French politics: Solutions for Grandeur

Marc Perelman – Foreign Policy

Copyright Foreign Policy
Posted July 2005
Nicolas Sarkozy has become the most popular French politician by diving headfirst into the country’s most explosive political issues. If he has his way, this hyperactive, pro-American, Gaullist, free marketer will transform French politics for good.
Nicolas Sarkozy
Reason to smile: Nicolas Sarkozy, the French
right’s most popular politican, is positioned
well for a 2007 presidential bid.
When Arnold Schwarzenegger was elected governor of California in 2003, all French politicians sneered, except one. For Nicolas Sarkozy, the leader of a center-right Gaullist party and the son of a Hungarian refugee, the rise to power of the Austrian-born Hollywood star was a sure sign of modernity. Commenting soon after Schwarzenegger’s election victory, Sarkozy said, “ [that] someone who’s a foreigner in his country, who has an unpronounceable name and can become governor of the biggest American state—that is not nothing!”
Over the past three years, Sarkozy has become one of France’s most popular politicians by pushing reform, fighting crime, talking straight, and injecting progressive ideas into the ruling center-right party, the Union for a Popular Movement (UMP). A politician who often runs against the grain, Sarkozy has challenged his fellow citizens’ views on immigration, social welfare, and tax relief, and told them that, in some cases, France should look abroad for its inspiration to Prime Minister Tony Blair’s Britain and, yes, even President George W. Bush’s America. His emergence has breathed new life into France’s ossified political landscape where the same leaders have been holding sway for decades. And his ultimate ambition couldn’t be more clear: The 50-year-old politician, whose boyish energy and penchant for fidgeting has earned him the nickname “Speedy,” is hoping that French voters will show a California-like openness and make him France’s next president. Indeed, in 2003, he broke with French tradition by openly declaring his presidential ambitions and igniting a feud with his mentor, President Jacques Chirac. When I asked him about his political coming-out in a country where discretion is often preferred to ambition, he threw his arms up in the air: “What can I say? I’m ambitious. It’s true. Should I pretend otherwise?”
Maybe. Such ambition has earned Sarkozy a fair number of detractors. His critics bemoan his arrogance. Some say he is simply a political animal, with no moral center. Others claim his originality is more a matter of tone than substance. There may be some truth to the charges, but pollsters and politicians from all sides acknowledge he has struck a chord with the French people—as his sky-high approval ratings show. When asked in recent polls whether they would like to see Sarkozy play a greater role in politics, 49 percent of the French said yes, which is more support than any other French politician enjoys. “There is clearly a Sarkozy phenomenon,” says his close friend and fellow Gaullist legislator Patrick Balkany. “He has utterly outfashioned all other politicians.” But the political rise of Nicolas Sarkozy may be no passing trend.
More than any other mainstream politician, Sarkozy is acutely aware that the era of French politics as usual is over, and that an increasing number of frustrated French voters either stay home or vote for extremists on election days. By sprucing up his core conservative agenda with audacious proposals to shake up the ailing French egalitarian model and by conveying them in simple words—a rarity in the somnolent world of French politics—he is creating a modern image. Unlike Chirac and other political leaders who are licking their wounds in the wake of the devastating non vote on the European constitution in late May, Sarkozy, despite campaigning for the “yes,” is positioning himself as a possible last resort against the rise of extremist parties. He has recently returned to the post of interior minister, the position that propelled him to political stardom a couple of years ago. He also retains his job as chief of the UMP and plans to use both positions to bolster his credentials for the 2007 French presidential election. If elected, Sarkozy would be France’s first baby boomer president. His advent would likely mark the end of an era of monarchic-style presidency and the ushering in of a more modest version of the office, one that’s more in tune with the French people and more in harmony with France’s position as a middle-tier power on the world stage.
A Reformer’s Roots
Sarkozy’s dual impulse to distinguish himself and yearn for approval can be traced to his family roots. His Hungarian father fled the communists at the end of World War II and ended up in Paris, where he married the daughter of a Greek émigré surgeon. The marriage was short-lived, and Sarkozy’s mother worked hard to give, on her own, a typical bourgeois Parisian education to her three sons. “I like the frame of mind of those who need to build everything because nothing was given to them,” he says when asked about his upbringing. “I quickly learned that in the swimming pool, I had to learn to swim on my own.” He also realized that in order to propel the political career he chose to pursue in his early 20s, he would need a strong local base and patronage. He found them, respectively, in the plush Paris suburb of Neuilly and in Jacques Chirac—even though he now insists “Chirac never gave me anything.”
