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This week saw the announcement of two political programs in an important election year: that of Barack Obama and the Democratic Party in the United States; and that of François Hollande and the Socialist Party in France. There could not have been two more different approaches in terms of mapping out political visions despite the partial overlap in ideological positions. The comparison is interesting in itself but also for pointing to differences in political culture between Europe and the United States.

Barack Obama used the opportunity of the last, in this term, State-of-the-Union address to present his vision for America’s future. The most quoted sentence from that speech—“you can call this [taxing the rich] class warfare all you want. But asking a billionaire to pay at least as much as his secretary in taxes? Most Americans would call that common sense”—is likely to be agenda-setting against the background of the release, on the same day, of Mitt Romney’s financial accounts, which revealed his effective tax rate to be below fifteen per cent despite an annual income of more than twenty million dollars.

But Obama’s speech included more than just a pronouncement in favor of a fair tax code. First and foremost it was an outline of an economic recovery program around three main pillars: (1) job creation, (2) energy & infrastructure and (3) reform of the financial sector. The measures planned—a mixture of short-, medium, and long-term actions—are meant to tackle the problem at its core: bringing production back to the United States thus improving its competitiveness whilst, in parallel, reducing structural inequalities.

The measures outlined range from providing incentives to companies for relocating in areas undergoing industrial re-structuring; to improving workers’ skills through more and better re-training in the short-term; working to make the teacher profession more attractive; putting a cap on tuition fee increases; legalizing illegal migrants; investing in transport and energy infrastructures and in eco-buildings; helping families refinance their mortgages at low interest rates; imposing stricter rules on banks regarding capital reserves; fighting financial fraud; and addressing the debt deficit by re-optimizing tax revenues through redistribution.

François Hollande’s political vision for France is likewise that of restoring the country’s competitiveness and faith in itself; and he too envisages a series of measures—sixty in all—across several policy domains. Some are similar to those proposed by Obama for the United States like reducing red tape for SMEs, increasing taxes for the rich or improving the education system. Yet Hollande’s program is primarily clientelist in orientation comprising little bits or pieces of something for every single constituency: the farmers are being promised more subsidies; trade-unions a reversal of the recent pension reform; families more child-care places; researchers more time for research; the police more posts; and the Parliament more rights.

None of these measures are in themselves flawed and several of them might even be useful. Yet Hollande’s program is mainly that: a series of measures put together in the old-fashioned way of mass parties whereby what counts is that everyone gets a share of the cake. The only difference is that these ‘gifts’ are now presented under flashy titles meant to boost the candidate’s profile and all starting with ‘I want [Je veux]’—a rather poor attempt to reinvent Obama’s earlier ‘yes we can’ slogan.

Also illustrative is how Hollande has tried to mobilize his activists, or militants, as they are called in French. In an old-style populist manner, which might as well have come from Marine le Pen of Front National, Hollande declared that his real adversary “has no name, no face, no party; it will never be a candidate, even though it governs.” This adversary is the financial sector. Yet reading through Hollande’s propositions on how to ‘combat’ this enemy without a face one finds nothing new that what is currently discussed or slowly being implemented at European level.

Clientelism has characterized European democracies since the end of World War II. It had its legitimacy in the post-war era up to the 1970s during the time of the growth of the European economy in parallel with the consolidation of the European welfare state. But it cannot serve as a blueprint for addressing the challenges of the twenty-first century.

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