Wolf Richter: Could 87% of the French Really Want A Strongman To Reestablish Order?

Yves here. Political scientists have found that societies become more conservative in depressions and protracted downturns. Some of that impulse may not be detrimental, as traditional conservative values emphasize families, and relationship-based support structures are often key to getting through times of scarcity. But they also seem to bring out “I need mine and the devil take the hindmost” which works against the collective action and pooling resources. Napoleon said he was a fan of individualism, since it made men easier to control. And he was a strongman who rose thanks to the disorder and violence of the Revolution. Perhaps it is easier to trust an idealized leader than your neighbors. But France also has a history of being unruly; it took nearly 100 years after the revolution for a long-lasting democratic government, the Third Republic, to come into power.

By Wolf Richter, San Francisco based executive, entrepreneur, start up specialist, and author, with extensive international work experience. Cross posted from Testosterone Pit.

Americans are cynical when it comes to politicians. For example, Congressional approval ratings were mired just above single-digit levels in 2012, hitting 10% twice. An expression of utter disdain. But the French—with their economy spiraling deeper into a crisis that started five years ago—expressed disdain for their political class, as they call it, in another way: with a desire for authoritarian leadership, a “real leader” who would “reestablish order.”

The survey, “France 2013: the New Divisions,” conducted by Ipsos and others for Le Monde (PDF of PowerPoint) caused a bout of soul-searching and political maneuvering. Explanations and rationalizations flew about, as frustrations were boiling over on all sides: unemployment above 10%; heavily contested plant shutdowns and layoffs, particularly in the auto sector; a fiscally inspired exodus with hostile rhetoric [“Trench Warfare” Or “Civil War” Over Confiscatory Taxes In France], and on and on.

The cultural and economic “decline” of France set the scene: 51% of the respondents thought that in the coming years, the decline of France was “inevitable.” Among those who supported the right-wing National Front (FN), 77% thought so. By comparison, supporters of President François Hollande’s Socialist Party (PS) were outright gung-ho: only 41% considered it “inevitable”—still chilling.

It wasn’t a new trend, something Hollande might have instigated during his eight-plus months in power. According to the survey, it has been going on for ten years, a period during which mostly conservative presidents occupied the Elysée, a period that also coincided largely with the euro in French wallets. A sobering 63% thought that “French cultural influence” had declined over that period; and a stunning 90% believed “French economic power” had declined.

They point the finger at “globalization,” which 61% considered a “threat to France.” Opinions diverged in a hopscotch manner: 82% of those on the far right, 49% of those supporting Nicolas Sarkozy’s right-of-center UMP, and 53% of the Socialists were so inclined. The solution? 58% agreed that France would have to “protect itself more from the world.” The range went from 38% among PS supporters to 92% among FN supporters.

Then a litany of deep and troubling issues emerged: 62% thought that “most politicians are corrupt”—the other 38% were “optimists,” groused FN President Marine Le Pen; 72% complained that “democratic systems function badly in France”; and 82% lamented that “politicians act mainly in their own self-interest.”

Graciously, the survey offered these hapless and frustrated respondents an appetizing and easy solution: “We need a real leader in France to reestablish order.” 87% agreed!

Le Monde tried to make us believe somewhat ineffectually that it shouldn’t be surprising, that this was, in fact, just another logical step forward in a movement that started as a counter-trend to the anti-authoritarian 60s and 70s.

The desire to have a “real leader” that would “reestablish order” was almost unanimous on the right. Among UMP supporters, 98% agreed with it. Sarkozy, their man, had campaigned in 2007 on reestablishing order, and as president had tried to be a strong leader. Instead, he got tangled up in the financial crisis and the subsequent debt crisis. By 2011, the economy started going south again. Dissatisfied, the people booted him out. On the right wing, 97% agreed with it. “It would be indeed high time,” Marine Le Pen quipped as she detailed how the survey results reflected what the FN had been pointing out all along. Even among supporters of the Socialists, 70% wanted a real leader to reestablish order. Sarkozy had failed; now it was Hollande’s turn. But he has been sinking into unpopularity faster than Sarkozy.

Then the survey linked the desire for a “real leader” who would “reestablish order” to the concept of authoritarian rule via an otherwise innocuous question: “Authority is a value that is too often criticized today,” it stated. And 86% agreed; the French want a strongman to solve their problems.

“A significant rejection of the democratic system,” is what Ipsos called that debacle in its comment on the survey.

The survey plowed into a bevy of other topics as well. For example, it laid bare the dire level of confidence the French have in the mainstream media—73% thought that journalists caved to pressures from political powers. It exposed the French exasperation with immigrants. And it got caught up in the thorny thicket of religion, particularly Islam—74% considered it intolerant.

