The Fall of the Sarkozy “Family”

Nicolas Sarkozy said he wanted to be re-elected so he could do the things he hadn’t achieved so far, reassuring voters that he’d changed. It allowed him to avoid mentioning all his broken promises, abandoned goals and disavowed aims on unemployment, public debt, purchasing power, security, government corruption and civil liberties.

After his defeat on  May 6 we need to assess the fiasco of his administration: a parody of presidential government that reduced the prime minister to an assistant and parliament to a rubber stamp. It didn’t have the organization to interfere in everything, but did anyway. It produced a plethora of laws without any actual effect.

The extreme concentration of power in the hands of one man did nothing to encourage modesty or self-doubt. Sarkozy was marketed, and analysed in the media, personally rather than politically. The many books about him, and the gossip, either adulated or loathed him — giving him too much attention either way (just as Victor Hugo unwittingly boosted Louis Bonaparte, the future Napoleon III, by attacking him; Marx was shrewder and aimed to show “the circumstances that allowed a mediocre and grotesque individual to play the role of a hero.”

To get to the top, a young politician must have real qualities and uncommon skill. Sarkozy, unlike his predecessors who graduated from elite universities, gained an undistinguished degree in law at Nanterre. He has a DEA (post-master’s degree) in political science and is qualified as a barrister. He also enrolled at the Paris Institut d’Etudes Politiques (IEP), but did not gain a diploma from that institution.

As a student, Sarkozy soon showed a preference for political militancy over studying. He set about refining his skills and began climbing the political ladder. From the start he behaved like an “election entrepreneur”; in fact his only job to date has been “political leader”. He was president of the youth section of the Rassemblement Pour la République (RPR) party. At 23 he became a member of the Neuilly-sur-Seine municipal council and at 28 was elected mayor, by means of a “coup” in which he leapfrogged over his mentor, Charles Pasqua. Sarkozy rose rapidly through the party ranks. He managed Jacques Chirac’s election campaign in 1988 (when François Mitterrand was re-elected). In 1993 he accepted a ministerial post in Edouard Balladur’s government and in 1995 supported Balladur’s unsuccessful election bid against Chirac. This “betrayal” sent him into the political wilderness until Chirac dissolved the National Assembly in 1997. Sarkozy continued to rise, surviving a number of political confrontations, which strengthened his determination and cynicism, confident — because others believed in him — that he was destined for great things.

On his home turf

The department of Hauts-de-Seine, and in particular the town of Neuilly-sur-Seine, gave him a solid base, because of their concentration of the super-rich, and big business leaders. This business bourgeoisie, both local and cosmopolitan, offered an exceptional opportunity to a politician who could, and did, immediately get close to people who might be useful to him, and had a reputation as an efficient manager. In his constituency he became friendly with all the big business owners (Martin Bouygues, Arnaud Lagardère, Antoine Bernheim, André and Liliane Bettencourt), whose success or inherited wealth had made them confident, yet who couldn’t or didn’t want to go into politics directly. When Sarkozy held a triumphal celebration dinner in Paris at Fouquet’s after the second round of the 2007 elections, it was attended by some of France’s biggest business owners, revealing the secret truth that the victory had been won by an alliance.

Over the last 25 years, French business directors, agents and beneficiaries of global liberalization have maintained they should be paid in proportion to their merits, and that they are more valuable than footballers or pop stars. They have abandoned traditional discretion and display the new wealth of the haute bourgeoisie. Whether they have inherited or made their money, all have gained so much wealth through “value creation” (as neoliberal bankers and economists call it) that they behave like nouveaux-riches. France’s business schools, including the Ecole de Hautes Etudes Commerciales (HEC), have become the new schools of power, while the old ones, such as Sciences Po, have turned into business schools.

So when a head of state with such extensive institutional and social resources fails, it is not only a personal failure but a failure for his political party and the elite who support it. You would have to go back to the July Monarchy of Louis Philippe (1830-1848) to find such close ties between political and economic powers, an intimacy that inspired de Tocqueville’s attack on the upper middle class which, “having become the government, acquired an air of private industry; it entrenched itself in its power, and very soon after that, in its egoism, each man thinking more of his own affairs than of public affairs, and of his own pleasure than of the greatness of the nation.”

In the 20th century, the dismantling of the public sector and the forms of remuneration introduced in the 1980s and 1990s (stock options, bonuses, golden parachutes) produced a new bourgeoisie. Extraordinary careers resulted from a privatization drive by the Chirac government (1986-88), when young senior civil servants prepared their future appointments as heads of privatized state enterprises: Michel Pébereau (BNP Paribas), Philippe Jaffré (Elf Aquitaine) and Jean-Marie Messier (Compagnie Générale des Eaux, soon to be Vivendi Universal), were all members of economy minister Edouard Balladur’s secretariat. The Socialist government of 1988-1993 continued the trend, finding jobs for a number of senior civil servants in the private sector, as did Balladur’s government of 1993-95.

