Days before the first round of the French presidential election, Nicolas Sarkozy was addressing his supporters at a mass rally in Paris. His final words sounded desperate: “French people, help me!” The conservative candidate looked tense and the public mood was grim. A record attendance of 150,000 was hastily announced. Journalists on the ground showed that no more than 30,000 had gathered on Place de la Concorde.
This ever more likely defeat has been a long time coming. While he was campaigning in 2007, Sarkozy’s economic advisers concocted a fiscal plan that gravely offended the French sense of egalitarianism. The Tepa law – or “fiscal shield” – ensured that the richest people would not pay more than 50% of their annual income in tax. Thanks to the perverse tax cap, Liliane Bettencourt – France’s richest person – received a €30m repayment. Sarkozy’s reputation as a friend of the rich who benefits from their largesse has never rescinded since then.
In the run-up to the 2012 election, the incumbent president has tried to rebrand himself as a “man of the people”, a “political outsider”, even though he has run France for the past five years. Various studies have established that Sarkozy has been true to his popular nickname: the “rich people’s president”. According to the Terra Nova thinktank, François Fillon’s government has redistributed €84bn in tax cuts since 2007. Of that, €50bn went to companies, and of the €34bn that went to households, the richest 10% received €19bn while the remaining 90% shared €15bn. That €84bn in tax redistribution is worth four points of GDP. It is important to note that without those “fiscal gifts” to the rich, France’s public debt (85% of GDP) would today be lower than that of Germany (83.5%).
In 2007, Sarkozy announced that under his presidency the French would “work more to earn more”. This was a one-sided promise. In fact, people have been working more to earn less – when they can get a job: the unemployment rate was 10% in February 2012 (as opposed to 7.9% at its lowest rate in December 2007). The conservative government has raised France’s legal minimum retirement; a policy that is heavily weighted against the lower-class categories. Sarkozy is now targeting the trade unions that have had the impudence of opposing the changes. He has proposed that work negotiations be carried out between employers and employees in an attempt to short-circuit trade unions, the pillar of labour relations in France. He has snapped at “people living off benefits” and he will be implementing radical workfare reforms should he be re-elected. The unions are well aware of the danger and most fear a major offensive against a dwindling welfare state.
Sarkozy championed a “blameless republic” in 2007. The Bettencourt, Karachi and Takieddine financial scandals have compromised close political associates and some argue that it is vital for Sarkozy to be re-elected in order to escape being prosecuted.
In line with statesmen such as Tony Blair or David Cameron, Sarkozy has no deep political convictions. His political narrative is made of endless triangulations and contradictory proposals. One day, Sarkozy argues that making money bears witness to a “successful” life. The next day, he launches an attack on “amoral bankers” and their “astronomic bonuses”. He praises “ordinary workers” but thereafter stigmatises unemployed people and immigrants.
The French have turned a blind eye to his casual style, the “bling” and do not mind his lack of respect for the republican pomp. The roots of the problem are deeper. Voters have realised that the president does not have a “sense of the state”. Sarkozy does not incarnate (sarkosis in Greek means incarnation) the institutions of the French state with rigour and seriousness.
Sarkozysm may be seen as an avatar of Berlusconism. “Sarkoberlusconism” attempts to run the state as a firm. Under Sarkozy, justice, culture or education have become economic goods which should be subjected to the rationality and assessment of market rules. In this respect, Sarkozysm is an Americanism; the closest France has got so far to US-style neo-conservatism.
Like Berlusconi, Sarkozy constantly occupies the media to make daily policy statements that are never properly debated or spelled out. For some, this is a sign of de-democratisation of politics: citizens are unable to engage those inconsistent speeches and cheap emotional claims. Following the Toulouse killings, Sarkozy announced a one-minute silence in schools throughout France. Visiting a junior high school in Paris, he told the pupils that the children killed “were exactly like you” and the attack “could have happened here”. The nation was numb. Few dared to say that it was irresponsible to emotionally destabilise children instead of reassuring them. Few dared to criticise the president’s thinly veiled attempt to sell the children’s parents a set of half-baked anti-terrorist measures.
There is not an ounce of Gaullism left in Nicolas Sarkozy. Who is he then? The Wall Street Journal called him “Nicolas Le Pen”, explaining that he had been fishing for far-right voters. Here lies the political fate of Sarkozy: this electoral strategy might enable him to come ahead in the first ballot, but his hard-right stand and his free-market policies should see him lose the second round.
Philippe Marlière is a Professor of French and European politics at University College London (UK). He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org