The survey “draws a much darker portrait of the country,” Le Monde warns. French society “is slipping from distrust to rejection, from worry to anxiety, from withdrawal to fear of the other, from pessimism to catastrophism.”

“The effect of the crisis is not surprising, but it’s striking just how profound the anxiety has become,” said Pascal Perrineau, director of the Center for Political Research at Sciences Po (Cevipof), which was involved in conducting the study. And so, he said, “resentment gives way to hostility.”

Already in January, 2012, as presidential candidate, Hollande presented himself as “real leader” who’d reestablish order. So he shook up the banks: “It has no name, no face, no party, it will never be candidate, it will never be elected, yet it governs: that enemy is the world of finance,” he said. Freed “from all rules,” it “took control of the economy, of society, and even our lives.” He’d fight it, and promised tough reforms. But these days, you’d think he is being tutored by JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon…. A Year After Declaring War On The Banks.

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  1. Sanctuary

    I don’t know. While I think generally the public of most Western countries are at the point of rejectionism and are beyond furious, I’m not sure if the French are saying they want a strongman. According to the Hofstede studies of cultural dimensions, the French have always been high on the Power Distance dynamic, hence why they tend to like and behave like what we in the US would consider tyrannical bosses. They much more prefer a sense of hierarchy. Perhaps, the real problem is they feel that the natural hierarchy of the country, i.e., the political class, is not behaving like it is in power because it is too busy deferring to the rotten and criminal banksters that have ruined everything and have no business controlling anything. This is more a call by the French public for their political elites to start representing the French people instead of a criminal international financial elite. Same as here.

    1. Generalfeldmarschall Von Hindenburg

      A lot of support for fascistic popular movements comes from otherwise left leaning middle and working class people who’d like to see a strongman take bankers and oppressive businessmen by the throat. This was true in Italy in the 20s. Fascism doesn’t always draw all it’s support from racist hicks and power worshippers. I can easily see how a center left public, utterly betrayed by ostensibly socialist parties from Greece to Portugal would embrace something militant and dark that promises a settling of accounts with the feckless political class.

    2. Nathanael

      The thing about France is: when they think “strongman”, they think De Gaulle.

      De Gaulle did an excellent job. The French have high standards and any strongman who isn’t up to de Gaulle’s standards will be out on his *ear* in popular protests in

  2. Tiresias

    Maybe the French are yearning for another Robespierre, only this time one who will have the bankers queueing to make the acquaintance of Mme Guillotine instead of the Aristos.

      1. Bam_Man

        Looks like DeGaulle’s “The cemeteries are full of indispensable men” quote has actually turned out to be true.

      2. ambrit

        Dear Sufferin’;
        DeGaulle? Well, the French once had a Vichy Government. We know how that ended. Do they now labour under a Davos Government? Methinks the hope is that it ends up just like its’ Vichy forebearer.

  3. Swedish Lex

    The traditional French contradiction; they love liberté, égalité et fraternité but prefer a Napolen (the real thing, not a Sarko-ersatz)

    1. Pas lolo

      Why would we need? We already have EU and WTO to dictate the policies.
      Maybe that’s the point. The french wonder why go on subsidizing thousands of national reps for discussing minor societal questions and how to share between them and their friends from show business or from the Press what’s remain from the taxes when we have reimbursed our debtors.

      Concerning newspapers, on must remind that the sector is directly or indirectly subsidised by the government (mainly in a discretionary way)up to a level of 10% of net sales.
      Ask you why there remains so few peaople considering their potential honesty or even usefulness.

  4. JDM

    I think they’re really answering another question other than the one asked; I think they’re answering the question they hear, which is “do you want things fixed?” And “fixed” means different things to everyone, but pretty much everyone wants it done.

    1. from Mexico

      The belief that some superman will come along to “fix” things, however, is the stuff of totalitarian regimes.

      1. Ned Ludd

        I agree. People want things fixed, but people looking for a leader to fix things for them are thinking, in a literal sense, like children. Citizens, on the other hand, should seek control over their own future, not cede their agency to an outside authority.

        1. ambrit

          We need to ask, how did the people end up that way. i’m no savant, but I do recognize the role of various elites in shaping and leading popular movements. There’s the real quandry. Do “Leaders” arise spontaneously from events, (the Dame History theory,) or do nascent “Leaders” move in to take advantage of historical opportunities, (the Conspiracy Theory.) I don’t know. The older I get, the more I realize my own ignorance.

