Sarkozy Plays Bonaparte As He Plots His Comeback

After four frustrating years, the French President is unpopular. But as his Socialist rival, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, falters, Sarkozy may yet hang on

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En garde, La France! Despite waning popularity, Sarkozy is far from finished (Sylvain Lefevre/PA Images)

On May 6 Nicolas Sarkozy celebrated four years in office as French President. For a man with a very high opinion of himself and of his political abilities — not to mention, great ambition — this must have been a sobering experience. In the nationwide cantonal elections in March his party secured a meagre 19.3 per cent of the vote — less than four points more than the National Front (FN). The latest opinion polls indicate that Sarkozy has a 23 per cent approval rating among the electorate — down from 65 per cent at the time of his election. Scarcely a month passes by without an attempt to relaunch his presidency but still he remains deeply unpopular. Every political stunt that he tries to pull off — and there have been many of them — seemingly backfires to the advantage of his opponents. How can this loss of support be explained and what sense can we make of the Sarkozy presidency?

Sarkozy stepped into a challenging situation when he became president in 2007. If France looked and felt like a nation in decline — La France qui tombe, as the commentator Nicolas Baverez described it — all attempts to change course seemed doomed to be defeated on the streets. 

Things started to go wrong, however, in the 1970s. After thirty years of sustained economic growth — les trentes glorieuses — and over a decade of effective government following General de Gaulle’s return to power in 1958 the economy faltered and the governing right-wing coalition fractured. Unemployment and inflation rose, with President Valéry Giscard d’Estaing taking much of the blame. Hard as it might be to credit, in 1981 the Left, led by François Mitterrand, came to power with the intention of effecting a “break with capitalism”. When this plan failed and France’s national debt quadrupled in one year, there followed a policy of competitive disinflation and a strong franc. This too proved fruitless. By the mid-1990s French government spending as a proportion of GDP stood at nearly 55 per cent. The real unemployment rate was 15 to 20 per cent, with youth and long-term unemployment much higher. Even when the economy grew, it did not produce new jobs. Showing their habitual incomprehension of economic realities, successive socialist governments responded to this crisis by reducing the working week to 35 hours, lowering the retirement age and creating thousands of state-funded non-jobs. Attempts by the Right, most notably by former prime minister Alain Juppé, to cut the government deficit, reduce pension costs, and control spiralling health expenditure met with bitter defeat at the hands of striking railway workers and street demonstrations. Very few people showed themselves prepared to listen to the argument that corporatist welfare states blocked, rather than facilitated, job creation and the majority of young people continued to dream of becoming a fonctionnaire. Blame for France’s economic and social problems was repeatedly and loudly attributed to the horrors of globalisation and neoliberalism.

Yet only the most blinkered could deny that something was amiss and that the much praised (and very generous) French social welfare system was not all that it should be. Following the deaths of two young men hiding from the police at the end of 2005, France was engulfed in widespread rioting, car burning and urban mayhem.  Commentators almost universally attributed the causes of these disturbances to poor housing and job prospects among France’s ethnic minority population, for the most part cast out to the soulless banlieues. The following spring, attempts by prime minister Dominique de Villepin to free up the labour market by introducing a new employment contract for young people was met by massive demonstrations and protests. President Chirac eventually withdrew the proposal in April 2006. 

What happened next is the subject of a very readable new study by Nick Hewlett (The Sarkozy Phenomenon, Imprint Academic, £8.95). Sarkozy is certainly no ordinary politician and no ordinary President of the Republic. The son of a Hungarian immigrant, he has none of the cultured tastes displayed by Mitterrand or Chirac. He unashamedly surrounds himself with France’s wealthy business elite, famously holidaying on the luxury yacht of one of his friends after his election victory. Not for nothing is he known as President Bling-Bling. His personal life is colourful in the extreme. Following scenes worthy of a soap opera he separated from his second wife shortly after taking office and, somehow or other, managed to catch his third, the seductive Carla Bruni. Sarkozy’s powerbase remains the wealthy suburb of Neuilly-sur-Seine, to the west of Paris, and it was from there that he set out on a political career that eventually led to his takeover of the dominant party of the Right, the UMP (Union pour un Mouvement Populaire), created by his rival Jacques Chirac in 2002. Enemies have been dispatched with ruthless efficiency.

To capture a style that is at once populist and progressive, autocratic and conservative, Hewlett argues that Sarkozy might best be seen as a latter-day example of Bonapartism. The same was said of Charles de Gaulle. The beauty of this is that it allows Hewlett to suggest that the function of Sarkozy is to drive forward reforms demanded by France’s business and financial elite. If only politics were so simple. It also encourages him — in the idiom of Karl Marx — to imply that Sarkozy is a grotesque mediocrity playing a hero’s part. Many of the opponents of France’s Second Empire, including Marx, made a similar mistake when underestimating Napoleon III.

Where there can be no doubt is that Sarkozy sees himself as making a decisive break with the recent past. His electoral campaign was littered with references to rupture and the need for action. The authority of the State was to be restored. People were to be allowed to work more in order to earn more. Personal integrity was to be placed at the heart of politics. The intellectual and moral legacy of May 1968 was to be overthrown. France was to recover its sense of national identity and faith in the future. 

