As predicted, or more accurately, threatened by Ségolène Royal, there is violence in the wake of Nicolas Sarkozy’s victory in the French presidential election. The riot and mayhem in the streets of Paris recalls past acts of destruction and outrage at the hands of losing partisans: from the 1996 brawls in Washington, DC, by Dole supporters; to the destructive spree of angry Tories in the City of London in 1997; to the recent smashing of shop-windows by Republicans on 8 November 2006; and yes, to the violence visited upon the hapless City of Light by RPR youth in the aftermath of Mitterand’s 1988 victory in France. The present wreckage on French streets — see an excellent series of photos here — is therefore of a piece with long-established Western tradition.
Except it’s not, of course: the above-mentioned events are all fictitious, with the exception of the very real anti-Sarkozy violence. This is a curious thing, but notable: in the liberal West, at least, it is the left that has a near-monopoly on mob violence and public disorder today. We saw it emerge in the protests of the 1990s, and it has moved into more explicitly political spheres since. It is curious on two counts: first, because of the stereotype of left-wing activists is not a particularly violent one; second, because no political stripe not involving Quakers has any monopoly on violence in history. So why just the left, and why now?
I recall quite well attending the George W. Bush inaugural in January 2001. It was the least enjoyable inaugural in memory, partly because of the chilling rain, but mostly because of the ranks of profanity-screaming protesters with whom we shared the sidelines of the parade route. Their case, such as it was, was that the 2000 election had been “stolen,” and that George W. Bush was shortly to turn America into a cross between The Handmaid’s Tale and the Third Reich. Their reaction, then, was one of resentment at past deeds, but even more one of fear for the future. The hysteria was mystifying then and now: if there are sufficient grounds for decrying the Bush Administration today, there were few then, when it was mere minutes old. More to the point, there were no rational grounds for supposing that there ever would be, especially in the terms used by the strident left. Whether those terms are justified now is debatable; and even if you think they are, it still defies credulity to suppose that foreknowledge and perspicacity reside in a milieu markedly reliant upon giant puppets for communication. The absurdity was not limited to the streets of the national capital: I remember speaking with a left-wing friend about his own inaugural activities, which involved having over an attractive young actress to watch the festivities. She bawled, inconsolable for America, through the whole thing.
It was hardly limited to 2001: even in 2004, there were rumblings that this election would be the last election, with a Bush victory sealing the fate of American democracy. Two years later, no one from that corner remembered to mention this when flush with victory. The system works; but the system only works when it works for us. This sort of behavior over elections that don’t go one’s way — the anguish, the hysteria, the paranoia, the weeping, the smashing — is ridiculous and dangerous, and it’s almost entirely the province of the left. As in America, so too in France now. The difference, of course, is that in France they go farther than tears, shrieks and profanity. The socialists and the anti-Sarkozy forces wade into the streets, deface grand monuments, fight police, torch automobiles, and generally behave exactly as citizens of a mature democracy should not. Their standard-bearer threatened that they would, and her threat is made good.
It is pitiable and worrying all at once. They are bad losers who deserve whatever misery they bring upon themselves, be it abiding depression or a police truncheon. On the other hand, they are fellow-citizens, whether of America or France, whom we need to make democracy work. Democracy fails when its results are only sanctioned in the event of victory. In their anger, violence and loathing, the despondent leftists of America then, and France now, are not merely rejecting a particular election — they are abandoning the very idea that sustains their republic.