Sarko, Ségo & Co.

Jeremy Harding writes about the French elections

An elderly white man steps through his front gate on the allée de la Chapelle in the Paris suburb of Clichy-sous-Bois, ignoring the commotion two doors down, where a Haitian in his thirties is haranguing a bored reporter about being out of work. Behind them, through a front garden stacked with boxes and dead computer parts, journalists and visitors come and go, mobiles ablaze. The building is on loan as an HQ to the Association Collectif Liberté Egalité Fraternité Ensemble Unis. The acronym is much less ponderous: ACLEFEU, pronounced ‘assez le feu’ or ‘no more burning’. From here the members of the collective continue the painstaking work they began last year, persuading younger inhabitants in the area, and in banlieues all over France, to get their names onto the electoral register. Casting a vote, in the view of ACLEFEU, offers a surer route out of poverty than riot and affray, and will stand young men in better stead than their combustion spree in the winter of 2005, prompted by the death of two teenagers electrocuted in Clichy-sous-Bois as they hid from the police in an EDF substation.

The 2007 presidential election – the first round is on 22 April, with the run-offs on 6 May – has moved matters along at a quicker pace than even ACLEFEU optimists could have hoped. The electoral register for the presidential elections, and for the elections to the National Assembly in June, closed at the end of last year. Since then the organisation has continued its work with a view to the local elections in 2008 and the European elections the year after, but already its efforts have paid off, with a 4.2 per cent increase in the number of electors for 2007. This is the largest increase since the 1981 presidential campaign – 3.7 per cent — which brought Mitterrand to power.

The Ministry of the Interior, lately the domain of the right-wing candidate, Nicolas Sarkozy, has announced that the figure is normal, but a glance at percentage rises in the electorate in 1988 (1.9 per cent), 1995 (2.1 per cent) and 2002 (2.3 per cent) suggests this is Interiorspeak. Paris proper has seen a big voter boom, and so has the department of Seine St Denis, with its typecast profile as an area full of bad banlieues. In Clichy-sous-Bois, one of the department’s 40 communes, there were about seven thousand voters at the time of the riots. There are now 9500. This parochial surge is an indicator of the influence that ACLEFEU has had on the national increase.

The collective has covered a good deal of ground, helping with the formation of regional campaigns and witnessing a pretty consistent rise in voter registration in the areas where they meant it to rise: the banlieues of the major French conurbations. All that remains for the 1.8 million new voters is to make up their minds which way to jump. The fact that they have this perplexity in common with the rest of the electorate, or a good part of it, is a measure of the citizenship to which they’ve just acceded.

Samir Abbas, a spokesman for ACLEFEU, grew up in Clichy-sous-Bois. We met last spring, a few months after the deaths of the two young men in the electricity substation. Samir, a teacher in his thirties, understood that the dearth of citizens’ associations in the banlieues was a big problem. As the unrest got going, attempts at mediation were spasmodic; the formal presentation of grievances – about police conduct, for instance – was nearly impossible. Beyond the absence of civic groups, Samir and others of his age could see a vista of deficits. Of these the most obvious was straightforward political representation.

Last summer, Samir and his colleagues borrowed a couple of people-carriers and embarked on a tour of forty French towns. They had to contend with the widespread feeling on the part of a young underclass of non-European extraction that voting is pointless. Astutely, they combined voter registration with research that culminated in a set of ‘cahiers de doléances’: the results of a sampling of public opinion, mostly in deprived neighbourhoods, which gave people a chance to say how they thought life in the grimmer parts of the republic might be improved.

ACLEFEU’s compilation, presented to the National Assembly and the Senate last October, is a conscious evocation of proto-republican history, though it differs in one obvious way from the grievances set before the king in May 1789: its content comes straight from the horse’s mouth, whereas the document presented to Louis XVI by the States General was drawn up by the jockeys, as it were. By and large, the spirit in which ACLEFEU presented its findings seems to honour the precedent. Nevertheless, it’s hard to present a series of wishes – they’re not precisely demands – on all the big issues, including jobs, housing, policing, education, poverty and social exclusion, without issuing the veiled threat of further unrest if nothing is done. ACLEFEU’s tour allowed people to express the anger and disappointment they felt, which, in turn, had the effect of drawing younger groups into the conversation about votes and what they’re for.