        1. Nathanael

          Apparently that was actually a myth. I frequent railroad history sites. Someone checked. The trains didn’t run on time in fascist Italy. Oh well.

    2. Ned Ludd

      There was another question in the survey about authority that shows the response is not just about fixing things.

      “Authority is a value that is too often criticized today,” it stated. And 86% agreed…

      Arguments should rise or fall on their merits, not because of the person advancing them. Also, in a corrupt system, anyone with authority in the existing institutions will lose that authority if they meaningfully challenge the system. Therefore, authority is a terrible basis for even judging the integrity of a person.

      1. jrs

        The authority question is very similar to the question asked on the 4 valued political spectrum to measure authoritarianism. And that question really is troubling, but I don’t know I think you would need a deeper understanding of French society to draw parallels.


        Obama and Romney were both somewhere on the authoritarian right, no wonder those on the “libertarian” left don’t want anything to do with the aweful candidates we are given.

  5. Pelham

    Let’s see. From an American perspective, I think we’re basically in the same boat as the French. Globalization is, indeed, a dire threat. Representative democracy is a farce.

    In addition, unions in the private sector here are basically outlawed, and the purge of unions in the public sector is under way. Beyond unions, we have no ability to organize in any meaningful way (we have no real political parties, for instance, ones that could conceivably help elect true servants of the people). And if we did have ways to organize, we could be secretly tracked, monitored and singled out by our employers and government through our mobile devices and general behavior online.

    1. ambrit

      That’s one big reason why I don’t carry a cell phone. Next time you’re in a Phone Store or Kiosk, watch the reactions when you ask for a cell phone without a GPS function. Loads of fun for the whole family!

    2. Nathanael

      There are two flip sides to that.

      One: the government monitoring people are grossly incompetent. This isn’t the super-efficient police state of East Germany (and note that even they couldn’t read all the data they were collecting — so they didn’t!). This is the blase, haphazard police state of Communist Bulgaria. The two types of police states collapse in very different ways.

      Two: the surveillance and monitoring equipment is available to a whole lot of non-government people, and they’re *more* competent than the government officials. We’re far more likely to see the cyberpunk dystopias of competing gangs/mafias/corporations with shifting allegiances than the unified police state dystopia.

  6. Flavia

    “As of 2004, French think-tank Institut Montaigne estimated that there were 51 million (85%) White people of European origin [in France].”

    So really, what you’re saying is that 100% of the French want a strongman. Can’t say I blame them.

  7. Brooklin Bridge

    The questions in these surveys are loaded and the answers are frequently culled. All they prove is that people in France like people everywhere are frustrated, feeling helpless, and very depressed. Under such circumstances, most anyone and everyone is ripe for this sort of propaganda in the guise of leading questions.

    Is it really established that we (people) lean toward conservatism in times of massive corruption and social injustice in which we are directly affected or is it more accurate to say we tend to cling no matter how unreasonably, like conservatives, to what ever hodge podge of ideological preferences we associate with, or are manipulated into to associating with better times?

    Note that surveys don’t allow for much dialectic, or rational thought or explanation. They always want to find out what you feel as if that were somehow more real than what you think. They inevitably lead and are objective only in narrow contexts and when designed very carefully to be so. Le Monde is just as much of a 0.01% rag these days as the NYT. The kind of care and objectivity they would use in launching or commissioning a survey differs only in sophistication from the kind of care and objectivity Rush Limbaugh would use.

    Another use for such surveys is more to spice up the cool-aid for those launching the survey than to find out anything objective about the target demographic.

    And as far as Hollande goes, the last thing anyone in Frances sees him as is an authoritarian. He is a weak-tea socialist prone to gimmicks and willing to do what he is told to do (which is why he was allowed to be offered as a choice) and the country chose him on the rebound because they were horrified at the accomplishments of an actual authoritarian – Sarkozy – and felt that going in the opposite direction (heh, heh, as if they or we would be offered a real choice) might make a difference.

  8. Wells Fargo Must Die

    In difficult times, people want a savior and will surrender all their rights in hopes of being saved. People generally prefer being ruled with benevolence unless times are hard which is when revolutions take place. You can take a free society into dictatorship or vice versa when the going gets tough.

    Despite all of America’s proclaimed love of freedom, it is fundamentally an authoritarian society and would easily give up its freedoms to the right leader if he could convince the society that he would enforce the majority’s values on others. Some of this was seen after 911 with Bush.

    I have no doubt the French would surrender to authoritarianism if they could only be made to believe by the right person. Most white societies have a preference for authoritarianism so long as they identify with the authoritarian.

