Okay, the above image is un tantinet démagogique but it reflects my general sentiment about the current Président de la République, who I sincerely hope will cease to be after tomorrow’s vote. I am not a fan of Nicolas Sarkozy, c’est le moins que l’on puisse dire. But it wasn’t always so. Though a lifelong man of the left (moderate; gauche sociale-libérale in France) I went through a period—from 2002 to 2007, to be precise—during which I had a certain admiration for Sarkozy, when I thought he was one of the more interesting personalities in French politics. Un peu d’histoire.
I first became aware of Sarkozy’s existence in 1991, a year I mainly spent in Paris though was not yet settled here. He was an opposition deputy and already a presence on TV. I took an immediate dislike to him. It was visceral more than reasoned, though I was clearly not going to be favorably disposed toward him in view of his politics. And nothing about him over the subsequent years—when he was Edouard Balladur’s porte-parole and then RPR porte-flingue in opposing Lionel Jospin’s gauche plurielle government—caused me to revise my view. But then I saw him speak in person. In January 2002 I found a flyer in my mailbox announcing a rally in a neighboring banlieue for the “Union en mouvement,” which was President Chirac’s project to create a single big tent party of the parliamentary right and center, merging his neo-Gaullist RPR with the DL, Nouvelle UDF, Radicaux valoisiens, and other non-FN fragments of the right (and which came into existence that spring as the UMP; all but François Bayrou’s rump faction of the UDF and Philippe de Villiers’ souverainistes joining). The announced speakers were Alain Juppé, Sarkozy, Jean-Pierre Raffarin—who would be appointed prime minister in four months time—, Philippe Douste-Blazy, and Jean-François Mattei. I decided to check it out. The rally was on January 22nd, with several hundred people in attendance in the large meeting hall. A few days later I wrote the following in an email to a friend and fellow political science comparativist
I was amazed at the moderation, indeed sophistication, of [the speakers’] discourse – on immigration, insecurity, and other issues – and the hard-line taken toward the extreme right. And they were speaking to their own people – to the militants and the faithful – not to TV cameras [which were not present] or a larger public. If only Republicans in the US could be so reasonable!
I never thought I could be so impressed with politicians of the right. But the one who impressed me the most was Sarkozy. He had been in a traversée du desert since biting the dust in the 1999 European elections and Chirac’s trying to keep him in a deep freeze on account of his betrayal in the ’95 campaign—ditching his longtime mentor Chirac for Balladur—, so hadn’t been heard from much over the previous couple of years. He began his speech by informing the audience that “we were in error,” that the mainstream right had made a big mistake in hardening its rhetoric on immigration in a failed effort to win back voters from the Front National. I was amazed to hear this from him, and all the more so as he received no applause for it and certainly did not expect to. He was telling his own a few home truths about how it was not a good thing to chase after the FN by imitating its discourse. Wow! Sarkozy gave the impression that he had done some serious thinking and reflecting on the issue during his spell in the political wilderness. I henceforth viewed him differently and more favorably.
During his first stint as minister of interior (2002-04), when he was omnipresent in the media, he was by far the most interesting personality in French politics at the time, and was certainly seen that way by the public in view of the record audience figures for his appearances on France 2’s marathon prime time interview show ‘100 minutes pour convaincre’ (even a left-wing, Sarko-loathing very close member of my family would watch them to the end, which she did for no other politician). The most remarkable one was on November 20, 2003, when Sarkozy famously made clear his presidential ambitions (here) and shot down Jean-Marie Le Pen in a face-to-face confrontation, and defending nationality law based on jus soli in the process (here; this one is really worth watching). Of course Sarkozy had a tough-guy, law-and-order posture at the time, not to mention an approach toward immigration issues well to the right of mine; one could hardly expect any less from an interior minister/top cop in a government of the right. But it didn’t bother me too much, as I had in mind his January 2002 speech but also his most interesting 2004 interview book La République, les religions, l’espérance, where, among other things, he explicated some interesting and original ideas on the integration of Islam (the US think tank journal Policy Review had a review of it here). Hardly anyone read the book, though which did not prevent lefties and others howling with indignation at Sarkozy’s supposed scheme to undermine laïcité. Poppycock. And then there was his support, alone on the right (and since repudiated), for the droit de vote for longtime non-EU residents in local elections—an idea that I oppose, BTW—which indicated a certain ouverture d’esprit.
