After defeating Segoléne Royal, King Sarko the First is off to a royal start. Turncoats from the defeated parties rush to catch the crumbs from his table. By a nice coincidence, the famous hall of mirrors in the Chateau de Versailles has been fully restored just in time for the new monarch to look at his glittering reflection and exclaim, “L’Etat c’est moi, moi, moi”
“Moi” was the leitmotif of his hour-long speech to members of his new parliamentary majority, summoned to the Elysée to get their marching orders three days after winning election. In enumerating the full legislative program that must be adopted, pronto, Nicolas Sarkozy left no space for an eventual idea from some humble parliamentarian. Each command was punctuated by the declaration, “I’ll be taking my responsibilities!” Never has a President of the Republic made such lavish use of the first person singular.
Like pre-revolutionary Versailles, the royal court is frequented by beautiful women, who distract attention from foreign wars and disgruntled plebeians. The most striking of these decorations is not the enigmatic part-time first lady Cecilia, but a total newcomer, Rama Yade, the 30-year-old daughter of Senegalese intellectuals. Sarkozy prides himself on promoting what he calls “the visible minorities”. With her stunning smile, Rama Yade is the most visible. She is not only African-born (naturalized French) and Muslim (married to a Jewish Socialist), but has also accumulated the necessary academic credentials to occupy a place in the French elite. As “State Secretary for Human Rights” (whatever on earth that may mean), she was catapulted onto the international scene at a Paris conference on Darfur where she could upstage Condoleezza Rice, as the only African woman at a conference about Africa.
With such appointments, which he describes as an “opening” to outsiders, Sarkozy is cleverly substituting symbolism for representation. Instead of giving a place to figures elected by minorities or oppositions parties to represent them, he plucks from those minorities and opposition parties individuals who symbolize them, without any mandate other than the one conferred by Sarkozy himself. This use of symbolism is another step in the crippling of political democracy in the age of images.
Meanwhile, the political opposition is groggy from its defeat. The Socialist Party survived the June 17 parliamentary elections better than feared, but its lack of inner cohesion is well reflected in the breakup of the Ségolène Royal-François Hollande couple. Without François Mitterrand to hold it together, the SP has deteriorated into a snake pit of rival currents, where personal animosities and basic disagreements seem to rule out any constructive political revival. Local loyalties saved a score of Communists, who with three Greens elected thanks to Socialist support may form a small parliamentary group. Leading members of both those parties are calling for their dissolution. The French left has not been in such a wretched state for decades.
The end of Gaullism
Sarkozy also managed a knock-out blow against his rivals on the right. The defeat of Jean-Marie Le Pen is, paradoxically, a heavy blow by ricochet against the left. For twenty years the left has hugely inflated the “Le Pen threat”, both to brandish its own “anti-fascism”, and, not incidentally, to focus attention on the monster and thereby increase his appeal to ornery voters who might otherwise have voted for the mainstream right. This time, thanks to Sarkozy’s double talk, they did just that. Without the Le Pen hobgoblin, the left may have to come up with some ideas of its own.
More significant is the defeat of the Gaullists, that is, the bourgeois current that, following World War II, pursued a policy of social concessions to the working class (similar to Christian Democracy in Germany and Italy) combined with sporadic defense of French independence on the international scene. This latter trait, almost unique in post-World War II Western Europe, greatly irritated Washington. Both these traits appear to be absent from the Sarkozy outlook.
In recent years, Jean-Pierre Chevènement tried in vain to inject a certain measure of Gaullism into the ideologically disoriented French left. The most principled champion of the secular republic, Chevènement was the only minister who resigned from the government in protest against France’s participation in the 1991 first Gulf War, and remained opposed to all recent U.S. wars. He was isolated and marginalized by a Socialist Party that preferred to abandon foreign policy to a theoretical “Europe” that had none. The June 17 election put an end to Chevènement’s career, when the Socialist Party failed to give him full support in the second round. It also put an end to the career of Alain Juppé, the last of the Chirac loyalists. The new Ministry of Ecology and Sustainable Development, designed by and for Juppé, was turned over to Jean-Louis Borloo, a centrist rallied to Sarko. The last Chirac loyalist in Sarkozy’s cabinet, Michèle Aliot-Marie, has been placed on a political minefield in the Interior Ministry, Sarkozy’s former bailiwick, which he intends to keep under close control.
