The Magazine

Liberté, Egalité . . .


May 21, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 34 • By MICHEL GURFINKIEL
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In the first round of balloting on April 22--against multiple candidates spanning the ideological spectrum--France's new president-elect Nicolas Sarkozy garnered a bit more than 31 percent of the vote. Two weeks later, in the head-to-head contest against runner-up Ségolène Royal, he was elected president of France with a bit more than 53 percent of the total. Where did he find the additional 22 percent? There were basically two constituencies to tap: the centrists, who had made a stunning 18.5 percent showing on the first ballot, under François Bayrou; and Jean-Marie Le Pen's far right, a declining force but still pulling in 10.5 percent.

According to most pollsters and analysts, about half of the centrists supported Sarkozy on May 6, in spite of Bayrou's own flirtation with Royal, the Socialist candidate. This was the case in particular in those areas, like Rouen in Normandy or Nice on the Mediterranean, where local politics have been dominated by a very conservative brand of centrism ever since World War II. But the real breakthrough was with the far right: While Le Pen himself remained neutral and scornful, 90 percent of his voters switched to Sarkozy. Add to this the 2 percent or so who had supported the arch-conservative Euroskeptic Philippe de Villiers on the first ballot, and you get the final 53 percent total.

Le Pen's National Front has been the curse of French politics for almost a quarter of a century. Back in the 1980s, it was essentially the creation of François Mitterrand, the Machiavellian Socialist president, who had been close to fascist circles in his youth and had retained many unsavory personal friends from those years, like René Bous quet, the former top cop of the Vichy regime (and the man who delivered 80,000 French Jews to Adolf Eichmann).

A provocative movement of the far right, so Mitterrand reasoned, would freeze a sizable part of the conservative vote that might otherwise go to more respectable men of the right. Moreover, any attempt from the respectable right to assuage and recover the voters it had lost to Le Pen--especially on issues like immigration and law and order--would be described by the politically correct media as a betrayal of democracy and only serve to further strengthen the left. It was classic divide-and-conquer politics.

The scheme worked beautifully--until it was finally foiled by Sarkozy, who squared the circle. The son and grandson of immigrants from Central Europe and the Balkans, half-Jewish on his mother's side, routinely targeted as an alien or a "Bush poodle" or a "Tel-Aviv puppet" by Le Pen and his cronies, the conservative candidate was in a unique position not just to address the taboo issues but to do so in almost the same terms as the National Front. In fact, many former Le Pen supporters had already happily deserted him for Sarkozy on the first ballot (thus cutting the far-right leader's showing nearly in half from his first-round performance in 2002). In the second round, the rest followed, almost to a man.

Apparently, Sarkozy calculates that this achievement is permanent, and that he now needs to win over more centrists and even as many disillusioned Socialists as he possibly can. In the final days of the presidential campaign, he hinted at the creation of a "larger majority," well beyond the conservative UMP party whose banner he carried. A former adviser to Royal, Eric Besson, has already joined the Sarkozy fold. It is rumored that both Claude Allègre, a former Socialist minister of education, and Hubert Védrine, a former Socialist aide to Mitterrand and foreign minister with strong anti-American biases, have been offered positions in the cabinet.

This move is perhaps just tactical. In order to govern France effectively, Sarkozy needs to win the upcoming National Assembly elections, scheduled for June 10 and 17. And that entails, in his opinion, appearing inclusive (especially in the context of renewed rioting in Paris and in other urban areas). More than 1,000 cars have been burned by far-left and ethnic hooligans since Election Day--a disturbance without precedent in recent French politics.

Still unclear is whether Ségolène Royal will lead the Socialist party in the parliamentary elections next month. She lost the presidential ballot, but won herself a name. She may be pathetic as a debater--in the momentous May 2 televised showdown with Sarkozy, she suggested that female police officers should be escorted back home when they go off-duty, as a precaution against street violence and rape--but she is charismatic. And her 47 percent of the vote in May can still translate into a series of local majorities in June, which is the key for a parliamentary victory. In Paris, for instance, Sarkozy won on the second presidential ballot, but the left is poised to carry more seats in the parliamentary election.