Sarko and Ségo: the odd French couple

Patrice de Beer
29 January 2007

At the end of an American-style party convention held in Paris on 14 January 2007, Nicolas Sarkozy was, with a vote of 98%, anointed by the governing Union for the Presidential Majority (UMP) party as its candidate for the French presidential elections in April-May 2007. Now the two main camps have chosen their champions, Sarkozy for the right and Ségolène Royal for the Socialist Party (PS).

While "Ségo" was anointed after a tough competition with two other socialist stalwarts, "Sarko" was the only candidate - his rivals having, one after the other, bailed out in face of the determination of the man who combines iron rule of the UMP with a position as interior minister and thus number two in the government. Sarkozy's success is also the miserably failure of President Jacques Chirac's efforts - helped by prime minister Dominique de Villepin - to sabotage the ambitions of a man he loathes.

Sarkozy rightly banked on huge media coverage for the nomination- he even selected himself which images could be shown on television - and lost no time in launching his campaign. For the first time, opinion polls have shown him ahead of Royal, whose own campaign has seemed strangely silent. Her camp says that it is because she is following her strategy of dialogue with voters before announcing her electoral platform. But she has also shown a surprising slowness of reaction to events which have shaken public opinion in the first weeks of the year, such as the question of people sleeping rough in the streets of Paris and other main cities.

Ségo has further revealed a proneness to "gaffes" on foreign affairs. This, a topic so far rarely mentioned during the campaign, is one over which, to say the least, she both lacks experience (and, apparently, sound advisers) and has little to offer. In the middle east, in China, and on the complex relations between Quebec and Canada (about which she managed to be fooled by a radio entertainer posing as Quebec's pro-independence premier Jean Charest), the socialist candidate has been careless in her language.

Many politicians have said in the past that elections are not won on foreign affairs, a topic the general public is not supposed to really care about. Yet they can be lost on foreign affairs too - as November's mid-term elections in the United States indicated, or as Chirac painfully realised after his failed referendum on the European constitution in May 2005. Nevertheless, the outgoing president - like all his predecessors, François Mitterrand, Valéry Giscard d'Estaing, Georges Pompidou or Charles de Gaulle - has shared a deep interest and a good knowledge of Europe and of international relations, of a kind that sadly fails to arouse the Sarko-Ségo duo.

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)

"France's political sclerosis"
(October 2005)

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

"France's enarchy"
(November 2005)

"France's immigration myths"
(February 2006)

"Law and disorder in France"
(March 2006)

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

"The Ségolène phenomenon"
(May 2006)

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

"Nicolas Sarkozy, the American candidate"
(20 December 2006)

A pendulum swing

Sarkozy has won popularity because of his tough law-and-order image - even if the outcomes of his policy are far from conclusive - but he is also feared by a majority of French voters, including by some in his own camp, for his political roughness. This is why the gung-ho, Billy-the-Kid of French politics - the minister who said he wanted to "wipe out" the youthful "scum" from the face of French banlieues, and be tough on immigration, whether legal or illegal - has transformed himself overnight into a little Buddha.

During his long acceptance speech in front of around 80,000 cheering UMP members on 14 January, he presented an amazingly Zen and modest image of himself; he said, for instance, that he had learned from his past political "ordeals", "failures" and "personal sufferings" (a reference to his wife and adviser Cecilia having temporarily left him for another man while he had eloped with a journalist) and had "changed".

Sarkozy has indeed changed in a number of respects: in his efforts to discard a reputation for political hyperactivity, in his advocacy of national remembrance of traditional icons from the left, in his promises to "moralise capitalism", and in his shedding of his pro-United States, pro-Bush image of "Sarko l'Américain". The man who went to Washington in September 2006 to have his picture taken with President Bush, and who publicly condemned Jacques Chirac's opposition to the war in Iraq - a gesture not terribly well received in France - has moved on.

But if he now praises Chirac's foreign touch, he also had venomous words for the outgoing president, whose tenure has been marred by scandals, saying that the time of "conniving and cronyism" had to go and be replaced by a "spotless democracy". (Yet he has refused to resign from his position as interior minister - which controls the police force, local administration through the préfêts and election management - even when accused by the socialists of having abused his role by masterminding police enquiries against a member of Ségolène Royal's team and one of her brothers). Sarkozy's courting of electoral popularity, considered as a whole, has not affected his clear placing of himself on the right of the political spectrum, in a political environment where conservative politicians had preferred to define themselves as "centre-right".

A French baby-boom

If the odds now look more in favour of Sarko than Ségo, the play is not over. Three months is a long time in politics. Royal still has a chance to redeem herself, and it can't be ruled out that her platform will appeal to many and reassure others. Sarkozy, meanwhile, runs the risk of showing that he is a wolf in a sheep's skin, and that he is still involved in underhand plots which are not so different from those of the Chirac years he says he wants to break with.

In a recent editorial last week, the left-leaning daily Libération wrote that Ségo might have suffered from her recent "gaffes" and deserve the nickname of Bécassine, a naïve country girl from Brittany in a popular comic strip.

But Ségo's Bécassinisation could have the opposite effect than the one imagined on a public fed up with those rulers in Paris; the ruthless vilification of an aggressive UMP campaign-team could transform her into a victim of "Parisianism". The French can become very attracted to underdogs and victims, and Royal has shown herself quite gifted in playing with these feelings. Libé added that if "big Bécassins" like Reagan and Bush were re-elected presidents; why not Royal?

The war for votes waged between the two main contenders is overshadowing the approximately forty other presidential aspirants, most of whom will not acquire the sponsorship from 500 local representatives needed to qualify. The coveted third-place is being contested between the extreme-right Jean-Marie Le Pen and the centrist François Bayrou, both of whom have been complaining that the media - especially TV - were neglecting them while offering too much coverage to the odd Sarko-Ségo couple. Some have expressed fear that this polarisation might deter even more French citizens from engaging in politics, in a country where (Royal has emphasised) only 1% have trust in politicians.

This lack of trust in those who rule them, in their institutions and in their own future - more than half the French believe that their children will fare worse than them in a world dominated by globalisation - is pervasive among a people and a country where the theory of declinisme is so popular among elites.

But the latest of French paradoxes - as we seem to live just to create more and more paradoxes - is that a country worried not only about the present but also by the future, and which is more and more inward-looking, has paradoxically the highest (and still-growing) fertility rate in Europe.

The latest figures from Insee, the French statistical office - released in a 16 January 2007 briefing by Lucile Richet-Mastain - are revealing. In 2006, the birthrate has almost reached the replacement rate of 2.1%, unheard for a quarter of a century. With over 830,000 births last year (up 2.9% in a year), France has now the third highest population in Europe behind Russia and Germany, overtaking the United Kingdom with 64.1 million inhabitants.

France (together with Ireland) has thus become an exception in the old continent, where fertility has collapsed (Germany's birthrate is 1.4%, and that in Italy, Spain and northern and eastern Europe is even less). And, contrary to many prevalent views, France's birthrate is not driven by immigration: only 20% of these births come from French women of foreign origin. France's pro-active, pro-birth policy since 1945 - with allowances granted to families for each child and kindergartens freely opened to all pre-school kids - is certainly a reason for this exception.

But financial incentives are not enough to explain figures for a people who have no confidence in the future and where the morning-after pill is widely available. A majority of mothers are having their first child at the age of 30; they can't be classified as "irresponsible" teenage mothers. Thus, young French parents seem to be more optimistic in their bedrooms than in their daily lives. It is a welcome touch of optimism in an otherwise gloomy country; whether it has any political implications, both Ségo and Sarko will be eager to discover.

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