Leading article: Struggle for the soul of a nation in a state of flux

Share

A full six months may remain before French voters go to the polls to elect their next president. But the preliminary skirmishing already affords an absorbing preview of the battles to come, as well as glimpses of a nation that is politically, socially and culturally in a state of flux.

The depth of France's current malaise is reflected in the internecine struggles in the country's two major parties over their choice of presidential candidate. The frontrunners have each attained their lead by flouting the rules of the French political game. They have disdained the party hierarchy, renounced traditional clan allegiance and taken their case directly to the television cameras - and thence the people.

This is not the way French party politics is supposed to be conducted - certainly not before the nominees have been chosen. To be sure, there have been fierce struggles in the past. The battle for the Socialist nomination as François Mitterrand's term at the Elysee drew to an end was bloody in the extreme. But for a candidate to have emerged in both parties, not by slaying a rival or wooing the party rank and file, but by trying to demonstrate superior electability, is something new.

It is no wonder the establishments of both parties are unhappy. Their power has been seriously challenged, if not yet taken away, in the key matter of who would best represent their cause at the next election. It is as though a primary election has already been held without anyone consulting them about it.

As our Paris correspondent reports today, a barely disguised civil war has broken out in President Chirac's party, the UMP, over Nicolas Sarkozy, who serves as Interior Minister in the government. M. Sarkozy has spent the best part of half a year promoting himself to the electorate, and is seen by his enemies and rivals as a dangerous upstart who has been seduced by American and British ("Anglo-Saxon") ideas. Allocated the poisoned chalice of the interior ministry not once, but twice, he has so far emerged relatively unscathed, despite periodic whispering campaigns against him, public dramas in his marriage, and two questionably managed crises on illegal immigration. M. Chirac's favoured candidate, the prime minister, Dominique de Villepin, has never stood for office and lags far behind M. Sarkozy in the polls.

The warfare on the right is mirrored on the left, where Ségolène Royal, partner of the party leader, François Hollande, is proposing an almost Blairite programme against the traditionally leftist sympathies of the Socialist Party hierarchy. If she wins the nomination next month - and her opponents have so far proved less inventive than M. Sarkozy's foes in the UMP - it will be for her perceived electability, not because of any enthusiasm for her policies. It could even be argued Mme Royal and M. Sarkozy have more in common with each other than they have with their parties. For each is intent on updating French politics and reforming the country in a way that party traditionalists regard as unacceptably, and distressingly, un-French. And this is refreshing. We have long argued that the sort of liberalising, free-market reforms both propose in their different ways would help reinvigorate an economy and a society that has stagnated in the 11-year presidency of M. Chirac.

It is premature to look forward to a contest that pits one against the other, with their competing visions of a France brought into the 21st century. There is plenty of time for second thoughts or dirty tricks to derail the ambitions of one or both. But the real test will not be the nominations or even the election. It will be whether the French can be persuaded that change is in their best interests. If not, even a modernising president will be thwarted.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Telesales & Customer Service Executive - Call Centre Jobs

£7 - £9 per hour: Recruitment Genius: Are you outgoing? Do you want to work in...

Ashdown Group: Finance Manager - Covent Garden, central London - £45k - £55k

£45000 - £55000 per annum + 30 days holiday: Ashdown Group: Finance Manager - ...

Ashdown Group: Systems Administrator - Lancashire - £30,000

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Ashdown Group: 3rd Line Support Engineer / Network ...

Recruitment Genius: Graduate Web Developer

£26000 - £33000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Web Developer is required to ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

i Editor's Letter: A royal serving the nation

Oliver Duff Oliver Duff
David Cameron met with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko prior to the start of the European Council Summit in Brussels last month  

David Cameron talks big but is waving a small stick at the Russian bear

Kim Sengupta
Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

Climate change key in Syrian conflict

And it will trigger more war in future
How I outwitted the Gestapo

How I outwitted the Gestapo

My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
The nation's favourite animal revealed

The nation's favourite animal revealed

Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
Is this the way to get young people to vote?

Getting young people to vote

From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot
Poldark star Heida Reed: 'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'

Poldark star Heida Reed

'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'
The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

Money, corruption and drugs

The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

150 years after it was outlawed...

... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

You won't believe your eyes

Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
Ian Herbert: Peter Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

The England coach leaves players to find solutions - which makes you wonder where he adds value, says Ian Herbert
War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn