Libération: Seen from Washington, what part of this campaign is most striking?
Philip Gordon: The lack of interest on the part of the French, though this is not a surprise. For the past 15 years, the lack of enthusiasm as seen in opinion polls, abstention rates, the fragmentation of the political landscape and the proliferation of smaller parties has been more and more clear. During the 1980s, the big parties were getting over 70% of the votes in the first round of the elections. Now they’ve fallen below 60%, with small parties getting more than 40%. Moreover, the main political leaders are basically backing the same platforms: it is hard for voters to see the real policy differences between Jacques Chirac and Lionel Jospin. Without a real choice, people who are looking for an alternative are turning to the marginal candidates.
Libération: Is this fragmentation dangerous for democracy in France?
Philip Gordon: No, as long as the economy is in good shape and unemployment is falling. If France were to experience an economic crisis it might be more worrying.
Libération: Can the new political landscape be explained by the way that France is adapting to globalization?
Philip Gordon: The surge in the polls of candidates like Jean-Pierre Chevènement and Arlette Laguiller is surely the result of the rejection of the pensée unique about these issues. The candidates from the governing parties are more or less in agreement that the only choice for France today is to adapt to the “global,” liberal economy. Most of them have only reached this conclusion reluctantly and they don’t like to admit it. When they talk about “globalization” they usually try to reassure the voters. They talk about “managing” and “taming” it, or in Chirac’s words, “humanizing” it. The left in particular is reluctant to take credit for the reforms it has presided over. The Jospin government has done a lot to adapt France to globalization, not hesitating to lower some taxes, privatize companies, encourage the use of the stock market and promote free trade. But that is not clear from its rhetoric. It’s also one of the reasons why most Americans, wrongly I think, still see the French left as archaic.
Libération: Does this gap between the rhetoric and the reality seem very “French” to you?
Former Brookings Expert
Mary and David Boies Senior Fellow in U.S. Foreign Policy - Council on Foreign Relations
Philip Gordon: For the French, it’s the job of the government to protect the citizens, to provide them with work, retirement, health care, and economic direction. French leaders thus can’t simply say “look, we’re in a big global marketplace now, so good luck, do your best!” If they do that their political prospects would not look so great…Thus they have to repeat over and over that their main goal is to protect the French from the effects of globalization. But even while they’re speaking like that, France is adapting.
Libération: So French economic policy is based on a big lie?
Philip Gordon: The art of politics is to convince the public to accept what you think is right, while telling it what it wants to hear…It’s a hard balance to strike. Being honest to the point of being immediately rejected by public opinion is not necessarily the most effective way to proceed. At the other extreme, in some cases, French politicians’ lack of courage is regrettable.
Libération: One of the great French worries about globalization is to see their culture diluted. Are they right?
Philip Gordon: Where language and cinema are concerned, the threat is obvious. But globalization also offers opportunities. It allows for a mixing of cultures but does not replace one culture with another. France is already taking advantage of this: it projects its cuisine, fashion, tastes, and even sometimes films: look at the success of Amélie. English obviously dominates the Internet, but the Internet is also a tool for spreading information about France. Thanks to the web, Libération can be read around the world, by anyone who is interested in France. At the end of the day, a culture will only survive is it has something to offer, and this is obviously the case with France.