When Sarkozy returned to the interior ministry in 2005 he was roundly denounced for his trash talking that June in La Courneuve’s Cité des 4000 after a boy was killed by a stray bullet in a shootout between drug dealing gangs—announcing that he was going to clean up the place with a Kärcher (which I found amusing myself)—and above all for the (in)famous “racaille” incident during his nocturnal visit to the cité in Argenteuil in October of that year, a few days before the banlieue riots broke out. As it turned out, the media did not accurately report what had happened in Argenteuil that night. Sarkozy’s words were uttered in a specific context, as was reported ten days later in an analysis of the event on ARTE’s excellent media watchdog show ‘Arrêt sur images’, which aired on Sundays at 12:30 pm (see here and here). Sarkozy clearly got a bum rap for the racaille business but only those who saw the ‘Arrêt sur images’ report—and hardly anyone did—would have known that (and ironie du sort, ‘Arrêt sur images’ was ejected from the airwaves after Sarkozy’s election in 2007, existing now only on the Internet, where its already minuscule audience has been further reduced). Sarkozy should have actually come out of his improvised Argenteuil visit looking good but fate would have it otherwise. And for the left he was demonized more than ever.
The Sarkozy hatred on the left had become unhinged. It was as virulent as the Bush hatred on the US left, or the Clinton and now Obama hatred on the right. E.g. a highly intelligent academic friend—who is a professional historian of France to boot—was outright worried about a Sarkozy victory in the presidential election, fearing that he could actually impose some kind of fascistic authoritarian regime. This was typical on the left. I defended Sarkozy with my lefty friends and family members but didn’t manage to change many minds. There were, however, two Sarko detractors I did listen to, both of whom knew him personally. One, a personal friend of mine, was a high-level functionary in the ministry of interior—working on the Islam/immigration dossier—and who had collaborated with every interior minister from 1997 onward. He told me flat out that Sarkozy was temperamentally unfit to be president. Over lunch one day in December 2005 I argued against his antisarkozysme; while he conceded many of my points he did not change his overall attitude (which I came to appreciate from late 2007 on; more on that below). The other was a prominent academic specialist of immigration policy, who had also dealt with Sarkozy and polemicized with him in the press during those years (and with Sarkozy personally responding to him). In December 2006, when I favorably commented on Sarkozy’s Islam policy to him, particularly Sarkozy’s proposal to modify the 1905 law so as to allow state subsidies for mosque construction (thereby eliminating the need for foreign—especially Saudi—sources of financing), he replied that Sarkozy’s interest and intention in this was to enable the state to control Islam in France, not to allow it an independent existence. He said that Sarkozy, who took himself for “Napoleon IV,” wanted “to control everything.” I took note of what he said. In hindsight I can’t say he was off base.
On Sarkozy’s presidential ambitions, I supported him against the underhanded campaign to thwart them led by the politically brain-dead roi fainéant Chirac and his poète exalté prime minister Villepin. Sarkozy was the only credible successor to Chirac on the right. I predicted as early as 2004 that he would be the UMP’s candidate in 2007 and make it to the second round. Here is what I wrote on the subject in an email to my aforementioned political science friend, on February 19, 2006
It is of course not certain that Sarkozy will win the election — it’s still over a year away and predictions are only so much hot air — but if current polling trends hold, there are no political earthquakes in the coming year, and Sarko doesn’t commit a monumental error or gaffe, then, yes, he will win it. No politician comes close to Sarko in solidity of support, i.e., in the percentages polled who strongly support his action and say they are certain to vote for him. There is no doubt that he will be the UMP’s official candidate and with exclusive access to its campaign war chest.
