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Sarkozy's dangerous Mitterandian games with the National Front

President Nicolas Sarkozy lost two districts to the French National Front in cantonal elections at the week-end. His UMP party have been encouraging the Front's resurgence in a dangerous move that is depressingly familiar to observers of French politics

The great success of Nicolas Sarkozy as candidate for the Presidency of France in 2007 was to mobilise a constituency for change.  He was, finally, elected for one reason only: He was the candidate who seemed best equipped to make life different and better for the French.  He brought tremendous energy, intelligence and courage – do not underestimate his capacities – to the task.   The tremendous failure of Sarkozy is that he and his closest advisors have wasted these gifts.

On Sunday the Front National polled 11% of the total vote in nationwide county elections. Of course, the largest single block of voters, 55 % of registered electors, were those who stayed at home. Hervé Gattegno, editor in chief of the weekly Le Point, called the Front’s score a “categorical defeat,” because it won only two races.  But for the first time, the Front won in races where the majority rules. Its previous electoral successes came through proportional votes, for municipal or regional councils or the European parliament, and it is no coincidence that the party’s program calls for proportional voting at every level of government.  For the first time the Front has shown that it can attract a majority of voters.

This is one sign among many that the Presidency of Sarkozy is sinking.  If he succeeds in gaining re-election in 2012, it will be as a discredited leader.  His popularity ratings are about 30 %, a record low for a modern French President.  The French no longer believe his promises. He promised to help them to become wealthier, and they feel poorer.  He promised to make them more secure, and their country is becoming more violent.  He promised to make their society more fair, and it appears less and less so.  He is not the sole vector of these forces, but he is helping to drive them.  

Sarkozy’s great policy success before the Presidency was to reduce the dreadful carnage on France’s roads by harrowing drunk drivers.  That made life less “convivial” in a country where long dinners raise one’s blood alcohol, but it saved lives.  What happened to that justifiable campaign is symbolic of what has happened in France since his election.  Bad drivers were demonised: billboards denounced the authors of fatal accidents as “criminals of the road”, and television ads warned, “There are no small infractions of road laws.”  Drivers who were stopped by the police and protested swelled the ranks of the 800,000 French, a record number, who were annually subjected to the “garde à vue”, a day-long stay in jail for questioning.  But in a case involving the son of Prime Minister François Fillon, prosecutors declined to pursue the matter and a scandal erupted. On one side, the image of privilege and impunity; on the other, a nation of suspects.  Thus is the moral capital of a leader squandered.

Sarkozy also promised, if only implicitly, to end the threat that the extreme right will ever rule France again.   He did not owe his election or his ability to govern to the Front, the historic party of Jean-Marie Le Pen that is now led by his daughter Marine.  He created an electoral majority by persuading voters who previously supported the Front to support his UMP party instead.  Now, by design or error, he risks creating an electoral majority for the extreme right.  

He is not the first modern French leader to help it grow.  In the early 1980s , President François Mitterrand deliberately promoted Jean-Marie Le Pen, then an electoral nobody, in order to divide the Right - using electoral reform and the State’s television networks to great effect.  It worked, but it also created a structural political feature.  The Front was never just a toy or a tool.  Its growth survived Mitterrand, and it humiliated his successors on the Left in 2002. That year the Front came in second in the first round of presidential voting, and thus shut the Socialists out of the final round, when only two candidates compete.  

Now Sarkozy  and his closest advisor, Claude Guéant, Minister of the Interior and of Immigration (and a couple of other portfolios of no interest here), are likewise playing with the Front, or more precisely, with its ideology.  They have chosen to define immigration and identity as the key challenges facing France, as the Front has loudly done for three decades.

The Left made this mistake, too.  In the 1980s, Mitterand’s culture minister, Jack Lang, sought to ensure the support of the media and cultural elites by attacking “American cultural imperialism.”  To do so, he supported French filmmakers under the charge that Hollywood was undercutting the “national identity.”  He thus created a zone where the Front could claim that its own rhetoric was mainstream: If foreigners on a screen are dangerous for the French, what about foreigners in the street?  The Front’s ideologues happily quoted Lang in posing as defenders of a national identity whose imminent demise can reasonably be considered a joke or a fiction.  

Yet Sarkozy’s government keeps placing “national identity” at the top of their agenda, despite loud warnings.  Last year what was supposed to be a massive national debate on the subject, led by former Socialist and Minister of Immigration and the National Identity Eric Besson, became a public relations disaster.   Nonetheless, in the weeks preceding this election Guéant repeatedly evoked the theme, and the ruling UMP party has placed a national debate on “Secularism (Laïcité) and Islam” on its program for April 4.  

Why are they still trying to drive this bent nail into the lid of their own political coffin? One may observe that, faced with an economic crisis that their “reforms” have not mitigated, and whose consequences include the rapid degradation of model social policies in health, transportation and education, Sarkozy’s government seems to lack ideas.  Better, then, to talk about something else.  The debate on national identity was likewise a decoy for the Left, to cover them from charges that they were too soft on immigrants by showing that they weren’t scared of the Yankees.   

One may also observe that during the 2007 campaign, Sarkozy sought the counsel of Karl Rove, George W. Bush’s chief strategist. Rove’s chief innovation in the art of democracy was the theory of “wedge issues.”  It is, in fact, a novel approach to a fundamental difficulty of democracy, namely the construction of a sufficient consensus in favour of change.  Rove evacuated that difficulty from political strategy: Rather than seek to build a majority, it is simpler to promote divisive issues that shatter and fragment possible sources of opposition.  The long term result, of course, is a higher level of social dissension (if not violence), but by the time these results emerge, someone else will be in office.  

