The Magazine

A Battle Royal

France girds for the Sarko-Ségo showdown.

Feb 26, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 23 • By MICHEL GURFINKIEL
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Good news. This spring, the French elections--both presidential, in late April and early May, and parliamentary, in early June--are going to be well worth watching. For the first time in decades, there are comparatively young presidential candidates, and quite independent-minded ones. The main conservative candidate is Nicolas "Sarko" Sarkozy, 52, who achieved a reputation for toughness as minister of the interior and wrested the UMP (Union pour un Mouvement Populaire) party from Jacques Chirac's men three years ago. On the left, Ségolène "Ségo" Royal, 53, governor of the Poitou-Charentes province in western France, also a contrarian in many respects, stormed the Socialist party last year in a breathtaking media coup. As for those people in the middle--the ones who, had they been American, would have voted for Reagan in the 1980s and Clinton in the 1990s--they have their own darling, François Bayrou, 55, leader of the centrist UDF (Union pour la démocratie française) party. For years, Bayrou insisted the French should have more than just two options--and looked like a crank. This time, he is taken more seriously.

Further good news: The far right agitator Jean-Marie Le Pen may not run, for the first time since 1974. In order to be a candidate for the French presidency, one needs to be endorsed by 500 elected officials. Until 2002, Le Pen had no problem achieving that. It is no secret that the Socialists had a vested interest in his running, as a man who would abscond with part of the conservative vote. This time, new regulations requiring that the endorsers' names be made public may doom his candidacy. In addition, the left's pro-Le Pen strategy backfired in 2002: On the first ballot, he won more votes than the Socialist candidate, Lionel Jospin, thus barring Jospin from the runoff against Chirac. It was a bitter pill and has not been forgotten.

The mechanics of French politics are such that once a new president is elected, his party is almost guaranteed to win the ensuing parliamentary ballot. More important, the president-elect can see to it that most of his party's parliamentary candidates are loyalists. In other words, Sarkozy, if elected, can count on the backing of a strong "Sarkozyist" majority at the National Assembly, and Royal, if elected, on a strong "Royalist" majority. All in all, the "dear old country" (as General de Gaulle used to call it) stands a reasonable chance, whoever wins, of rejuvenating itself a bit.

Nicolas Sarkozy entered politics early and rose quickly to the top. A lawyer by training (and not, like most others in France's political class, a graduate of the elitist ENA, the National School for Public Administration), he was elected mayor of Neuilly, the posh suburb of Paris, at the age of 28. He became a member of the National Assembly at 33, a member of the cabinet, as minister of budget, at 38, and finally, at 44, head of Jacques Chirac's Gaullist party. The key moment in his rise came in 2002, when he was appointed minister of the interior in Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin's government, at the age of 47. Overnight, he became the proponent of something entirely new in French politics--a no-nonsense conservatism in the manner of Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan, and Rudolph Giuliani.

Under the Gaullist and post-Gaullist dispensation, down through Jacques Chirac, even the conservatives pretend to be (and are somewhat) liberal, as long as they are allowed to run the show. This is the ethos of managerialism with which the majority of them are indoctrinated at the ENA. Sarkozy took precisely the opposite line. Whether on crime, the economy, anti-Semitism, or the so-called clash of civilizations, he decided that conservatives should be conservative, and act accordingly. As minister of the interior, he has stood for law and order, even if it meant a high profile for police forces in the street, holding minors in custody, deporting illegal aliens, or facing ethnic riots in the suburbs. As minister of finance in 2004, and then as party leader, he supported tax cuts. As a candidate for the presidency, he has made clear that he sees France as a Judeo-Christian country, with organic links to the rest of the Judeo-Christian world, decidedly including the United States and Israel. To this day, even some of his closest aides are uneasy with his deep affection for America and the American people. But many conservative voters, especially those who were never fully on board the Gaullist and post-Gaullist bandwagon, are thrilled.