His first round score is sure to be in the mid-20s upward. The Socialist candidate will likely surpass 20% in the first round — esp if it’s Ségolène Royal — but no one else will come anywhere close. In re to the left, its vote will not fragment as in 2002. Socialist voters will be more disciplined this time. The PS candidate, whoever s/he may be, will make it into the second round to face off against Sarkozy (but given the current state of the French left and absence of a dominant leader of the PS — let alone with the stature of a Mitterrand — it is difficult to imagine the Socialist candidate receiving 50.01% in the second round). The 2002 election was a fluke, a freak accident. History is not going to repeat itself. Le Pen may not even make it out of the single digits (if his candidacy even qualifies). Other left candidates will be in the low-mid single digits. As for Villepin, he has no political base and has never run for elective office in his life. The support he currently enjoys in the polls is soft (and has witnessed a significant drop over the past two weeks). Unless the French economy takes off this year and the private sector starts hiring massively (not too likely…) he will not pose a serious threat to Sarkozy. And once the campaign begins in earnest — and after Sarkozy has left the government — Sarkozy and/or surrogates will attack him relentlessly if his (Villepin’s) poll numbers start to rise. Sarkozy will run circles around Villepin, who has no experience in the heat of a political campaign or with political jousting (Villepin has an authoritarian temperament and is not used to being frontally challenged, let alone attacked). His status as Chirac’s anointed candidate will neither help nor hurt him. French voters simply don’t care about Chirac anymore. He’s already history. You are absolutely right in what you say about the French people not wanting real reformers. This is indeed a conservative, risk-allergic society afraid of its own shadow. This could pose a problem for Sarkozy. But the condition of the country is now so desperate and the sentiment of ras-le-bol so palpable that it could work to Sarko’s benefit. Sarko is, in any case, an exceptionally talented politician who can triangulate with the skill of Bill Clinton (the similarities between the two men are striking and on many levels).
In 2005-06 I briefly considered the theoretical possibility that I could maybe vote for him, though making that leap across the partisan divide is ultimately something I could not have done. When Sarkozy’s rhetoric lurched rightward as the campaign intensified I cooled on him considerably. I was definitely going to vote for Ségolène Royal, though I never had any doubt that he would win. And despite my vote for Royal, I welcomed that prospect. I wanted to see what Sarkozy would do once in power. On May 7, 2007, the day after his election, I sent via email an instant analysis on the election to friends, colleagues, students, and family. Here is what I had to say about Sarkozy
– Sarkozy’s 53% is not a landslide (and was less than what the final polls suggested) but is a solid victory nonetheless. It is not to be quarreled with or relativized. Moreover, Sarkozy has the satisfaction of having gained the highest percentage of any first-time president in a straight right-left duel. He picked up as many Bayrou voters as did Royal – probably a little more – plus four-fifths of Le Pen voters who cast valid ballots. The 84% participation rate indicates that relatively few first round voters abstained, though the number of blank or spoiled ballots (blanc ou nul) was triple the number from two weeks ago (over 4%). The electoral map shows that departments Sarkozy won (almost all contiguous, like Republican red states in the US) were those that traditionally vote for the right, plus the portion of the country where the Front National has done well over the past two decades (east of the Cherbourg-Valence-Perpignan line). Departments Royal won were mainly in the southwest and Brittany, plus the Pas-de-Calais and the 93 and 94 in the Ile-de-France. She lost Paris by the narrowest of margins (the city now being evenly divided between left and right). She did well in areas of traditional left strength, though apparently won over enough practicing Catholic Bayrou voters to carry departments that tend not to go for the Socialists (e.g., Pyrénées-Atlantiques). As for the sociology of the electorate, Sarkozy won big among the right’s traditional clientele – businessmen, the self-employed, farmers – but did well in all other socio-economic categories as well, e.g., pulling even among lower rung salaried employees and gaining a large minority of manual workers (some 45%). By far the most important demographic cohort that voted for him were persons over age 60, almost all of whom are retired (France having one of the lowest workforce participation rates in the western world for the 55+ age cohort). The left-right cleavage in the sociology and demography of the electorate is very similar to that in the US, with the big exception of the elderly (who have traditionally favored Democrats on account of social security/pensions, but to which the right in France does not pose a threat). (Also Jews, who have traditionally leaned left – as to the Democrats the US – but most certainly voted Sarkozy in big numbers). If Sarkozy had not swept the elderly vote (on the order of 65%) he wouldn’t have won the election. He also did well in the age 25-34 cohort but Royal won the youth vote (18-24) hands down, as well as the middle aged (45-59). Royal won handily among women aged 35-59, broke even with those under 35, but was trounced by Sarkozy among elderly women, so there was no overall gender gap.
