Listen to this article
To judge by the rhetoric of the 12 candidates who are contesting the presidential election, the next French Revolution will start tomorrow.
What is less clear is what kind of revolution it will be. It somehow seems appropriate that in our consumer age voters can choose from so many varieties of revolution. The events of 1789 seem so undemocratic by comparison.
For those of a Trotskyite bent, voters can select one of three workers’ revolutions. Each is subtly different from the others, although passionately disputed between the workers’ tribunes themselves. Alternatively, one can vote for the plain vanilla communist revolution proposed by the French Communist party.
Or one can back a green revolution. The candidate of the hunting, shooting and fishing party promises a revolution in hunting, shooting and fishing.
José Bové, anti-globalisation farmer and scourge of McDonald’s, will serve up a culinary revolution – and much else besides.
The mayors’ candidate is promising a revolution in how town halls are run – even if many mayors have disowned him and say they like things as they are.
As for the two far-right candidates, take your pick. You can go for a monetary revolution and have your franc back.
Or Jean-Marie Le Pen is promising a geographic revolution: to isolate France from the rest of the world. Veteran salesman that he is, the National Front leader is even making a two-for-one offer, adding a motoring revolution: wiping drivers’ licences free of penalty points.
Even the three candidates who have a serious chance of winning the presidency promise different flavoured revolutions. Elect Nicolas Sarkozy, the hyperactive former interior minister, and voters are promised a “peaceful revolution” in government, a rupture with the way the country has been run for the past 25 years.
Mr Sarkozy says he will put France back to work and cut the unemployment rate from more than 8 per cent to 5 per cent by the end of a five-year term. But, voters ask, will Mr Sarkozy be any different from President Jacques Chirac, who promised to heal France’s “social fracture” but only made it worse?
Ségolène Royal, the Socialist party candidate, is promising a revolution in presidential style. There is no doubt that the election of France’s first female president would mark a revolution in perceptions of the office. “I am the change,” she declared at one point during the campaign. But voters are questioning whether her spend-if-it-moves solutions to every problem are not reactionary in this day and age.
François Bayrou, the candidate of the centre, is promising a revolution in political representation. He claims he will end the right-left divide that has split France in two for the past quarter of a century. He will forge a coalition in the centre to create a new consensus for change.
The doubt is whether this really is a case of stepping boldly forward to the Sixth Republic or shuffling meekly back to the parliamentary muddle of the Fourth Republic.
With so much choice – and doubt – it comes as little surprise that voters have been zapping between the candidates like bored teenagers in front of a television. Besides, it is so hard these days to distinguish between a faux revolutionary and the real thing. But perhaps the question is: do voters want a revolution at all?
One observer suggests that the real divide in France is psychological rather than political. Employing the language of the psychoanalyst’s couch, he says France is divided into two schools of thought: those who adhere to the pleasure principle and those who believe in the reality principle.
The pleasure principle drives us to make the most of the moment and avoid pain. The reality principle promises bigger rewards tomorrow so long as we make more of an effort today. This clash of principles starts early in life: should I ride my bike or do my homework? But it remains with us for the rest of our lives.
For the moment, the French are still the beneficiaries of arguably the most successful welfare state in history. The pleasure principle is strong. Ms Royal has captured this psychology perfectly. Calling for voters to be bold, she said that she represented “l’audace securisée”. In other words, voters can dare to be bold knowing they will be protected from any unpleasant consequences of their boldness.
But some voters have a nagging conscience. They know that many of their fellow citizens are excluded from the economic party. Moreover, it is unfair to ask one’s children to pick up the bill by paying down the national debt. A little more work and self-sacrifice today will help everyone else tomorrow.
What France needs most is the effective implementation of some glaringly obvious economic reforms that would strengthen France’s cherished social model, not destroy it, and forestall a real revolution.
As Salvador de Madariaga, the Spanish writer, once said, it is as inane for a country to glorify a revolution as it is for an individual to take pride in an operation for appendicitis. A revolution is the product of a societal dysfunction. They are messy things that are best avoided.
The writer is editor of the FT’s European edition