Paris has been living tense moments, as the political impasse intensifies and the glitter of change and charisma wane. The French capital has been gripped by tension after weeks of deterioration witnessed extremist and anarchist elements riding the wave of honest political demands.
Why has France reached this crossroads? Where has democracy – both as a concept and practice – failed to provide a safety valve and bring about solutions?
In fact, there is an unwritten principle followed by parties of government throughout old western democracies, that regardless of election results the voter must never be blamed. Like a rich customer at a high end shop, the voter is always right!
In these democracies, where ruling political elites have accepted the ‘rules of the game’, party institutions have entered an interest-based ‘socio-political contract’ with the masses, which through voting either hands a given party power or deprives it of it.
On the other hand, through long experience, and ‘trial and error’, these ruling elites developed their own mechanisms through which they can influence the masses, play on their emotions, and exploit its activists to the elites’ end.
Thus, if the voting masses can influence results on elections day, the political ruling elites - both on the right and the left – can with their supporters in the financial blocs, trades unions, and the media, interact, invest, and mobilize resources in order to secure the desired outcome in the ballot box.
As such, both sides are beneficiaries: the masses, because a democratic system allows them safely and freely to make their choice; and the ruling political elites, because they have mastered the game within acceptable and safe boundaries, hence, as bitter as a ‘professional’ politician may be after an electoral defeat, he (she) may blame the defeat on anybody or anything but never the voter!
In France, where ‘historic’ and charismatic’ figures have proved on several occasions to be much stronger than institutions, there is an old problem with solid and quiet democracy.
Here is a country that does not wait long for revolts, which it glorifies and rarely regrets their mistakes, there is an issue against pragmatic patience, compromise truces, acceptance of austerity, and taking responsibility for wrong choices, let alone putting up with gradual reform.
Despite the deeply-rooted ‘institutional’ democracy in Great Britain, compared with the revolutionary and individualistic France, and despite the tendency of the British political ruling elites to prefer ‘long-term reformist evolution’ over speedy radical change, there were exceptionsEyad Abu Shakra
Average French voter
I do not want to sound harsh on the average French voter, whose political ‘romanticism’ led him to hand the keys of the Elysee Presidential Palace to a young ambitious politician, with no party and no ideology.
However, one may recall in this case the famous quote of General Charles De Gaulle, the founder of France’s Fifth Republic, “How can anyone govern a nation that has two hundred and forty-six different kinds of cheese”?
Indeed, De Gaulle personally experienced this ‘moodiness’ on more than one occasion, the last being ‘The Student Revolt’ of 1968, which was followed by the referendum that led to his resignation.
Also avoiding being harsh on the French voters, the British voters barely fared better in the ‘Brexit’ referendum of 2016, as they proved to be willing to take a jump into the unknown when selfish and sick populism won the day.
Despite the deeply-rooted ‘institutional’ democracy in Great Britain, compared with the revolutionary and individualistic France, and despite the tendency of the British political ruling elites to prefer ‘long-term reformist evolution’ over speedy radical change, there were exceptions.
Winston Churchill, none other, was self-assured enough to swim against the tide to appeasing voters, when in his caustic sarcasm once said “The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter”.
Today there seems to be a broad consensus that Britain is in real crisis caused by the uncertainty created by voting to leave the EU without a solid alternative strategy. Indeed, many, including senior politicians, appear to be just discovering new data that was not available to them amid the clamor to “free” Britain from Brussels shackles!
The American example may provide the ‘middle way’ between Britain’s quiet evolutionary ‘reform’ and France’s hurried revolutionary ‘change’. The US federal structure and its strict implementation of separation of powers minimize the chances of suffering intractable crises.
Still, we are currently witnessing fast developing and new serious problems, among which are the clear demographic shifts and the populist counter-reaction against them. America’s demographic fabric is changing, and so is its political thinking.
Today, elites, interests and common denominators between Americans are being redefined, and here too there is no guarantee that the voter is always right. There is no guarantee because the ordinary voter does not seem to understand causality, or willing to understand that one cannot have the cake and eat it!
For example, it is impossible – without going to war – for American products to be competitive in the world markets if the production cost is several times higher than those of America’s competitors.
It is also impossible to keep its industrial companies going if they get no opportunities to maintain their competitiveness which include owning and operating factories in cheap-labor countries. Furthermore, it would not make sense to resurrect obsolete industries, such as coal mining, while the whole world is moving toward new energy sources.
So, temporary electoral interests may be worth exploiting for a while, but they cannot be a serious strategy for the future. Actually, according to academic studies, some of America’s worst presidents, such as Warren Harding (governed between 1921 and 1923) won the races to the White House with large majorities.
In contrast, among those who lost the presidential elections were people like former President Jimmy Carter and former Vice President Al Gore, both of whom won the Nobel Prize after their defeats.
Moreover, President Richard Nixon lost the race to become Governor of California in 1962, two years after losing the presidential elections against John Kennedy. As the result was declared, Nixon announced in front of shocked media reporters in the Beverley Hilton, that he was quitting politics, saying: “you don't have Nixon to kick around anymore, because, gentlemen, this is my last press conference”!
However, Nixon’s political career did not end there and then; because he returned to unite the factions of his party, and win the presidency twice in 1968 and 1972 before resigning under the pressure of the ‘Watergate Scandal’
Yes, the voter is not always right; so what can one say about the anarchist who does not usually vote anyway?
This article was first published in Asharq Al-Awsat.
Eyad Abu Shakra (also written as Ayad Abou-Chakra) began his media career in 1973 with Annahar newspaper in Lebanon. He joined Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper in the UK in 1979, occupying several positions including: Senior Editor, Managing Editor, and Head of Research Unit, as well as being a regular columnist. He has several published works, including books, chapters in edited books, and specialized articles, in addition to frequent regular TV and radio appearances. Eyad tweets @eyad1949.