Ironically, Jacques Chirac’s landslide victory in the 2002 presidential election probably contributed to the final fall of Gaullism and the rise of Nicolas Sarkozy. Chirac could only be aware that he was elected by both left and right wing voters in order to “stop Le Pen”. He had no mandate to carry through a tough right-wing program of neo-liberal reforms. Moreover, there is no evidence that he cared to do so. His attitude toward France seems to have been something like, “if it isn’t broken, don’t fix it.” And he was right. Far from being broken, France, by many if not most indicators, was the most successful country in the capitalist West: high labor productivity, top public services, longest life expectancy, highest birth rate in Europe (due much more to pro-family government policy than, as is sometimes claimed by foreign critics, to immigrant fecundity), Europe’s only thriving film industry, lowest rate of “brain drain” in Europe and highest rate of “brain gain”. But to the left and right of Chirac swirled the laments that France was in terrible shape. For the right, France was in “decline”, due to the “conservatism” of the selfish lower classes, unwilling to make the necessary patriotic sacrifice of their wages, pensions, public services and social benefits in order to lure financial capital into buying up the country’s profitable productive sectors.
These laments, amplified by the mainstream media, gave an impression of political stagnation in a country that was actually vibrantly active. All this played into the hands of a shrewd political operator offering the spectacle of perpetual motion.
The threat of “Islamo-Fascism”
Chirac’s greatest moment, his opposition to the U.S. invasion of Iraq, was the swan song of Gaullist independence. It won him little open support, even though the French people overwhelmingly wanted nothing to do with that war. While U.S. media and politicians railed against “the French”, the French did nothing to build on rejection of the Iraq war to construct an alternative foreign policy. Instead, the deviation from the U.S. line gave rise to a concentrated campaign of denigration of Chirac on the part of France’s largely pro-American media, as well as a stepped-up effort on the part of Israel’s champions to focus attention on the danger of “Islamo-fascism”. Israel’s robbery, theft and murder of Palestinians can be portrayed as defense of “Western values” against the alleged “Islamo-fascism” of the popular resistance movements Hamas and Hezbollah.
Since, fortunately, it is hard to find anything in France itself that can seem to correspond to that particular threat, everything Muslim tends to be scrutinized for symptoms of the new peril. A handful of stubbornly head-scarved schoolgirls scarcely qualify as a major menace. And only abroad is it plausible to link the 2006 banlieue riots to Islam. A more subtle approach to stigmatizing Islam goes by way of feminism.
This tendency is represented in the new Sarkozy team by another of his “visible minority” women, Fadela Amara, recruited from her association “Ni Putes Ni Soumises” (NPNS, “neither whores nor submissive women”) to be State Secretary for Urban Policy. Presented in mainstream media as a friendly gesture by Sarkozy toward “les banlieues”, Fadela Amara’s appointment is felt as a hostile provocation in communities where she is widely accused of contributing to divisiveness and stigmatization of Muslims. NPNS has specialized in campaigning against macho abuse of women in working class communities. Machismo certainly flourishes in more crude forms in poor than in rich neighborhoods, but NPNS serves more to project a negative image in mainstream media than to combat sexism in the banlieues. Like its predecessor “SOS Racisme”, NPNS is a satellite of the Socialist Party. Its focus on identity politics avoids economic themes that might unite rather than divide the working class. The secretary general of Ni Putes Ni Soumises happens to be a man, Mohammed Abdi, born in Morocco, who is also a cofounder of the very pro-American and pro-Israel magazine Le Meilleur des Mondes, the organ of French neo-conservatives. A friend and colleague of Amara for twenty years, Abdi says he joined SOS Racisme in order to “combat Islamism side by side with Jews”.
After having made her name as a far left feminist, Fadela Amara appears delighted to work for Christine Boutin, the Minister of Housing and the City and the most socially conservative member of the new government. A devout Catholic, Boutin made a spectacle of herself in secular France by brandishing a Bible in parliament during the debate on a measure to legalize unmarried couples (hetero- and homosexual), which she opposed on religious grounds.
Sarkozy goes to Europe
On the matter of the European Union, Sarkozy has scored an early political victory simply by facing a few facts on a subject where fantasy prevails.
One of the main reasons for the defeat of the Socialist Party has been its utter refusal to face up to the French voters’ rejection of the Treaty for a European Constitution in the referendum held in May 2005. The party was split on the issue, with the vast majority of its leaders campaigning for “yes” and a very large minority of its electorate voting “no”. Most Socialist leaders have gone on since as if nothing had happened. As for the few who campaigned for the “no” (Laurent Fabius, Henri Emmanuelli, Jean-Luc Mélanchon), they failed to make a major issue of the matter within their party. Nor did they join with the extraparliamentary left supposing that would have been possible, given the latter’s sectarianism — in drawing political conclusions for the future.
