Protectionist Sarkozy becomes EU villain
By Crispian Balmer
February 13, 2009 - Reuters
French President Nicolas Sarkozy has gone from hero to villain in the European Union within just six weeks, the plaudits for his deft leadership of the 27-nation bloc giving way to vilification over his protectionist urges.
The row over French efforts to ringfence its car industry at the expense of its eastern allies has eroded Sarkozy's international standing and revived accusations that Paris is wedded to state interventionism.
"Sarkozy had emerged as the pre-eminent European leader, head and shoulders above other contenders, but now I think he has largely blown it," said Charles Grant, director for the Centre for European Reform in London.
France appeared to be the most dynamic force in Europe at the end of last year, following its successful handling of the EU presidency, during which time Sarkozy led from the front to secure a united response to the financial crisis.
But any idea of unity was thrown out the window last week when he said it was unjustified for French car firms to set up plants in places like the Czech Republic.
Putting actions to words, Sarkozy later handed local car producers PSA Peugeot Citroen and Renault cheap loans in return for promising not to close their French factories.
"As someone who has followed the European Union for 20 years, I cannot think of any single more damaging comment than what Sarkozy said in that television interview," said Grant.
However, to anyone who has followed Sarkozy's political career, such opinions would not have come as a surprise, especially in the current context of economic downturn, gathering social unrest and plunging opinion polls.
Since the start of the economic crisis, Sarkozy has denounced the "dictatorship of the market", vowed to end "laissez-faire capitalism" and created a fund to protect French business from falling into the hands of foreign predators.
Going further back in time, when he was finance minister in 2004, Sarkozy prevented local engineering group Alstom from going bankrupt by pumping in state cash, defying the perceived wisdom that the market should have decided its fate.
To go from believing in an activist state to promoting protectionist policies is a short step in the country which gave the world Jean-Baptiste Colbert, Louis XIV's finance minister who pioneered state control of the economy.
But when it comes to defending car factories, Sarkozy is being driven more by pragmatism than ideology.
Up to 2.5 million people took to the streets of France last month to protest against Sarkozy's economic policies and unions have called a new day of action for March unless he bows to their demands for concerted action to help consumer spending.
Such protest movements have a habit of spiralling out of control here, and when Sarkozy went on television last week he was speaking exclusively to a domestic audience trying to convince them he could stem the recent flood of job losses.
His message did not get through and his popularity rating subsequently plunged, hitting a record low of 36 points in one IPSOS poll, down nine points on the month.
Analysts said that if anything, Sarkozy did not strike enough of a populist tone to calm his anxious audience.
"The French almost wanted to hear a more demagogic president," said Jean-Francois Doridot, head of IPSOS.
"He cannot stay motionless. He has to be seen to act. If people think he is not doing anything, he won't stand a chance."
EVERYONE AT IT
The French centre-right government strongly denies that it is pursuing a protectionist agenda and says that in any case, other countries are reacting in exactly the same way as the bloc tumbles into recession.
Before France moved to help its auto sector, Italy had offered support to its own carmakers in return for guarantees that they keep their Italian plants running.
Numerous western governments have also told their ailing banks that they expect them to support businesses back home in return for bailout packages.
Such policies suggest that the most severe economic crisis in the history of the European Union is not just battering its open market ethos in France, but across the alliance.
"What Sarkozy said wasn't wise, but in the wider context everyone is engaged in a dismantling the European Union," said Ulrike Guerot, head of the Berlin office of the European Council on Foreign Relations.
"But if you have a frontrunner like France which is now dysfunctional, you will find many countries will hide behind it and do likewise," she added.
A rigorous examination of the President by critics, cartoonists, a diarist and the man himself
LA FACE KARCHÉE DE SARKOZY
155pp. Éditions Vent d’Ouest/Fayard. 15euros.
978 2 7493 0309 3
France, Europe, and the world in the twenty-first century
Translated from the French by Philip H. Gordon
211pp. HarperPress. £20.
978 0 00 726780 4
CHANGEMENT DE PROPRIÉTAIRE
La guerre civile continue
177pp. Seuil. 15euros.
978 2 02 096165 3
UN POUVOIR NOMMÉ DÉSIR
442 pp. Grasset. 6.95euros.
978 2 253 12340 8
L’AUBE LE SOIR OU LA NUIT
186pp. Flammarion. 18euros.
