Saturday, March 10, 2012

False Choices

It is election time in France. Five weeks from now, we will elect our president for the next five years and unless he does something really stupid, the socialist pretender, François Hollande, will win in a landslide – albeit not necessarily with the insane margin polls predict. The most striking feature of this election, however, is not the unpopularity of the incumbent president but the similarity of their worldview.

French Presidents are chosen in a two-round runoff election, with the candidates falling into four categories. First you have the two or three contenders, who have a realistic chance of being elected. Generally those are the candidate of the Socialist Party and whoever dominates the moderate right at that particular moment. This time it will be François Hollande and Nicolas Sarkozy.

Then you have the outsiders who most probably won’t make it to the second round, but might under the right circumstances. This time, it will be François Bayrou (center), Jean-Luc-Mélenchon (Left Front) and Marine Le Pen (National Front).

Behind them stand the marginal candidates : Eva Joly (Greens), Jacques Cheminade (the local Larouchie) Nathalie Arthaud (troskyist), Philippe Poutou (another brand of troskyism) and Dominique de Villepin (moderate right, with a serious grudge against Sarkozy).

Finally, there are those who will be denied ballot access because they don’t have at least 500 signed presentations from elected officials. They are too numerous to be listed and their programs are often masterworks of involuntary comedy.

All of them, however, want to restart growth.

Of course, there are differences, often significant ones. The Greens, for instance, want a Green Growth, fueled by renewable energy. The socialists want to lower nuclear share in our energy mix to a mere 50%. The National Front wants a French Growth in French Francs (muslim people need not apply). Nicolas Sarkozy … well, Nicolas Sarkozy badly needs some growth to be reelected, but that does not sound likely.

The idea that sustained growth might be a thing of the past, however, is not something responsible people mention in a polite conversation, even if those people happen to be green.

There are many reasons for that, but one of them is the way the Green movement developed in France. Political ecology first entered French politics during the early seventies, with the candidacy of René Dumont at the 1974 presidential elections, two mere years after the founding of the first ecological magazine La Gueule Ouverte. Nobody talked about the climate then – it was assumed that at some point in the future it would become colder, but that hardly mattered. The subjects du jour were resource depletion, runaway pollution, demographic explosion and of course nuclear warfare.

The Meadows report had just been published, and contrary to what is assumed today, it triggered a huge debate within French society. Ecological themes nearly became mainstream and in 1978 an educational animated TV series called Once Upon a Time... Man was broadcast on the third channel. A whole generation of children watched it, notably the last episode, which described the future of our civilization... and its demise because of pollution and resource wars.

Yet this concern faded during the eighties and when the Greens resurfaced as a cultural and political force, they had gone over to standard upper middle class environmentalism. Ironically, one of the main causes of this devolution was the 1973 oil shock. It convinced the French elites that dependence on foreign oil was a dangerous thing. They quickly found a solution : nuclear.

At the time, it was not as stupid as it sounds now. Chernobyl was still in the distant future and the only alternative was importing gas from the USSR or Algeria. We still produced uranium at that time, and there were in Africa a number of producer countries both friendly and able to control their territory.

Besides, everybody knows that accidents are unfrench and that our borders are radiation-proof.

The Greens, of course, opposed this move, as well as some other movements. It was a huge fight, but outside Brittany, they lost. Only the Breton nuclear plants were canceled when the Socialist Party won the elections in 1981 but the fight itself focused the Green movement on the nuclear industry and away from sustainability.

Meanwhile, France began to experience high unemployment during the late seventies, the result of the first oil crisis, but also of the more or less deliberate choice of favoring high wages and pensions over full employment. The Keynesian policies of the first years of the presidency of François Mitterand did not help either, and France was stuck with an unemployment rate permanently over 8%.

France was, and is still, a welfare state and unemployment benefits can be quite generous – they depend on how much you were paid before you lost your job. They don't last for ever, however, and when they do end, the fall can be quite brutal and people who wonder whether they will still have a home at the end of the year tend to put environment very low on their list of priority.