In 1983, the 28-year-old Sarkozy outwitted a local party heavyweight in Neuilly to become France’s youngest mayor, famously uttering, “I’ve screwed them all!” on the night of his election victory. Sarkozy’s vivacious intellect and gift of oratory caught Chirac’s eye, and he took Sarkozy under his wing. Sarkozy, in some ways, became the son Chirac never had. Sarkozy was a key political advisor to Chirac during the 1988 presidential campaign, and he stood with him when other Gaullists tried to take control of the party after Chirac lost the election to Socialist François Mitterrand.
After the right won the legislative elections in 1993, Sarkozy became budget minister in the government of fellow Gaullist Prime Minister Edouard Balladur, with the understanding that they would all work for Chirac’s presidential run in 1995. But the symbiotic Sarkozy-Chirac relationship soured when Balladur, riding high in the polls, decided to run himself, and Sarkozy became his main underling, launching withering attacks on the Chirac camp. Sarkozy the prodigal son had morphed into Sarkozy the traitor. After winning the fratricidal competition, Chirac shunned Sarkozy, even reportedly urging his supporters to step on the young politician to bring themselves good luck.
An Interior Presence
If politics led to their split, it was politics that brought them back together. After Chirac blundered by calling snap parliamentary elections in 1997 that his party ended up losing, he gingerly accepted Sarkozy’s return to the Gaullist leadership, allowing him to run the party campaign for the 1999 European elections. After capturing only 13 percent of the vote in a stinging defeat, Sarkozy heeded Chirac’s advice and took some time off politics. During his “journey through the desert,” he wrote a book, Libre, (Free) in which he owned up to his brash and impatient tendencies but also set forth an ambitious political program—a program that ended up serving as a basis for Chirac’s reelection platform in 2002.
But all wasn’t forgiven. After his victory, Chirac passed over Sarkozy for the prime ministership and instead offered him the top job at the Interior Ministry, which oversees police forces, elections, and religious institutions. Sarkozy quickly set aside his disappointment and saw his new post as an opportunity to address crime, his fellow French’s utmost concern and the main reason why nearly 20 percent of them voted for far-right leader Jean-Marie Le Pen at the polls. In short order, Sarkozy directed crackdowns on crime, illegal immigrants, prostitution, and vagrants, and boosted the low morale of the police with his ubiquitous presence on the ground. These actions earned him particularly strong support from the right and far right, where he is nearly as popular as Le Pen.
At the same time (and more important for a conservative with presidential aspirations), he reached out to a sizable proportion of center-left sympathizers. He relaxed implementation of the so-called double penalty law, which ensured that illegal immigrants sentenced to jail would be automatically deported after serving their time, a measure first advocated by the left. He also reached out to the disenfranchised Muslim community by giving it an official voice and by advocating drastic measures to jumpstart its lagging integration. In another nod to the left during his brief stint as finance minister, he set aside his free-market beliefs and convinced supermarket bosses to lower prices to boost consumption.
Sarkozy burst into the limelight during a live, primetime television program in November 2003. After showcasing his rhetorical skills in a debate against Le Pen and Islamic intellectual Tariq Ramadan, he stunned the French audience by bluntly admitting later in the show that he was considering a future presidential bid. Soon after the program, he began publicly challenging Chirac’s authority in ways unheard of for a French government minister, belittling the president’s fondness for sumo and stressing at every occasion Chirac’s old age and monarchic ways.
The tension climaxed last summer during the president’s traditional Bastille Day television interview when a visibly exasperated Chirac, when asked about his unruly minister, blurted: “I decide, he executes.” He eventually forced Sarkozy, who had moved to the Finance Ministry a few months earlier, to choose between staying in government and taking the reins of the UMP. Sarkozy chose the latter.
Although he is now obliged to support a president from his own camp, Sarkozy, through surrogates, is actively seeking to thwart a Chirac candidacy—it would be his fifth run—by depicting the 72-year-old president as a has-been who stands little chance of winning. “It is just unthinkable to tell the French, ?Elect me and I will be 80 when I finish my mandate,’” Yves Jego, a legislator and Sarkozy ally, says of Chirac. “Moreover, he runs a great chance of losing. And you don’t want to have spent twelve years as president and leave on a defeat. This is why I think Chirac will not run.”
