How scary is Sarkozy?

The European left is fast turning the French president into the new bogeyman of Europe. Yet his power base and political programme are not as coherent as they claim.

Chris Bickerton

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Nicolas Sarkozy’s victory in the second round of the French presidential elections on 6 May has given left-leaning Europeans a new bogeyman.

Jon Cruddas, a British Labour Party MP, called it a ‘tragedy for Europe’ (1). Italian foreign minister and former communist, Massimo D’Alema, wrote about Europe needing more ambition rather than fear in the wake of Sarkozy’s victory (2). Agnès Poirier, a French author based in London, warned that France should not seek to emulate the UK (3).

Similar sentiments were echoed by Stuart Jeffries, a Guardian journalist for whom France stands for long lunches and afternoon naps – or at least it did until the wicked Sarkozy entered the picture. Erasing all of these nice things about France and replacing them with a version of Britain’s long-hours culture is the prime danger posed by Sarkozy’s arrival at the Elysée palace, said Jeffries (4).

Cutting through the fearmongering and handwringing, what does Sarkozy’s victory really tell us about France?

Sarkozy saves the French left

In France itself, the most notable thing has been Sarkozy’s role in saving the French Socialist Party (PS) from itself. Towards the end of the campaign, the Socialist candidate, Ségolène Royal, used Sarkozy’s own fear-based rhetoric in order to galvanise her supporters. Dire warnings about how dangerous Sarkozy was emanated from the ‘Ségosphere’. Some Socialists predicted there would be a widespread outbreak of violence in the suburbs in reaction to a right-wing victory. By the end of the campaign, young PS activists were wearing Anti-Sarko badges. In many ways, it was Sarkozy’s campaign that offered some semblance of consistency and purpose to the PS – the party’s activists moulded themselves against Sarkozy rather than putting forward clear policies of their own.

Judging by recent events, however, it is unlikely that Sarkozy’s victory as president will be enough to maintain unity within the PS: civil war in the party ranks had already begun before the presidential campaign was lost. But if the PS does manage to hold itself together, an anti-Sarkozy platform is as likely as anything else to be the glue that does the trick.

These reactions signal the dearth of any meaningful project on the left. Royal’s campaign was a testimony to that. PS secretary François Hollande admitted on the night of the defeat: ‘We possibly didn’t speak enough about concrete proposals.’ Yet is there more to it than that? Is it Sarkozy’s programme that people are afraid of? Or are they afraid of the man himself? What will life in ‘Sarkoland’ be like?

Why do they hate him so much?

One reason for the left’s antipathy to Sarkozy is that he did indeed win the presidency by being ruthless and Machiavellian. Many on the right felt they could not support Sarkozy for the same reason. Asked by Alain Duhamel in 2003 whether he dreamed of being president while shaving, Sarkozy notoriously replied: ‘Not only when I’m shaving.’ Unrelenting in his determination to enter l’Elysée, Sarkozy has been involved in his fair share of political backstabbing and opportunism. His role in the Clearstream affair last year, which terminally discredited the then prime minister, Dominique de Villepin, remains murky (5). Yet looking in detail at Sarkozy’s assent to power, what is striking is his methodical, clear-sighted and quite conventional approach (6).

Sarkozy saw, for instance, that he could win only with a party behind him. He took over the UMP (the Union for a Presidential Majority, a party created by Chirac after his 2002 election victory in order to unite the right) in 2004, after its president, Alain Juppé, was convicted on corruption charges. Sarkozy transformed the UMP in his own image. Reflecting on Sarkozy’s progress, former French prime minister and failed presidential candidate, Edouard Balladur, observed: ‘[Sarkozy] has understood something that I didn’t know: the control of a party and political group is indispensable.’

This was a lesson which Ségolène Royal did not learn. Sarkozy took control of the UMP and in the presidential campaign he made sure he was surrounded by all the major figures of the outgoing government. At the risk of contradicting his emphasis on changing the status quo, Sarkozy recognised the importance of political unity and its role in providing a clear message and choice. Royal did the opposite. In her speech on the day of her election as PS’s presidential candidate, on 26 November last year, she dedicated no more than a sentence to the other defeated candidates, Fabius and Strauss-Kahn. Throughout the campaign, she kept the PS at a distance, bringing in the party’s big hitters only when her campaign began to lack stature and credibility. She created her own movement, Desirs d’avenir, and refused to base her campaign at the PS headquarters. In her seven months as PS candidate, Royal only held one meeting with the party secretary, François Hollande (7).

