GARDEZ VOTRE SANG-FROID
(Instructions in Case of Fire, Paris housing projects)
France on the eve of elections
A man backed into a corner – up against the wall, with his enemies moving in for the kill and little room to manoeuver – will do and say anything he can to get out of his predicament: shouts, low blows, feints, ferocious lies, anything to deflect attention.
Nicholas Sarkozy is fighting for his political life right now. He is the President of France, at least until May 6th, and he either beats the odds in spectacular fashion or he retires to the drab world of consultancy and memoirs. Like Tony Blair, he can haunt the fringes of world affairs but he will never again be in the limelight, with television cameras recording his every pronouncement, as he is now. Time is running out.
The French political season is short: it only gets serious in January, winnows the candidates from the pretenders in mid-March and finishes in early May. Unlike the American marathons, candidates ranging from the Greens, the New Anti-Capitalist Party, the Worker’s Struggle on the left, to Marine le Pen of the far-right National Front have less than four months to make their case – and all have made the cut. Serious pundits typically describe the French electorate as conservative, a body of people who like to talk about rocking the boat just so long as they don’t get wet. None of which explains the hunger for new ideas or the strong support for candidates like Jean-Luc Mélenchon of the Front de Gauche. He argues that real change for Europe must start in France, and if a few of the wealthy fall overboard, well, so be it. (Mélenchon advocates a tax rate of 75 percent for those earning over 350,000 Euros a year. But what if the rich head for the nearest border? he was asked. Mélenchon’s reply? “Bye, bye.”
France has an antiquated system of parrainage, or sponsorship, to qualify for the spring run-off. (The final round is on May 6.) To secure a place on the ballot, a candidate must collect five hundred signatures – not from mere citizens but mayors, regional councillors, deputies, senators or French members of the European Parliament. The goal is, in the words of the Constitutional Council, to avoid “fantasy candidates.” (An apt characterization of a different presidential race in a far different country. But that, madame, is another continent.) The system reeks of the inside game and the seductions of power.
Marine Le Pen argued not that the system is undemocratic but that one’s parrains should enjoy anonyminity, an ingenious idea for a party of xenophobes and what Gore Vidal once gingerly characterized as ‘crypto-fascists.’ Few people publicly admit to supporting the National Front; her campaign posters are regularly defaced with a Hitler moustache or zombie eyes. The Constitutional Council rejected Le Pen’s proposal.
It isn’t hard to see the advantage established parties enjoy in such a set-up, or the sense it gives citizens that no matter who they vote for, the system itself will remain unchanged.
Dominique de Villepin, Foreign Minister when Jacques Chirac was President, has never won an election in his life; he was “mentored” into government. Creating his own party (République Solidaire) because no one else would have him, he spent most of March complaining that the election was being confiscated by Sarkozy’s UMP and the Socialists, before bowing out not with a bang but a whimper. (We can perhaps expect a volume of poetry or another biography of Napoleon from his newly recovered free time.) Frederic Nihous of the Hunting, Fishing and Natural Traditions party threw up his hands as well – he couldn’t find five hundred elected officials willing to hoist a beer with him.
Nevertheless, ten candidates will be on the ballot on Sunday: the auto worker Philippe Poitou of the Anti-Capitalists, Eva Joly of the underperforming Greens, the miserable Le Pen, Jacques Cheminade, an old-time socialist running, as his campaign literature says, against the City and Wall Street, François Bayrou, a moderate who so perfectly occupies the center that he seems to fallen inside a deep crater. And then there is Jean-Luc Mélenchon, a former minister under François Mitterand, the surprise success whose Front de Gauche has been drawing the largest and most boisterous crowds.