Sarkozy, too, is using foreignness as a wedge.  His government’s assault last summer on Romanian migrants was an ideal example.  Of course not all manouches are thieves and traffickers.  But they are not always great neighbours, either.  One example: The French clochards in my neighbourhood were driven out by a gang of Romanian beggars, and the gang used muscle.  That doesn’t mean that all Romanians in France should be rounded up like cattle and shipped to camps in boxcars or home in “charters”.  It does mean that such a campaign can divide the opposition, caught between its convictions and electors who have had unpleasant encounters with conspicuous strangers.  

Over time this strategy makes a government less powerful, chained in its own contradictions.   This government’s mishandling of the Tunisian revolution shows how.  It was bad enough that then-Minister of Foreign Affairs Michèle Alliot-Marie was accepting favours from Ben Ali as the population rose against him, and worse enough that when push came to bloody shove her response was to offer Ben Ali “our know-how” in crowd control.  It was no improvement when Sarkozy’s new ambassador to Tunisia first promised a handout, then brutally insulted a Tunisian reporter who quite legitimately asked him to comment on Alliot-Marie’s misadventures. But during the county campaign, the government seized on rumours of a coming wave of Tunisian and Libyan refugees (note that even Italy was hardly submerged) to make clear that its tolerance for freedom seekers stops at the border.  Claude Guéant declared that “because of uncontrolled immigration, the French sometimes feel like they’re no longer at home.”   Anyone who can read Francophone newspapers can see that damaged relations with Africa and the Maghreb are part of the payoff.

This policy is working neither at home nor abroad.  Yet “Sarko’s Boys”, as they’re called, persist in their error.  No doubt, like the Socialists before them, they are betting that the Front National can never be a serious adversary.  The Socialists paid for that arrogance in 2002.  Sarkozy may pay an even higher price.  He may be betting that the Socialists will remain impotent and incompetent, and that Marine will eliminate them from the 2012 presidential election just as her father eliminated them in 2002.  Then Sarkozy will face off with Marine, and bien sûr, of course he will win, because a majority of the French will not vote for the extreme right.  

Never mind that in two counties, they have just done so. The districts carried by the National Front are North Carpentras in the Vaucluse county, and Brignoles in the Var.  The latter county is home to many French refugees from the former colony of Algeria, and the FN has always done well there.  Carpentras, as Marine Le Pen noted, is the shocker.  In 1990 the Front was accused -- wrongly, as it turned out -- of responsibility for the profanation of a Jewish cemetery there.  Carpentras lives off agriculture, and farmers became bulwarks of the Front in the 1990s, when it became clear that the European Union was costing them, and especially small farmers, more than it gave back to them in subsidies.  The FN loudly despises the EU and wants to renegotiate its fundamental treaties.   That used to be a radical position, but not since the Euro came along, and with it price increases that gouged the finances of French households.  

Carpentras shows that the EU issue can help the FN win. This casts some doubt on Sarkozy’s assumption that his UMP will always beat the FN.  The Front’s score was only 8 percentage points behind Sarkozy’s UMP.  If it keeps rising, and Sarkozy keeps falling, it may be the UMP that is knocked out first in 2012.  

The Front is not going to make the presidential race easier for someone else to win.  It will hit below the belt, as it did when Marine accused Minister of Culture Frédéric Mitterrand (the late President’s nephew) of pederasty on the basis of a novel he wrote.  (He denied the charge, maladroitly but convincingly, if one was ready to hear him.)  It will hammer on corruption and undue privilege, and there is some to hammer on.   It will have these issues largely to itself, because its opponents prefer to believe that these are not systemic problems, just anecdotal peccadilloes.  Never mind that Sarkozy’s governments have been wracked by conflicts of interest and unseemly advantages, like the 12,000 euros worth of cigars to which former minister Christian Blanc treated himself with taxpayers’ money.   That is bad behaviour at any time, but it is revolting in a time of crisis and sacrifice.

Meanwhile, the Front’s ideologues are increasingly acting as if the next election is about the economy, not immigration.  Their economic policy is changing before our eyes (to be precise, at www.frontnational.com).  The Front used to rage about the money wasted on parasites in the State, in particular judges and teachers. Now it is calling to give them raises and hire more of them.  This is a key program feature of France’s extreme Left, and its adoption by the Front is both opportunistic and historic.
At this writing, the Front’s cadres are working on a fuller economic program, and it will certainly be the cornerstone of their campaign for 2012.  They are going to promise that they can create jobs for anyone who deserves one.  (Their definition of “deserve” will begin, of course, with being provably French.)  Their conviction and confidence will be attractive to many voters.  So will the fact that politics is about ideas, and the Socialists and Sarkozy aren’t showing theirs yet.     Whether the Front’s ideas can work is another matter, but one hears a lot of the French saying lately, “They can’t be any worse.”

Their advance would be a dreadful tragedy of Sarkozy, who
clearly wants to be remembered as a great French and world leader.
The Front’s renaissance compromises France’s future, because the
Front’s culture is founded on an elitism of caste, race and ambition.
France is hardening and being hardened by the politics of exclusion;
thus the Front looks closer to society than it really is.  Sarkozy
does not bear sole responsibility for that shift.  But he is certainly
helping it along, and time to define another path is running out.

About the author

Mark Lee Hunter is Adjunct Professor and Senior Research Fellow at the INSEAD Social Innovation Centre. He was a participant in openDemocracy's New News Seminar He is the author of Story-Based Inquiry: A Manual for Investigative Journalists (UNESCO 2009), Un Américain au Front: Enquête au sein du Front National (Paris: Stock, 1998)  and a founding member of the Global Investigative Journalism Network.


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