Chirac’s popularity is flagging, especially in the wake of the “no” vote on the European Union (EU) constitution. The president is seen as the main culprit for the referendum fiasco, and his appeals to grandeur and lofty ideals revealed how out of touch he has become with voters more concerned with concrete issues such as incomes, jobs, and schools. Although Chirac will likely wait until next year to announce his decision whether he will run again, polls show 72 percent of the French people oppose a Chirac reelection bid. Sarkozy, by contrast, can claim that he effectively rallied his party behind the “yes” vote. He can argue, as he already has, that the referendum result only strengthens his belief that France needs a major overhaul of its economic and social policies. Moreover, he is by far the most popular minister in the new government appointed by Chirac after the referendum and, in a clear indication of the shifting balance of power, he has been able to remain at the helm of the UMP—precisely what Chirac had forbidden him from doing a year ago.
To further bolster his position, he has proposed that, for the first time, the party’s presidential candidate be chosen in a popular primary rather than by the party leadership. That prompted furious reactions from Chirac loyalists who argue that the move would break with the party custom of choosing the incumbent if he decides to run again. Still, Sarkozy prevailed, and, unless another Gaullist figure emerges, he is the early favorite to win his party’s nomination for the 2007 race.
A Pro-American in Paris
Even in style and persona, Sarkozy strays off the beaten path of French politics. Short and dark haired, he is the inverse of the tall and balding Chirac. His grave, hoarse voice and steady tone evince a steely determination. Opinion polls show that Sarkozy’s straight talk and pragmatism, as well as his avowed passion for the Tour de France, soccer, and popular artists endear him to the average voter. Unlike most of his peers, Sarkozy is a lawyer by training and did not attend the country’s elite national school of administration whose alumni often struggle to connect with French society.
Traditionalists who decry Sarkozy’s style see deeper danger in his substance: a pro-American free marketer who threatens to undermine not only France’s economic model but also the secular fabric of French society. “I don’t have a reference book in which I will find the solution to all problems,” Sarkozy says. “I try to be pragmatic and efficient. Maybe in that sense I am Anglo-Saxon.”
Although he is careful to stress that he does not see eye-to-eye with President Bush on many issues, he is unabashedly pro-American. “I like America and the Americans a lot and I say it. Do I need help, doctor?” he quips, raising his eyebrows. “Some of my friends tell me not to talk about it so [loudly]. Why? I don’t get it.”
He expressed similar warm feelings in April 2004 when, in an obvious stab at the reviled Chirac, the Bush administration rolled out the red carpet for Sarkozy, who met with Condoleezza Rice and Colin Powell during his visit. Of course, he knows the dangers of appearing too close to a U.S. administration that has confirmed many of the worst French fears of what an American superpower could be. Several close associates say that although he supported France’s opposition to the war in Iraq, Sarkozy has privately said that Paris’s use of its veto threat at the U.N. Security Council in the lead-up to the invasion of Iraq was a mistake. He has not crossed that line in public, however, out of respect for the president’s primacy in foreign policy and probably because he realizes the decision is one of the most popular Chirac has taken in years.
But, in many other ways, Sarkozy is taking a page out of the American playbook. To remedy France’s tepid growth, he has proposed lower taxes and a relaxation of the 35-hour workweek. His policy prescriptions, as well as long-standing personal ties to the country’s top CEOs, have earned him the trust of the business community. “He is one of the few French politicians for whom a business success story is not suspect,” says construction magnate Martin Bouygues, who is an old acquaintance.
Still, Sarkozy knows that advocating the streamlining of the comprehensive social welfare system that the French cherish is politically risky, if not suicidal. Part of the “no” vote was indeed driven by fears that a free-market-oriented EU would subsume the French welfare state. This is why Sarkozy used his short stint as finance minister last year to shed his “pro-market” image by supporting state intervention to help French companies. He is also careful to couch his pro-market discourse in moral terms, lamenting the lack of respect for “the France that wakes up early,” and the “sclerosis” that has kept the unemployment rate at around 10 percent for more than two decades.
Political opponents, of course, say such actions are cynical ploys. Alain Bergounioux, a senior official with the Socialist Party, which will likely field the main challenger to the Gaullist candidate in 2007, branded Sarkozy’s efforts to project a more progressive image as mere window-dressing by a wily politician fishing for crucial centrist swing votes.