But the dark horse of the 2012 French presidential race remains Sarko, the great Nicholas, nicknamed Toxic by insiders and regarded as the most detested man in French politics, the man with the fashion model wife and the ability to talk the most amazing gibberish off the top of his head. A man whose UMP party won by a landslide in 2007. Availing himself of a crony’s television channel and a friendly dais in Montpellier, Sarkozy announced that he will run as a "man of the people" – although which people no one is quite sure. He is, he says, against the "elites" – although surely not the elites who finance his campaign as a way of paying him back for generous tax dispensations. Riding high last spring when he was busy bombing Libya and in the fall when he was courting Angela Merkel, he is no one’s favorite for the second round in May. His campaign, the literature says, is based on "values.” His campaigns posters simply say “A strong France."
He has one additional disadvantage: he is currently the President, and must convince the French to vote for him on his record.
Stranger things have happened.
Nicholas Sarkozy faces a number of unusually high hurdles in his bid to be reelected, and he has three weeks to pull it off. Being generally despised is the least of his worries.
In Paris he is already given up for dead. But Paris is not France and there are many ways for President Toxic to remain in the Élysée Palace for the next five years.
In 2007 he was elected in a landslide, as a populist, the agent of change who promised to let the French “Work More to Earn More.” Now, with youth unemployment hovering around 25% even he won’t dare to use the slogan again. Several high profile corruption trials wind their way through the French courts, inching ever closer to the live body of the President (The Karachi affair in which Sarkozy is accused of helping to open a bank account to launder funds from an arms merchant, the campaign funding scandal tied to Liliane Bettencourt of L’Oreal) and with Greece near the Point of No Return, it is hard to see exactly what holding hands with Angela Merkel has achieved.
Sarko meanwhile cannot restrain himself from his typical exuberant behavior, flying his stomach-ached son Pierre home from Odessa at taxpayers’ expense in late January, this in the wake of his blatantly illegal 2009 attempt to have his other son appointed head of a prestigious development agency at all of 23 years old. There is also the small matter of the statue of his wife being erected in Nogent-sur-Marne, a Paris suburb… the scandals follow one after another in entertaining succession.
Like the streetfighter backed into the corner, Sarkozy yells as his tormenters volume close in around him. On Sunday evening, television stations replayed his latest pronouncements. He claimed to have personally visited Fukishima to learn what France must do to avoid a similar nuclear “tragedy.” Commentators pounced on the fact that he has never visited Japan, much less one of their damaged reactors. At another campaign stop, he railed against his opponents, saying they had no ideas and calling them all sorts of names – but his language was so garbled and incomprehensible the talking heads finally decided he wasn’t speaking French at all.
He has a problem with promises as well, pledging in 2008 that he would save the steelworks in northeastern Gandrange, much as he promised state assistance to prevent SeaFrance, the cross-channel ferry service, from going under. Neither happened. In Gandrange, there is a gravestone inscribed: "Here lie the broken promises of Nicolas Sarkozy." People in small countries do not forget so easily.
In 2008, in the wake of the financial collapse, he vowed to ‘moralize the markets’ – about which he has done precisely nothing except to say that he is in favor of a financial transaction tax – but four years wasn’t enough time to get it passed. Instead, in the summer of 2010, he was busy evicting Gypsies from the countryside around Marseilles, in clear contravention of European law; tightening visas for immigrants, making it illegal for them to stay in France once their professional training is finished. (The world’s first instance of a pro-active brain drain?) He warned France that unless its retirement plan was drastically reformed, the country’s bonds were in danger of losing their AAA rating. After weeks of massive street demonstrations in the fall of 2010, he won that fight – and in January of this year France lost its Triple A anyway.
What may be the biggest scandal of his term is the collapse of French exports over the last five years. Industrial productivity is taking a nose dive. Wasn’t Sarkozy elected to tackle these problems rather than exacerbate them?
Little wonder 70% of France rates his record as “negative.”
The question, therefore, is exactly what program Sarkozy should run on. His campaign literature – which leans heavily on photos from happier days in 2008 and 9 – heralds the UMP as the party of ‘rights and obligations’ as compared to the Socialists, who are ‘lax and irresponsible.’ Not exactly firebrand stuff.
