Nicolas Sarkozy, the American candidate

About the author
Patrice de Beer is former London and Washington correspondent for Le Monde

There was a time the French boasted they had "the stupidest rightwing in the world". Yet, the left was able to outdo it in the first round of the presidential election race in 2002 when the then prime minister, Lionel Jospin, waged such a disastrous election campaign against Jacques Chirac - probably as dumb as Al Gore's vs George W Bush in 2000 - that he was overrun by rightwing extremist, Jean-Marie le Pen.

Five years later, Nicolas Sarkozy - interior minister, number two in the Dominique de Villepin cabinet, and chair of the Union pour un Mouvement Populaire (UMP) party - is all but the "natural" conservative contender to triumph in the election of April-May 2007. Yet for all Sarkozy's promises to make a "rupture" with current politics, it seems that what the French call la machine à perdre (the losing machine) is churning once again on the right. It is obvious that president Jacques Chirac and his cronies are doing their utmost to derail "Sarko", the "restless" and "ambitious" figure they disdain.

At first, it was the Parti Socialiste (PS) that had looked so hopelessly divided - with two "elephants" (as PS party elders are nicknamed) fighting tooth and nail against a third candidate, the popular Ségolène Royal. At that time, "Ségo" had warned party members against the threat of the ever-present machine à perdre (see "Ségolène Royal: the power of difference", 20 November 2006). This robust attitude helped her crush her rivals while Sarkozy was devoting his time trying to avoid being backstabbed by his political friends. He still is.

Patrice de Beer is former London and Washington correspondent for Le Monde.

Among Patrice de Beer's articles in openDemocracy:

"France's incendiary crisis"
(September 2005)

"The Schröder-Merkel clash spills across the Rhine"
(October 2005)

"France's political sclerosis"
(October 2005)

"Paris in flames: the limits of repression"
(November 2005)

"France's enarchy"
(November 2005)

"Child's play at the CIA"
(January 2006)

"France's immigration myths"
(February 2006)

"Law and disorder in France"
(March 2006)

"Ukraine's inspiring boredom"
(April 2006)

"France's crisis after crisis"
(April 2006)

"The Ségolène phenomenon"
(May 2006)

"France and Europe: the democratic deficit exposed"
(June 2006)

"Zidane's farewell, France's hangover"
(July 2006)

"France and Lebanon: diplomacy of tragedy"
(August 2006)

"France in Lebanon: the strength of hesitation"
(August 2006)

"Indigènes: enlarging France's history" (October 2006)

"Ségolène Royal: the power of difference" (October 2006)

"French politics: where extremes meet" (December 2006)

The politics of image

Yet despite their different positions in relation to their own party, what is more emblematic of the France of the 21st century than a "battle royal" opposing two politicians a generation younger than Jacques Chirac: Nicolas Sarkozy (51 years old) and Ségolène Royal (53)?

Each is, in a particular way, a pioneer: Sarkozy the first "immigrant" candidate (his father was born in Hungary and he has Greek and Jewish blood on his mother's side) against Royal, the socialist and first woman with a chance of winning the presidency. Even the two other prominent candidates emphasise the singularity of the contest; the no-nonsense centrist struggling for survival against the two-party system, François Bayrou, and the almost octogenarian Le Pen fighting his last lost battle.

The diminutive Sarkozy has, from the moment he joined Chirac's government as interior minister (which in France includes local government and police) in 2002, built a political image with a definite profile: hardline, pro-law-and-order, anti-immigration, anti-Turkey's membership of the European Union, pro-French nationalist (but in favour of a "mini-treaty" for Europe), pro-free enterprise, pro-American and pro-Bush.

Surprisingly in a country which massively supported Chirac's opposition to Bush-Blair's war in Iraq, Sarkozy has not avoided appearing as the "black sheep" of French politics; in September 2006, he paid a visit to the embattled United States president that more resembled an homage. Not only did he manage to have his picture taken with George W Bush - where, surprisingly, he appeared as tall as his host - but he publicly distanced himself from Chirac's politics ("you must have loathed us then", said he, while proclaiming his love for America, "so successful and so misunderstood").