Royal’s campaign reflected her isolation from the party. Her programme was vague; many complained of not knowing what she actually stood for. Some of this can be explained by her distance from the party machine. Policies were decided in an ad hoc manner, with Royal often making promises and declarations off the cuff. Her idea of a contrat de première chance (a first-chance contract) was first floated at a public meeting on 30 March. Afterwards, the idea was fleshed out by Royal’s panicked campaign team which suddenly had journalists demanding to know what this new contract might be all about. This is a world away from political programmes hammered out via multiple working groups within a political party. Sarkozy may have a reputation for arrogance, but he wasn’t arrogant enough to think that he could win a presidential campaign on his own, as Royal seems to have done.

Behind the antipathy to Sarkozy, one can glimpse the left’s own inability to reconcile itself to the importance of political power. Sarkozy’s assent to the presidency is read by many on the left as a tale of self-aggrandisement, of personal fulfilment. It could equally be read as a simple account of what you need to do if you want to win power in order to realise a political programme. None of Sarkozy’s single-mindedness and determination would appear untoward to anyone with real political ambition. It seems that, in their reaction to Sarkozy’s determination, many on the left are wedded to a Vaclev Havel-style visions of politics without power.

Some of this was evident in Royal’s reaction to her defeat on 6 May. Instead of appearing disappointed, Royal was radiant, suggesting that what was more important to her was not the election but the ‘something’ which she claims had arisen during the campaign and would not disappear. She even evoked ‘other victories’ that awaited herself and her dedicated fans. Bemused, the old-timer socialist Laurent Fabius observed: ‘Other victories…? But it seems to me that tonight we lost.’

Life in Sarkoland?

So much for Sarkozy the man; what of his politics? In some ways, there is less to be said here. Much of what is striking about Sarkozy is his emphasis on results, and his incarnation of action, of doing. At the same time, for all the talk of a return of left/right politics in France, the success of Sarkozy’s campaign was partly down to the sheer breadth of his concerns and promises rather than any specifically right-wing campaign.

In his speech on the night of his victory, he claimed that France will be ‘by the side of all those who are oppressed in the world’ – this was, he said, France’s identity, its history and its message to the rest of the world. His list of worthy victims included women forced to wear burqas and the Colombian Ingrid Bettancourt – a hostage held by FARC, the Colombian guerrilla group much feted by the French far left. Bettancourt was a founder of the Green Oxygen Party. Sarkozy went on to flag up climate change as France’s number one priority, stated his aim of building a Mediterranean Union that would draw Europe together with the Maghreb, and extended a fraternal wave to Africa.

Painting Sarkozy as a classical right winger is inaccurate. Sarkozy’s programme is wide-ranging and eclectic; he achieved clarity in his message through discipline but not through the content. During the campaign, he went so far as to associate himself with the legendary socialist leader, Jean Jaures. He also attacked ‘hooligan’ CEOs and – just like Royal – he criticised the European Central Bank for its Euro fort policy. Anticipating his 6 May speech, he declared on 14 January 2007, the day of his nomination as presidential candidate for the UMP, his intention to fight for the interests of ‘the France that suffers….’

Alongside all of that, Sarkozy’s authoritarianism was out in full force. Renowned for being France’s ‘top cop’, Sarkozy declared that he had ‘no complexes’ in broaching themes normally associated with Front National (FN). His proposal for a ministry for immigration and national identity connected these two themes in a way usually done by the far right. And he suggested that both paedophilia and suicide by teenagers were the result of ‘innate’ characteristics. Sarkozy unites both the authoritarianism of the Gaullist tradition with a more liberal strain associated with the likes of former president Valéry Giscard d’Estaing.

However, it would be too much to attribute all of these political angles and outlooks to Sarkozy alone. For many years, the right has openly been courting the popular vote in France, which abandoned en masse the French Communist Party (PCF) in the 1980s. The right, especially the FN, has been somewhat successful in mopping up this haemorrhaging of the popular vote. This explains why there were times in the 2002 election when Jean-Marie Le Pen, the far right leader of FN, sounded like an anti-globalisation activist. It also explains why mainstream political opinion on issues such as law and order has shifted to the right. In the 1980s, Mitterand was happy for the FN to split the vote on the right; Chirac adopted many of the FN’s concerns and language in his successful pursuit of the presidency.

No one on the political left has been able to counter this seemingly rightward drift in French politics. Sarkozy, in this respect, is proposing continuity, not change.