    1. Nathanael

      In hard times, people won’t settle for “enforce the majority’s values on others” — they’ll demand food, clothing, and shelter too.

      Incredibly, this is the part which the right-wing elites in the US refuse to recognize. Every successful dictator in the world recognized this.

      I fear Governor Snyder of Michigan because I think he does get it. The other Republicans — they sure don’t.

  9. Gerald Muller

    As usual, when trying to understand a country or rather it’s people, one must start with history. France has been centralized since the early XVIIth century with Richelieu. After the Mazarin episode, the country was over centralized by Colbert and Louis XIV with the “intendants” who ruled everything in the name of the king (state), depriving the seigneurs (lords) of all political power. A century later, Bonaparte, soon to become Napoleon, gave centralization a new turn. For the last 300 years or so, French people have been used to having functionaries tell them what to do and what to think (see “L’ancien régime et la révolution” by A. de Tocqueville).
    After WWII, the main intelligentsia was pro-Stalinist, with Sartre as its head figure. The May 1968 episode added to the left thinking leaning in most quarters, in particular the civil servants,, show biz and media.
    French people are slowly realizing that all this “social justice”, together with an ever rising number of civil servants, has bought more poverty and more misery than ever before. Since money and economy are NEVER taught or even broached at school or college, most French have no idea why. It thus follows that when you realize things have been going from bad to worse in the last ten (thirty) years and you have no idea why, all that is left is to hope for a new Napoleon to take charge and get France back to where it was, say in 1970, with full employment and real “joie de vivre”.

    1. Knut

      To say that this is a load of crap is being too generous. You obviously have never lived in France and do not know or understand the French people. They are not miserable. They have the mnost efficient and dedicated public service on the planet. Yes, it is not perfect, but neither was Enron. Consider the alternative. And the people in surveys are always at the top of the ‘happiness’ index, whatever that means, which is probably not much.

    2. Lambert Strether

      “A dozen or so Japanese tourists a year have to be repatriated from the French capital, after falling prey to what’s become known as ‘Paris Syndrome’. That is what some polite Japanese tourists suffer when they discover that Parisians can be rude or the city does not meet their expectations.”

      A human tragedy for the Japanese. Hitherto, I had not understood that “Paris Syndrome” also attacks Austrians….

  10. Hilary Barnes

    Irony is that the directly elected president of the fifth republic is constitutionally set up to be a real leader. Perhaps what the French mean is that they want a president who is a real leader. In practice the presidents do not turn out to be strong leaders, trip themselves up early on in their presidency (Mitterand, Chirac, Sarkozy too although he did carry some useful reforms, and perhaps Hollande but too early to say for sure) and after a bad start they temper their ambition or fight a losing batttle against public opinion. Perhaps I do not get around enough, but I have never heard people actually talking about the need for a strong leader.

    1. Nathanael

      Mitterand seemed to act like a strong leader to me. Substantial and permanent changes.

      Chirac was always scheming and never quite on top of things.

      What about Jospin? He made some substantial and permanent changes; that’s leadership.

  11. Stella

    “Napoleon said he was a fan of individualism, since it made men easier to control.”

    Does anyone have a reference for this? I want to know more.

  12. Massinissa

    I sure as hell wish someone would do a poll like this in GREECE. Probably would hit 99% or more…

  13. Dan Kervick

    It seems to me that when your country’s economy and cultural influence are objectively in decline, then it is not irrational to answer affirmatively when a pollster asks you whether the country’s economy and cultural influence are in decline.

    Also, when your leaders are terrible, and have helped drive your country into misery, it is the most natural thing in the world to wish you had stronger leaders. Unfortunately, European nations and the United States are all afflicted these days with weak and foolish leaders.

  14. Knut

    This De Gaulle nostalgia at work. The French are probably the most democratically oriented people on earth. They differ in their political outlook, but they will not allow anyone to tell them what to think. They were disgusted (rightly) with Mr. Bruno. Hollande is o.k., but they are looking for more when there isn’t anything more to be had.

    The French are a fascinating people. To outsiders they seem arrogant, but if you live there and watch from the inside, they are always criticizing themselves, and have done so since the sime of Louis XIV.

  15. hermanas

    “A witty Frenchman has said of us: ‘The United States of America is the only nation to plunge from barbarism to degeneracy with no culture in between.’
    Wiki; Attributed to Georges Clemenceau.

    1. different clue

      I remember the general gist of a reply that American author Kurt Vonnegut gave to that sort of snobbery . . . about America not having a world beating philosollectual like Sartre or some such. Yes, it is true we didn’t produce a this or a that. “All we poor Americans could do, Mon Sewer, is produce a Literature”.

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