Progressives' French Lesson

By E. J. Dionne Jr.
Tuesday, May 8, 2007

Is Europe moving right? Is the democratic left in trouble?

The decisive victory of Nicolas Sarkozy over Socialist Ségolène Royal in France's presidential election on Sunday was the most recent example of the battering that moderate-left parties are taking from the forces of globalization and discontent over immigration.

A few days earlier, Britain delivered a rebuke to outgoing Prime Minister Tony Blair's Labor Party in local elections. Last September, Sweden's Social Democrats were voted out of power, a blow to the progressive spirit in light of the country's standing as a model egalitarian society.

Earlier in 2006, in the land of single-payer health care, Canada's Conservatives under Stephen Harper came back from near-death 14 years ago to form a minority government. In 2005, Germany's Social Democrats lost their majority, though they cling to a share of power under Christian Democratic Chancellor Angela Merkel.

There are some countertrends toward the left, notably in Australia, according to recent polls. A populist left (quite different from the moderate European variety) has gained ground in Latin America. And Democrats might take heart that France and the United States have moved on opposite electoral cycles ever since Socialist François Mitterrand won power in 1981, just a year after Ronald Reagan's election.

Nonetheless, the social democratic and liberal left faces a big problem because globalization makes the movement's core pledge -- to produce economic growth that lifts up the poor and the middle class as well as the rich -- far more problematic.

For much of the period after World War II, national governments found it relatively easy to redistribute wealth and income through taxes and decent wage agreements negotiated by strong labor unions. Globalization and heightened competition are taking a toll on unionized industrial jobs, while national governments have less freedom of action when capital is so mobile. As a result, thriving emerging economies are enjoying higher growth rates than their traditionally wealthy competitors.

In France, Sarkozy promised that by deregulating the labor market, he could create more growth and more jobs. Royal pledged to preserve and expand some of France's generous social protections -- although she also bowed to the imperatives of global capitalism by sounding some modernizing themes. Sarkozy's clarity trumped Royal's well-meaning muddle.

Fear that immigrant and particularly Muslim communities were not integrating well into France also helped Sarkozy. His tough-guy image allowed this center-right candidate to court the far-right constituency of Jean-Marie Le Pen. According to the polling agency Ipsos, voters who backed Le Pen in the election's first round went to Sarkozy on Sunday by more than 5 to 1.

Here again, Royal played defense by offering her own version of patriotic politics -- French citizens should learn the words of the Marseillaise, she said, and keep a French flag in their cupboards. But she also felt an honorable obligation to criticize some of Sarkozy's harsher positions on immigration. Worries over immigrants trumped fear of Sarkozy's hard line.

And where Royal won by almost 3 to 2 among public-sector workers (she also carried students and the unemployed), she lost private-sector workers (as well as the retired). The left can't win without a better showing among workers in the private economy.

In fact, Royal's biggest problem was reflected in another Ipsos finding: While 42 percent of her voters said their ballots were aimed primarily at keeping Sarkozy out of the presidency, only 18 percent of Sarkozy's voters said they cast negative ballots against Royal. The left is in trouble when its campaigns are based more on anxiety about the right than on the hopes that progressives inspire.

It would be a mistake to draw too many American lessons from the troubles of European social democrats. For one thing, the social insurance system is much weaker in the United States than in Europe, where even conservatives support substantial government provision for health care and child care. If European voters seem willing to gamble on a bit less security because they have a lot of it, American voters now seem inclined to ask for more because they have so little.

But the center-left clearly needs a shot of dynamism. It must convey a clearer sense that it knows how to preserve social justice in a globalized economy and how to respond to a growing impatience with government. It must figure out how to preserve civil liberties, protect immigrants and foster an inclusive sense of national solidarity at the same time.

With their European friends in some trouble, American progressives may have both the opportunity and the obligation to find the new formulas.

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