Tuesday, May 8, 2007
What The American Press Left Out
The American press' analysis of Nicolas Sarkozy's victory has so far amounted to the condescending party line about France turning its back on its stifling Socialist legacy in favor of liberal reform. But while Sarkozy campaigned on a platform of rupture, it would be premature to assume that the majority he won is made up entirely of folks committed to modernizing France and liberalizing its economy.
Sarkozy won the election for two reasons. First, by taking control of the UMP in 2005, he managed to outmaneuver and eliminate his most dangerous rival, Dominique de Villepin, early on. He then proceeded to rally the Chirac loyalists behind his candidacy with an effectiveness that surprised most observers. (I, for one, was waiting for a political assassination -- Chirac's specialty -- up until Saturday evening.) By contrast, Ségolène Royal's rivals in the Socialist Party (namely Jospin, Fabius and Strauss-Kahn) never fully came on board. At best, they supported her half-heartedly, and at times they actively sabotaged her chances, mainly out of personal ambition, but also because of the way in which she broke with tradition by bypassing the party bureaucracy and establishing an independent campaign.
Second, Sarkozy tailored specific aspects of his campaign (law & order, immigration) to appeal to the supporters of the rightwing extremist, Jean-Marie Le Pen. Le Pen's Front National (FN) is the only party in France that is considered "untouchable", that is, unfit to enter into a governing coalition, and his voters are so far out on the fringe that they are not even considered part of the "republican" tradition. The strategy reduced Le Pen's first-round showing to an anemic 10 percent (compared to the 16 percent he won in 2002), two-thirds of whom went on to vote for Sarkozy in the second round despite Le Pen's call for abstention.
Sarkozy claimed that while inviting the FN into a governing majority was unthinkable, inviting its voters back into the fold was healthy for democracy. But the dirty little secret of his victory, one that the American press seems to want to ignore at all costs, is that he owes it in large part to an anachronistic element that believes, among other things, that France should withdraw from the EU, close its borders to immigration, refuse citizenship to anyone without French "blood", and give preference in jobs and entitlements to French citizens. Hardly the kind of reforms the American press had in mind.
It's the French equivalent of the Republican Party's courtship of the evangelical vote here in the States, which might make sense in terms of electoral arithmetic, but also forces otherwise intelligent candidates to reject evolution if they want a chance of winning the nomination. Unfortunately, the French Socialist Party is a mess, at risk of imploding under the weight of too many egos and not enough power to go around. So while Sarkozy's victory has a certain pyrrhic quality to it, if he manages to put together a successful five-year term, he just might get away with the gamble.