- Interview by
- Seth Ackerman
Emmanuel Todd, one of France’s most original social scientists, built his scholarly reputation on work tracing the influence of kinship systems and demographic patterns on political ideologies and social structures. A member of the French Communist Party as a youth, he became known to the broad public for his 1976 book The Final Fall, predicting “the disintegration of the Soviet sphere” based on a close reading of social and demographic trends in the USSR and Eastern Europe. Now housed at the Institut National d’Études Démographiques, he is a prominent commentator on French and international affairs. In this interview conducted in March, he offers his analysis of the current political moment in France on the eve of the May presidential election.
In 2007, you described Nicolas Sarkozy and Ségolène Royal as “candidates of the void.” Do you feel the same way today about Sarkozy and François Hollande?
Before describing the candidates, let’s describe the historic situation: In 2007, globalization was already looming, but the consensus among the elites of the Right as well as the Left was that, although it wasn’t pleasant, it was still manageable. Today, globalization is imploding, and the left-right equivalence along with it. Nevertheless, the notion of the void remains relevant in describing Sarkozy, with his fixation on money and his negation of France. His first term is summarized by its foreign policy: he went from alignment with Bush to submission to Merkel.
Sarkozism is the affirmation of a new value of inequality, which is foreign to French culture, and the designation of scapegoats (immigrants, the young, the unemployed) to be held responsible for the crisis. In other words, an extremely hard right. In fact, a “far-right lite.” I never thought that one day, in France, we would have two far-right candidates in a presidential election, one of them supported by Germany.
Is Hollande the right barricade against that trend?
By choosing inequality, the Right has opened a space for a Left that reaffirms the principle of equality. Equality being at the heart of French culture, a contest between equality and inequality amounts to a contest between normalcy and pathology.
People made fun of François Hollande’s plea for a “normal” presidency, but in reality it was a very astute perception of the direction of history. Of course, the Socialist Party’s proposals for the crisis are all warmed over: its hundredth proposed stimulus plan would mainly, like the others before it, simulate Chinese industry.
But the alignment with German austerity supported by the UMP [Union pour un Mouvement Populaire, Sarkozy’s center-right party] isn’t any better: it’s a guarantee of a long depression. In fact, the crisis will force new and surprising responses that it wouldn’t be realistic to campaign on. The important thing is to choose a team that is best equipped in terms of its values and the social forces that it represents. That’s why I prefer an Hollande who returns to the principle of equality to an inegalitarian, authoritarian, xenophobic Sarkozy.
But, unlike you, Hollande believes in the virtues of globalization.
I had a lively argument with him on this question a few months ago on [the television program] “Ce Soir Ou Jamais.” So I feel particularly free to make a Pascalian wager about him: I wager on his flexibility of mind and his capacity for rallying and uniting people. He has the right profile to preside over the vast debate on economic globalization which will inevitably take place after the election. What will orient Hollande’s actions is less his personal opinions than the opinions of the middle and upper classes; and they are now turning their backs on free trade and perhaps even on the euro.
Not so long ago, you were attacking the elites.
At the time of the Maastricht referendum, I was scandalized by the behavior of the upper classes, their support for the strong franc. I still believe in this egalitarian logic. But today, we’ve advanced enormously further into crisis. Only 1 percent, maybe even 0.1 percent of the population is profiting from a growth that, for everyone else, has translated into a drop in living standards.
Upper managers have the same fears as manual workers. French society is unifying from below, with a bloc of 99 percent of the population against the richest 1 percent, exactly like on the eve of the French revolution. These 99 percent share the same objective interest: controlling globalization, reorienting the economy toward production. It will be up to the elites to put in place the necessary reforms. A democracy works when part of the elite takes the side of the people. That’s what could happen. Hence the hope I invest in “Hollandisme Révolutionnaire.”
A funny concept . . .