Samir told me last year that he and his colleagues had discovered people in their thirties who weren’t on the electoral roll; others without the first idea how to get their names on it or what an election was; others still, full citizens, under the impression they weren’t entitled to vote. But many got the point immediately. By the time the candidates for the presidential race had been announced, ACLEFEU had produced a second document. This restates the main themes in the cahiers and, underneath each, lists a series of commitments that anyone who wishes to – mayors, local councillors and even presidential candidates – may sign. It is called the ‘Social and Citizenship Contract’. The section on employment is typical: six lines sum up the ‘doléances’ and call for better salaries, fairer distribution of wealth, an end to job insecurity, the introduction of state employment schemes, and firmer action against employers in breach of workplace rights. These general aims are then broken down into a list of 22 objectives. Anyone who signs the document pledges, in effect, to work towards them. They include a rise in the minimum wage, a return to open-ended work contracts wherever possible and a minimum period of five years for short-term contracts, state support for new or ailing businesses, government intervention to buoy up the job market. Five candidates, one of whom has since thrown in her lot with the centrist spoiler, François Bayrou, have signed.

In most sections heavy emphasis is laid on the role of the state. Strict penalties are required not just for abuses by employers, but for bad policing and exploitation in the housing sector. (The big housing estates don’t consist entirely of council properties; in Clichy-sous-Bois, for instance, many are owned by private landlords, ‘sleep merchants’ as they’re known, and conditions in the private sector are often worse than in the public.) In general, the economy is envisaged as a vast facilitator, not of ‘choice’ as in Britain, but of social justice and equality.

Much of this is difficult to grasp in the UK. It was the same when the French voted down the European Constitution in 2005 and again, in 2006, when Dominique de Villepin’s ‘first-time contract’ brought large numbers of school and university students – and their parents, and the unions – out on the streets because the law would have allowed companies to dismiss employees under 26 during their first two years in a job without giving a reason. It seemed incomprehensible that an attempt to loosen up the labour market could be greeted with such a suicidal response in a country of high unemployment. Yet to many in France the ‘Anglo-Saxon’ model has mysteries of its own. In the parody version, it is an irrational economy with low-wage, low-security work, where employees push onions round a skillet or stick on a nametag and live at the mercy of a line manager, shuffling their debt around a full deck of credit cards, consuming for all they’re worth and then some. Small numbers of people get unattractively rich and the gap between wealthiest and poorest widens.

The fragile French consensus that all this is vaguely undignified is countered, persuasively, by the argument that earning nothing at all might be worse. It is also a fact that hundreds of thousands of young people have left France to ply the international labour markets (London remains an extremely popular destination). Yet as you’d expect, the vision of a liberalised economy with an unfettered supply-side, fund managers to the fore (the economy that international pundits believe can empower France’s underclass), is anathema in the banlieues. Nearly all the rioters and cheerleaders of 2005 who were prepared to discuss what they actually wanted were opposed to open-ended market solutions. To judge from the cahiers de doléances, their elders feel the same.

This suggests that beneath the raw hatred of Nicolas Sarkozy to be found in the banlieues lies a more reasonable objection grounded in serious disagreements about how to rescue France from the waters in which it’s been becalmed under Chirac, with the growing likelihood of full-scale mutiny ever more likely. The young men and women of the banlieues and the older, wiser heads of ACLEFEU – plus a host of other associations that have mushroomed since 2005 – see the answer in a managed economy which, against the backdrop of globalisation, looks a little like socialism in one country.

Sarkozy has not been invited to sign the ACLEFEU contract. The president of the collective, Mohamed Mechmache, explained that while Sarkozy was still minister of the interior and tainted by the language he’d used around the time of the riots, there was no sense in asking him. He resigned his post in March, but it’s unlikely that he’ll be canvassed, or will volunteer, to underwrite the document. His opponents point out that the Sarkozy roadshow can’t put so much as a front bumper into the banlieues for fear of starting an ethnic riot.

