Adieu to the pompous patricians of France

France needs someone younger, more direct, someone who wants to do something
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The Independent Online

This is a pivotal week in French politics. We already have a pretty good idea - fate and the wiles of Jacques Chirac permitting - of the future shape of French politics on the Right. By tomorrow, we should also see the likely, future shape of French politics on the Left.

This is a pivotal week in French politics. We already have a pretty good idea - fate and the wiles of Jacques Chirac permitting - of the future shape of French politics on the Right. By tomorrow, we should also see the likely, future shape of French politics on the Left.

Nicolas Sarkozy was crowned on Sunday as president of the UMP, the dominant centre-right party. Like the Emperor Napoleon almost exactly 200 years ago, he virtually placed the crown on his own head. The eager half-Hungarian ex-finance minister, aged 49, is probably the Next Big Thing on the French Right. President Chirac has yet to play the final cards in his hand (and the next presidential election is still 30 months away) but the post-war line of right-wing succession is likely to read De Gaulle-Pompidou-Giscard d'Estaing-Chirac-Sarkozy.

Today, 120,000 Socialist Party members cast ballots in an internal referendum to fix their party line for or against the proposed European Union constitution. Their vote could, in effect, decide the fate of the treaty long before it reaches a referendum in Britain.

Their decision - a simple oui or non - will also go a long way towards deciding who will be the Next Big Thing on the French Left. Mitterrand, Jospin and then ... qui? If the "non" wins, Laurent Fabius - the only senior figure in the party to reject the constitution as anti-socialist - will be in a strong position to unite left and centre in a shattered party and grab the left-wing presidential "nomination" in 2007. That would be an aberration, a step into the past, not just ideologically but in terms of personal style and political genre.

Fabius, now 58, who was prime minister from 1984 to 1986, is from the patrician-imperious Giscard-Mitterrand-Chirac school of politics: a man who wants to "be" something, rather than "do" something; a man who typifies the aloofness and the mandarin pomposity of many French politicians of the past 30 or 40 years.

His apostasy on the European question - he has previously been a fervent European - is driven by a desire to revive a career that has been treading water for nearly two decades. The EU treaty may well be incompatible with hard-left, nationalising, interventionist and high-tax policies. So were all previous EU treaties, especially the 1986 Single European Act, shaped by Jacques Delors, Britain's Lord Cockfield and a young, reforming French prime minister called Fabius.

A victory for the "non" today would be a victory for a bizarre and destructive alliance on the French Left between the empty personal ambition of M. Fabius and the unthinking populism of the unreconstructed, hard-liners in the Parti Socialiste.

Quite apart from its effect on the EU constitution, it would lead the French Left into the kind of damaging, Socialism-in-one-nation, cul-de-sac from which the first Mitterrand presidency had to be extracted in 1983-1984 (by Jacques Delors and by that young, reforming prime minister called Fabius.)

If the "oui" wins - which is more probable but far from certain - Fabius will be a political dead man. The race for the Socialist nomination in 2007 would be wide open but the internal referendum victory would boost the prospects of the party's first secretary, the thoughtful, honest, non-charismatic and perpetually under-estimated François Hollande, 50.

M. Hollande is a passionate moderate. He does not have the charm of a Bill Clinton or a Tony Blair but he is an eloquent man and shares their ability to make moderation sound bold and interesting. Above all, he is an approachable, unassuming man who talks in plain French.

If the "oui" vote, and M. Hollande, win today, this may come to be seen as the week when the sonorous, monarchical, devious, demagoguic trend in French politics (briefly interrupted by Lionel Jospin) comes to an end. Both M. Hollande and M. Sarkozy represent a new generation of French politicians, at once more pragmatic and more modest.

Modest, Nicolas Sarkozy? The man who choreographed a glitzy inauguration as party president at the weekend? The man who once said: "I have made all the others look old-fashioned ... I have shown that people are not really bored with politics. They are bored with people who have nothing to say."

Sarkozy is arrogant, certainly, but not pompous. He has a refreshingly direct style and a willingness to challenge the "Republican" certainties of French politics on both Right and Left (from the 35-hour week, to the fetish of ostentatious "secularity", to the ban on positive discrimination for ethnic minorities). He believes in public investment and interventionism but promises a more economically liberal and dynamic France.

Hollande is a less original thinker. He offers a kind of managerial social-democracy, in the tradition of Jospin but less aloof and less father-knows-best. His watchword is "participative democracy" - a promise to involve ordinary people in the decisions which affect their lives (a revolutionary concept in centralist, Jacobin France).

Both men believe that, next time around - if the menacing extremes of Left and Right are to be kept at bay - patrician gerontocracy must end. France needs someone younger, more direct, someone who wants to do something, not just to offer some vague demagoguic "idea of France".

Such a French leader - whether of Left or Right - might also be a breath of fresh air for the rest of us.

IndyParis@compuserve.com

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