D‚j… Vu?

I am an optimist by nature. Always convinced that tomorrow will be better than today. That is, except for one thing. Observing French politics in recent years, I must admit that I have surprised myself by losing hope. Wherever my eyes would turn, whichever politician I would talk to, I would always have a sense of d‚j… vu. Sometimes even worse.

Technically the country was not doing that poorly though. Life expectancy was pretty good, GDP per capita reached decent levels, the Gini coefficient seemed OK to me (gotta love those BGIE classes!). On the international front France still had a veto power at the U.N. Security Council (yeah, right! that was useful!). Of course a few cars would burn here and there in the suburbs, from time to time. Entertainment, right? But even the unemployment rate had been going down lately and it seemed as though the pension problem was finally being dealt with. Last time I checked, France was still – by far – the first tourist destination in the world and, oh boy!, those Bordeaux wines still tasted pretty good if you asked me. Sure – we did not win the world cup (details…) and it would be pretty bold to say that the country was in great shape, or even in fine shape but, hey, things really were not that bad. By the way, as a side note to the BGIE department, I would love to suggest that HBS students be given the opportunity (the chance!) to read a case on French topics that, for once, do not pertain to just unemployment or pensions – seriously! Anyone? Anyone?

Anyway, back to froggy land. The thing that used to bother me was not so much the general state of the country. Rather I was getting seriously worried about our politicians and the quality of the political debate in France. On all sides – left, right and center – it was all d‚j… vu. Reigning politicians had been around, basically, forever. Our famous Pr‚sident de la R‚publique, Jacques Chirac, was no less than 75 years old and had been in politics since the 1950s. That is 50-plus years, for Pete’s sake! Do these guys ever get tired of this? Any mid-life crisis – ever? Jacques Chirac had had a more or less direct influence on the past four presidential elections (not even counting the present one). What a trooper! What a bunch of troopers! And it seemed like the only thing that these guys (yes, you heard me: it was mostly “guys”) were interested in was to stay in power or keep the seat warm for their prot‚g‚s. The implications were disastrous. Politicians would reform just enough so that it did not look like they were having a gigantic “tea partay” on taxpayers’ money, while at the same time not changing things too much so as to avoid hurting anybody’s feelings (translation: “strikes”). The situation became even worse in the 1990s when French voters started getting the impression that right and left were conducting the exact same policies. They were just the same, and indeed just as bad! Nothing was happening – RIEN! This was just a time bomb waiting to go off. And guess what? It did. The last presidential election in 2002 turned into a joke – only a bad one – with Jacques Chirac facing extreme-right candidate (read: wacky nationalist) Jean-Marie Le Pen in the run-off and winning with more than 80% of the votes. And I thought that these kinds of scores only happened in banana republics… The second time the bomb went off was when the French voters rejected the European Constitution in 2005. Idiots! Just kidding. So now you probably understand better why I thought that there was not much hope on the horizon. Mission: impossible? I thought so. And the current presidential race, with candidates from the traditional left-wing party (Parti Socialiste), right-wing party (U.M.P. – Union pour un Mouvement Populaire) and center party (U.D.F. – Union pour la D‚mocratie Fran‡aise) plus Jean-Marie Le Pen in ambush was promising to be another d‚j… vu.

Or is it? Well, I have to say that I am quite upbeat this time. This past Sunday French voters regained some interest in their country’s destiny (so did I!) and voted massively in the first round of the presidential election (nearly 85% turnout). They pushed Mr. Le Pen back to where he belongs: the 10% zone (still too high if you ask me). More importantly they decided to send to the run-off two brand new candidates. Neither Mrs. Royal (25.9% of the votes) nor Mr. Sarkozy (31.2% of the votes) has ever run for Pr‚sident, which – believe it or not – has not happened in a long time in France. For the first time we also have a woman in the run-up. Not that I really care to be honest (for me it is all about quality) but this might be further evidence that the froggies are finally ready for some change. Most importantly, French voters, at last, have a clear choice between two very different projects. They finally HAVE TO choose! By the way, did I mention that both runner-ups are in their early fifties? This is also unheard of for the French.

Are we out of the woods yet? Well, not exactly. Naturally this could all be a bunch of smoke and mirrors and we might very well go back to business as usual on the eve of May 6th. But I doubt it, really. Although I guess it will depend on who wins eventually. And, as you could expect, I have my favorite – of course I do! The other risk lies in execution. It is all about the action plan, baby! (I thought I would remind all the RCs of that piece of wisdom as they enter their finals – gotta answer question 2!). So whoever gets elected will have to face the natural resistance of a bunch of people and we might be in for a few strikes. But, hey! The walking shoes are ready if the subways stop in September.

In any event the first round of the election gives me hope. Maybe French politics is not dead after all. And maybe “impossible n’est pas fran‡ais,” as we say over there. My dear HBS fellow students, I sincerely encourage you all to follow the debate on the French presidential election between now and the second round on May 6th. This should prove to be very interesting. And I would not be surprised if you got entertained along the way. In the same way that the French students at HBS keep you entertained with their little je ne sais quoi!