The Trotskyist Olivier Besancenot, a post office worker who will turn 33 a few days before the first round and who did very well among the under-25s in the 2002 presidential election, has an anti-liberal vision consistent with the opinions collected by ACLEFEU. So, by and large, does Marie-George Buffet, the Communist contender, whose predecessor Robert Hue fared disastrously in 2002. Buffet is the self-styled candidate of the ‘popular anti-liberal left’: a left-of-socialist coalition that failed to come together at the end of last year, enabling the Communists to appropriate the title, which always looked more serviceable than the project. Buffet and Besancenot, who gets an endorsement on his party website from Ken Loach, have put their names to the ‘Social and Citizenship Contract’, though it may not go far enough for Besancenot, a figure of some charm and trenchancy, who has said how futile it is to imagine that a soft-left vote – i.e. for Ségolène Royal – is any use in a struggle against the ‘hard right’ agenda limned by Sarkozy.

Royal nonetheless signed the contract before Buffet did. There are 105 proposals in all and an ACLEFEU member told me that most of the twenty or so to which Royal would not subscribe – it seems you can strike out clauses you don’t like – came under the rubric ‘Wealth Sharing’, with its calls to reduce VAT, step up progressive taxation, draw the line under privatisation and create a ‘social’ bank offering interest-free loans and micro-credit schemes for the poor.

Royal’s ratings in the polls have fluctuated, and lately she has flagged. Her niceness quotient has been thinned away by unpleasant stories about her from people who’ve deserted her campaign, and by the popularity of the extremely nice Bayrou. She is desperate to impress business – and to encourage ‘medium and small’ businesses in particular, since large numbers of people will have to invent themselves as earners in the absence of a flourishing labour market between now and 2012. To this end she is promising more and more liberal economic measures and start-up exemptions. She stands, however, for a not very different, still immobilised France where unemployment figures will remain steady even if the low purchasing power of the French earner, which she’d like to improve, means a narrower gap between rich and poor than exists in the lands of sterling and the dollar. She hopes there’ll be French flags in every home, and she is adamant there’ll be security on the streets: she’s a tough love figure, big on law and order, big on boot camps for young offenders. She wants ‘citizens’ juries’ to monitor public policy and public life. At the same time, she has said she’d like to shake down the bureaucracy with its ‘jacobin’ intrusiveness and complexity, but she hasn’t explained what job losses this would entail in the public sector. She is for more spending without raising taxes, and wants to constitute a Sixth Republic with an element of proportional representation for election to the National Assembly and devolution of power to the regions. Beneath the appearance of candour, her policies can seem elusive. In the Middle East last year, she expressed solidarity with the Israelis and the Palestinians. She is worryingly touchy-feely and stands in relation to the Parti Socialiste a little like Blair stood in relation to Old Labour in 1997.

The difference, according to some of her defenders, is that if she won the presidency, she could not go on to become Blair, because the party wouldn’t let her. In this view her much vaunted rout of the PS elephants – Laurent Fabius, Dominic Strauss-Kahn and a handful of lesser figures – is an illusion; they are merely dozing with one eye open. Were she to become president, renewed efforts in the defence of older party values would be in order; the heads of the herd would stagger to their feet and send out their stentorian call. Ségolène would trundle back from far, far away, just like Nellie, leaving behind the world of circus politics for a fully authentic socialism. It would be as if, in May 1997, the remains of Old Labour had risen up and smothered the new prime minister in an avalanche of coal dust.

I caught up with ACLEFEU and their voter-registration buses in a suburb of Rennes a couple of weeks before the first round of the presidential vote. They had the loudspeakers out and copies of their documents were being circulated. By the late afternoon, after a day’s canvassing, they’d gathered with a group of young residents in a housing project in Villejean, a few stops from the town centre. There was a festive sounding of horns as a cavalcade of cars went by. A few minutes later the adjutant mayor, who had just done the honours at the wedding, arrived in a suit and tie.

