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In Sarkoland


The scenario for the 2007 French presidential election was written by the foreign press and embassies before it happened. France was said to be experiencing “malaise” and decline, mired in ineffectual resistance to market economics, low growth, and high youth unemployment because of its failure to integrate its African and North African immigrants. Its economy was said to be blocked by union power and an overmanned administrative apparatus hostile to initiative. Hiring was so costly as to discourage expansion; success in business was exorbitantly taxed, forcing the rich to leave for Brussels and the ambitious young for London.

France, moreover, practiced a protectionism out of touch with global realities and its businesses were uncompetitive, other than in luxury goods. It had lost its influence in Europe through a sterile foreign policy of “grandeur” and opposition to the United States.

The election would be won by Nicolas Sarkozy, the attractive, aggressively ambitious, and hyperactive young politician who favored both American market economics and affirmative action for immigrants. Running against him was Ségolène Royal, a flaky Socialist beauty who thought she was Joan of Arc, an unmarried mother of four, inventor of a new populism that commanded little sympathy among the Socialist Party’s leaders, whom she had outmaneuvered or defeated in televised party primaries, winning the party nomination by overwhelming vote of its active supporters.

Most on the left believed her to be a closet rightist because she resisted party shibboleths and was a professional soldier’s estranged daughter who proposed boot camps for delinquents and had “La Marseillaise” sung at her campaign rallies. She was held to have no chance of winning the election because she made gaffes, particularly when traveling abroad, was no close student of international affairs, and had a temperament that would undoubtedly cause her to self-destruct; and moreover the French are political misogynists.

Neither did the other main challenger, François Bayrou, have a chance to win. He had emerged from obscurity when Royal’s poll results showed that Sarkozy could be beaten, although not perhaps by her. He was a churchgoing former classics teacher, now a horse breeder, who had taken up centrist politics as a follower of Valéry Giscard d’Estaing in the 1970s. He was regarded as an eccentric for thinking that France wished to be governed from the center. Everyone on the governing right and the Socialist left believed in a France coupé en deux, with no room in the middle.

And so it now has all come to pass as predicted—more or less—with Sarkozy winning by 53 to 47 percent. Royal did well among the young, winning 60 percent of voters between eighteen and twenty-four, 54 percent of those between twenty-five and thirty-four, and 51 percent of those between thirty-five and forty-nine. Sarkozy had a large majority among voters who were fifty and older, winning 63 percent of the vote of retirees. Among artisans, shopkeepers, and the heads of businesses he won 82 percent. He also did well among those with very low monthly incomes (less than 800 euros) and those with higher incomes (over 1,500 euros) although the differences were nowhere very great. The only income category in which there was more than a 10 percent difference each way was those with incomes over 3,000 euros a month, meaning everyone with middle-class incomes and above—and there the vote was only 57 percent Sarkozy and 43 percent Royal.

The element absent from the predicted scenario is that the “malaise” supposedly gripping France has political rather than economic origins. The economic difficulties are well known and soluble. The result of the election has bestowed on France the first frankly rightist government it has had since World War II, and devastated a Socialist Party gripped in myth and denial, opening the way to a possible reconstruction of the left on modern social-democratic terms, or as a center-left coalition.

Just before the student revolts (and accompanying events) of May 1968, Le Monde famously wrote that the country had become bored—“la France s’ennuie.” That boredom returned to France during the years leading up to this election. This is essential to an understanding of what has happened. The presidential campaign and election have now relieved the French of their boredom. No one can say that Nicolas Sarkozy is boring, nor is Ségolène Royal. Nor is France itself boring any longer; it could become quite exciting.

Its electoral events have been a leading story on international television and in the international press for a month, and even brought Washington columnists to Paris, Washington itself having become the boring place, with blocked politics and declining fortunes. Except that Washington now is haunted by human tragedy, whereas what has happened in France has been near enough to farce as to be great fun, as even the French concede. Sarkozy’s worst enemy would not trade him for Bush.

The French malaise has been a bad case of political frustration, which ended the moment the presidential campaign began. There was a national political mobilization producing 3.3 million new voter registrations, the most in a quarter-century, with particularly high numbers in immigrant neighborhoods. In both rounds of the two-stage election the voter turnout was approximately 85 percent of France’s 44 million eligible voters. The television debate between Ségolène Royal and Nicolas Sarkozy, held before the second round of voting, was watched by 20 million people, in a country whose total population of all ages—infants, invalids, the blind and the deaf included—is 62 million.

This mobilization was inspired by a nearly unanimous desire to put an end to the immobility that has gripped French politics since March 1986, when the Socialist President François Mitterrand, his party defeated in mid-term elections, and the young neo-Gaullist leader Jacques Chirac betrayed the spirit of the Fifth Republic constitution by agreeing to collaborate in governing the country. They launched “cohabitation.”

This installed complicity among the major parties and a structure of governmental irresponsibility that persisted through three episodes of cohabitation, occupying nearly half of the twenty-one years since the practice began. Five years ago, the presidential term was reduced from seven to five years by bipartisan agreement. This further diminished the symbolic and real power of the president. He was no longer an ultimate arbiter, aloof from the everyday workings of transient governments. A fundamental feature of the constitution had been that it set seven-year and five-year intervals, respectively, between presidential and parliamentary elections, in order to prevent concurrent terms. The constitution’s authors believed this essential to the distinct authority and autonomy of the president—the head of state—and the prime minister—head of government, accountable to the National Assembly.