978 2 08 12096 9
Then and Now
"Je les ai tous niqués” was Nicolas Sarkozy’s quip on becoming mayor of the smart Parisian suburban town of Neuilly at the age of twenty-eight, against the express wishes of the Gaullist party hierarchy. A desire to “screw them all” has since become the trademark of this hyperactive, pugnacious, and tormented politician: first as Édouard Balladur’s henchman between 1993 and 1995, when he deployed all means to promote his mentor’s (unsuccessful) bid for the Presidency – including threatening to investigate the tax returns of politically unsympathetic journalists, bullying his ministerial colleagues, and spreading rumours about Madame Chirac’s financial dealings; from 2002, as Minister of the Interior, when as “Speedy Sarko” he made the fight against crime and illegal immigration his priorities, memorably describing the rioters of late 2005 as “racaille” (scum), and vowing to clean up their neighbourhoods “au kärcher” (with high-pressure hoses); and finally, in the run-up to the Presidential elections of 2007, when he likened his own party leader Jacques Chirac to the Bourbon monarch Louis XVI, flapping helplessly in Versailles as his people clamoured for reform. In her brilliantly evocative L’Aube le soir ou la nuit, written after following Sarkozy on the Presidential campaign trail for a year, the novelist Yasmina Reza summed up the candidate as “un amoureux de l’adversité”. The recent wave of strikes in the French transport system, accompanied by a resumption of violent clashes in the banlieues over the past few days, suggest that Sarkozy is set to encounter further adversity – perhaps even more than he bargained for.
How and why did the French people elect this “political warrior”, as their President once described himself, and what does his meteoric rise reveal about the state of French politics? For Sarkozy’s adversaries, there is little doubt: 2007 marks the consecration of an ambitious and vindictive figure, for whom political intercourse amounts to little more than a Schmittian battle to the death. Sarkozy’s bullish image as a hard man has been gleefully appropriated by French caricaturists, most notably by Les Guignols, the French version of Spitting Image; and it is the dominant theme in La Face karchée de Sarkozy, a comic-strip satire of Sarkozy’s political career written by the Marianne journalist Philippe Cohen, the lawyer Richard Malka, and Riss, a cartoonist at Charlie-Hebdo. Sarkozy is presented here as an obsessive, paranoid and ruthless figure. His gangster-like physique is exploited to great comical effect, notably in a reprise of the celebrated scene from The Godfather, when he places the severed head of a horse in Alain Juppé’s bed, in an attempt to get him to rally to Balladur’s candidacy. The Sarkozy of La Face karchée is a man of no set political convictions, latching on opportunistically to whatever creed he believes would best suit his personal interests, and armed with a simple mantra: “un jour je les niquerai tous”.
For the radical Left, the election of Sarkozy in 2007 was a watershed, marking the triumph of a more confident and ideologically assertive French Right. Written from the combined perspective of a neo-Marxist internationalist, and an inhabitant of the cosmopolitan Parisian neighbourhood of Belleville, Eric Hazan’s Changement de propriétaire is a vigorously acerbic chronicle of President Sarkozy’s first hundred days in office. Hazan argues that Sarkozy’s social programme (which includes the expulsion of 25,000 illegal immigrants each year, and increased punishment of petty crime) is likely to exacerbate the French “civil war” which erupted in the banlieues in 2005. He also writes interestingly about Sarkozy’s cosy relationship with the French media, and in particular his closeness to the Lagardère and Bouygues conglomerates – and this is no idle conspiracy theory: in 2005, after publishing a photograph of Sarkozy’s then wife Cécilia with her lover in New York, the editor of Paris-Match, Alain Genestar, was fired at Sarkozy’s behest. Hazan’s overall argument, which represents a common left-wing view of the new President, is that Sarkozy’s politics are drawn straight out of the “neoliberal” textbook: closer alignment with the US and Israel, and – behind the appealing slogan of putting the country back to work – an unprecedented ambition for a French politician: the adoption of a business model of the state, with low taxation, reduction of the size and scope of the public sector, and comprehensive deregulation as the key objectives.
Sarkozy himself would not disagree with much of this characterization. Unlike his predecessors, he is not ashamed to call himself right-wing. [???] In Testimony, his hugely successful pre-electoral programmatic pamphlet, he declared: “I am convinced that deep down in French society there is a strong demand for the restoration of certain values of the republican right: work, respect for authority, family, and individual responsibility. And I’m convinced that the reason the right has been losing for years is that it regrets not being the left”. Sarkozy is also candid about the need for France to learn from the successes of others: from the Scandinavian countries’ affluence, from Britain and its record of high economic growth, and even from the United States. Sarkozy believes that France was right not to join the Americans in invading Iraq, but he also wants to work towards a Franco-American rapprochement (while Minister of the Interior he paid a controversial visit to George Bush at the White House; he returned for a state visit in early November 2007, and received a rapturous welcome). To the accusations that he is “ultralibéral” (meaning too much of an Americanophile), he responds in two ways. First, he notes that while he admires certain aspects of social and economic life in the USA (the promotion of free enterprise, social mobility and affirmative action), the “American model” is also profoundly inegalitarian and unjust, and therefore unsuitable for France – for example, in its provision of health care. Second, he highlights the dismal failure of the so-called French model, with its crisis of social integration, high unemployment, low growth, rigid labour market, exorbitant public debt and failing universities; as he notes despairingly, one of the best French universities, the École Polytechnique, does not even appear in the rankings of the top 200 higher education institutions worldwide. It should also be added that, despite his anti-May 68 rhetoric, Sarkozy is not a true social conservative: he has no overt religious, anti-gay or anti-abortion agenda, and is resolutely opposed to capital punishment. One of his great achievements in 2007 was to pulverize the National Front. Indeed, far from pandering to the Islamophobia which is increasingly fashionable in some French intellectual circles (both on the Left and Right), Sarkozy as Minister of the Interior took on France’s secular establishment by creating a French Council for Muslim Cults, to oversee the clerical organization of Islam in France; and since his election as President he has brought in women of immigrant origin into senior government positions, most notably Rachida Dati as Minister of Justice. The French Left dismisses this as tokenism, but it says something about the Socialists’ abysmal record on this issue that they found even tokenism to be beyond their reach.