– The demographics of Sarkozy’s vote explain his virulent right-wing rhetoric over the past six months, including between the two rounds. I was surprised that he didn’t soften the tone and move to the center over the past two weeks, and thought it might even cost him the election. The reactionary, revanchist themes he hammered away at – May 68, values, law and order, coded attacks on racial/ethnic minorities, and the like – were vintage Spiro Agnew. Sarkozy’s discourse was straight out of the US Republican playbook, right down to references to the “silent majority” (la majorité silencieuse). Sarkozy’s advisors had no doubt carefully studied past American campaigns and their slogans. Except that Sarkozy’s rhetoric was the way US Republicans talk during primaries and early in the campaign, not two weeks before the general election. But Sarkozy and his advisors – and particularly his very smart speechwriter, Henri Guaino – clearly knew what they were doing. This is where the primordial importance of the elderly comes in, susceptible as they are to the values and order themes. But there’s one difference with the US, which is that the exceptionally high level of workforce inactivity among the 55+ age cohort has the effect of increasing their level of fear and sensitivity to the crime issue, which French TV news now plays up – along with incidents involving banlieue youths (e.g., the Gare du Nord events, which was not, in fact, a riot) – in a way it didn’t used to. Inactive persons watch a lot of television and thus have their fears stoked, even if they live in villages and other localities where there is objectively no reason to be fearful. But then, many do live in urban areas and in close proximity to banlieue youth, and have witnessed and/or been the victim of incivilities – the incidence of which has sharply increased in recent years – if not actual aggressions. Sarkozy’s demagoguing the immigration issue can be understood in this light. It was reprehensible and ugly but hit the hot buttons in his electorate (not to mention Le Pen’s, which he so successfully appropriated). Even though immigration and insecurity did not rank at the top of the electorate’s concerns this year, this is nonetheless indicative of a backlash among large swaths of French society – on the right but not only – against the perpetrators of banlieue riots, public incivilities, petty crime and more serious aggressions. This sentiment has been around for well over two decades, of course – witness the Le Pen phenomenon – but maintains a salience such that a mainstream right candidate like Sarkozy could take up the issue and run with it. Sarkozy also wagered – correctly – that his hard line on this wouldn’t hurt him with more moderate voters, as they would either agree with him or simply discount the rhetoric as so much electoralist hot air. In this respect, the more problematic or unpleasant aspects of Sarkozy’s personality finally did not cause voters to turn away from him. The sentiment of ras-le-bol – of fed-up-ness at the perceived political immobilism of the past several years plus the very real concerns over France’s economic stagnation and relative decline – is so palpable that many were determined to vote for Sarkozy however much he scowled and no matter what he did or said. Sarkozy’s frenetic personality, image as a man of action, and promises of rupture manifestly seduced many outside the UMP electorate, as a man who would do “something.” One knows that Sarkozy will not be a roi fainéant à la Chirac.
– Sarkozy’s first speech last night was good. It was magnanimous, modest, and moderate – and mostly said the right things on international affairs – though his facial expressions were off. He needs a better media coach. But his later address before the big crowd at the Place de la Concorde party was better on this level, as he was looser and in an exuberant mood (though one was transfixed on Cécilia – who was at his side for the first time in weeks – and her body language, clearly indicating that all is not right in their marriage, but of which the TV commentators naturally said nothing). If Sarkozy had shown more of this side of his personality, he may have dissipated at least some of the antipathy he has generated among the electorate. And an antipathy he bears partial responsibility for, in view of his many provocations and unwillingness to even hint at an apology. It must be said, however, that the anti-Sarkozy hysteria on the left is completely out of control. The left has become unhinged on this. Sarkozy has been demonized as some kind of psychopathic neo-fascist. For lefties it goes without saying that Sarkozy is a vicious racist – which he is in fact decidedly not – and intends to deport immigrants en masse, that he will set out to destroy the welfare state, immiserate everyone except his rich friends, and turn the country back to the 19th century, or some damned thing of the sort. If one were to hatch rumors that Sarkozy is, say, a pedophile, that he tortures kittens and puppies, and punches his wife and children in the face for sport, millions on the left would readily believe them. The delirious anti-Sarkozyism of the left is in itself a case study of the madness of crowds. Sarkozy cannot find grace with the left no matter what he does. If, e.g., there were no persons of Maghrebi origin on his staff, this would be taken as proof of his racism. But when he does appoint a Maghrebi (Rachida Dati) and to a high position at that, that person is then dismissed as an “Arabe de service“. When he proposes a French-style affirmative action, he is accused of “communautarisme“. When he proposes modifying the 1905 law to allow the state to aid in the maintenance and upkeep of mosques – as in the case of churches – dark accusations are launched that he seeks to undermine France’s hallowed laïcité. One would think that more enlightened lefties would at least acknowledge the symbolism of a President of the Republic with a non-French name and three of whose grandparents were born outside France (contrasted with the US, that great country of immigration but whose presidents invariably have origins exclusively in the British Isles). But no.
