Ségo vs Sarko

Ségolène Royal

It is the tradition at this time of year for the newspapers to be full of predictions for the year ahead. This blog refuses to follow suit, partly because it’s not a newspaper, but more realistically because there’s nothing to gain by it: if I get something right, no-one will remember; if I get something wrong, everyone will remember.

But there is a difference between prediction and thinking ahead. I am not going to guess who will be the next president of France, for example, but the issues at stake are worth examination.

In the blue corner, we have Nicolas Sarkozy, about to be adopted as the candidate of the centre-right UMP. His opponent will be Ségolène Royal, victor of the Socialist primary in November last year.

Ms Royal has acquired a reputation of having risen without trace, travelling without a heavy burden of policy or ideology. Perhaps that reputation has been taken up by the grand old men of the Socialist party, whom she beat for the electoral nomination to their considerable surprise and discomfort. Even if she has a weaker track record and a different approach to some of the others, maybe a new approach is what is needed.

It is not the place of this blog, however, to delve deeply into the issues of personality and policy as they apply to party politics; there is enough to examine on the narrow subject of Europe.

Nicolas Sarkozy told us all where he stood in a speech in September last year. (I reviewed it on the blog here, and you can read the speech itself here if you want to check up on me.)

In brief, his view was that constitutional treaty should, in the wake of the No vote in May 2005, be broken into two parts. The first contains managerial reforms to the present institutions, which should be agreed by the national governments and ratified by national parliaments before the next European elections. The second part represents the fundamental constitutional nature of the treaty, which should be postponed until after the elections and considered by a new Convention convened for the purpose at the time.

As a proposal, it has the merit of being clear, even though it is not entirely to my taste. The pronouncements from Ségolène Royal, on the other hand, are the opposite. (You can find her comments on the Quotebank – click the country link for France on the left-hand side.)

Unlike Sarkozy, she is unwilling to give up on the idea of a constitution before the next elections. She suggests that a Convention should be reconvened to fix the problems identified by the French No voters two years. (As an aside, a number of those No voters are now part of the Royal campaign.) The conclusions of the Convention should then be ratified by all the member states, on the same day, each according to its own procedures. This where it starts to get complicated.

Does this mean a referendum or not? Different journalists attending the press conference came away with different answers, which is why the Quotebank cannot make up its mind.

Sarkozy accepts that a referendum might be suitable for the constitution, but sees no prospect that one might be won in the next few years. In any case, he is not willing to make the kind of concessions to the French left that might make such a referendum winnable. Royal, on the other hand, is ready to make those concessions: in many ways, in fact, she already has.

For example, she denounces his idea for a mini-Treaty as being disrespectful to the French voters who voted No. In effect, she says, he is sticking up two fingers to his “fellow citizens”. (Or whatever the French equivalent of two fingers is – see a demonstration of French gestures here.) This isn’t really a policy, rather it is a position.

But this is true more generally. Interpreting the various European statements by Ségolène Royal to try and understand the policy behind them is a fruitless and frustrating business. I suspect that the reason is that there is not a single coordinated policy to be understood. Instead, there are the shifting sands of an electoral platform designed to maximise appeal at any one moment.

Such an approach might be the best way to get into power – we shall see – but it hardly tells us much about how she will use that power if she gets there.

Sarkozy has put forward, for better or worse, a programme for government. Royal is still working on a platform for opposition. But remember this is not a prediction, only a look ahead.

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