Sarkozy’s apparent predisposition to swim against the current is consistent with his adversarial conception of politics, and his proclaimed intention to provoke a “rupture” in French political culture. This provides the cue for Catherine Nay’s biography, Un Pouvoir nommé désir, which effectively portrays Sarkozy as a “politicien hors normes”. Whether he turns out to be a paradigm-breaking President is a matter for the future (and we should remember that six months into their Presidencies, we knew little about how de Gaulle, Mitterrand or even Chirac would turn out). But by focusing on Sarkozy’s background, personality and mind-set, Nay suggests a number of ways in which he is already different from the French political archetype. She dwells on the fact that Sarkozy is an outsider in two critical senses: first, he is not a product of the Grandes Écoles system (he is a lawyer by training), and so did not enter the political elite through the conventional route of joining a cabinet ministériel (he is the only President to have begun his political career at grass-roots level, as an ordinary party activist). And second, he is the son of immigrants: his father Pal came to France after the Communist seizure of power in Hungary in 1948, and his maternal grandfather was a Sephardi Jew from Salonika. To add to the young Nicolas’s sense of otherness, his parents rapidly divorced, and he freely admits that for most of childhood and adolescence he felt a sense of “shame”. This sheds light on one of the real differences between Sarkozy and the traditional French political elite: his relative lack of intellectual interest in the past. Hitherto, French politicians have tended to define themselves by reference to a political tradition (Left or Right) and a set of historical experiences (wars, social conflicts such as May 68, internal political reconstructions). Not so Sarkozy: his engagement in politics, as he acknowledges in Testimony, was not driven by any “particular meeting, event, book, or article . . . it just happened”. He occasionally cites some French historical figures (de Gaulle, Clemenceau, Georges Mandel, and – to annoy the Left – Jaurès and Blum), but they are not in any way models he seeks to emulate. For this man in a hurry, the past can occasionally serve as an instrument of legitimation, or as a useful negative myth – but generally it is either an irrelevance, or an obstacle to adaptation and change.
This is confirmed by Yasmina Reza’s observations of the candidate Sarkozy between the summer of 2006 and his election in 2007. L’Aube le soir ou la nuit shows him at his hollowest when giving a speech about Joan of Arc, pretending to visit the Churchill Museum (he could not care less), and inviting the press to observe him “meditating” at the tomb of de Gaulle at Colombey-les-deux-Églises. The epic mode does not really suit him (this is where the analogy with Bonaparte breaks down, even though his relationship with Cécilia was very much akin to Napoleon’s with Joséphine – except that the Emperor divorced her, whereas Cécilia left her husband). Reza’s fly-on-the-wall political diary is captivating because of its impressionistic style, which superbly filters out the ambient political noise. But she is uncertain about what sense to make of the residue. Despite the remarkable access she is given (she attends all the meetings of his inner sanctum), and Sarkozy’s commitment to play the game of transparency, he remains elusively opaque. The book thus moves from its original quest for political meaning to become a contemplation of a man struggling with the evanescence of time. This is the campaign trail as we have never seen it before: we catch glimpses of Sarko being abused – “putain de ta mère” – by a woman in Marseille, being lectured on Palestinian rights by the Algerian President, Abdelaziz Bouteflika; cursing at his entourage for failing to meet his expectations (he really does swear a lot); describing, without any apparent sense of irony, his enthusiasm for the film The Silence of the Lambs; musing idly about love; listening in a childlike trance to a piece of jazz; making jokes in the poorest of taste about Jacques Chirac’s hearing difficulties; and, all the while avidly, relentlessly, obsessively craving Reza’s approval. She is struck by his smugness: “si je n’existais pas il faudrait m’inventer”. But behind the bluster, she also senses a real fragility, a “sentiment d’insuffisance” which drives him forward, ever seeking to reach the mountain summit. And what lies behind it? The promised land, perhaps – but also the possibility of a vast, unending, ineffable emptiness.
Sudhir Hazareesingh's edition (with Eric Anceau) of the late Vincent Wright’s Les Préfets de Gambetta was published earlier this year. He is a Fellow of Balliol College, Oxford. A French translation of his study of Napoleonic civic festivities, Saint-Napoléon, was published in Paris earlier this year.