By William Pfaff
PARIS—What had seemed a long, tranquil current of political success that was conveying Francois Hollande to the French presidency (first-round consultation April 22) has run into turbulence during the past few days, and while his canoe is still buoyant, Hollande has suffered a touch of mal de mer. He seems too reasonable and nice a fellow to be a great success as a politician—not accusations anyone makes about President Nicolas Sarkozy.
The contrast was evident during the recent days of the Toulouse killings: a young would-be jihadist’s slaying of three paratroopers, and then the cold-blooded killing of three young Jewish children and a rabbi at a Jewish school.
Sarkozy was quickly at the scene of the siege that followed, witnessing the drama and naming a close aide to head the government’s collaboration with the police who had found and surrounded the suspect, eventually killing him in a prolonged shootout. Sarkozy had once worked with the same police unit when he was a young mayor in the Paris suburb of Neuilly, and had personally gone into a school threatened by a demented bomber to rescue hostage children. That first made his political reputation. Hollande is not action-man, and his presence on the scene in Toulouse inevitably was one of passive observer, accompanying the journalist who is now his domestic companion.
The Socialists are also identified more with sympathy and tolerance for immigrants and their rights than is Sarkozy’s conservative UMP party. The latter has followed the crisis with orders banning a number of radical Muslim imams from France, whereas Hollande has confronted the problem that the Toulouse crimes revealed the existence of a more sizable network of jihad sympathizers than anyone expected. While the present government should logically be attributed responsibility for this situation, the Socialists’ record inevitably links them to the support of Muslim immigrants and of the social practices and standards of the immigrant community.
This affair has been followed by accumulating campaign difficulties for Hollande, where his alliance with the ecologists’ parties, to which he ceded a certain number of reserved parliamentary constituencies, threatens to come apart. The Green party candidate, Eva Joly, a Norwegian immigrant in France who for many years was an investigating magistrate in the police and court system, has failed to awaken much enthusiasm. She is running 2-3 percent in the polls, and Socialist party members are anxious that she retire and the constituencies be handed over to Socialist candidates who seem much more likely to win them.
Finally, the unexpected threat from the depths that faces Hollande is named Jean-Luc Melenchon, a former Communist leader who is now head of what is known as the Front de Gauche, an electoral party built up from the remnants of the Communist Party (once the leading party of post-World War II France), combined with the survivors of various Trotskyist electoral initiatives of recent years.
The latter usually have managed to establish a role in the electoral competition (sometimes a significant one, even if their adherents tend toward the adolescent or the nostalgic; their presidential candidate last time was a sympathetic postman, who went on delivering the letters during the election). This spring Melenchon has held unexpectedly large and enthusiastic rallies at the Place de Bastille and elsewhere, far outflanking, on the Left, the campaign promises of the orthodox Socialists.
The threat—still relatively small—is that Melenchon might capture a large enough part of the Socialist vote to prevent Hollande from winning the first round of the presidential election. It is scarcely imaginable that he could displace Hollande, but his candidacy could combine with other marginal parties to throw the election into confusion. Hollande, in order to win the presidency, must have a clear-cut second-round showdown with Sarkozy, which present polls say he will easily win. But then you can never tell.
Melenchon possesses demagogic talents unseen and unheard of in France since the days of Georges Marchais (1920-1997), who was for 22 years secretary general of the French Communist Party, a veteran of the international apparatus of the old Soviet-controlled party and for years a major figure on the French political scene, taking over the party in succession of the wartime generation of leaders. Marchais spent his war in a Messerschmitt aircraft factory in Germany after 1942, as one of the “volunteer” laborers requisitioned by Germany during the war.
I have always suspected that Marchais’ mission to Germany as a volunteer laborer was in fact as a Comintern secret agent, keeping the party alive among French exile workers during the terrible war years. When the war ended, and the prewar French Communist leader, Maurice Thorez, returned from Moscow, the hitherto obscure party functionary that Marchais had been suddenly bloomed into a major Communist leader.
Marchais’ era in France reached its culmination in the united front formed with the Socialist leader Francois Mitterrand in the presidential election of 1981. An alarmed conservative electorate was in a panic that a Leftist victory would see chateaux looted or burned from one end of France to the other. At the Place de Bastille in Paris, the Left’s victory was celebrated as the “great dawn” of a new revolution. All were disappointed. In the legislative election that followed, the Communists did so poorly that they lost all leverage in the Socialist-dominated cabinets that followed. Hollande has a similar dream.
Visit William Pfaff’s website for more on his latest book, “The Irony of Manifest Destiny: The Tragedy of America’s Foreign Policy” (Walker & Co., $25), at www.williampfaff.com.
© 2012 Tribune Media Services, Inc.
Photo by Scott LaPierre (CC-BY-SA)