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France's indomitable 'caviar leftists'

France's rebellious pampered Left, known as 'gauche caviar', will pose an arduous challenge to the new government.

Last updated: 06 May 2014 07:03
Agnes Poirier

Agnes Poirier is the UK editor for the French political weekly MARIANNE, and a political commentator for the British, American, Canadian, French and Italian press, and a regular contributor to the BBC, Sky News, and Al Jazeera. She is the author of 'Touche, A French woman's take on the English'
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Despite belonging to the same political family, the caviar leftists have proved the worst enemies of the current government, writes Poirier [Reuters]

Call them "champagne socialists" like in Britain, "limousine liberals" like in the US, or "gauche caviar" like in France, the affluent Left who love Rolex and Marx in equal measure, but won't admit it, are still thriving 30 years after appearing on the political stage, and despite today's harsh economic realities, public deficits and rising inequalities. Nowhere more so than in France is their existence and influence so blatant.

While, historically, the Labour movement in Britain remained on the whole impermeable to Marxism, the French Left, even after its parting from the communist party in 1920, always gorged itself on Marxist theories and favoured a Marxist critique of capitalism. France's greatest economists and historians have been heavily influenced by the Marxist doxa.

As recently as the late 1990s, the students of grandes ecoles such as the political institute of Paris - which educate the future elite of the country, high civil servants, journalists and managers alike - were taught, as a matter of principle, to be critical of capitalism and markets. Not surprisingly, survey after survey show that the French are by far the most suspicious of capitalism in the world.

The Left of the French Left, bottle-fed Karl Marx' Das Kapital from a very young age, likes nothing more than to criticise France's Welfare State for not being generous enough, not realising how generous it is in comparison with other countries.

According to a February 2013 IFOP opinion poll, only 20 percent of the French think that capitalism is "a system that works rather well" compared with a 55 percent favourable opinion in Brazil, 56 percent in the US and 58 percent in China. About 26 percent of French people even think that capitalism should be scrapped once and for all compared with only 12 percent of South Africans, 9 percent of Americans and 1 percent of Chinese.

The current success enjoyed by French economist Thomas Piketty and the raving reviews he received for the English translation of his book Capital, in the twenty-first century, with 220,000 copies sold in just a few months, is revealing. In France, Piketty, a former economic and fiscal adviser to presidential hopeful Segolene Royal in 2007, is neither particularly revered nor celebrated.

Not enough 'exploitation'

To get an exhilarating review in The Economist, usually viewed as an anti-French, economically ultra-liberal publication, can only be suspicious. When it was first published in France, a year ago, Piketty's book was deemed not left-wing enough by the daily newspaper Liberation, often seen as the gauche caviar's preferred daily newspaper. The reviewer deplored that there was not enough mention of "class", "exploitation" and "struggle".

Piketty is more subtle. In favour of private property and capitalism, he, however, shows in a detailed 700-page demonstration that capitalism can breed inequality on a scale that is politically and socially dangerous. As Oliver Kamm, in The Times, points out: "Piketty's ambitious work is not a politically sectarian argument; perhaps that explains why it has become a surprise bestseller in the English-speaking world. The strength of his thesis is that it is founded on evidence rather than ideology. Piketty has researched data over more than a century in order to derive his understanding of the dynamics of modern capitalism. He is able to point convincingly to a recent reversal of historical trends, so that the share of national income taken by the owners of capital has expanded over the past generation."

Piketty's non-ideological attitude means that he's shunned in France, because in France, economics are ideological. As indeed President Francois Hollande and his new Prime Minister Manuel Valls have recently experienced. Announcing a series of soft austerity measures, the first ones since Hollande's election in 2012, which aim at reducing France's public deficit, Valls has had to fight off his own majority in Parliament.

The Left of the French Left, bottle-fed Karl Marx's Das Kapital from a very young age, likes nothing more than to criticise France's Welfare State for not being generous enough, not realising how generous it is in comparison with other countries. Despite belonging to the same political family, they have proved the worst enemies of the current government; to the delight of Nicolas Sarkozy's UMP party which just hopes to be back in power in 2017.

One of the most arduous challenges of Hollande and Valls will precisely be to confront this most French of political species, the rebellious pampered Left, also known as "gauche caviar".

Agnes Poirier is the UK editor for the French political weekly MARIANNE, and a political commentator for the British, American, Canadian, French and Italian press, and a regular contributor to the BBC, Sky News, and Al Jazeera. She is the author of 'Touche, A French woman's take on the English'

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The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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