As Hewlett shows, to turn these slogans into reality, Sarkozy adopted decidedly     unorthodox strategies. He began by offering a series of high-profile posts to members of the mainstream Left. Bernard Kouchner, former Minister of Health in the government of Lionel Jospin, was only one of the well-known recipients. Breaking with the patriarchal mould of French politics, positions in government were found for women from ethnic minorities (though Sarkozy quickly fell out with Rachida Dati, his controversial Justice Minister). Opponents were disorientated and overwhelmed by the sheer number and range of reforms that were put forward in rapid succession. Compromises were often made but the reforms went through and the government was not derailed by demonstrations in the street or, as it turned out, in the school classroom. Legislation raising the retirement age and harmonising pension provisions between the public and private sectors was passed despite vociferous complaint from the powerful and self-interested public sector unions. 

Sarkozy has also made use of the media in a more systematic and extensive manner than any previous French president. Drawing upon his many friendships in television and publishing, not only has he willingly embraced the demands of a celebrity culture — photos of a bronzed Sarkozy on the beach being a regular summer feature — but also he has not been above attempts to intimidate his critics in the press (threatening, we are told, to punch one disrespectful journalist in the face). In effect, Sarkozy has turned his presidency into one long election campaign.

Sarkozy has also frequently mistreated and marginalised both his prime minister, François Fillon, and his government. In the French political system, prime ministers are often seen as disposable items, there to be sacrificed as the president requires, but Sarkozy has determinedly concentrated the decision-making process in the Elysée Palace. The justification has been that this is required to ensure that the necessary actions are taken and that reforms are implemented, though the results have been far from uniformly successful. In March, an open letter was published by a group of acting and retired diplomats denouncing the lack of coherence in French foreign policy. The charge was that the professionalism of the Quai d’Orsay was being undermined by the amateurs advising the president. Despite letting his intentions be widely known, Sarkozy was unable to remove Fillon from office at the end of last year. According to opinion polls, the prime minister is consistently more popular with the electorate than the president. 

Another key element of the Sarkozy strategy — and one highlighted by Hewlett — has been to take votes away from the FN. A strong vote for the FN would make securing an electoral victory a near impossibility for Sarkozy. To that end, he has talked tough on law and order, vowed to increase the number of expulsions of illegal immigrants, passed legislation outlawing the wearing of the veil, ordered the deportation of Roma and, most recently, sought to close France’s borders to Tunisian refugees. Following Sarkozy’s election, a new Ministry of Immigration and National Identity was created: after much criticism, it closed its doors in November 2010.

So how did it go wrong? In part, it is a matter of personal style. If the French are generally cynical about their politicians, they expect their presidents to behave with an element of decorum. Sarkozy’s willingness to trade insults with those he meets and to further the interests of his own family have gone down very badly. Progress has been made in liberalising the economy but the official unemployment rate remains at just below 10 per cent and growth for this year is predicted to be only 1.5 per cent. The latest figures show that 43 per cent of young males are unemployed. If the majority of the population support plans to reform the taxation system and believe that taxes are too high, there is equally a sense that the changes introduced by Sarkozy are unfair. Handing back €30 million of tax to France’s richest woman, Liliane Bettencourt, did little to correct this impression. Nor has the aspiration to increase take-home pay reaped dividends. Thanks to the recession and increases in food and energy prices most households are worse off than when Sarkozy was elected.

General incompetence and routine corruption have also played their part in diminishing Sarkozy’s credibility. If a succession of scandals has dogged his presidency from the outset, none has been more damaging than that associated with the recently departed Michèle Alliot-Marie. A foreign minister taking her Christmas holidays in Tunisia while a corrupt regime totters, and then lying about it, has done little to enhance Sarkozy’s claims to restore integrity to politics. Subsequent developments in Libya, Egypt and Syria only served to expose long-standing French support for the repressive regimes of the region.

More alarming still for Sarkozy is the fact that he has not seen off the electoral challenge of the extreme Right. Indeed, under the new leadership of Marine Le Pen the threat posed by the FN appears to have grown; recent opinion polls indicate that she might secure most votes in the first round of the next presidential ballot and that the FN is now taking votes from Sarkozy’s own party. In a country where about half the population sees Islam as a threat, comparing Muslims praying in the streets to the German occupation has done nothing to diminish Marine Le Pen’s popularity.

Where, as election year approaches, does Sarkozy go from here? If he has not yet declared his candidacy, it is an open secret that he will run. His loyal supporters and advisers are in place and are ready to mastermind his campaign. His tone is now less Atlanticist and more protectionist. He is already positioning himself as the defender of France’s national interests. But can he win back the support of a sceptical and disillusioned electorate? How far can he go in proposing populist measures to reverse the growth in support for Le Pen without also alienating the centrist votes he needs to carry him to a second victory? 

The evidence so far is not encouraging. If his poll ratings remain low, will any other figures from the Right be prepared to challenge him? This is hard to guess but few parties like to back a certain loser and Sarkozy has many enemies who would relish playing a part in his downfall. Where then do his hopes lie? More likely than not, with his opponents in the French socialist party. After years of bitter infighting, the socialists have yet to choose a presidential candidate but when they do they are more than likely to make a mess of it, tearing themselves apart in the process. The arrest of Dominique Strauss-Kahn on charges of sexual assault threatens to deprive them of their best potential candidate, with disastrous consequences for the party. The fallout from this political explosion is still uncertain. Despite an unpopular wife, despite the vulgar tastes, despite the diplomatic disasters, despite the policy failures, it is far too early to write off Nicolas Sarkozy.