Sarkozy’s rightwing revolution

Patrice de Beer
7 May 2007

The television images in France on the evening of Sunday 6 May 2007 might have suggested that there were two winners of the presidential election. Only a few minutes after 8pm, when exit-polls announced the victory of rightwing candidate Nicolas Sarkozy by 53.06% to 46.94% over the socialist Ségolène Royal, Royal appeared on television with a forced smile, surrounded by a wildly cheering crowd of supporters. After a resounding defeat, they were chanting merci, merci! to a woman who had said the day before: "If we win, we won't stop, if we lose, we'll go on" - thus announcing an intention to fight the difficult legislative elections on 10 June and 17 June.

This is the paradoxical situation of a woman who had to divert a major part of her energy from her tough battle with "Sarko" to fight enemies in her own Parti Socialiste (PS) - those who preferred a political defeat to the risks her victory could have cost their avantages acquis in a party fossilised by a thirty-five-year-old alliance with the far left. In a France which has moved resolutely to the right, that political option has failed far more comprehensively than Royal's own; the Parti Communiste Français (PCF) has declined from 15% in 1981 to 1.93% today, within an overall "left of the left" at an all-time low of 10%.

Yet it is Sarkozy's election which marks a watershed in France's recent history. True, the triumph of either candidate would have been momentous, given how much they have in common which separates them from the preceding Giscard d'Estaing, Mitterrand and Chirac era. Each is in his or her early 50s, and was born towards the end of the fourth republic and just before the Treaty of Rome which founded the new Europe; each launched a political career in the post-communist world; neither has held political responsibilities at the highest level.

Each too would have been a first in history in other senses: a woman or the son of immigrants as president; each wanted to reform his or her respective political camp from within; each sought to shake France's immobilism by launching France into the 21st century after years of political, economic and social stagnation; each generated great enthusiasm on both ends of a bipolar political system. This explains the tremendous investment of popular commitment and support they generated; in a record turnout of 83.97%, each received the highest numbers of votes presidential candidates of right and left ever received (18.9 million for Sarkozy, 16.7 for Royal).

The French people were, then, faced with a choice between futures; and it is Sarkozy's that has won assent. The new president represents a clear break with French political tradition. He is the first openly rightwing leader since the 1945 libération, and the first post-Gaullist president. His loathed predecessor, Jacques Chirac, was at the same time the last representative of half a century of Gaullism and its gravedigger, who presided over a corrupt and inefficient regime for twelve years. But he still clung to two key values le général had instilled in the French ethos: a strong social touch, and a vision of France as a major world player (the latter pursued through a policy of grandeur and national independence, especially from the United States). Chirac took the first at face value and clung to the second when he opposed George W Bush and Tony Blair's military adventure in Iraq.

Only time will tell whether Sarkozy can fulfil his many promises, as they are sometimes contradictory and the state coffers are too empty to finance massive handouts and tax-breaks (it may be wise here to recall the words of Sarkozy's political mentor, Charles Pasqua: "Political promises only bind those who listen to them"). Yet the energetic, sometimes over-energetic, often bad-tempered and authoritarian new president, a man always in a hurry, wants to hit the road running. From the day he takes over on 16 May, he has drafted a roadmap to the end of 2007 which contains almost daily tasks.

Their completion will largely depend on Sarkozy's supporters gaining a majority in the national assembly; but the backstabbing by "Ségo"'s two main rivals - leftwing Laurent Fabius and moderate Dominique Strauss-Kahn - which started as early as election-night might do the job for him.

Ségolène Royal, meanwhile, can avoid another electoral rout if she succeeds in hijacking the Parti Socialiste leadership (as she did in 2006 with the PS presidential candidacy) and extend her hand to the centre. This might result in a new "common programme" advocated by former minister and founder of Médecins Sans Frontières, Bernard Kouchner, which could start the long-needed refoundation of the party (of the sort the German social democrats undertook at their Bad Godesberg conference in 1959, and Britain's "new" Labourites completed in the 1990s).

Sarkozy inherited his Union pour un Mouvement Populaire (Union for a Popular Movement / UMP) from Chirac in battle-order, as a party which had already built up political hegemony on the right and the centre. The new president's strategy of upholding the ideas of the extreme right - mainly on immigration and "national identity", two ideas he wants to fuse in a new ministry - has succeeded in eating alive large chunks of Jean-Marie Le Pen's Front National (FN), doing to them what socialist François Mitterrand did to the communists in the 1980s (and by appealing to the sentiments of the FN support-base in a way that Chirac would never do). At the same time, most centrist MPs have abandoned their leader, "third man" François Bayrou's search for an independent centre in order to enter the UMP fold, and thus (they hope) keep their seats.

Sarkozy can therefore prepare to benefit from the momentum created by his election and by five years of meticulous preparations to carry a majority of seats in the national assembly while retaining control of an even more conservative senate. And, despite his nationalistic slogans, he has attracted support from a few "blacks and beurs" and might even have more elected immigrant MPs than the left.

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

Among Patrice de Beer's articles in openDemocracy:

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

"France's immigration myths"
(9 February 2006)

"Law and disorder in France" (March 2006)

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

"The Ségolène phenomenon"
(May 2006)

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

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

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

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

"France's immigration politics"
(12 February 2006)

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

"François Bayrou, the extreme centre's champion"
(12 March 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)

A break with the past

But, even before the legislative elections on 10 June and 17 June, Sarkozy will attempt to implement his major promises. His victory speech was emphatic in expressing the intention to "break with the ideas, habits and behaviours of the past, rehabilitate work, authority, morality, respect and merit. I want to give our nation and national identity their honour back. I want to give back to the French their pride to be French and do away with repentance which is a form of self-hatred" (it is relevant here that Chirac's last act of repentance was to recognise the co-responsibility of the French state for the deportation of Jews during the Nazi occupation). Sarkozy also promised that no one had to be left behind, and everyone had to be helped in a country where "everyone should be able to find his place".