In any case, lefties need to calm down, pull back from their nervous breakdowns, and just get over it. There are excellent reasons to oppose Sarkozy, as there are legitimate concerns over aspects of his personality, but what one needs to keep in mind is that the man has been a leading figure in French politics for over fifteen years and was not hated or demonized for much of this time. He has a long political track record and has been the subject of numerous books, biographies, and investigative reports. His past is known. And what we do know is that the political references of his youth were Charles de Gaulle, Jacques Chaban-Delmas (a left leaning Gaullist), and of course Chirac, and that he has never had anything to do with the extreme right. He has never frequented Philippe de Villiers or others of that ilk. His political allies over the years have all been mainstream neo-Gaullists (to be contrasted with, e.g., Giscard d’Estaing, whose inner circle included some particularly reactionary individuals). The man Sarkozy is almost certain to name prime minister next week, François Fillon, is an ex-séguiniste (i.e., follower of Philippe Séguin, now out of partisan politics, who incarnated the social wing of neo-Gaullism in the 1990s). Speechwriter Guaino is likewise an ex-séguiniste, as well as a critic in the 1990s of the so-called neo-liberal “pensée unique“. The ministers of the new government will all be mainstream UMP personalities, along with centrists (Jean-Louis Borloo, perhaps Christian Blanc) and one or two from the UDF. Sarkozy has also pledged that up to half of the ministers will be women and we already pretty much know who they are. In addition to Michèle Alliot-Marie they will include several up-and-coming politicians of the new generation (mid-30s to early 40s) of moderate right women – e.g., Valérie Pecresse, Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet – some of whom are énarques or polytechniciennes and with their own political bases. They won’t be the Juppettes of 1995. Lefties are conjuring up apocalyptic visions of what Sarkozy in power will do legislatively but all indications are that the agenda here will be a mainstream right-wing one and with nothing overly worrisome or extremist (except maybe for one; see below), and which will include laws that are relatively uncontroversial elsewhere in Europe (regulating strikes in public services, reforming pensions but without touching the overall pay-as-you-go regime, reforming the Code de travail to create a single labor contract). These are sure to cause big problems with the unions (esp CGT and FO) but a law passed three years ago and that carries Fillon’s name mandates concertation with social partners in the event of any proposed modification of the labor code.
One terrible idea that Sarkozy is fixated on – and which comes straight from the US – is enacting a law on minimum mandatory sentencing and lowering the age at which repeat juvenile offenders can be tried as adults. If such a law is passed it will disastrously overload the criminal justice system – which is overloaded as it is – and lead to an explosion in the prison population. Such a law must be resolutely opposed. But apart from this – and maybe some stupid new law on immigration, whose effect will be largely symbolic – there isn’t much on Sarkozy’s known agenda to cause alarm. And one needs to be reminded that Sarkozy is above all an opportunistic politician, much more pragmatic than ideological, and will play ball with interest groups that represent real constituencies and who are willing to play ball with him.
One may assert: Sarkozy is not Bush. The brand of conservatism he represents would make him a very moderate Republican in the US Congress. Another assertion: Sarkozy is no Silvio Berlusconi. The latter is a truly pernicious individual and was highly prejudicial to Italian democracy during his years in power. Sarkozy is a control freak and known to issue threats (most empty) but it is most unlikely he will undermine French democracy as did Berlusconi in Italy.
