What Sarkozy Learned About Politics from the US … and From Antonio Gramsci

The last president of France fell out of favor with his own party: his successor is a man of the right who has beaten a woman of the left. This cautionary tale may comfort Republican candidates in the United States who want to succeed President George Bush, especially if they expect to run against Democrat Hillary Clinton in November 2008.

But it would be odd if the right in the US were to adopt the new French president’s political strategy; that would be taking a cue from its mirror reflection. Nicolas Sarkozy’s strategy was not a new and magic formula. On the contrary, he studied keenly all the political skills used in the US for the past 40 years. His themes have been national decline and moral decadence, intended to prepare voters for liberal shock treatment and a break with the past; he proposed action against leftist dogma, which he claimed had paralysed the economy and stifled public debate; he wanted to reinvent the right on the lines suggested by Antonio Gramsci, so that he can show off his multimillionaire friends, and their yachts. He has redefined the social question–it is no longer about the division between rich and poor or capital and labor, but an internecine feud between two sections of the proletariat, those who won’t work and those who will; he claims to speak for the “persecuted” silent majority and wants to mobilize them. Overall, he means to take an aggressive political stand against a ruling elite that has thrown in the towel.

The US right has used these tactics since the presidency of Richard Nixon and needs to learn nothing from Sarkozy, who took up the most effective arguments of recent US Republican presidents, embellishing them with references to Jean Jaurès, Léon Blum and Guy Môquet.

Decline is a favourite theme. It seems natural to call for order when your own house needs to be put in order. On August 8, 1968 Nixon, the rightwing presidential candidate, began his speech accepting the Republican nomination by praising the silent majority weary of watching the US descend into chaos. Two eminent political figures, Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, had just been assassinated and the Tet offensive by the Communists in Vietnam meant that the US had already lost that war. Nixon called on fellow Americans to listen to “a quiet voice in the tumult of shouting. It is the voice of the great majority of Americans, the forgotten Americans, the non-shouters, the non-demonstrators. They are not racist or sick; they are not guilty of the crimes that plague the land.”

Sarkozy has taken advantage of the almost unprecedentedly violent riots in the French banlieues in October and November 2005 to develop his “stormy times” theme. At Charleville-Mézières in the Ardennes on December 18, 2006, he praised the France that believes in merit and hard work, is inured to suffering, and goes unmentioned because it does not complain, stop trains or set fire to cars: the France that has had enough of others speaking for it. This spring he enjoined a crowd in Marseille to rise up and express the feelings of the silent majority.

Sarkozy, like Nixon, Bush and Ronald Reagan, understood that a campaign cannot win support if it is only a litany of pious hopes and boring statements of intent. So he used fighting words. The US right also made capital out of Democratic rhetoric, which became insipid in the 1950s after it abandoned the social polarization espoused by William Jennings Bryan and Franklin D Roosevelt. Harry Truman’s successors did not say “win, win” but that is what they thought. Having an opponent was like having bad manners.

The Democrats were so afraid of frightening people, of being seen as really leftwing, that they accused the Republicans of being populist and claimed for themselves the reassuring title of conservative. As the Democratic candidate, Adlai Stevenson, explained in October 1952: “The strange alchemy of the time has somehow converted the Democrats into the truly conservative party of this country–the party dedicated to conserving all that is best, and building solidly and safely on these foundations. The Republicans, by contrast, are behaving like the radical party bent on dismantling institutions which have been built solidly into our social fabric”.
Reverse strategy

Sarkozy, encouraged by the polarization his propositions and provocative remarks always caused, remembered that his strategy worked equally well in reverse. “We are proud to be the party of movement,” he said in November 2005. “The Socialists are the conservatives now.” He went on to identify the real enemy as the 1960s. Nixon and Reagan had used that gambit, but at a time closer to the events.

Sarkozy claimed that the enemies were those who had said that anything goes; that authority, good manners and respect were out of fashion; that nothing was sacred, nothing admirable; that there were no rules and no standards; and that nothing was forbidden. This claim was a long way from the mechanical rallying speeches of Jacques Chirac and just as far from Ségolène Royal’s compassionate, participative claptrap, her patchwork of random, forgettable propositions. Sarkozy made his mark. He claimed that the left, the true heirs of the events of May 1968 in France, had destroyed Jules Ferry’s educational legacy, caused an employment crisis and let loose hatred for the family, society, state, nation and republic. He added (why stop mid-tirade?) that the left had paved the way for scavengers and speculators to triumph over honest businessmen and workers, and that it found excuses for rogues and rascals.