As Mechmache spoke about the advantages of the vote over the Zippo lighter, the young men in the small, impromptu audience shuffled about, laughing, drifting away, coming back to hear a few sentences, drifting off again. They could only just bear to listen to Mechmache or Samir Abbas or the tall, fiery secretary general of ACLEFEU, Fatima Hani, all three accomplished speakers. Every two minutes or so, a mobile phone wailing from a pair of cargo pants signalled a blessed release from the need to remain more or less still, more or less attentive. Mechmache was calm. ‘It’s not important,’ he kept saying. ‘I’ll speak to whoever’s interested.’

For Mechmache and Hani, you enrolled, you voted, you got your representatives to sign the ACLEFEU contract and then, if elected officials broke their pledges, you caused a stir. That was the point of keeping the originals and copies, he explained. They could be brandished aggressively in due course. And if all this turned out to be worthless, then at least when you took to the streets, nobody could say you hadn’t done your duty as a citizen. Somebody used the word émeute – ‘riot’ – and Samir corrected him. ‘Those weren’t riots,’ he said of the events in 2005, ‘that was revolt. It’s not at all the same thing.’ Hani launched into a long and critical speech about politicians and public office-holders, their careerism and indifference, how it had to be challenged in the voting booths. The adjutant mayor replied with courtesy. Not many people, he thought, entered politics without being driven by a passion, or an incident that had changed the way they saw the world. He was desperate, he told me later, to bind people into the democratic process by encouraging them to vote; the alternative, even in a presentable banlieue like Villejean, was frightening.

What everyone who’d recently registered wanted to know, just as they had in Clichy-sous-Bois, was whom they should vote for. It’s a question that ACLEFEU members have to confront constantly, and it’s just as constantly parried with remarks about making up one’s own mind. A glance at the contract shows that it is a text of the left. But the nearest that members of the collective get, on record, to advocating a candidate is to say that it’s already an achievement if you know which way not to cast your vote.

Sarkozy, as much as Le Pen, is the enemy they have in mind. He is a dangerous figure in the eyes of many French people and a majority of non-white French in a majority of banlieues. When he was minister of the interior at the time of the riots he spoke intemperately and went on to make a grotesque link between street violence and immigration. As if the widespread, irritating use of ‘d’origine this’ and ‘d’origine that’ weren’t enough, young French blacks and Beurs were now being told they might as well just have stepped off the boat, with their sacks of couscous and their un-Republican polygamy. To complete the scary profile, Sarkozy admires the US and Israel and appears to have a soft spot for Reaganomics.

It’s a relief for bien-pensant French voters to have a new monster, in case the ageing monster should fail to shock them sufficiently. In fact Le Pen looks set to do much better in the first round than early polling suggested. It’s not uncommon to hear Sarkozy called a fascist. If you object, you’re told, well never mind, his father was. Or you’ll hear that he was in favour of the war in Iraq. In fact, he describes it as a ‘historic mistake’. Another objection is that he’s a short man trying to walk tall. He means, above all, to break the cherished French ‘social model’ and jump up and down on it. He is an arriviste, who has not come up through the grandes écoles and has no dynastic party tradition, whose ancestry is hybrid – part Hungarian, part Greek Sephardic Jewish, part Protestant, part Catholic; low immigrant trash in the eyes of Le Pen. He would probably abolish France on his first morning in the Elysée.

Yet aspects of his programme are as spendthrift and orthodox as any of the other candidates’. There is nothing in his original platform, and little in the revisions he’s made, to suggest that he can fund his big economic promises – financial incentives for job seekers and job providers, reduction of inheritance tax, lowering the tax-and-contributions ceiling as a percentage of income, and introducing mortgage relief to encourage home-ownership – without dragging the country into deeper debt. His main clawback proposal involves reducing expenditure by replacing only one of every two public sector workers who retire. This falls well short of covering the costs of his other policies, but it guarantees him a measure of unpopularity. Lately he has come up with the idea of using VAT to reduce the bruisingly high levels of social contributions, for employers especially.