I found it most interesting to reread my words of five years ago and in light of Sarkozy’s campaign rhetoric of the past few months… In any case, I was satisfied by his victory in ’07 and was favorably impressed by his first three or so months in office. The Fouquet’s party on election night did not shock me—though I have since come to comprehend and appreciate why it did for so many here—nor the escapade on Vincent Bolloré’s yacht. Hey, the guy deserved a little relaxation after a tough campaign, give him a break! Maybe it’s my American-ness. I’m not surprised that high-level politicians have rich and powerful friends. Sarkozy’s transgression here seemed to be not so much that he did it but that he did it openly, sans complexe. It’s not as if Chirac, Mitterrand, Giscard et al didn’t frequent men with money (as well as have a bit of it themselves). I may be a French citizen but l’hypocrisie française is not part of my culture. Je suis mal intégré, hélas…
Sarkozy was a blast of fresh air after Chirac’s interminable, immobile fin de règne. I was most impressed with his appointments of Rachida Dati, Rama Yade, and Fadela Amara to the government—and Dati as Garde des Sceaux no less (though that did end up not working out too well)—, which were symbolically so important. He made the Socialists—the great defenders of immigrants but who were incapable of promoting any to high positions—look ridiculous. The first government was a fairly good one over all. I didn’t like the new ministry of immigration and national identity, to put it mildly—and was never a fan of Brice Hortefeux, to put it even more mildly—but decided to take a wait-and-see attitude. I also liked Sarkozy’s friendly approach toward the US and his taking his summer vacation that year in New Hampshire. On the symbolic level, not bad (and which showed that the French public, which didn’t care a whit about Sarko’s holiday-making en Amérique, was not anti-American as has so often been alleged).
But then about three months into his term Sarkozy began to go off the rails. He started to do and say things that were not only politically problematic but revealed some serious defects in temperament, character, and/or political judgment, giving credence to what the two aforementioned friends had told me over the previous two years. In early 2008 I started a list (abandoned after a few months) of the key moments when I started to doubt him. Here are the incidents I noted:
- The discours de Dakar in July 2007, when he sermonized his Senegalese audience on l’homme africain et l’histoire. Okay, Henri Guaino wrote the speech but how Sarkozy, a professional politician and president of the French Republic, could have gone ahead and pronounced those words was just mind-boggling. What a totally boneheaded, idiotic, mindless, stupid, and insensitive thing to do. In a stroke he durably alienated Francophone Africans.
- The New Hampshire boat incident less than two weeks later, when Sarkozy blew his fuses at two reporters who were trying to photograph him (here). How utterly unpresidential, not to mention embarrassing for France’s image in the US.
- In September-October ’07, the attempted parachuting of Elysée spokesman and political neophyte David Martinon into the Neuilly-sur-Seine municipal election as Sarkozy’s anointed successor as mayor. Neuilly may have been Sarkozy’s fief for the previous 24 years but the conservative haut bourgeois voters there, who otherwise adored him, could not accept this intrusion from on high into their local affairs. That Sarkozy thought he could get away with this brazen fait du prince in the 21st century and in such an insignificant matter—that he even had the reflex to do it—was striking.
- In October ’07, increasing his presidential salary by 140%. Whatever his arguments for this—that he was just catching up with other European heads of state—, the symbolism of doing so in a time of high unemployment showed a singular lack of political judgment, to put it mildly.
- In November, his verbal clash with the pêcheurs in Guilvinec (here). How utterly undignified for a President of the Republic to behave and talk in this way (note how Sarkozy cocked his head while trash-talking the pêcheur, like some punk on a playground itching for a fight). To this one may add the infamous “casse toi pauvre con” incident at the Salon de l’Agriculture the following February. Can one imagine any of Sarkozy’s predecessors—or any US president—addressing a citizen, however impolite he or she may be, with such language? Furthermore: Sarkozy’s systematic use of the familiar “tu” form in addressing citizens, indeed everyone (though with everyone naturally vouvoyer-ing him back). General de Gaulle must be turning in his grave.
- The very public feuilleton of his divorce from Cécilia and courtship of Carla during fall ’07. Again, not the kind of behavior one expects from a Président de la République.
- In January 2008, his announcement out of the blue—taking absolutely everyone by surprise, including prime minister Fillon—that prime time publicité would be ended on France Télévision, and further declaring that the redevance would not be increased to make up for the sudden revenue shortfall. The National Assembly could have acted otherwise, of course, but, this being France, it dutifully executed the desires of the Prince. Absolutely incredible that such a thing could happen in a mature democracy. And Sarko’s reason for his act? (not openly avowed, bien entendu): To channel the ad revenue toward TF1, owned by his pal Martin Bouygues. France’s crony capitalist Banana Republic side at its most flagrant. There was clearly not going to be a break with disreputable past practices under Président Sarkozy.
