Nicolas Sarkozy, rupture and ouverture

Patrice de Beer
31 July 2007

Nicolas Sarkozy made a telling joke during one of his first foreign trips after his inauguration as France's president on 16 May 2007. Accompanied by his foreign minister, Bernard Kouchner and his minister for Europe, Jean-Pierre Jouyet, "Sarko" commented that he was the only one in the French delegation who was not from the left. The point can be made even sharper if it is recalled that two of the other four ministers in the foreign-affairs department come from the Parti Socialiste (Socialist Party / PS): Jean-Marie Bockel, in charge of cooperation with Africa, and ); Rama Yade, the young, glamorous, arch-Sarkozian, Senegalese-born woman, with responsiblity for human rights.

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

Among Patrice de Beer's recent articles in openDemocracy:

"Why is the left so gauche?"
(26 February 2007)

"France's telepolitics: showbiz, populism, reality"
(2 April 2007)

"France's intellectual election"
(16 April 2007)

"France's choice: the Bayrou factor"
(24 April 2007)

"Sarkozy's rightwing revolution"
(8 May 2007)

"Le Monde's democratic coup"
(30 May 2007)

"A not so quiet American"
(13 July 2007 ) In France, this is called ouverture. Nicolas Sarkozy, the first openly right wing president since 1945, has become a master in varying the rules of the sport: fishing for opponents to add them to his team. The strategy allows him to kill two birds with one stone: showing that, despite his conservative beliefs, he can extend the hand of friendship to former rivals while undermining a PS leadership unable to cope with a haemorrhage of senior, able figures that it cannot afford to lose.

More names can be added to those already mentioned:

* Fadela Amara, who led Ni putes ni soumises ("neither whores nor submissives"), an organisation of Muslim and black women from the banlieues challenging violence, abuse and discrimination), now in charge of urban improvement

* Martin Hirsch, former head of the acclaimed charity Emmaüs, charged with helping the non-working poor into the job market

* Jack Lang, the popular former education and culture minister, appointed vice-chair of a constitutional-reform commission

* Hubert Védrine, a former foreign minister, assigned to write a report on France in the age of globalisation

* Rachida Dati, who was born to immigrant parents from the Maghreb and raised in poor banlieue, now appointed justice minister

To all, "Sarko" has offered a small but visible share of power - but in areas where they are no threat to his power or ideas; where he is sure that his new allies are operating on his terms; and where he has not watered down his own policies in exchange.

Sarko's magpie politics

The cherry on the cake is obviously Bernard Kouchner, the emblematic French doctor who founded Médecins sans frontières, the most popular French public figure, a maverick socialist who saw there his last chance of playing a major political role (albeit foreign affairs remain the president's fiefdom). But Sarkozy, notwithstanding growing protests from MPs in his own camp about the distribution of portfolios they themselves had coveted as a reward for loyalty, is not stopping his ouverture there. He has personally invited many other leftist representatives; several have declined. His larger aim is to destabilise the PS even more before the next major electoral test, the local elections in 2008 (which will include the coveted mayoralty Paris, currently held by the left).

This is both innovatory and traditional politics in France - innovatory, because French voters are attracted to "Bonapartist" figure, strong men who pretend to rule outside of parties - even when they have one, like Sarkozy's own Union pour un Mouvement Populaire (Union for a Popular Movement / UMP) - "for the sake of the nation". But his strategy goes much further than that and has created a "rupture" - another word Sarko loves - in the French political system.

Like Margaret Thatcher or Tony Blair in Britain, Sarkozy has stolen the momentum from the opposition and opened a new (yet-to-be-numbered) way. He shares with the "iron lady" a pride in being rightwing, a stingingly critical attitude towards the left's failures (but also of the spineless centre-right a la Jacques Chirac), and an emphasis on the role of the individual over that of society. He shares with Blair a clever use of his enemy's weaknesses to destroy them. His instinct for utilising others' ideas breaks in other ways with the French political tradition: he is not afraid to pick conservative ideas on the other side of the Atlantic, from Ronald Reagan to today's neo-conservatives.

At the same time, he is no liberal on economic matters (as opposed to social ones). Sarkozy favours (as did his presidential predecessors) "national champions" in business and industry, and a major role for the state in economy and finance; and he sees the market economy as a tool, not an end in itself (thus his readiness to advocate protectionism). Now this hyperactive figure wants to make the French political system even more presidential and recentralise power around himself.

