Nicolas Sarkozy: a one-trick pony?

In recent months, Nicolas Sarkozy has reinvigorated the question of security in France. But this is nothing new and, given that the French president’s approval ratings reached an all-time low in July, the move is not surprising.
Matthew Moran
17 September 2010

Since 2002 and his appointment as interior minister, Nicolas Sarkozy has unashamedly used the theme of security to fuel his political career. Indeed, the issue of security has emerged as a characterizing element of Sarkozy’s political trajectory, providing a firm base for the politician’s career progression. From his support for the Perben laws of 2002 to abolishing the community police in 2003, Sarkozy’s general political strategy has been inextricably linked with a hard-line stance on crime, delinquency and immigration. 

The suburban riots of 2005 in particular marked a key moment in Sarkozy’s ascendancy through the ranks of France’s political elite. Sarkozy both provoked and demonised the rioters, dismissing them as ‘thugs’, while at the same time presenting himself as the only person capable of dealing with France’s growing security problem. The French media encapsulated this paradoxical stance in the nickname ‘pompier-pyromane’.

There can be no doubt that this strategy was for a time successful. In the wake of the 2005 riots, Sarkozy’s popularity soared. The French public, conditioned by the sensationalist media coverage that revolved around burning cars and hooded youths, were seduced by this rhetoric that emphasised the threat of insecurity while at the same time seeming to offer a simple solution. In a more general political context, the events of 2005 represented a perfect storm for Sarkozy, providing him with a strong base from which to launch his presidential bid.

During the 2007 presidential campaign, the theme of security had a federating effect, winning Sarkozy support from across the political spectrum. Admittedly, Sarkozy’s success was compounded by the fact that the left was unable to present a plausible alternative. Ségolène Royale led a lacklustre campaign in which lost sight of the traditional values of the political left such as social justice. Instead, she tried to fight Sarkozy on his own ground on issues such as security and nationalism in an attempt to triangulate his politics. This tactic failed miserably and Sarkozy took up the reins of power.

Since 2007, however, the ‘hyper-president’ has seen his approval ratings decline steadily. Poorly-received economic policies, a lavish and highly mediatised lifestyle, a disastrous ‘debate’ on national identity and allegations of corruption have left Sarkozy fighting to regain the political initiative. In this context, recent events have offered Sarkozy the chance to reinvigorate the question of security, to return to familiar terrain.

In July, Sarkozy ordered the expulsion of illegal Roma immigrants after gypsies clashed with police following the death of a youth fleeing police in the Loire valley. The President claimed that the Roma gypsy community was a source of trafficking, prostitution and exploitation of children. Also in July, Sarkozy provoked outrage at his claim that nationality should be revoked from citizens of immigrant origins who commit certain crimes. This statement came in the wake of clashes between young people and police in a suburb of Grenoble. The clashes were sparked by the death of a local resident, shot dead as he exchanged fire with police during a robbery.

In both cases, Sarkozy’s response was widely criticised by media commentators. And rightly so, for these desperate attempts to revive the theme of security and his flagging political reputation pose a direct threat to the founding principles of the Republic. This is a circular process in which the fear produced by Sarkozy’s rhetoric provides justification for increasingly hard-line measures. The proposed measure to revoke nationality from citizens of immigrant origins in particular calls into question the principle of equality. Implicit in this proposal is the suggestion that those of immigrant origins, while legally and politically members of the Republic, are not valued as much as the ‘français de souche’ (those of French origins). The unfortunate paradox here is that while Sarkozy’s proposal is aimed at reinforcing law and order and strengthening the Republic, in reality it has the opposite effect. This proposal suggests that Sarkozy’s Republic is not ‘colour-blind’ in terms of ethnic origins, but rather ‘colour-sensitive’. So in attempting to strengthen the repressive state, the president is seriously undermining social cohesion and, on a larger scale, the republican model.

Calling on the security question has proved highly lucrative for Sarkozy in the past; it has assured his ascendancy through the ranks of the French political elite. However, this approach has isolated certain elements of French society and eroded social cohesion within the national community. Moreover, France like other countries faces increasingly uncertain economic and social conditions. Faced with new challenges, Sarkozy’s obsession with security does not reflect the key issues at stake in French society. 

And it seems that the electorate is beginning to tire of Sarkozy’s same old party piece. On 4 September a protest against ‘xenophobia and hate’ was organised in numerous towns and cities across the nation by over 130 associations, political groups and unions. This protest represented a strong sign that the public is beginning to see through the smokescreen of security that defines Sarkozy’s politics. With the 2012 presidential elections fast approaching, the coming months will prove crucial if Sarkozy is to bid for a second term in office. However, to successfully do this, he will need to move beyond the question of security and address more pressing social and economic concerns. The only question is: has this one trick pony run out of steam?

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