Sarkozy has laid great stress on ‘security’. A few days after an incident between a ticket-dodger and an official led to hours of rioting in the bowels of the Gare du Nord, there was little trace of the disturbance. The French clear up their debris more quickly than they used to. Even so the dust has hovered over the campaign, with Sarkozy casting Royal as soft on civil disorder and Royal casting Sarkozy as a politician who likes to inflame a situation. Yet Sarkozy’s real appeal is not to the law-and-order vote; his admirers are convinced that he, more than any other contender, may just about manage to bring about a change in France’s economic fortunes.

‘I don’t believe in the politicians,’ Said Hammouche remarked, when I asked him which candidate would create the most propitious climate for an economic upturn. Hammouche is a very different proposition from Mechmache and the ACLEFEU contingent – a high-profile managerial figure, also a kind of people-smuggler, running qualified ethnic minority jobseekers out of the banlieues to destinations they would never reach without his help. His agency, APC-Recrutement, has more than four thousand young, qualified unemployed on its books. Hammouche and his colleagues train them for interview, help them put together video CVs, which they record to camera, and then canvass companies that might take them on. The agency has placed two hundred people in the course of a year. Hammouche, who was a civil servant involved in training programmes for public and private employees, is now an advocate of full market liberalisation. Governments can have an important role as managers of the economy, he argues, but only if they perform it well, and he sees little sign of this in France. He will not say which way he’d like the elections to go, but will admit to being more and more a Friedmanite, which rules out all the candidates, even if he might make do with Sarkozy.

Hammouche is young – mid-thirties – and successful; the people he’s trying to place are even younger and hoping for a break; in Clichy-sous-Bois, nearly half the population is under 25, for the most part with very few prospects. However loudly the main candidates sound off about youth opportunity and youth unemployment, this feels like a race in which the contestants are appealing primarily to an older electorate, typically setting aside their differences to concur on the urgent need to keep funding research into Alzheimer’s disease. Younger voters are marginalised in the surveys by the fact that so many of them have no fixed-line phones, on which pollsters currently rely for a lot of their research. What this portion of the electorate thinks is obscure. Is it as radical as Hammouche, or radical in the same way? The only safe bet is that it’s likely to favour change.

Royal can provide a version of the social market and Bayrou a feelgood moment, but this is not really change. As for Sarkozy, unless he can think of a way to redeem his tax and contributions cuts, he would be moving France in much the same direction it has been going. His views about French ‘identity’ and immigration are proof, in case it was needed, that he is not a right-wing libertarian of the full-fledged sort. Quite the opposite. In the absence of a model for his proposed ministry of national identity and immigration, French voters are left contemplating the purification committee set up under Vichy to target Jews, and the population office established in 1945, whose intention to screen out North African immigrants fell foul of the postwar reconstruction boom. Sarkozy is, by proper neoliberal standards, naively opposed to ‘speculation’ – which he sees as the wrong kind of capitalism – while being an EU regionalist, a staunch protectionist and a defender of the Common Agricultural Policy. He is opposed to golden handshakes for company directors and means to destabilise the 35-hour week, not abolish it. He is for republicanism with a grimace rather than a smile and the right of government to tell people what to do. The future, if Sarkozy gets it, is l’immobilisme as usual, only with fewer pleasantries and more naked confrontation.

There is a glimmer of hope in French immobilism and the dogged willingness of France’s voters to unthink the thinkable. It lies in the possibility that the long assault mounted against the so-called French model by neoliberalism may not last for ever. In which case, digging in and doing nothing will prove not to be as foolish as it looked at the time: a handful of French republican values will come through intact. Yet the dangers of simply trying to hold out, including ethnic unrest and endemic unemployment, are too terrifying for many voters to contemplate. Sarkozy and his dedicated following agree that the risks are unacceptable, yet whoever wins in May will probably have to run them.

11 April