The change from a seven-year to a five-year term in practice gave France a new kind of president, who is now effectively the head of both government and state, a change reflected in Nicolas Sarkozy’s campaign promise to play a dynamic presidential role on the American model, annually delivering a version of a state of the union address. It has also promoted the personalizing of presidential campaigns and office, in which the emphasis of press and television fosters a contest of personalities, rather than of competitive political projects and reasoned debate, always the republican ideal.1

France’s political stagnation has also been the result of the advancing age and seeming immutability of the political class. Chirac came onto the national scene in 1974. Lionel Jospin, the last Socialist prime minister and unsuccessful 2002 presidential candidate, together with nearly all of today’s (or as it now may be, yesterday’s) other leading Socialist figures, became prominent during the two presidential terms of François Mitterrand, beginning in 1981.

This actually was true even of Ségolène Royal, now fifty-three, who remained sufficiently inconspicuous in her political debut under Mitterrand as never to become one of the party’s notables, or so-called “elephants”—whom she was eventually to humiliate this year.2

Nicolas Sarkozy, who is now fifty-two, was not so inconspicuous. He was the mayor of the Paris suburb of Neuilly at the age of twenty-eight, after defeating a major “historic” Gaullist figure, Charles Pasqua, whose service to Gaullism went back to the Resistance. Elected to the National Assembly, Sarkozy was taken up by Jacques Chirac and by another senior figure, Édouard Balladur, who became François Mitterrand’s prime minister during the second cohabitation (1993–1995). Sarkozy served as Balladur’s budget minister. In 1995 he joined Balladur when the latter decided to challenge Chirac, his “friend of thirty years,” for the presidency—and lost.

This was Sarkozy’s first venture into what may be called the big time, and left him with a reputation in political circles, but not a particularly good one. However, in this youthful betrayal of Chirac he was following in his mentor’s footsteps, since Chirac’s career began and progressed by successive betrayals of Jacques Chaban-Delmas, “legitimate” Gaullist candidate for the presidency following the death of Georges Pompidou, and Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, beneficiary of the betrayal of Chaban-Delmas. In 1981 Chirac told his followers to abstain from voting for a second term for Giscard, thereby contributing to the election of François Mitterrand, whom he expected to fail to obtain reelection in 1988. But the betrayal unexpectedly paid off in 1986, when Mitterrand, after a Socialist defeat in legislative elections, made Chirac his prime minister, thereby inaugurating the era of cohabitation.

After the first round of voting this year, it came out that in 2004, while Sarkozy was still number two in the Chirac government, he suggested to Bayrou that the two “play the youth card” against Chirac, “to make him seem démodé—too old.” Bayrou says that he said no. Sarkozy denies the conversation.3

These sub-Shakespearean regicides eventually led Chirac to the Élysée Palace, as they had led others before him. However Chirac was an insider who followed the orthodox political track of military service (in the Algerian war), “Sciences Po,” and the École Nationale d’Administration, the principal training ground of French political elites, including Ségolène Royal herself. Sarkozy is an outsider, who went to a mere university (second choice for the politically ambitious) and became a lawyer with a job in the Neuilly mayor’s office.

The family history by now is well known: Sarkozy’s Hungarian refugee father married a French law student, daughter of a physician and granddaughter of a Jewish immigrant (at the age of fourteen) who had converted to Catholicism to please his French wife. Nicolas’s parents were married in 1950. A son, Guillaume, was born in 1951, Nicolas in 1955, and a third son, François, in 1957. (The brothers did not learn of their part-Jewish ancestry until the 1970s, after their grandfather’s death.) The father then moved on to other alliances and adventures, leaving the mother “without moral or financial help,” déclassé in the manner of the day, suffering the social obloquy of divorce.4

Nicolas grew up as a fatherless foreigner whose two brothers were taller and better in school than he was. He later said, “I was fashioned by the humiliations of childhood.” He today remains very close to his mother. There was a “normal” family he visited during the summers, with an established social position, a father and mother living together, and children including a son his age. The son later said, “At fourteen I saw Nicolas’s motivation develop. He spoke to me always of revenge, and I couldn’t understand why.” Nicolas decided very early to become president of the French Republic.

  1. 1

    Thus when the largest French commercial television network organized campaign broadcasts in which citizens (chosen by polling organizations) questioned the presidential candidates, nearly every person had a personal tale of woe to tell of troubles with employers or the government bureaucracy, the difficulties of existence as a handicapped person, or the consequences of some individual misfortune. The candidate was expected to deliver a sympathetic response and if possible a solution.

  2. 2

    Her biographers note the reaction in the party and press when in March 2006, having announced her presidential candidacy, she went to Chile for the inauguration of Michelle Bachelet as Chile’s first woman president rather than accompany the Socialist Party’s notables on their annual trip to the burial place of François Mitterrand. “The petite Ségo, petite minister, petite politician, petite companion to François Holland, doing petite things for petite children and for the environment, with petite local ambitions in her petite region of Poitou-Charentes,” came back from Chile as Madame Ségolène Royal, favorite of the polls for the party nomination for the presidency, already upsetting all the established campaign rules. See Marie Ève Malouines and Carl Meeus, Ségolène Royal, L’Insoumise (Paris: Fayard, 2007).

  3. 3

    Le Monde, April 27, 2007.

  4. 4

    Catherine Nay, Un Pouvoir Nommé Désir (Paris: Grasset, 2007), and Figaro Magazine, May 5, 2007.

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