A main obstacle to drawing such conclusions has been the left’s dogmatic devotion to “the idea of Europe”, regardless of the evolving reality. Any criticism of the real existing European Union has been dismissed as a reversion to “nationalism”, the source of two World Wars. Socialist leaders have lost credibility by simultaneously abandoning social policies in conformity with EU directives (“Brussels”) while holding out the prospect that the way to save the “French social model” is to strengthen and expand the European Union as if the growing number of European member states would be willing and able to convert to the policies of the French left. While “no” voters saw that the Constitution made this impossible, even the anti-Constitution left kept alive the vague hope that some unidentified process might still lead to a genuine “social Europe”. Back when the Conservatives were in power in Britain, it was possible to imagine that a British Labor government would support “social Europe”, as left Labor members of the European Parliament seemed to indicate. Tony Blair long ago shattered all such illusions. Political Europe has long since been sacrificed to economic Europe, open for business (in every sense). Not only Britain, but also Poland and the Baltic States constitute an obstacle both to “social Europe” and to any unified EU foreign policy that might deviate seriously from the line set down in Washington. The left has not faced up clearly to these obvious facts. In her campaign for President, Ségolène Royal called for negotiation of a new treaty to be resubmitted to the people in a new referendum. This overlooked the impossibility of getting the EU’s Member States all 27 of them — to revise the draft Constitution in ways that would gain the approval of a majority of French voters.
This avoidance of unpleasant realities left the field wide open to Sarkozy to appear to accomplish miracles with his proposal to jettison the Constitution in favor of a “simplified Treaty”, to be ratified by parliaments instead of by risky popular referendums. After this proposal won the initial approval of Germany and other Member States, Sarkozy declared in a major speech in Strasbourg on July 2 that “Europe is saved!” In contrast to Socialist Party leaders, Sarkozy went so far as to recognize the May 2005 “no” vote as justified. “It is not the ‘no’ in the French and Dutch referendums that created a crisis in Europe. It’s the crisis of the European spirit that provoked the French and Dutch ‘no’,” he declared, adding that other European populations would no doubt have voted “no” if given the chance. Europe was turning into a “bureaucratic machine”, distrusted by the people. But “France is back!” in the person of Sarkozy, to inject “politics” and “political will” into European construction. His “simplified Treaty” eliminated reference to “free competition” as a “basic value” of the EU, which many “no” voters had rejected as a threat to public services. Sarkozy promised to combat “monetary, social and ecological dumping” and to restore the principle of community preference to protect European industry.
By such agitation on the European level, Sarkozy delivers the message to the home front that he is doing whatever can be done “for the people”. If it doesn’t work, well, nobody could do any more. While this show goes on, his government can freeze the minimum wage, raise health care charges to patients, reduce transport workers’ right to strike, lengthen the work week, cut back the number of teachers and other public servants, and give big tax breaks to the rich. In doing so, he is running up a deficit that can later become the reason why we “must” cut back more public services.
The day after his triumphant Strasbourg oration, Sarkozy was in Marseilles initiating a new tramway and making another big speech. Every day is Sarko day. It could almost be overlooked that meanwhile, in Paris, his overshadowed prime minister, François Fillon, was making his big policy speech to Parliament. Fillon declared that the “French model” is “worn out”, and that it is necessary to carry through “reforms” all the way “to the end”. Shock treatment, here we come. While Sarko is “saving Europe”, Fillon gets to be the “bad cop” on the home beat. Just in case his “reforms” lead to popular revolt, it is Fillon who can be thrown to the wolves, while Sarkozy dips into his vast reserve of eager opportunists.
It has become clear that by changing the presidential term to five years, with the parliamentary election following close on the heels of the presidential election, France has given itself the most presidential system in the Western world. The victorious president pretty much gets the parliament he wants, which he can keep throughout his five-year term. Not only does this system differ from the parliamentary systems of Germany, Italy, Britain and most other European countries, it concentrates even more power in the Presidency than the U.S. system. And Sarkozy clearly means to use every ounce of it.
In France, every political phenomenon is interpreted in terms of its historic antecedents. It has taken only a few weeks for historians to place Sarkozy firmly in the line of Napoleon Bonaparte’s nephew who ruled France as the Second Empire from 1852 to 1870.* An ominous precedent for French democracy.
DIANA JOHNSTONE is the author of Fools’ Crusade: Yugoslavia, NATO and Western Delusions, Monthly Review Press. She can be reached at email@example.com
* This is the theme of the June 30 issue of the weekly Marianne, with articles by the magazine’s founder, Jean-François Kahn, and historian Marc Ferro, among others. www.marianne-en-ligne.fr