What Sarkozy needs to do is channel Nixon circa 1972. The same Nixon who promised a ‘secret plan’ to get America out of Vietnam in 1968 – and in 1972 presided over an ever-enlarging conflict in Southeast Asia. A presidenct knee deep in scandals ran a campaign based on poor whites’ resentment of blacks and elites – while he, Nixon, went about creating a Praetorian Guard at the White House. The candidacy of an unlikeable paranoid who thought the world was out to get him.
Nixon’s opponent in 1972 was a courtly, intelligent man who was willing to go to Hanoi and beg for peace. Nixon preferred to bomb. He crushed George McGovern in the general election.
What Sarkozy really wants is a good enemy, a larger than life figure whose terrifying shadow the President can invoke to frighten the populace.
Enter le Grand Méchant Mou, Monsieur Flamby, Mister Pudding or in Jean Luc Melenchon’s jibe – the best line of the campaign so far – an excellent “paddle boat captain.” One François Hollande by name, the Socialist candidate in this spring’s elections. He is Sarko’s only hope.
According to serious commentators, the election will revolve around one word: austerity. A very compelling word that, capable of many interpretations. Austerity in the present context means that governments are walking an ever-twisting tightrope with bankers at either end holding the reins – and no net below. Austerity means that the candidate of No wins, while Yes suffers the disgrace of being a dreamer. Austerity means fear of the unknown.
And it is precisely here that Hollande, the chubby backroom wheeler and dealer, the insider, can be of most use to Sarkozy. He has already laid his cards on the table. In a late February speech at Le Bourget – a depressed area near Paris that is part of the Land Sarkozy Forgot – Hollande made his message clear. “My enemy is the world of finance.” Hollande is for “growth,” he promises to raise taxes on rich individuals and big business (though not as much as Mélenchon) and he wants a reform of the European “stability” pact which enforces the current strangulation of Greece.
Austerity is, of course, beloved by banks and large financial entities like the World Bank because they know it does not apply to them.
By late April Hollande will inevitably be conjured as an extremely dark and threatening cloud on the horizon – a man who cannot be trusted. Sarkozy has to paint Hollande and his calls for higher taxation, growth, investment in jobs and schools as a dangerous radical who will upset the French applecart and threaten the country with the vengeance of the markets. Expect fireworks on that order when they debate after the first round.
To say that Sarkozy is unlikeable is an understatement: European leaders regularly complain of his backstabbing, and even worse for his electoral prospects, he now finds himself confronted by angry citizens at inconspicuous campaign stops.
And yet. Like him or not, the argument goes, Sarkozy can be depended on to do the hard work. He has attempted large scale reforms, such as in the educational system. He may be a nouveau, a social climber, a populist, he may even be devious and dishonest – but those may be exactly the qualities required for the unpleasant task of ‘austerity’: trimming fat from government and making the hard choices. Hollande in contrast has all the charisma of an accountant.
To use the current jargon, it depends on which ‘narrative’ French voters accept. Old habits die hard. The notion of shared sacrifice during a time of communal difficulty still has appeal, even in a country so solidly bourgeois as France.
So Sarkozy may well invoke the quasi-religious tropes of sacrifice and untrustworthy foreigners robbing France of its riches. It’s a way of channeling the insecurity everyone feels. Deportations and talk of “civilization” (ours, of course) eat into the support usually given to Le Pen’s National Front. Le Pen herself has repeatedly complained about Sarko’s tactics, his attempt to pilfer her base out from underneath her. He won’t get re-elected without it.
It is an extremely important election. If Hollande is elected there is at least a temporary pause in Europe’s rightward lurch. Europe’s leaders are already nervous: they refuse to meet with Hollande before the election, Cameron citing protocol and the others simply refusing his calls.
