In the third consecutive defeat for the French left in a presidential election, NICOLAS SARKOZY has been chosen to lead France with a comfortable 53.7% of the vote, as the pre-election opinion polls had predicted. His Socialist opponent, Segolene Royal, received 46.3%, according to the exit polls. A whopping record 86% of French voters went to the polls today to give an unambiguous victory to the autocratic, demagogic, hard-right nationalist Sarkozy, who campaigned on promises of a “rupture” with France’s mixed economy and its welfare state, one of the most extensive in Europe.
The crowd in the hall where Sarkozy declared victory after the polls closed repeatedly sang the national anthem, La Marseillaise — with its famous xenophobic refrain, “Marchons, marchons! Qu’un sang impur abreuve nos sillons!” (Translation: Let us march, let us march, May impure blood soak the furrows of our fields.) And Sarkozy’s campaign was marked by incessant appeals to racism and the fear of immigrants, symbolized by his adoption of a slogan used by the neo-fascist leader Jean-Marie Le Pen, “France, love it or leave it,” and by his proposal for a new “Ministry of Immigration and National Identity,” which was widely criticized by the left and by anti-racist groups for amalgamating the two concepts and suggesting a fundamental opposition between the two.
In fact, the campaign strategy of “Sarko,” as he is referred to in France, was based on appeals to the electorate of Le Pen and his Front National party, which in the last presidential election in 2002 had beaten the Socialists for the place in the run-off against then-president Jacques Chirac. That lurch to the right five years ago by a significant portion of formerly left voters was confirmed by today’s vote, in which more than two-thirds of former Le Pen voters — many of them from the one-time Communist-dominated working class suburbs — went for Sarkozy, according to the exit polls.
Indeed, as the weekly Le Canard Enchaine — which has the best insider political gossip — reported a couple of weeks ago, a Sarkozy confident of victory had already discussed his long-term political strategy for remaining in power — for, as Le Canard revealed, he plans to integrate the Front National into his ruling UMP party in his second term, uniting the hard-right and the neo-fascist extreme right in an alliance imitating that operated by the Italian Silvio Berlusconi with the “post-fascist” Alleanza Nationale of Gianfranco Fini, who was Berlusoconi’s vice-premier.
In his victory remarks within minutes after TV declared him the winner, Sarkozy — frequently referred to the in the French press as “Sarko l’americain” for his aggressively Atlanticist views and his sympathy for Bush — promised a cheering audience of supporters that “the American people can count on our friendship” and that the war on terrorism “is of primary importance in the world, it is a fight that will be our fight” under his leadership. In fact, President Bush called Sarkozy within a few minutes after the polls closed to congratulate him, according to a report on France 2 public television.
But in reality, what Sarkozy’s victory means for France is something closer to the so-called “Reagan Revolution” in the U.S. that began in 1981 the process of dismantling and destroying the institutional New Deal legacy of Franklin D. Roosevelt. Chirac was a Gaullist, and the political heritage of General Charles De Gaulle, who led France from 1958 to 1969, included a vigorously statist approach to the economy and defense of a wide series of social protection and social safety-net measures that had been instituted by the left’s Popular Front government in the mid-1930s, and which were renewed and extended by post-war governments dominated by the political activists of the Resistance movement to Nazi occupation, who had a conception of government as a guarantor of economic security for all. Sarkozy is of a new generation than Chirac and, ideologically, not a Gaullist — but rather in phase with the “Chicago school” of economics led by Milton Friedman, which believes in minimal government, a slimmed-down state that interferes as little as possible in the economy, an aggressively laissez-faire approach that is dear to the economic barons of the MEDEF, the French business leaders’ association, whose tycoons were solidly behind Sarkozy’s candidacy. Sarkozy has already promised to, in effect, abolish the ISF (the tax on large fortunes), accord more tax breaks to big business and the upper-middle-classes, and make more cuts in the state-run national health system (declared by a U.N. survey to be the finest in the world in terms of delivery of health services and quality of care.) Sarkozy’s economic program is designed to help the already-privileged classes retain and extend their socio-economic position, to the detriment of the have-nots (the massive pro-Sarkozy vote in the upper-income neighborhoods today confirms that they understood Sarko’s message to them.) And he has promised a major down-sizing of the civil service employed by state agencies.
Sarkozy is a skilled demagogue who, on the stump, tried to give the impression (like Bush’s first presidential campaign did) that he was a “compassionate conservative.” But Sarkozy’s so-called “compassion” is strictly rhetorical — his concrete economic orientation is bound to deepen the gulf between the haves and the have nots, to aggravate what Jacques Chirac — in a famous phrase from his 1995 re-election campaign — had baptized the “social fracture.”
Life for the have-nots will become even more difficult under Sarkozy’s hard-right, anti-immigrant, law-and-order society. He has announced “zero tolerance” for illegal immigration, has deported tens of thousands of immigrants during his two terms as Interior Minister and split up immigrant families while making it tougher for them to become French citizens. He has proposed strict minimum sentences for all sorts of crimes, thus removing all discretion from French judges, and France’s already-crowded prisons will soon be overflowing with expanded, and younger, populations. French prisons, like ours, are training institutes for criminals, and by sending ever-larger numbers of young people to them for petty offenses Sarkozy will, in fact, be manufacturing new generations of hardened voyous (thugs in French.) In 1986, I was in Paris during the legislative elections that made Jacques Chirac prime minister for the first time — and the next day, the police — who sensed that the right’s victory had unleashed them — displayed an openly hostile and noticeably new aggressive posture toward people of color in the streets. I’ve had reports from French friends that the same thing happened after Sarkozy’s strong, lead showing in the first round of this presidential election two weeks ago. Now, with Sarkozy’s election, one can expect that the forces of law-and-order will consider that all restraints on them have been removed, and it will be more unpleasant than usual to be an Arab or black in France. (Remember Sarkozy’s hard-line program of repression during the October 2005 ghetto riots against racism, exclusion, and unemployment that had all France in flames?)
Sarkozy absolutely hates the left — in part because the Communists burned his aristocratic family’s chateau in Hungary (from whence his family emigrated to France) in 1944. And, in a major campaign speech just days before the election, Sarkozy surprisingly devoted 20 minutes of his discourse to a violent denunciation of the May 1968 student-worker revolt (Sarko was only 14 at the time of that rebellion.). The heritage of May ‘;68, Sarko thundered, must be “liquidated.” He blamed it for a generalized attitude of “laxisme,” for France’s having become a country “in which work has no value, in which people think they can do anything they feel like doing, in which people are lazy,” and on and on. May ’68 was, of course, the fountain of social ferment that led to the sexual revolution, to women’s liberation and the legalization of abortion, the gay liberation movement and the eventual repeal of laws criminalizing homosexuality, and a whole series of cultural changes that opened up a stuffy, arteriosclerotic French society. But May ’68 was also a general strike by 11 million French workers that gained union recognition in many factories, higher wages, and that won a reinforcement of the social safety net in an agreement (negotiated on behalf of then-President Georges Pompidou by a young Jacques Chirac) that became known as “les accords de la rue de Grenelle” (the agreement of Grenelle Street). What was unstated in Sarko’s anti-May ’68 speech was that all that sort of thing, too, must be “liquidated.” (For more, see my earlier article, “Why Sarkozy Is Dangerous.”)
Doug Ireland, a longtime radical journalist and media critic, runs the blog DIRELAND, where this article appeared May 6, 2007.