A left-winger who truly loves people

Gérard Fuchs begins his book with a pessimistic observation: in France, just as in many other countries all over the world, the living conditions of each subsequent generation deteriorate. Where, therefore, should we seek the hope to which the author refers in the second part of his book's title? Who can bring this hope about, and how?

Professor of political science at the University of Wroclaw, Visiting researcher at the Université libre de Bruxelles, Member of the Polish State Committee for Science and Titles in Science

An autobiography of a committed left-winger who – truly! – loved people, with Gérard Fuchs’ Récits d’un homme de gauche. Créer un nouvel espoir, reviewed by Anna Pacześniak.

Gérard Fuchs begins his book with a pessimistic observation: in France, just as in many other countries all over the world, the living conditions of each subsequent generation deteriorate. Where, therefore, should we seek the hope to which the author refers in the second part of his book’s title? Who can bring this hope about, and how?

As a committed socialist, Fuchs sets his sights firmly on the left of the political spectrum. As a politician, he realises that the prospect of a better life cannot be reserved for future generations only – people need it here and now. He asserts that there are politicians who, unable to genuinely improve the standard of living for their citizens, resort to instrumentally using religion, spreading a vision of paradise, but only one for the afterlife. From the socialist standpoint, this is a crude move: not only absurd, but also dangerous for the world order. Replacing economic conflicts with conflicts centred on religion is an extremely polarising tactic, both for domestic politics and international relations. Objective economic difficulties provide ample fuel for extreme right-wing actors who blame all such difficulties on foreigners or on people who have recently been granted citizenship. While finding scapegoats may be an effective way of garnering votes, or even winning elections, it does nothing to improve the living conditions of disadvantaged and marginalised groups or of families who are struggling to make ends meet.

In the first and most touching part of the book, Fuchs invites us to the offices he occupied while serving as a city councillor, Member of Parliament (MP) or Member of the European Parliament (MEP). He recalls the stories and problems his constituents recounted to him.

With considerable journalistic flair and a touch of literary elegance, Fuchs describes talking to an unemployed man who is unable to find a job upon completing a prison sentence, a pregnant woman looking for a bigger apartment for herself and her children, or an Ivorian man trying to bring his second wife to France. In doing so, Fuchs makes an argument for how a person of left-wing views should understand ‘fraternity’ – one of the three elements of France’s republican motto. This section of his book amounts to a few dozen pages showing how a politician from the French Socialist Party helped change the lives of desperate people who knocked on the door of his office’. Fuchs hints at his effectiveness, but his tendency to present himself as an omnipotent miracle-maker who only needs to make one phone call to solve life-defining issues with which people have struggled for months or years is occasionally grating and may come across as paternalism. Fuchs admits, however, that at times he judged his constituents by appearance, and fell into the trap of stereotyping. This makes him and his stories more relatable. It also helps strip him of the aura of a person of near superhuman agency.

The second part of his book is very different. From the French province with its towns and villages, Gérard Fuchs sails into the open waters of international politics. As the Socialist Party’s long-standing secretary responsible for international affairs, he personally witnessed many of the events he describes: decolonisation, wars, the fall of the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc, and globalisation. Fuchs takes the reader on his journey to numerous places all around the world with a mix of anecdotes and memories of the kind older generations might pass on to their children, along with political and geopolitical analyses. It is evident that he is particularly interested in, or even sentimental about, certain parts of the world that are close to his heart, or his own experience, like Algeria where he did his 24-month military service. Whenever he talks about these, his erudition is genuinely impressive.

In the third part of his book, Fuchs tackles current issues that had already been mentioned earlier in the book. He takes a swipe at Emmanuel Macron’s policies, although, surprisingly, he only charges the president directly on three counts: the rise in retirement age, the introduction of flat-rate taxation on financial incomes, and the scrapping of subsidised jobs for young people entering the labour market. Indirectly, however, Macron is criticised for turning a blind eye to many social issues and for being insensitive to the problems of disadvantaged citizens.

Several times, Fuchs refers to the 2018 introduction of taxation on fossil fuels that was meant to fund investment in alternative energy sources. After Macron’s decision on this, the price of diesel in France rose by over 20 per cent in just a year, quickly matching that of petrol. This was particularly painful for a country where over 60 per cent of cars are diesel-powered. Previously, since the 1950s, the French government had supported the production of diesel engines by, among other measures, lowering VAT for transport companies. Most important for Fuchs is that the government failed to do its ‘due diligence’ before introducing the new tax, and did not identify the socio-economic profile of citizens who would be impacted by it. He wonders how the ruling majority could have implemented such an important instrument in a form that would most affect hundreds of thousands of low-income blue-collar workers, who cannot commute to work by any other means than their cars, most of which are old. Fuchs’s answer: the only plausible explanation is that the people who created that law never met with their constituents.

Fuchs offers a considerable understanding of the ‘yellow jackets’ movement and great sensitivity to the climate crisis. He points to the need to implement domestic and international solutions that will stop the impending catastrophe, in line with the notion that politics means anticipating, planning, and drawing conclusions. The time has gone, he asserts, to move back to the second half of the 20th century, when all spheres of life could still be subordinated to economic growth. Now, being wiser (?), through the experience of the pandemic and the imminent prospect of the climate crisis, we must shift away from the paradigm of perennial growth, market expansion, and the accumulation of wealth in few private hands – trends that all contribute to mounting inequalities and the draining of the public sector. 

Fuchs’s book provides an excellent picture of all the fascinating and diverse experiences that are part and parcel of an experienced politician’s life. On one day, he meets other state leaders and conducts negotiations at the highest level. The next day, he tries to find common ground with a local political adversary in his constituency, or listens to, empathises with, and assists a tailor who was made redundant because her factory was moved to one of the countries in the global South. What becomes clear is that, to properly represent the citizenry, a politician must be a person of many talents and, most of all, he or she must be interested in the lives of others. Or, to put it simply: they must like people.

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