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Ringing in Changes to Western Democracy

French politics is off to a galloping start in 2017 with the Left’s primaries set for January 22 and 29. Seven candidates hope to provide a much-needed lift to the Socialist Party after its much-criticized five-year tenure at the helm of the country. In these times of uncertainty what could be the outcome? On the eve of January 12 debate, the first of three between the seven hopefuls, HEC Paris professor Rodolphe DurandFrançois Miquet-Marty, head of the ViaVoice polling firm and the philosopher/psychoanalyst Cynthia Fleury, who teaches at the American University of Paris, shared their respective visions. Their conclusions on a “disenchanted democracy” question clichés dominating media coverage.

Ringing in Changes to Western Democracy

“In our Western societies, most middle-class voters feel demoted, precarious and their electoral behavior, both in France and elsewhere, reflects this. The very fact that Trump’s candidacy went as far as it did shows the extent to which they were ready to back a Ubu-like character espousing the worst possible propositions, a gesture which gave these voters a feeling of long-lost “pride”.” The analysis by the author of The End of Courage: Reconquering Democratic Virtue are explosive and troubling. Cynthia Fleury’s vision is rarely found in the mainstream, a reality she gladly accepts: “Must I remind you that democracy is a principle based on knowledge, not just one focused on power? As such, the conditions for people’s cognition and recognition becomes a political issue, and the new strategies of open government take this into account.”

Polls under the cosh

Cynthia Fleury had been invited to the November 23 2016 HEC Paris/ViaVoice breakfast debate at the Rotonde Vavin café in central Paris. There, she shared her experience as a psychoanalyst to identify the challenges of identity faced by citizens who struggle in a world in turmoil. “The malaise provoked by a sense of alienation and disillusionment dictates how these citizens vote, a gesture which is badly understood by journalists and pollsters alike,” explains Rodolphe Durand, founder of the Society and Organizations (SnO) at HEC Paris, who was also invited to debate at the Rotonde Vavin. “This leads to the large miscalculations in polling forecasts we have seen in the United States, Great Britain and the French primaries for the right and center-right.”

François Miquet-Marty, author of The Outcasts of Democracy, is quick to agree. “We are living a time when it is necessary to reinvent the way to listen to citizens,” says this analyst of opinion and democratic mutations. “It’s a very paradoxical period. We think we understand trends but change is so rapid and badly analyzed that we cannot measure its scale.”

A crumbling world

Rodolphe Durand has been studying such mutations for years. The author of The Disorganization of the World and The Pirate Organization: Essay on the Evolution of Capitalism calls on journalists and pollsters to modernize the analysis grids they use to analyze the electoral process. “We do not measure with accuracy the construction of individuals,” he underlines. “This is calculated through the communities they belong to, the multiple connections they have, the evolving and disparate links with companies they work for, the new ways to be part of a community and its social networks, the adherence to NGOs and groups. All these factors redefine people’s identity. It is no longer just a question of which family or class they belong to, nor the social context they find themselves in. The French grid for analyzing political questions – inspired by the likes of Pierre Bourdieu and Michel Foucault in the Seventies – has been transformed but new ideas have not been recognized in current debate and op-eds.”

Professor Durand continues: “If you add up all these factors, you can create a coherent story, you can build your identity and enrich it. But when your company and organization disappears, absorbed by Chinese or American multinationals, and if they close down your cultural and religious groups, or sports club (because subsidies or demand disappears), you have the feeling your world is falling apart.”

How to remobilize the democratic process

According to Cynthia Fleury, voters then turn to candidates who swear they understand the people’s alienation. “Our voters do not see how our society is expanding economically,” the philosopher explains. “This creates a feeling of bitterness and abandonment which pushes citizens towards a siege mentality, a xenophobic vote just looking for scapegoats.”

Confronted with the rising tide of populism sweeping through 2016, professor Fleury insists on the “redeeming courage of citizens”. “In France, the US, India and Spain, everywhere really, you can see voters organizing themselves for a fairer society. They are aware that being a citizen nowadays is more complicated, you have to beef up on your knowledge, be more qualified and spend more time on the notion of democracy. The youth have already gone through this transformation. But the 60-and-over generation who voted for François Fillon or Brexit is more distant and fearful. Its transformation will be tougher.”

An individualistic society?

This evolution towards unity and solidarity is far removed from perceived ideas of an individualistic world. “Individualism is an old worn-out war horse,” exclaims Rodolphe Durand. “We’ve been living with that illusion when the facts preach just the opposite. It’s intellectually lazy to bring it up because it’s anchored in a belief that that State and the Individual are fighting each other. That’s a 19th century sociology prism! Nowadays, people define themselves in a multitude of ways and evolve constantly. They unite in different organizations and social networks, they mobilize themselves for elections where they feel something is at stake. Look at the 4.4 million voters who turned out for the primaries of the French rightwing presidential candidate, or the citizens who commit to telethons or help refugees. Sometimes, our identity lies dormant, but it wakes up, we rebuild something together. The feeling of belonging and links to organizations are the very foundations on which we create a new form of political engagement.”

The upcoming primaries for the French primaries will be the next time such an analysis grid can be used. Programmed for end-January, 8,000 polling stations will invite French voters - as well as resident foreigners and 16-18 year olds who are members of the organizing parties - to cast their votes.

Meanwhile, HEC Paris and ViaVoice are organizing their first breakfast debate of 2017 on January 12. This time, they will try to answer the following question: with just days to go before the Donald Trump investiture, is the world headed for financial deregulation? Debating the issues will be Thierry Foucault and Guillaume Vuillemey, Finance professors at HEC Paris, and Philippe Tibi, economist and finance professor at Ecole Polytechnique.