The French have always prided themselves in being trendsetters in global politics.
They are convinced that they shaped the modern world thanks to their 18th century revolution and its ideas of citizenship and universal human rights.
In more recent times, they led the Western democracies into new directions thanks to the first social welfare programmes, including paid holidays for workers, introduced in the 1930s, and, through the May 1968 mini-revolution, that has since set much of the agenda for Western European societies.
It is, therefore, no surprise that this Sunday, as they go to the polls to choose a new president, many French voters might feel that they are also indicating new directions for Europe as a whole. And, in a sense, they would be right. This weekend’s presidential polls is the culmination of a long campaign that started at least a year ago.
The first round of the presidential election, held two weeks ago, produced three major results.
First, it showed that French democracy was alive and vibrant. More than 85 per cent of those eligible to vote did so, establishing a record turnout for any of the major democracies over the past four decades.
Secondly, the election propelled a new generation of politicians into the limelight. This is the first time since 1974 that neither of two candidates reaching the second round has stood for the presidency before. In other words, the age of the political dinosaurs is over.
Finally, the first round of the election dealt a serious blow to the extreme right. The National Front candidate, Jean-Marie Le Pen lost almost six percentage points compared to his last bid for the president five years ago. At the same time, it showed a dramatic shift to the right. Almost 68 per cent of those who went to the polls voted for candidates of the right. Nicholas Sarkozy, the main candidate of the right, led the polls with 31 per cent of the votes, becoming the first centre-right politician to achieve such a score since 1969.
Regardless of who wins on Sunday- and the contest is still open-, the presidential campaign has revealed a France that is unmistakably veering towards the right.
Both Sarkozy and his left-of-centre rival Segolene Royal, underlined such values as patriotism and emphasised what they call “French specificity”.
This is in sharp contrast with the philosophy of the May 1968 “revolution” which regarded patriotism as the last refuge of the scoundrel.
Even Ms Royal, ignoring the self-styled internationalists on the extreme left, decided to play he Marseillaise, the French national anthem, at most of her meetings rather than the traditional leftist hymns of The International and The Red Flag.
The emphasis on patriotism was not the only sign that France was trying to say goodbye to May 1968. Both candidates spoke about the value of the family, in its traditional sense, and called for greater moral rigour in their post-industrial society. This was a far cry from May 1968 philosophy that regarded the family as “the first unit of human repression” and frowned on marriage as a “bourgeois device” to hamper free love.
More importantly, both candidates were prepared to tackle the explosive issue of immigration head on. By doing so, they helped deprived Le Pen and the extreme right of their most potent political weapon. Sarkozy hammered in the theme that France was not an open territory into which people cold just walk and settle with no regard for its history, culture and values. Ms Royal, trying not to antagonise the internationalist far-left too much, was more circumspect. Nevertheless, she, too, cast aside traditional Socialist attitudes towards immigration and moved towards positions regarded as rightist only a decade ago.
Other campaign themes included the need for defending law and order, improving security, and rebuilding national defence- all of which were almost taboo in the elite circles not so long ago. Anxious to modify her image as a woman, and therefore potentially less tough on such issues, Ms Royal reminded everyone that she was the daughter of a colonel and the grand-daughter of a general- good credentials for a candidate courting traditional rightist constituencies.
However, it was Sarkozy that championed openly rightist positions, often reminiscent of the policies of the former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.
This was most noteworthy on four accounts.
First, Sarkozy, himself the son of a Hungarian immigrant, emphasized the concept of French-ness as opposed to multiculturalism that deplores any form of nationalism. Those who immigrated to France in order to settle there for life had to become French. Those who could not become French had to find another solution. “Love her, or leave her!” was Sarkozy’s stark message.
Secondly, Sarkozy challenged the concept of the state, more precisely the welfare state, as a milking cow. He rejected the “give us, give us” attitude that has transformed millions of people into benefit addicts.
Instead, he promised a “give-and-take” deal: Do more for the nation, and get more from the state!
Thirdly, Sarkozy put work at the centre of his programme: the French must work more and harder to maintain their present living standards, let alone expect further improvements. Gone were the days of special deals from the state on working conditions and pension schemes. This is in contrast with almost four decades of consensus on the myth that the French can work less, have longer holidays, and still get higher salaries and earlier retirement dates.
Since 1980, France has reduced the working week from 42 hours to 35, and reduced the retirement age from 65 to 60. It has also increased annual holidays from four weeks to five. In other words, the French have learned to work less than others in industrial democracies, while also retiring earlier.
As a result, French wage levels have lagged behind those of most major democracies while unemployment rate has hovered between 9 and 11 per cent for almost a generation.
The shorter working week, the longer holidays and the earlier retirement age, have made labour a costly commodity in France. As a result, French industries have invested heavily in capital equipment to substitute labour. Thus, French productivity has been rising at a staggering rate of one per cent per annum for two decades. That, in turn, has sustained high unemployment rates, creating two societies: those who work, and those who don’t.
The culture behind that weird situation was a widespread belief that man’s chief goal should be an avoidance of work. To be successful, a society had to allow its citizens more leisure time, because work was not fun.
Sarkozy, and to some extent Royal, have tried to change that attitude by claiming that work is not only necessary to sustain a civilisation but could, and should, also be fun.
Finally, Sarkozy has openly promised to lead France away from May 1968 and the wishy-washy ideas that it promoted.
Whoever wins on Sunday, one thing is certain: France has started to lay some of its May 1968 demons to rest. And that is certainly good news for everyone.