Public to private and back again

The “revolving door” — moving from the public sector to the private sector and back again — furthered many illustrious careers, such as that of Stéphane Richard, who started as an inspector of public finances and became a technical adviser in the secretariat of industry and foreign trade minister Dominique Strauss-Kahn. He went on to be CFO of the Compagnie Générale des Eaux, CEO of Compagnie Immobilière Phénix and co-owner of Nexity, then went back to be the director of the secretariats of economy ministers Jean-Louis Borloo and Christine Lagarde, then on to chairman and CEO of France Telecom. Jean-Dominique Comolli graduated from the Ecole Nationale d’Administration, then became head of budget minister Michel Charasse’s secretariat, supervised the privatization of state-owned tobacco company Seita and, since 2010, has been head of the French government shareholding agency. Just as significant is the promotion of business directors who graduated from HEC, including Baudouin Prot (BNP Paribas), Henri de Castries (AXA) and François Pérol (Natixis-Caisse d’Epargne), who all then felt the need to enrol at the Ecole Nationale d’Administration (ENA). Henri Proglio did not need to do this to take charge at Vivendi Environnement (now Veolia) before becoming chairman and CEO of EDF.

Ties are strengthened by membership of the same clubs and company boards (and holding shares in each others’ companies) and by social ceremonies. Sarkozy, as mayor of Neuilly-sur-Seine, officiated at the weddings of “friends” (as any mayor in France does) and asked them to witness his own marriage and be godfather to his children (Bouygues is godfather to Sarkozy’s son Louis). Sarkozy was described as a “brother” (by Lagardère for instance). He has awarded the Legion of Honor to more businessmen (at ceremonies attended by these friends) than any of his predecessors.

So Sarkozy’s failure is also a failure of the business bourgeoisie. He now says the crisis of autumn 2008 was an external event that overtook him, but government requires foresight, and as a candidate in 2007 he had not only failed to foresee or understand the looming subprime crisis but was actually proposing France should adopt a similar system.

Catalogue of mistakes

Seldom has a body of political and business leaders been so badly mistaken in so many ways. The catalogue of errors includes pronouncements by media economists blind to the crisis, out of ignorance or for ulterior motives; sudden U-turns on the financial crisis, fiscal policy, diplomatic relations with Libya and Syria; and stances adopted to please economic leaders. Just before the Fukushima disaster, EDF’s Proglio, intending to establish a unified direction for nuclear power, proposed to abandon safer but more expensive nuclear technology in favor of a low-cost alternative.

How is it possible for an elite, whose qualifications ought to justify their position, to be so systematically mistaken? The management approach in the corporate sector, often regarded as a panacea (as seen in the fashion for “new public management” and the belief that the private sector is inherently superior to the public), is just not suited to public policy.

Is being confronted with evidence of failure enough to make people change? The question is especially important at election time, when there is a chance to adopt a different policy. In the business sector, few bankers have confessed their sins. There have been few resignations. There has been little remorse over obscene levels of remuneration. Infallibility seems to have become an established principle, to the benefit of the high priests of the free market economy.

In politics too, people are still blaming the “unforeseeable” crisis, along with “underestimated” international constraints, and the opposition, who were “dinosaurs”. Changing course takes willpower, but that is not enough when a new government inherits the thinking habits and affinities of its predecessor. Both are hard to give up. A sociographic survey of political leaders suggests a social and intellectual homogeneity that often precludes any differences beyond those strictly necessary to compete effectively for power.

What social base can newly elected Socialist Party president François Hollande draw on, as a graduate of HEC and ENA, even though he went into politics rather than the private sector? The door is now revolving more slowly, since the privatization of national enterprises has largely been completed and when new generations define themselves by doing the opposite of their predecessors. To prevent conflicts of interest, it would perhaps be best to prohibit business school graduates from enrolling at ENA. After the decades of neoliberalism, there are people who are keen to restore public services — primarily those who have become worse off, but also civil servants, including senior ones. There may be room for a new alliance, strong, determined and clear-thinking enough to change the course of events.

Translated by Charles Goulden

Alain Garrigou is a political scientist at Université Paris Ouest Nanterre and author of Les Secrets de l’Isoloir, Le Bord de l’Eau, Bordeaux, 2012.

This article appears in the excellent Le Monde Diplomatique, whose English language edition can be found at This full text appears by agreement with Le Monde Diplomatique. CounterPunch features two or three articles from LMD every month.