A Gramscian lesson

The most masterly of Nicolas Sarkozy's triumphs, however, lies in the way he has succeeded in borrowing - or appropriating - the ideas of the Sardinia-born Marxist philosopher Antonio Gramsci; in particular, the latter's theoretical strategy for achieving power by establishing intellectual and cultural "hegemony" over political rivals.

Gramsci, imprisoned by Mussolini in 1926 for fear of the influence he might exert, became the icon of an intellectual left disenchanted with communism, Stalin-style. He believed that power had to be sought in the field of ideology and "values" rather than by sheer force (see Jérôme Sgard, Nicolas Sarkozy, lecteur de Gramsci: La tentation hégémonique du nouveau pouvoir" in Esprit [and Eurozine], July 2007). Sarkozy himself told the daily newspaper Le Figaro (17 April 2007): "I have made Gramcsi's analysis mine: power is won by ideas. It is the first time a rightwing politician has fought on that ground".

Thus "Sarko" has positioned himself as a true-blue rightist, French-style (i.e. basing his power on an all-powerful state rather than on the law of the market). He has hijacked the territory long held by the leftist intelligentsia, building on his success in a long electoral campaign where he was able to impose his own radical values over those of the socialists. Indeed, even more, he was able to depict the socialists (far too preoccupied by internal rivalry and disloyalty towards their own candidate, Ségolène Royal) as trapped by anachronistic ideas values which were no longer relevant to a fast-changing, more individualistic society. In these circumstances, reinforced by the attraction of far-right voters to Sarkozy's nationalistic panache, no other leftwing candidate would have had a chance.

The new president had five years to cultivate his battleground, testing ideas, playing on fears, and gathering around him disgruntled blue- and white-collar voters who routinely choose the left or for the extreme-right Front Nationale (National Front / FN). His "talking true" slogan puts to work a subtle, manipulative series of counterpositions: the work ethic to the left's supposed irresponsible pampering in social policy; the working classes (appealed to via the magic slogan "more pay for more work") to the lazy or those who seek to cheat the system; law-and-order to "do-gooders" accused of stressing educative measures over repression; a tougher immigration policy based upon "national identity" to open borders and diluted national identity.

This is the handiwork of a man who is intimately close to big business; who has been mayor of one of the country's wealthiest cities (Neuilly-sur-Seine); who chaired the richest département (Hauts-de-Seine); whose first decisions have been to give to the richest sector of the population billions of euros in tax breaks; and who was also the first French politician for a long time who took pride in saying, "Myself, I am not an intellectual". All this posturing has paid, handsomely.

There is no alternative?

Today, the socialist opposition has lost both the moral-intellectual high ground and but most of the political ground, and can only hope for the end of Sarkozy's honeymoon when voters start to be shown the bill. This might take some time: the new president is still very popular as his ouverture receives endorsement from two-thirds of those questioned in opinion polls.

The PS leadership remains paralysed by the shock of the two-stage (presidential and parliamentary) election defeat in May-June 2007, and appears unable to react to Sarkozy's political earthquake. its two main "elephants" are out of the way - the bright, moderate Dominique Strauss-Kahn, craftily nominated as candidate to head the International Monetary Fund while the leftist Laurent Fabius wants to play the elder statesman - Ségolène Royal has to rebuild her support while the quadras, the younger generation in their 40s (and sometimes 30s) are struggling to take the place of those who failed in three successive presidential elections.

But can they win without starting to rebuild their links with the French people? The PS needs to engage the hard and painful work of elaborating a fresh ideological platform and clear goals for the next elections (in 2012) that could be at the same time credible, appealing and able to give a new cohesion to a party whose membership may have grown handsomely since early 2006 (thanks very largely to "Ségo") but which remains divided and demoralised.

The French left is now sociologically in a minority and will have to rethink its decades-old strategy of rallying "progressive forces" (including the far left) by shifting its gaze towards a centre whose leader, François Bayrou, has broken his old alliance with the right. If they do not, French socialists should examine the history of the Labour Party in Britain after Maggie Thatcher's victory of 1979 and start counting....for Nicolas Sarkozy has said he intends to serve for two consecutive five-year terms. Hegemony can last a long time.

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