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‘The Rich People’s President’

Will France’s Nicolas Sarkozy be the next European leader to fall?

Mar 12, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 25 • By CHRISTOPHER CALDWELL
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So when Sarkozy emerged from the barroom in Bayonne at which the crowd had been heaving eggs, he was not cowed by their disapproval as, let’s say, Rick Santorum might have been. He was indignant. “Is this the conception of democracy that the Socialists share with the Basque separatists?” he asked. “What is it they want to prevent? What is it that they can’t stand? That a few hundred people want to support me and come speak to me?” The eggs being thrown were a judgment not on him but on Hollande: “If people who claimed to be on my side behaved this way towards François Hollande, I would condemn them immediately.” Suddenly the sentiment that Sarko Must Go, held by a large majority of French people, was not an expression of democracy. It was a threat to democracy. 

Front and center

Sarkozy won last time because he captured half the votes of the National Front (FN), a party that has seethed at the rightmost frontier of French politics for about three decades, rallying about 15 percent of the public behind a platform of (thus far) impotent rage. It is hard to see how Sarkozy will get those votes back. The FN leadership has passed from fascistic Algerian war veteran Jean-Marie Le Pen to his more modern daughter, Marine, a single mother. The party no longer trades in offensive jokes and anti-Semitic innuendo. The transformation may not yet be quite complete (“Marine Le Pen waltzes in Vienna with pan-Germanists,” ran a recent headline in L’Express). And the FN is, rather like late-stage al Qaeda, more a current of thought than a political organization. It is difficult to find a single party member beyond Marine Le Pen who is competent or willing to pronounce on any policy matter whatsoever. Finally, the party’s anti-Europeanism is couched in an op-po-sition to globalization and free trade that is not to every right-winger’s liking. 

But the FN is a more appealing political party than it was five years ago. The so-called cordon sanitaire that surrounded it is breaking. And once it becomes possible to vote for the FN without ostracism, the party will have some great strengths. It is the most popular party among the working class. It splits the allegiance of voters under 25 with the various parties of the hard left. It is the only major party to oppose further European integration—and it does so for the same (protectionist) reasons a majority of the public does. That majority was expressed, clearly and overwhelmingly, through a “No” vote in France’s 2005 referendum on whether to ratify a European constitutional treaty. Sarkozy ignored the verdict and made France a party to many of the treaty’s provisions, via the Treaty of Lisbon. That is why he is not going to get back all of those FN voters he won last time, not even in a second round against Hollande.

Ms. Le Pen, however, has a big problem. To run for president, you need to gather 500 signatures, or parrainages, from elected officials: mayors, deputies, senators, regional councilors, and members of the European parliament. (There are about 47,000 people you can ask.) These sponsorships do not imply support of anyone’s candidacy, and Ms. Le Pen’s father never had a problem getting them. Yet Ms. Le Pen must submit her 500 signatures by March 16, and as of March 1, she was stuck at 452. What happened?

Some speculate that Ms. Le Pen is just playing for publicity, trying to paint the French electoral system as freezing her out, and that the 500 signatures will somehow appear before mid-month. But two other explanations are possible. First, Ms. Le Pen’s father spent a good deal of party money and time cultivating networks of parrains (the word means “godfather”). Ms. Le Pen was so busy stripping her party of its post-fascist overtones that she didn’t have time to reap the fruits of having done so. Second, there have been reforms in the rules. Small-town mayors are now bound together in “intercommunal” groups of 10 or so. This increases their bureaucratic muscle but subjects them to peer pressure. And this time, unlike last time, the parrainages will be a matter of public record. It is one thing secretly to help the National Front get on the ballot. It is another thing to do so publicly.

Some allege that Sarkozy is trying to keep Le Pen out of the race. “Sarkozy is like Putin,” a leftist politician quipped to me. “He wants to choose his own opposition.” Polls show Sarkozy running even with Hollande in the first round if Le Pen is absent. 

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