Merkel has already made at least one campaign stop for Sarkozy, and there may be others after April 22. What both politicians are counting on is the susceptibility, the comfort even, of a harsh Austerity versus the fear of an uncertain future in the hands of a ‘flabby, dangerous’ Hollande, who believes that only job growth and economic initiatives can pull France out of its tailspin.
As the German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung put it after Sarkozy and Merkel made a joint television appearance in mid-February: "The greatest living danger to Merkel’s fiscal pact is named Hollande."
In late March Sarkozy made what he thought would be a routine campaign stop in the sleepy border town of Bayonne. Was it an ambush, as Alain Juppé and other members of the government have alleged or did Sarkozy know what he was doing? Even before the president got out of his car the crowd was booing vociferously, and the volume increased when they could see him in the flesh.
France is a small country and people can get close to their leaders. Sarko’s many tiffs with the citizenry are legendary – he has a quick temper and isn’t afraid to show his nasty side. But this time he was vastly outnumbered; the angry crowd chased him into the nearest bar for refuge.
Sarko lost no time turning the incident to his advantage. In a speech in conservative Bordeaux, he blamed Socialists for instigating the incident. “Shame on those who consider a campaign to be a succession of ambushes and low blows. Those who make company with thugs have no love for the Republic.” And then Sarkozy got carried away and went still further, accusing the Socialists of being in bed with Basque separatists.
In short, Sarkozy, along with his four Mini-mes – Gueant, Fillon, Copé and the newly rehabilitated Rachida Dati – can be counted on to raise a hue and a cry about absolutely anything, so long as it distracts from the issues of the day. Halal food in school cafeterias? Worth at least five minutes of distraction. The Schengen Treaty that allows for free movement across Europe? Sarkozy recently threatened to pull out of the agreement and thereby seal off France from its neighbors. His Mini-Mes keep up the drumbeat of catastrophe for France should the Socialists win.
And yet even L’Affaire Merah, the multiple murders by a deranged young Muslim in and around the city of Toulouse, failed to pay off for Sarko: a day’s headlines, a moment of silence and much fretting about the Islamic threat – all caused by a lost man who had tried to join the Foreign Legion. The French are not so easily manipulated. Even when the wind blows southerly they can distinguish a hawk from a handsaw.
Hollande continues to plod on, while a rabblerouser like Jean-Luc Mélenchon of the Front de Gauche steals his fire and draw the lively crowds. (Regarding foreigners in France, Mélenchon simply says, “It doesn’t matter where you’re from; what counts is where you’re going.”) Hollande’s goal seems to be an errorless campaign, in which nothing is said to rile voters, nothing that would cause them to have doubts about a man who has never even held even so much as a ministerial position.
The French want more from Hollande; between April 22 and May 6 there will be at least two face to face debates and he is going to have to deliver. How, for instance, will he deal with the opposition to his attempt to revise current European budgetary regulations? In November of last year the Greek leader, George Papandreou dared to suggest that the Greek people had a right to a yes or no vote on the bitter medicine being rammed down their throats. He was out of power in a matter of days.
Hollande will certainly survive the first round, as will Sarkozy. The question is, who will place third? If Marine Le Pen makes a strong showing with disaffected, non-Muslim youth, as some think she will, Sarkozy benefits and will tilt further right before the second round; if Mélenchon, the advantage passes to Hollande, even if the former refuses to tell his voters to back Hollande. They have nowhere else – except abstention – to go.
Hollande, the consummate backroom dealer of whom his ex-wife Sengalene Royale once asked, “Can anyone in France name a single thing this man has ever accomplished?” is attempting to reorient the Socialists, dragging them away from a pro-business stance in order to tackle the mess the financial markets have created. Not an easy task in an election year.
Nevertheless, it’s Hollande’s election to lose. Stay tuned. Things are about to get interesting.
Iddhis Bing, Paris correspondent for NYArts, is the author of The Apartment Thief, a novel.