The Greens having failed to make the connection between resource depletion and economic decline, green politics became restricted to the left wing upper middle class – in French, we call them the “bobos”. Of course, the upper middle class has its own demands and concerns. It wants to keep its privileged position within the society, but wants also to be seen as the progressive good guys. This has resulted in a focus on societal issues and policies which look superficially left wing but actually reinforce the status-quo, such as free immigration (aka brain and manpower pump) or “fair trade”, which in fact locks poor countries in their role of provider of underpriced raw material.

The hedonistic world-view of the bobos, means that they will oppose any policy aiming at reinforcing communities – as the Archdruid has stated, healthy communities come to a price, a price the upper middle class is not in a hurry to pay.

The result has been an ideological disaster mixing tokenism and, since the bobos have a lot to lose from a true relocalization of economy or from a true simplification of the society, an insistence that all our problems can be solved if we invest heavily in the right green technologies and create a lot of green jobs for the self-appointed green elite.
I am afraid those delusions won't survive their, arguably unfortunate, collision with reality.

Curiously, a few parts of the traditional left may be more aware of the problems ahead.

Less than a month ago, Michel Rocard published a book titled “Mes points sur les i - Propos sur la présidentielle et la crise”, where he explains that growth won't returns and that the European Union is a non-entity in international politics. For those who don't know French politics, Michel Rocard is the closest thing to a an elder statesman we have. During the seventies, he was the main rival of François Mitterand within the Socialist Party and his prime minister from 1988 to 1991. He probably spared France a colonial war in New Caledonia, but he and his followers were progressively marginalized in the following years and he was finally exiled to the European Parliament.

Having become a non-entity in French politics, he can now speak his mind and say what other politicians cannot. That François Hollande prefaced his book shows he is listened to, if not necessarily heeded.

Of course, Michel Rocard speaks from within the ideology of progress. He sees the future as a time of difficulties, not as the long descent it will be. Unable, or unwilling, to acknowledge the limits of our uranium supply, he advocates keeping our nuclear plants “lest we enter degrowth”, and of course, his goal is not to accompany the coming descent, so as to make it less brutal, but to keep the status quo as long as possible.

This half-lucidity will certainly influence my vote next month, especially when I compare it to the Greens' delusions, but it makes the curtailed character of our political choices painfully obvious. It is not that we cannot see the coming crisis – Michel Rocard sees it clearly enough and the Greens, for all their delusions are somewhat aware of it. The problem is that the overwhelming majority of us shy away from its logical consequences, because they contradict our ideology.

In fact, we have, during the last decades, more or less consciously chosen to put our faith in progress before the survival of our civilization, and this choice has made all other political choices, if not irrelevant – a fascistic or communist regime in France would be an unmitigated disaster – at least without long term consequences.

The only horizon is now collapse. The only question is how our communities will adapt to it locally, far from the political rallies and the golden halls of the senate.


  1. I've got to the stage of simply ignoring politics. At least as far as possible - I still sign the odd petition and do vote. The rest is all hot air and nonsense :)

    Our green party isn't too bad actually but the centre left could do with an upgrade and the right is just as smarmy as ever I'm afraid.

    viv in nz

  2. Sarkozy , during the last election, talk about the problem of "fair trade" and protectionism...just(in my mind) to have the vote from people aware of the problem.
    Rocard can't do the same thing for Hollande ? Only to have the voice of the green's ?

    (From once upon a ;-))

    (Sorry for the failure of my text, english is not my current language)

  3. Knutty knitter, I feel that the saying "if you don't care about politics, politics will care about you" applies only when there is a threat from either the far left or the far right. You are lucky enough to have neither if I remember well.

    And being an insider, I would add "petty feuds" to "hot air and nonsense"

    Anonymous, in 2007 Sarkozy mostly spoke about immigration to get the "racist vote". It worked then and Le Pen made a rather poor showing. He was rather light on protectionism, however. He attracted the working class vote by appealing to their work ethic.

    I don't think Rocard is doing the same thing. To attract the Green, you have to oppose nuclear power, which Rocard doesn't, and tell that deploying "green technologies" will save the day, which Rocard doesn't either. The Greens are also very big on the European Union, so telling them it is a non-entity won't please them. No, he is just a retired politician, who can speak his mind.