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…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.