This is an old rightwing ploy. To avoid the matter of economic interests (wise if you defend the interests of a minority), they stress values: order, respect, merit, religion. It is easier to adopt this tactic when the left refuses to say who its enemies are, if it still has any. François Hollande let slip that the Socialists might consider that the rich were to blame, which caused such uproar that he took care not to repeat the offence. Any mention of values gives conservatives a chance to sow the seeds of discord because people are usually more divided about morality and discipline than about the need to earn a good wage.

However, neither in the US nor in France did the right attribute national decline to moral or cultural reasons alone: instead it claimed that specific economic policies had undermined the value of work, or the work ethic in the US. The US Democrats are accused of creating unemployment by raising taxes, the French Socialists of discouraging work and cutting wages by reducing work hours.

The right does not compound the felony by waiting for chance or market forces. People often make a serious mistake about neo-liberalism. Current neo-liberal practice is not at all about allowing things to take their course. Reagan, like Bush, constantly intervened on behalf of heads of companies and of stockholders (who thought their interests synonymous with those of the nation). In 1981, the year Reagan took office, he took three important decisions: he broke the air traffic controllers’ strike, dismissing 12,000 strikers and destroying their union; he froze the minimum wage, which did not increase again during his two terms of office; and he reduced the highest rate of income tax from 70% in 1981 to 28% in 1987.

These measures, which were imposed by the White House and not market-driven, converged. Breaking the unions encouraged the transfer of some wealth from labor to capital, from wages to dividends. Is it really a coincidence that Sarkozy’s supporters want him to provoke the unions into a trial of strength so that, like Reagan in 1981 and Margaret Thatcher facing the miners in Britain in 1984-1985, he can make a decisive break with the past? The announcement of regulations limiting the right to strike in the public service sector (transport and education) may provide early proof that Sarkozy believes the value of labor to be determined by company directors, not employees.

No patience or good will

The Democratic president Jimmy Carter called for “patience and good will” in January 1978, not long after he reached the White House. “There is a limit to the role and the function of government. Government cannot solve our problems, it can’t set our goals, it cannot define our vision. Government cannot eliminate poverty or provide a bountiful economy or reduce inflation or save our cities or cure illiteracy or provide energy”.

In July 1980 Reagan, the aggressive Republican candidate, accused him of weakness, indecision, mediocrity and incompetence, and blamed him for an energy crisis and for a policy of unilateral disarmament in the face of Iran and the Soviet Union. “There may be a sailor at the helm of the ship of state, but the ship has no rudder,” Reagan said. “Our problems are problems that cause pain and destroy the moral fiber of real people who should not suffer the further indignity of being told by the government that it is all somehow their fault”.

Reagan would never have said, as Sarkozy did, that if we want a fair society we must first have a strong state. But there is no real difference between the liberalism of the US right and Sarkozy’s rhetoric. Sarkozy, like Reagan, has never hesitated to contrast his energy and leadership with his predecessors’ immobility and inertia. When Sarkozy served as minister of the interior under Chirac, he said the president reminded him of Louis XVI fiddling with locksmithery at Versailles while France seethed with revolutionary discontent.

The Socialists’ record over matters of public concern has not been perfect. By claiming that problems were complex and needed to be dealt with at a European level, by protesting that the state cannot do everything, by blaming their own poor efforts on an electorate scarred by globalization, fatalism and resignation, they invited Sarkozy’s counterattack. Sarkozy recalled Lionel Jospin saying that responsible politicians don’t talk about money. Sarkozy thought that an irresponsible remark, since in every country in the world money was an instrument of economic policy.

Another of Sarkozy’s aggressive homilies, much appreciated in crisis-stricken industrial areas, drove the point home: “I don’t care for politics that is content to manage,” he said. “I don’t care for politics that believe it’s impossible to change anything. I don’t care for politics that pretends all’s right with the world. I don’t care for politics that says we have done all we could. I don’t care for that brand of politics. I don’t believe in it.”
He added in a speech in Saint-Etienne: “Politics is impotent when it does not want anything. When you don’t want anything, you can’t do anything. For my part, I want a lot of things and we are going to do a lot of things.” Chirac said much the same 12 years ago and it got him elected.