To be sure, Sarkozy is not the first and only French politician to advocate economic liberalism and closer ties to Washington. But he is the first one to cater so carefully to “special interests”—such as unions, entrepreneurs and, most controversially, religious and ethnic groups—rather than the “general interest” invoked by most French leaders. Michel Maffesoli, a prominent sociologist at the Sorbonne, says that is exactly what makes Sarkozy popular. “He is the only French postmodern politician,” says Maffesoli. “He does not mind groups and understands instinctively the mosaical nature of today’s society, where the ideal is less integration than juxtaposition.”
Sarkozy, for example, has openly courted Jewish and Muslim groups and built a strong following in both communities. While interior minister, he led the fight against a surge in anti-Semitic incidents, denouncing them forcefully and ordering swift police action against perpetrators. Similarly, in 2002, Sarkozy played a pivotal role in the creation of a representative body for the country’s disenfranchised Muslim community. He has controversially proposed public financing of mosques and training of imams (to sever their ties to foreign funders) by modifying France’s bedrock 1905 law strictly separating church and state. But his most daring move is undoubtedly his advocacy of a limited but comprehensive set of “positive discrimination” (affirmative action) measures, a major departure in the land of equality. “I think some people accumulate so many handicaps that if the state does not help them, they have no chance of making it,” he explains, sarcastically adding: “So you could end up having colored ministers? Now that is shocking!”
While interior minister, Sarkozy appointed a Muslim as chief administrative official of one of France’s 22 regions, a decision his critics mocked as cosmetic. He told me he intended to prove his commitment to diversity by opening up the overwhelmingly white ranks of the UMP to French citizens of foreign origin. Those actions explain why he may well end up being the first French politician to attract an ethnic vote by luring both Jews and Muslims. Sarkozy rejects any notion that his actions are driven by petty politics or that they represent a threat to the secular and egalitarian French society. He claims he is merely trying to provide innovative answers to France’s glaring failure to integrate and promote the latest generation of mostly African and Arab immigrants.
On the related and equally sensitive issue of immigration reform, Sarkozy has proposed a quota system based on the needs of France’s labor market—again, another idea borrowed from the United States. Illegal immigration, combined with high unemployment, crime, and the rise of radical Islam in the volatile suburbs of France’s large cities, has been the main reason why Le Pen’s extreme-right National Front has regularly garnered 15 percent of the vote over the past 20 years.
Sarkozy is quick to note that since he brought up and openly discussed many controversial questions, most notably the immigration quotas, his fellow politicians have rushed forward to offer their own views on topics they have studiously avoided for years. “A politician with no novel ideas serves no purpose,” he told me, adding a moment later, with a smirk: “I must say my fellow politicians are granting me a wonderful space to operate.”
Going Somewhere Fast
Despite his popularity, it’s still unclear where exactly Speedy is headed. Stéphane Rozès of the polling institute CSA compares Sarkozy to Napoleon during the famous Arcole bridge battle, in which Napoleon charged ahead urging his soldiers to trust him despite not knowing what was on the other side. “Sarkozy charges ahead, begs his supporters to follow him and defy adversity but he does not tell them what lies ahead,” says Rozès. “In his mind, the movement creates the destination.”
Although many of his supporters urged him not to join the government after the referendum (fearing that he would be tainted by his new association with the unpopular Chirac), Sarkozy has once again shown his contrarian colors by deciding to jump onboard, both to regain a prominent position and to dispel any notion that he is refusing to help his struggling camp in trying times. Now back at the Interior Ministry, he is determined to enforce a zero-tolerance policy on crime that will enhance his appeal on the right. But, in order to burnish his popularity across the board, he has signaled that he is eager to push for change, especially on immigration policy, even if his proposals don’t conform to the UMP party line. And, in keeping with his ambitious and outspoken persona, he has already indicated that he plans to leave the government in January 2007 to prepare for the presidential election that spring.
Sarkozy is convinced France is ready for a change and in dire need of it. When asked if a young, pragmatic, urbane, son of an immigrant with a funny name could reach the political pinnacle of a country where presidents tend to have old rural roots and embody a certain idea of “grandeur,” he simply smiles. It would not be nothing.
Marc Perelman is a staff writer at the Forward.


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