Standing for re-election in April-May 2012, the French president Nicolas Sarkozy’s presidential campaign is depicted by much of the US media as extremist. The Wall Street Journal called him “Nicolas Le Pen” and The New York Times explained that “Mr Sarkozy has been fishing for far-right voters”. Nicolas Sarkozy embodies a turning point in French right-wing history. He represents the French version of what was called the “New Right” in the United States with the Reagan Revolution of the 1980s and in the United Kingdom during the Thatcher years. However, unlike Thatcherism or Reaganism, Sarkozysm is not a political ideology based on a set of ideas. It is, rather, a new way of conducting politics in France through a new political language and a new political strategy whose aim is to gain and stay in power.
The French “Old Right”, whose last leader was the former French president Jacques Chirac, was a right-wing movement that did not really assume its conservative stance. Before Nicolas Sarkozy became the leader of the main French right-wing party, the Union for a Popular Movement (UMP), in 2004, the French right-wing suffered from a kind of psychological complex regarding the republican regime. That is no longer so since the “Sarkozy Revolution” took place. The main difference between the Old and the New Right is indeed that the latter defines itself as a right-wing movement that openly defends conservative beliefs related to law and order, immigration, nation or family values without any kind of complex. It is what is termed in France “la droite décomplexée”.
The first symptom of the “Sarkozy Revolution” is the adoption by Nicolas Sarkozy and his followers (the Sarkozysts) of a new political language, supposed to be more “mean street-friendly”. Sarkozy’s followers were thus influenced by Jean-Marie Le Pen’s strategy which consists of breaking with political taboos. This is notably the case of Claude Guéant, the French minister of the Interior. His controversial statements on immigration or Islam since 2011 have led to lots of fierce debates.
The other symptom of the “Sarkozy Revolution” is the implementation of a new political strategy. He drew three main lessons from a series of difficulties the French right-wing has faced since the end of 1980s. The first one is related to the necessity of unity. Nicolas Sarkozy thought that only unity could help him gain power and that he needed a unified political party to win.
The second one is linked to the necessity of reform. Nicolas Sarkozy aimed for a break with what he described as the absolute opposition to change of his predecessors (he called it “immobilisme”). So he concluded that he had “to do the job” by advancing a reform agenda and making hard choices so as to stop France’s decline in spite of the unpopularity of such reforms. During the 2012 presidential campaign he explained that he “has done the job” that had to be done in terms of reforms: pension system, university, justice, the structure of the State with the reduction in the number of civil servants, and others.
The third lesson refers to conservatism. Two political traumas in France since the beginning of the 2000s have encouraged Nicolas Sarkozy to choose the “rightist way”: the first round of the presidential election in April 2002 when Jean-Marie Le Pen arrived in second position, and the victory of the “no” vote in the referendum on the European Constitution held in May 2005. In his mind, the French people are more conservative than we are used to thinking in France. So he considered that he could only win on a conservative stance, especially on law and order, immigration, work, gay marriage or vote of foreigners in local elections, and the support of this “France du non”.
However, just like Thatcherism or Reaganism, Sarkozysm brought about a huge political polarization in France and the same kinds of critics. Nicolas Sarkozy’s policy is thus often described, especially by the left-wing parties, as unfair, extremist and divisive. The French president is generally described by left-wing movements as the “rich people’s president”. These parties consider also that Nicolas Sarkozy adopted the main extremist ideas of the far-right on law and order, immigration, Islam or national identity and Le Pen’s strategy towards the blue collar workers. Finally, they explain that the French president’s policy tended to increase the divisions in French society. So the legacy of the “Sarkozy Revolution” remains largely uncertain and it will be seriously questioned by right-wing politicians and supporters if Nicolas Sarkozy is not re-elected in May 2012.