The elites to convert aren’t Sarkozy’s friends, who are readying the UMP–Front National merger under the aegis of the financial system, but the elites of the Left, the overeducated ones who are accused of taking over the Socialist Party and cutting it off from the working classes. And Arnaud Montebourg’s score in the [Socialist] primaries [Montebourg campaigned on a theme of “deglobalization”] proves that it’s possible to make them see reason. Joking aside, to speak of “Hollandisme Révolutionnaire” is a way of saying that only the Socialist Party, a “normal” organization structured by a minimum of discipline, is capable of reasserting control over globalization and over a Europe that has come under the control of financial oligarchies.
Hearing Hollande declare that “my only adversary is the world of finance” must have delighted you.
The commentary on that phrase was that it was a political calculation: he wants to rally the Left in the first round before moving back to the center in the second. I think it goes further. When Hollande is elected — which is my working assumption — the question of the power of finance will be posed. The unconditional bailout of the banks shows that the financial oligarchy controls the state and the European Central Bank. The issue, then, is the reconquest of the state by the people. A leftist president will have to subjugate the banks or be subjugated.
What does that mean, subjugate the banks?
Nationalization, for example, but maintaining some pluralism and keeping some banks in the private sector. Out of habit, the commentators claim that Hollande is campaigning to the left, like Mitterrand in 1981, but that once in power, he too will bend to the forces of money. But that ignores the exhaustion of the system.
Hollande will begin moderately — the people around him are very moderate — but he will be forced to radicalize. If he wants to govern, it will be a March 1983 in reverse. A bit like Roosevelt, a man of the very moderate left at the start, with vague ideas about economics, who, under the effect of the 1929 crisis, ended up taking radical measures. For Hollande it will be either a New Deal or “Papandreouization.”
Have you given up calling for a European protectionism?
No; without protectionism, Europe is condemned to decline. But it will take a generation to put in place, starting by converting Germany. If Sarkozy had any courage, as he likes to brag that he does, he would have wrangled with Merkel to get a certain dose of protectionism. Because behind the official rhetoric, the German business establishment is worried about the disintegration of the euro, which would deprive it of its European market. Sarkozy and Fillon [the prime minister] chose the opposite tack: aligning with competitive disinflation, which guarantees the continent a long-term depression. The German question will be François Hollande’s first dossier.
Will he have to threaten to leave the euro?
Yes, that is France’s weapon against Germany. We must accept that History is being made before our eyes. On the one hand, the crisis has forced states into negotiations — the G7, G20, and other European summits. International coordination is an important achievement — the depression of the 1930s was fed by enmities between states. But simultaneously, economic fear strengthens cultural identities; each nation becomes itself once again.
In Germany, competitive disinflation is a nationalist strategy. In France, the next president will have to stress the national value of equality. Let’s agree to see the threat: Europe is becoming a hierarchical and conflictual federation, with a dominant nation that is hard on the weak, Germany, and a martyr nation on the bottom, Greece. The management of the euro must navigate between these contradictory realities. If we can do European protectionism, let’s do it.
If France is being asphyxiated, let’s leave the euro. If that’s too complicated, let’s protect certain national sectors. In short, let us be pragmatic. But let’s not forget that the confrontation with Germany is the key. In this respect, when Hollande says he wants to renegotiate the European treaty, he’s once again showing a very sure-footed sense of history. There is no guarantee he will see it through. But Sarkozy has already made the choice of submission. So, between uncertainty and death, I choose uncertainty.
What about [Jean-Luc] Mélenchon (candidate of the far-left Front de Gauche — see “Introduction”)?
I don’t sense that he has an effective or even a radical project, and I haven’t forgotten his inability to understand the Chinese economic threat. The possibility of a real fight in the second round of the election will depend on Hollande’s score in the first round.
Has Sarkozy already lost?
No. Powerful forces are working for him. The rise of the inequality temptation is real, no less among the working classes. There’s also the weight of the elderly, who support him massively. And yet they should abhor this poorly-behaved kid whose policies attack the healthcare system and could lead to a drop in life expectancy, like in the US. We’re faced with the unheard of: a median age of forty in France, forty-four in Germany; it’s never been seen before in history. Are we moving toward senilo-fascism?
One thing is certain: in a context of great risk for democratic institutions, now is the time for a disciplined left vote.