- An item in Le Canard Enchaîné in February 2008, on Sarkozy’s state visit to India the previous month. Sarkozy spent exactly 37 hours in the country. State visits normally last for five days and with all sorts of events, meetings, and other ceremonies on the agenda. The Indians were taken aback at Sarkozy’s intention to stay only two days and insisted that he stay the full five in keeping with the practice of state visits, but he wouldn’t budge. He wanted to fly into Delhi, have a few big contracts signed, and then get back to Paris. He hates being away from Paris and not sleeping in his own bed. The Indians were grievously insulted by Sarkozy’s attitude but he didn’t care, even though India has become kind of an important country on the world stage…
- Another report in Le Canard Enchaîné around the same time on Sarkozy’s incessant temper tantrums toward his staff and government ministers, of the repeated insults and contempt they were showered with. This has been amply reported and documented in the intervening years, most recently in Franz-Olivier Giesbert’s book that I wrote about two months ago. It has been my longstanding conviction that anyone in a position of authority—and particularly an elected official—who systematically insults and mistreats his or her subordinates is displaying a serious defect in character that morally disqualifies him or her from holding office.
- An account I received from a Radio France journalist in winter 2008 of the total concentration of decision-making in the Elysée in the hands of Sarkozy and a small number of collaborators. C’était du jamais vu, so veteran observers marveled. No one had ever seen anything like it. Sarkozy’s Bonapartist hyper-presidentialism has, of course, become one of the most marked characteristics of his style of rule. This is, to a large extent, a functioning of the institutions of the Fifth Republic and not specifically Sarkozy’s doing. But Sarkozy, through his character and personality, has taken an institutionally bad situation and made it worse.
My list ended there but had I continued with it, it would have been lengthy, including, e.g., the crises in relations with two important countries—Mexico and Turkey—that were gratuitously, needlessly provoked by Sarkozy; in the Mexican case, with his impulsive intervention into the Florence Cassez affair in February 2011, enraging the Mexican government and causing it to cancel the Année du Mexique in Paris (a major cultural event); for Turkey, Sarkozy’s insulting attitude toward the Turks on their EU candidacy and his relentlessness on the Armenian genocide issue (which I’ve written about on this blog). And then there was the incredible Jean Sarkozy/EPAD episode in October ’09—of Sarkozy, in an egregious act of nepotism, trying to impose his 23-year-old son as president of the para-public development agency of France’s biggest business district—, the shocking expulsions of the Roms in August ’10, the rank demagoguery on Islam and Muslims, equally rank demagoguery on immigrants and its despicable policy consequences (e.g. Guéant circular), demagogically initiating and trying to instrumentalize a national “debate” on “national identity”—that unleashed a torrent of Muslimophobia that overwhelmed even Sarkozy and his government—, demanding new laws after seemingly every fait divers, changing his positions on issues 180° out of political expediency (giving a new dimension to the term opportunism and displaying a striking lack of principles or core values), et j’en passe… And then there’s his guru-advisor, the unspeakable reactionary Patrick Buisson. I rest my case.
There are, of course, some good things that President Sarkozy has done. E.g. the reform of higher education (which I’ve written about here), the réforme des retraites (pensions), his activism during the financial crisis in 2008, reintegrating France into the military wing of NATO (which was entirely in France’s interest)… And then there was the major constitutional reform that he pushed through in 2008, which I’ve only begun to appreciate in the past year. On Sarkozy’s initiative the powers of parliament have been considerably reinforced, on paper at least (though one would never know it in view of his hyper-presidentialism). Nicolas Sarkozy is not a stupid man. He does have ideas and even some positive reflexes, both politically and personally. But the dysfunctional and most unattractive aspects of his personality invariably seem to get the better of him. And which leads to his whole style of governing and doing politics. I can no longer bear it.
And back to Patrick Buisson. If Sarkozy pulls off a stunning comeback victory, this will be the confirmation of Buisson’s divisive, polarizing, Karl Rovian, hard right strategy. Sarkozy’s mimicking the Front National will have been vindicated. He will take this as confirmation that the French people have moved far to the right on immigration issues. And he will act accordingly. It will be bad. And ugly. For this reason alone, it is imperative that Sarkozy be retired from political life tomorrow night.