in particular local circumstances.

On Sunday night, Mr. Hollande’s prime minister, Jean-Marc Ayrault, was on television saying that Mr. Hollande and the Socialists understood the voters’ message and were already in the process of fixing the situation. By Tuesday morning, Mr. Ayrault was history as prime minister, along with probably most government ministers, replaced by Manuel Valls, who has been minister of the interior and not especially beloved by the Socialist left, but different. He is younger and sharper-toothed.

Whether “Nul” and his new team can fix things is yet another question. A mild reason for the Socialists is that they did win the mayoral race in Paris. The two final candidates were both women, Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet and Anne Hidalgo. Ms. Hidalgo, the Socialist and the daughter of poor Spanish immigrants, won after a tough campaign. She will be the first woman mayor of the capital city. Could she become France’s Angela Merkel?

What I found to be slightly disturbing about Sunday’s elections was the high abstention rate, above 38 percent, indicating a lack of faith on the part of the French that anything can be achieved at the ballot box, that any of their politicians are necessarily worth voting for.

Also disturbing was that some of the young people with whom I spoke said that the politicians were useless, that a revolution might be coming. I didn’t have much luck when I tried to pin them down on how that could occur and by whom and under what circumstances. One hears the same thing here in the United States, with equivalent absence of precision and specificity.

France has faced crises in the past, and has found a way out of them, sometimes through events, sometimes through inspiring leadership. There was Joan of Arc, in the 15th century. (They burned her at the stake in the end.) There was Napoleon, who ended up ruining the place. There was Charles deGaulle, although those old enough to remember his rule certainly have mixed feelings about him. But things are different now.

There is France’s key role in the European Union where, after Germany, it is the most solid larger country on the board. This is good for France, good for Europe and good for the United States. But there is no political possibility of waving the tricolor, shouting “Vive la France” and rallying the ountry through a nationalistic appeal to much effort on that basis.

France is now rather thoroughly integrated in Europe politically and economically. The next electoral test in France, for example, will be the EU parliamentary elections next month, to see first if the French bother to turn out to vote, and second, if they do, for candidates for which parties.

The election of Anne Hidalgo as mayor of Paris is an interesting footnote to France’s current mix of peoples of different origins and different religions, as well as to the general situation in Europe.

In the end, however, for me, the French don’t change that much. We went to an excellent exhibit of Impressionist paintings at the Marmottan Monet museum. We went to a ghastly intellectual play, in which our grandson had an important role, at the Theatre de la Bastille.

The croissants are still excellent, as is the wine and the pate, although the prices are outrageous. But I am a little worried. The French at the moment are not, as they say, comfortable in their skins. It is an important country and an important culture and I don’t want anything bad to happen to it.

Dan Simpson, a former U.S. ambassador, is a columnist for the Post-Gazette (dsimpson@post-gazette.com,412-263-1976).

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