Manuel Vall’s recent words about the Front National, that I read in Le Monde yesterday, are an interesting way of doing politics.
The words he used when describing the situation were alarmist; ‘J’ai peur pour mon pays, j’ai peur qu’il se fracasse contre le Front National’. Translated, this means something like ‘I’m scared for my country, scared that it will smash into pieces because of the Front National’.
Valls also talked about his ‘angoisse’, (anxiety) about the continuing rise in popularity of the FN, giving his opinion that it is driving France towards ‘le désastre, à la ruine.’ (disaster, ruin). Valls added that the FN is edging nearer and nearer to taking power, and reinforced his opinion they could well win the next presidential elections in 2017. Reminding his audience of the recent terrorist attacks in Paris and in Copenhagen, Valls said that everyday people die trying to exercise their right to freedom of expression and democracy, and that after everything that had happened in recent weeks, it was the ‘duty’ of the French people to vote in the upcoming regional elections – and to stop the FN winning even more seats.
After the recent debacle concerning the ‘Loi Macron’, where Valls had to enforce a particular parliamentary rule called the 49-3 which meant that the law was passed without a majority vote (because it became evident that the government would not have a majority), the upcoming regional elections aren’t looking good for the PS. Clinging onto its majority in parliament, it’s interesting that Valls has decided to take such a didactic tone. Looking at his vocabulary in more depth, he uses words like ‘fear’, ‘smash’, ‘anxiety’, ‘disaster’, ‘ruin’ and ‘duty’. These words are perhaps understandable in the context in which he and his party find themselves. The PS was voted in in 2012 with an absolute majority, and a mere two and a half years later they are struggling to pass laws in parliament. Voted in to avoid five more years of Nicolas Sarkozy, who at the time of the election was veering significantly to the right, they haven’t been able to stop the rise of the FN in France.
My instant reaction to this kind of vocabulary is to be on the defensive; it doesn’t seem to me to be the role of a politician to try an install a sense of fear within people in order to get them to vote for him – in fact it feels a slightly desperate, retrograde thing to do. Look at the recent swoop to victory of Syriza, and the vocabulary that Alexis Tspiras used in his victory speech after becoming Greek prime minister. His rhetoric included words like ‘dignity’, ‘passion’, ‘confidence’, ‘beautiful and tough fight’, and ‘optimism’. Matteo Renzi is also a partisan of optimism in encouraging people to vote for him; in a TED speech, he said; ‘optimism as an extraordinary vital force is fundamental in politics’. And, most interestingly, in a recent poll that was carried out for International Woman’s Day, Marine Le Pen came second place in response to the question of which French women best represented optimism. Even more importantly, she was voted into second place by 18-22 year olds – traditionally the group that mainstream parties like the UMP and the PS have the most problems persuading to vote – not just for them, but to vote at all.
However, it has to be admitted that optimism and a positive message in politics are particularly attractive when the other option is perceived as negative or pernicious. Take Barak Obama’s ‘Yes we can’ motto – this was in contrast to a Republican party tainted by the failure of the Iraq war, and weakened by Sarah Palin’s unsuitability to hold high office. This was also undoubtably the case in Greece. Syriza represented a end to the crushing austerity measures imposed on Greece from Brussels. Yet in both cases, these promises of optimism have not, or may not necessarily hold good. Barack Obama was elected on a promise to close Guantanamo Bay and half way through his second mandate it remains open. He also promised various other measures such as increasing affordable housing in metropolitan areas, and an increase in the minimum wage that have not been put in place. Syriza was elected on a promise to utterly reject the terms imposed on it by Brussels, but a mere month after being elected it has bowed to pressure not to default on its loans and has accepted a four month extension on its bailout. It seems to be the case that in the current landscape of French politics the PS, which was voted in on the promise to grow the economy and restore France to growth has been transformed from the party of salvation to the party of stagnation. One of Hollande’s most famous elections promises was a 75% tax on all personal revenues that go over one million – and in fact the French have found themselves with a government that recently had to force through a law that introduces the beginning of austerity measures. Notably allowing businesses to stay open on Sunday and therefore getting rid of the current situation, which is that some shops are allowed to stay open on Sunday but are obliged to pay their employees more.
It may be that Valls’ rhetoric will change to convey a more positive message when the election starts to get closer. However, briefly looking at one example of Hollande’s campaign during the last election, we can see that this wasn’t the tactic he favoured. One of his election videos featured statements about the French economy at the time such as ‘10% de chômage, 23% chez les jeunes, 150 000 jeunes en échec scolaire, 783 000 ménages surendettés…’ (10% of unemployment, 23% of youth unemployment, 150 000 young people failing at school, 783 000 households in debt…). The figures appeared in black against a white screen and at the end there was one simple sentence; ‘On continue ou on change?’ (Should we continue or should we change?). It was a strong message, and not one that could be described as positive. Again, it something of the alarmist tone of Valls’ recent comments. Taking a closer look at two of these statistics, unemployment in France is at 10.2%, and youth employment is at 24.9% in 2015, about three years after this promise. (The video was made in 2011).
As an observer, it seems to me to be counter intuitive to take this tone when you haven’t delivered on election promises – and unemployment is one of the most important, if not the most important issues for French voters right now.