This might explain his desire to take the fifth republic on the road to an American-inspired presidential regime. But it would also be a presidency where he would be all-powerful, able to address parliament directly, remain head of the UMP, with a diminished prime minister working beneath him - all at the expenses of the traditional checks and balances.

A long hatred has sustained Chirac's enmity towards Sarkozy, even if the wily president was not able to keep the younger politician out of government or stop him taking control of the UMP Chirac himself had built as a power-base. This explains why the president and his henchmen - first of all de Villepin - wanted so much to torpedo the ambition of a man who says he had long been dreaming of becoming president, "and not only when I shave". Yet, Sarkozy has managed to become the most popular candidate from the right, trying to appeal to Le Pen's voters with populist measures while striving to reassure moderate voters with a tough-on-crime platform.

To do that, he has piled up law after law in parliament to crack down on crime, make immigration harder and expel illegal immigrants more easily. But although crime statistics and immigration have each decreased for the first time for years in 2005, violent crime is still up and Sarkozy's repressive approach to violence in the banlieues (suburbs) where many immigrants are herded has failed, as the explosion of anger there in October-November 2005 clearly showed. The left has accused Sarkozy of conducting a heartless policy and of trying to boost his image by drafting popular bills without really bothering to have them implemented - thus creating the need for even more stringent bills, in a vicious circle that plays on the public's fears of unruly "foreign" youth.

Another way Sarkozy has sought to boost his image has been to cultivate relations with media moguls and TV channels, helping him to secure friendly coverage. The other side of his media management was a threat to sue in order to suppress information on the name of his journalist lover at a time his wife Cecilia had eloped with another man. He also had the editor of popular weekly Paris Match fired for publishing pictures of Cecilia and her then partner (she has now gone back to her husband); and he was offered three hours of deferential primetime by the main public TV channel, Antenne 2.

Chirac in the way

Nicolas Sarkozy had dreamed of facing a weak, divided left with an equally weak candidate. Instead, he got Ségolène Royal against whom his rough and combative behaviour could look counterproductive at a time when French voters have become attracted to the idea of a female candidate and, maybe, president. The way he countered his government colleague and rival for the UMP candidacy, Michèle Alliot-Marie, the minister for defence, shocked many, and not only women. He is still searching for a new style to counter Ms Royal's, who remains as popular (and even sometimes more) than Sarko in the opinion polls.

But everyone knows that four months - until the first round of presidential elections on 22 April 2007 (with the second following on 6 May) - is a long time in politics. So far, Sarkozy the candidate has not shown himself as successful as Sarkozy the home minister. After being caught by surprise by Ségo's early, massive, mid-November win in the socialist primaries, he tried to organise his own primaries within the UMP. It was not easy in a party known for its Gaullist tradition of obedience to a strong leader and from which he had silenced almost all opposition.

There followed a set of unconvincing rump meetings which distracted his attention from a tough campaign-to-be, postponing his official crowning as UMP candidate till mid-January while his rival's campaign is already in full swing. The period also gave Chirac extra time to throw banana-skin after banana-skin under his path, almost as if he would prefer to see Ms Royal elected rather than his own party's favourite.

If it had not been Jacques Chirac, one could have wondered whether it was possible to play so openly against one's own camp. But he has a history of acting this way:

  • in 1974, already a member of government, he had helped future president Valéry Giscard d'Estaing against his Gaullist comrade Jacques Chaban-Delmas
  • in 1981, he did everything he could to derail Giscard's campaign, paving the way for socialist François Mitterrand's election
  • in 1988, he fought another conservative candidate, former prime minister Raymond Barre, while Mitterrand was easily re-elected
  • in 1995, he campaigned against the prime minister he had himself chosen, Édouard Balladur, to win on the second ballot.

Now, Sarkozy is experiencing why Chirac, despite being considered by many as the worst president of the fifth republic, is notoriously regarded as a ruthless killer during election times.

Chirac, now 74, won't probably stand himself for a third term - though he will keep the suspense alive as long as possible. But he has been able - and willing - to weaken his own camp. Long a kingmaker, he can't stand the idea of having a successor he didn't anoint himself. His behaviour leaves Nicolas Sarkozy to fight on two fronts: against Ségolène Royal, who is trying to seduce voters from the centre as well as from the left, and against some from his own camp.