One of his first decisions will be to exempt from all taxes those working extra hours in order to provide more money for those who want to work more, in a society where he castigates as "cheats" those who refuse to work (i.e. the unemployed who reject job offers or those who live on income support). This is an important issue in a country which has one of the highest unemployment rates in the European Union, where wages are low and work opportunities scarce (especially for those entering the job market and those over 50). It is also a country where expectations are so low and fears of losing one's social status so strong, even among the middle classes - making this kind of populist tune sweet to the ears of many who are disappointed by the failures of previous governments, right and left.

Sarkozy's success is to have managed to make these people forget that he was part of the previous government and thus compromised by its failures, and to have persuaded them that he can play the fatherly, authoritarian and populist figure the French have been so often attracted to in hard times. It is on his law-and-order image that he has built his popularity, even if, just before the election, a majority of French still said they were somehow afraid of him.

Sarkozy seeks to abolish the thirty-five-hour week at the first opportunity. The problem remains that jobs are scarce, that employers have been cutting down their workforce, outsourcing their production and that - as economist Daniel Cohen said - they might take advantage of this new tax exemption, not to recruit more but to lay off even more, relying on fewer staff working more at a lesser cost. All this exists too in a context where French employers have shown themselves unable to be as competitive on the world market as their fellow European (above all German) counterparts.

But, for those studying his reform plan, a different pattern appears: before the end of 2007, Sarkozy plans to implement a single labour contract with a raft of measures: making it easier for employers to lay off workers; imposing through negotiation or by law a minimum service in transport and possibly in public services; forcing a ballot if a strike lasts more than a week; replacing only 50% of retiring civil servants (it is not clear if this would affect police and armed forces, health and education workers); imposing minimum sentences for repeat offenders; slashing inheritance tax; lowering the "fiscal shield" in place since January 2007 from 60% to 50% (thus, in fact abolishing the wealth tax).

This would constitute a big dent in the egalité principle inherited from the French revolution: a combination of tough measure for the working classes, more benefits for the well off, with enthusiastic support from employers. The purpose is to shake off the burden of a French bureaucracy in a way that no previous government has tried to do. For the first time, France should experience a true and proud-to-be-rightwing policy, led by a man closely connected with business (Sarkozy's brother ran for the leadership of the employers' federation Medef) and the media.

Will Sarkozy be a new Thatcher without a petticoat, as some say? Maybe. But France is not Britain, its society is far less passive and its people are much more prone to take to the streets when they feel their interests are threatened. And he is far from the arch-liberal in economic terms - an "iron lady", a Ronald Reagan, or even a Tony Blair. He remains a statist at heart, who doesn't hesitate to support French business from foreign takeovers, who wants to fight outsourcing and (most of all) who wants to retain control.

Power and the man

All this represents a genuine revolution in France. It is a revolution with a paradoxical support-base: mainly the over-60s, who are afraid of crime and immigration as a threat to their way of life, but including the 25-35 year-old group, unable to find jobs; whereas younger and older people (18-25 and 35-60) gave their support to Ségolène Royal. This helps explain the strange blend of music - pop groups and old crooners, to please the ears of two generations - in Sarko's victory party on Place de la Concorde; and the contrast between his call for a "France of homeowners" against Royal's advocacy of a "France of entrepreneurs".

A further point of inner tension is that the protection Sarkozy wants to build around his country (from unrestricted imports and immigration) don't always fit well with today's globalisation. He even said in his fiery TV debate with Royal on 2 May that he wanted to impose an eco-tax on imports from countries which didn't sign the Kyoto protocol on global warming, most prominently China and the United States.

In an election campaign focused mostly on domestic issues, there was not much space for world affairs between two candidates with meagre foreign experience. So it is worth noting that Sarkozy devoted a large part of his speech to relations with France's allies, the European Union and the United States. In relation to Europe, he has three main points. First, he wants to return France to the inside track after the 2005 European constitution fiasco by means of a "mini-treaty" that can act as a toolbox to manage the union. Second, he stresses his strong opposition to Turkey's membership of the EU, notwithstanding that the current negotiations over Turkey's accession had been agreed by all members. Third, he "begs" his partners "to listen to the voices of those who want to be protected", and to "the anger of peoples who perceive the EU as a Trojan horse of all the threats carried by global changes". All this will have to be discussed with European leaders, who will discover a man better trained to give orders than to negotiate. Will Sarkozy's new job give him a different vision of the continent and the world?

In relation to the United States, Sarkozy comes with a pro-American reputation that makes him more than welcome in Washington - and "W" was among the first to congratulate him after his victory. But this has not won him favour at home (French reaction to his statement in autumn 2006 during a visit to President Bush that he was "ashamed" of Chirac's foreign policy, mainly Iraq, forced him into a rare backtrack). A long tradition of independent diplomacy is not lightly discarded. Sarkozy's words here may prove significant: if "the Americans can rely on our friendship (...) I also want to tell them that friendship is to accept that your friends can have different views".

France is entering a new, uncharted era. Among history's lessons is that men who achieve power often change under the burden of national responsibilities. Power can toughen (as with De Gaulle), corrupt (as with Chirac), and weaken. Nicolas Sarkozy will be tested, and will have to adjust too. But France's history also shows that ruling this complex country is never plain sailing, that even massive popular support can never be taken for granted (Chirac's 82.2% of the vote in 2002 is a prime example), and that it is not the drafting of policies which is difficult, but their implementation. It's going to be a fascinating ride.

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