Prospects for the future?

So what will be the future of the French social model? Will Sarkozy dismantle the distinctive mode de vie? Will Sarkozy finally flush away the remnants of old-style class politics, namely the unions? Will Sarkozy be able to take France in the direction of Anglo-Saxon neoliberalism?

Sarkozy’s election poses an interesting contrast with the past. In 2002, Jacques Chirac was elected with 82 per cent of the vote in a second round run-off against Le Pen. Everyone knew that this was vote against Le Pen rather than for Chirac. As some put it at the time, the choice was between a crook and a fascist. The consequence of this was an incredibly lacklustre presidency (8). When Chirac’s prime minister, Dominique de Villepin, tried in the spring of 2006 to face down student demonstrations over a proposed change in French labour laws, he did so with very little authority behind him. It was his individual will against that of the students, not the 82 per cent that had voted for Chirac, some of whom had worn a clothes peg on their nose as they stepped into the voting booth. On top of that, de Villepin had never held an elected position in his whole life.

Sarkozy’s position is clearly different. Elected with 53 per cent of the vote, the recent presidential elections were noticeable for their high turnout. Eighty-four per cent of the electorate voted in the second round, the highest since 1974. Participation in the last two elections, of 1995 and 2002, had fallen to below 80 per cent. Equipped with a clear mandate to govern, many expect Sarkozy to flush out the unions. For so long a powerful actor in any attempt to reform the French state and economy, it is easy to forget that the unions now represent only 11 per cent of the workforce, the lowest rate of unionisation in Europe. The signs are, however, that Sarkozy will avoid direct confrontation with the unions. He has already gone back on his earlier intention to push through a new law that would guarantee minimum service on public transport. Now Sarkozy is saying that if it is possible to secure agreement on this between government and the unions, there will be no need for a law (9).

In general, there are good reasons to believe Sarkozy will act cautiously. It is worth remembering that in the days leading up to both the first and second round of elections, a great number of voters described themselves as undecided. Votes for Sarkozy are often not a product of powerful forms of identification with particular political traditions or parties. The power and efficacy of the UMP to present a clear message during the campaign should not obscure the minimal social basis that political parties have in French society today. Votes do not signify the kind of institutionalised political loyalties that bind individuals over time. Undecided voters who opted for Sarkozy in the very last stages of the campaign may, at the outset of street demonstrations or based on his actions in office, change their minds.

Support for Sarkozy could wither away quite easily, given the fragile quality of political commitment today. If Sarkozy chooses to take on the unions, he may find that his political resources are weaker than expected. There will be change in Sarkoland, but the differences with the past will not be as great as either Sarkozy’s opponents or his supporters seem to believe.

Chris Bickerton is a PhD student at St Johns College, Oxford. He can be contacted at {encode=”Christopher.bickerton@politics.ox.ac.uk” title=”Christopher.bickerton@politics.ox.ac.uk”}. He recently co-edited the book, Politics without Sovereignty: A Critique of Contemporary International Relations (UCL Press). Buy it from Amazon (UK)

Previously on spiked

Chris Bickerton reviewed the less-than-subtle political message of Days of Glory. Mick Hume revealed the empty rhetoric of the French elections. Gerard Feehily reported on the mood of conservatism lurking behind the fiery Parisian protests. Frank Furedi argued that the outbreak of rioting in France revealed the political exhaustion of Europe. Jonny Thakkar discussed the Machiavellian intrigues gripping the French political class. Or you can read more at: spiked issue Europe.

(1) A tragedy for Europe by Jon Cruddas, Guardian, 9 May 2007

(2) Ambition, not fear by Massimo D’Alema, Guardian, 9 May 2007

(3) Cited by Stuart Jeffries in Goodbye to la belle France?, Guardian, 9 May 2007

(4) Ibid

(5) On the Clearstream affair, see Clearstream affair threatens reputation of judiciary, Financial Times, 16 May 2006.

(6) For this account of Sarkozy’s assent to power, see ‘La Conquête méthodique du pouvoir’ by Raphaelle Bacqué and Philippe Ridet, Le Monde, 8 May 2007

(7) La solitude volontaire et subie de Mme Royal explique son echec, Le Monde, 8 May 2007

(8) La Gauche doit offrir une alternative by Lionel Jospin, Le Monde, 7 April 2006.

(9) Le délicat pari de la réforme sociale by Fréderic Lemaître, Le Monde, 10 May 2007.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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