Ideological warfare

Sarkozy won’t be able to do everything, since he mustn’t upset his multimillionaire friends. He has said: “They tell us to make the rich pay, but if we make them pay too much, they’ll leave.” Johnny Hallyday promised that he would come back from Switzerland as soon as the government abolished death duties. As it will. Outside the presidential victory party premises on May 6, Hallyday said he knew Sarkozy would keep the promises he had made.

Declaring an intention to break with the past means ideological warfare. In this, the right has never been as stupid as the left supposes; the left relies on petitions from intellectuals and artists who get nothing but contempt and indifference for their pains. Sarkozy, assured of his party’s backing since 2003, constructed an ideology, like the US conservatives, that enabled him to abandon “social-democratic claptrap” and do those things that the Republican right dare not do because it was ashamed of being rightwing. Sarkozy ran this program, with the necessary adjustments, week after week.

Sarkozy has said that an idea has to brew for a year or so in people’s minds before a country will accept it. He had the media, the employers and the ministries behind him; he benefited from Nicolas Baverez’s widely publicized theory that France was being destroyed by a policy to abolish work. He relied on the opinions in the Camdessus report, which he had commissioned; these were similar to those of Baverez but less grossly exaggerated. Baverez said that, for the lower orders, leisure meant drink, violence and delinquency.

Sarkozy sarcastically drew attention to the contrast between himself and the leader of the main opposition party. What new ideas had François Hollande produced in the past four years?

Two of the great campaigners to change ideologies had found the struggle hard: the ultra-liberal intellectual Friedrich Hayek (1899-1992), who had dared to think the unthinkable had to wait more than 30 years for leading political figures (Thatcher, Reagan, General Auguste Pinochet) to put his ideas into practice; while the Italian Communist leader Antonio Gramsci died while Mussolini was still in power. But they really had broken with the dominant ideologies of their day, and moreover without the media–TF1 or Le Point or Europe 1–to act as their echo chambers.

‘I agree with Gramsci’

True to his habit of quoting the most unexpected sources, Sarkozy preferred to follow the Italian Communist rather than the ultra-liberal Austrian American. He said just before the election that he agreed with Gramsci that ideas were the key to power: it was the first time that a man from the right had taken that line.

In 2002, two weeks before Sarkozy took up his post at the ministry of the interior, a newspaper claimed that he was making war on the poor. He had replied that either he would have to give in, in which case he would never be able to do anything, or he would have to take up the challenge by showing that security meant, above all, security for the poorest. After that he was engaged in a struggle to win the ideological war. He had regularly talked about education and condemned the legacy of 1968. He was against intellectual, cultural and moral relativism. He believed that the left attacked him violently because they knew he was right.

Reagan in the 1960s had forestalled Sarkozy in preferring absolutes to compromises, unlike political pundits for whom power always means a battle for the centre ground. Reagan proposed a choice, not an echo (a phrase coined by Barry Goldwater, founding father of modern US conservatism and Republican candidate in the 1964 presidential election, which he lost). There was however a price to the risks Reagan took. As a spokesman for General Electric, he had to make hundreds of speeches praising capitalism between 1954 and 1962. He had to wait almost 15 years to rise in the Republican party and reach the White House. Once elected, he often referred emotionally to President John F Kennedy, forgetting that he had opposed Kennedy’s nomination in 1960; he told Nixon that “Under the tousled boyish haircut [Kennedy’s programme] is still old Karl Marx. There is nothing new in the idea of a government being Big Brother to us all. Hitler called his state socialism”. Sarkozy’s future choices will show whether he appreciates Jean Jaurès now as much as Reagan worshipped Kennedy then.

This is a matter of sincerity. How can Sarkozy claim to have been the victim of political correctness when he has been a minister of state for four of the past five years and enjoyed the permanent support of employers and most of the media? There are US precedents. The essayist and novelist Ayn Rand wrote a high-profile article in 1961, “America’s persecuted minority: big business” at a time when blacks in southern states did not even have the vote. Nixon, who was a typical product of the provincial middle class, felt despised by the Kennedy clan and by the mass media, which had been dazzled by the photogenic family of East Coast aristocrats. George Bush junior, who studied at Yale and Harvard, sees himself as a rebel, a country boy from Texas in a world of progressive snobs.

Peggy Noonan, who wrote and edited Reagan’s most famous speeches, summarized the rightwing fantasy of the permanent dissident in two pithy sentences in her memoirs. “People always ask me how I came from my generation and became a conservative. It’s hard to pinpoint when the rebellion began.” And, of the Democrats: “They had everything going for them, including $50,000 a year at the age of 32, but they still felt obscurely besieged”.
Spokesman of the People

That says it all. Sarkozy, who presents himself as a perennial outcast, was mayor of Neuilly, one of the richest boroughs, when he was 32. His feelings about himself may be the result of the flood of psychological jargon that threatens to engulf French politics. Just a few weeks ago he said he had been making his way since 2002 outside a system that did not want him as leader of the UMP, rejected his ideas when he was minister of the interior, and contested all his proposals. But the poor boy had triumphed.

It is difficult for a candidate to present himself as the spokesman of the people when he has the employers’ support and campaigns on a program that promises to slash income tax, cut or abolish death duties and reduce corporation tax. Reagan and Bush almost managed it in the US. They performed brilliantly in the Democratic strongholds of Michigan and West Virginia, hard hit by industrial crises, where their successes depended on appeals to national and patriotic feeling, to anti-communism (and later anti-terrorism), to the small taxpayer’s resentment of the big tax collector.

They also appealed to traditional moral values, opposition to abortion and homosexuality, and rejection of a lax legal system held to be responsible for violence and crime. Sarkozy’s approach is much the same, without the explicit references to religious values; however he considers that spiritual matters have been much underestimated compared with social issues.

The popular success of the right in the US and France is not attributable to electoral strategy and good spokesmen; the right has benefited from the attrition of militant workers’ organizations, because of which many poorer electors now relate to politics and society in a more individual way. Talk of choice, merit and the value of work appeals to them: they want to choose schools and where to live to avoid the worst conditions; they feel they have merit and are not rewarded for it; they work hard and do not earn much more than the unemployed or immigrants. The privileges of the rich are so remote that they are not concerned about them.

There is nothing new about this. In the US in the late 1960s, international competition and a fear of losing social status transformed Rooseveltian leftwing populism–optimistic, victorious, and egalitarian, with shared aspirations for a better life–into a rightwing populism that exploited electors’ fear of being overtaken by those who were even poorer. That was the moment when the Republicans managed to introduce a new dividing line, not between rich and poor, capital and labor; but between people in work and people on welfare, between whites and ethnic minorities, workers and scroungers.

Reagan in the 1970s used to tell an untrue story of a “welfare queen who had 80 names, 30 addresses, 12 Social Security cards” whose “tax-free income alone is over $150,000”. (The Democrats do not now tell such stories for fear of accusations of fomenting class war.) By the 1980s the Republican strategy was so clear that one of its architects, Lee Atwater, described it openly. Of the National Enquirer, a scandal sheet sold in supermarkets, he said: “There are always some stories in there about some multimillionaire that has five Cadillacs and hasn’t paid taxes since 1974.” Atwater went on: “They’ll have another set of stories of a guy sitting around in a big den with liquor, saying so-and-so fills his den with liquor using food stamps.” The Republican party pounced on such stories.

Sarkozy promised that he will not allow people who don’t want to do anything–people who don’t want to work–to live on the efforts of those who do get up early and work hard. He contrasted France’s early risers with people on welfare, but left those on private incomes out of the equation. Sometimes, like his US counterparts, he added an ethnic and racial dimension, especially when there was electoral advantage to be gained.

This speech at Agen on June 22, 2006 won him his best ovation: “And to those who have deliberately chosen to live on the work of others; those who think the world owes them something but they don’t owe anything to anyone; those who want everything, all at once, without doing anything in return; those who won’t take the trouble to earn their living but prefer to search the pages of history for an imaginary debt the country owes them but has failed to pay; those who prefer to dwell on past wrongs and demand compensation from some fictitious debtor, rather than make an effort, work, and try to integrate; those who do not love France; those who demand everything from France but give nothing in return; to them I say that they are under no obligation to remain here.”

Peggy Noonan underwent a fresh conversion watching the French elections. “It comes as a relief,” she wrote in The Wall Street Journal on 14 May, “to admire France again.”

Translated by Barbara Wilson

SERGE HALIMI is one of the editors of the excellent monthly Le Monde Diplomatique, whose English language edition can be found at mondediplo.com The full text appears by agreement with Le Monde Diplomatique. CounterPunch is featuring one or two articles from LMD a month.

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Serge Halimi is president of Le Monde diplomatique