If you understood how French president Nicolas Sarkozy found himself holed up in a barroom in Bayonne last Thursday afternoon, it would take you a long way towards figuring out what is going to happen in France’s two-round presidential election, coming up in April and May. Sarkozy, who heads France’s conservative UMP party, was making a surprise visit to the Basque country, along the border with Spain. The Socialists, who have not held the presidency since 1995, got wind of his visit. Together with local Basque separatists, they succeeded in blocking the center of Bayonne. When Sarkozy emerged from his car, he was surrounded by a whistling, hooting, chanting mob, taunting him as “the rich people’s president” and telling him he ought to go home. That is when Sarkozy ducked into the bar to talk with locals while eggs flew, along with anything else in Bayonne that grows, rots, and can be thrown.
Bling it on
Sarko, as he is called, is not popular in Bayonne. At this point, he is not especially popular anywhere in France. For a while after his election in 2007 he had the highest poll ratings of any French president ever. He promised a regime of law and order and a strengthening of French national identity that appealed to the far-right National Front. This meant standing up to Muslim immigration but not in any violent or intolerant way. In fact, Sarko’s greatest achievement before becoming president was to set up a national council under which Muslims could assert their religious rights. His plan for bringing France’s different ethnic groups together involved a defense of laïcité, or secularism, and the left liked that. The centerpiece of his campaign, though, was a defense of hard work, of the “France that wakes up early.” In a country prone to conspiracy theories, where people often feel they’ve been bled white by fast-talking politicians and sleazy business moguls, this appealed to almost everybody.
Things started to go wrong the moment Sarkozy was elected—literally. Instead of celebrating with supporters in the Place de la Concorde, according to political tradition, he let his proletarian foot soldiers cool their heels for a couple of hours while he went to Fouquet’s, an upper-crust bar and restaurant on the Champs-Élysées, to meet with his big donors. We now know that Sarkozy’s real problem was that his wife Cécilia, who had already begun divorce proceedings against him, was nowhere to be found. No matter—this was the beginning of Sarko’s reputation as le président des riches. When he got married again, months into his term, to Italian chanteuse Carla Bruni, he was cast as le président bling-bling—“bling” having the same meaning in France that it has in the American ghettos where it originated, implying the flaunting of ill-gotten gains.
So Sarko was cast as a phony, whose real allegiances were to those same fast-talking politicians and sleazy business moguls he had railed against. His conversation on national identity stalled when opponents accused his interior minister of racism and his allies lost their nerve. His attempts to put more disposable income into the hands of French consumers foundered along with the economy. His efforts to strut France’s stuff on the world stage backfired similarly. France was sort of leading the coalition against Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi, but in a way that made clear its dependence on American airpower. France was sort of joining Germany in rescuing the euro, but in a way that made clear Germany’s interests were paramount.
At some point, people began to tune Sarkozy out, as if his pronouncements were all theater and damage control. The dozen candidates competing for the presidency in the first round of the election have been rising and falling in the polls in a volatile way, with Sarkozy winning the allegiance of just under 30 percent of voters. But polls also show that if he and Socialist candidate François Hollande make it into a runoff, Hollande will beat him by 58 percent to 42. Those numbers have not budged in weeks, even as Sarkozy has splashily rolled out his campaign.
But Sarkozy has something that would make it premature to rule him out. It is not just that he is good at “working a crowd” or that he has a “head for policy” or a “first-rate organization.” It is that he has an absolutely daemonic gift for campaigning, for political improvisation, for recasting disaster as triumph. In the half-century since Lyndon Johnson left the Senate, Bill Clinton is the only American politician who is Sarkozy’s equal at this game of Who-you-gonna-believe?-Me-or-your-lyin’-eyes?
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.
At any rate, Sarkozy is behaving as if the best place to look for votes is on the far right. In early February in the National Assembly, Claude Guéant, the interior minister, remarked that “not all civilizations are equal” when it comes to women’s rights, among other things. Serge Letchimy, a Socialist from Martinique, accused Guéant of Nazi sympathies. “Day after day you lead us back to those European ideologies that led to the concentration camps,” Letchimy scolded him.
Ordinarily, you would look at a moment like this as further evidence of Sarkozy’s political genius. And in a way, it is: At a time when he needs to shore up votes, he has provoked his foolish opponents into demagogically invoking the Nazis. Sarkozy nonetheless remains in big trouble.
On one hand, the president needs to fish for votes on the hard right. On the other hand, he is facing, in François Hollande, a man who is synonymous with personal and ideological moderation and might seem like a low-risk option for centrist voters who worry that Sarko has gone over the top. A graduate of the elite École Nationale d’Administration, Hollande used to teach macroeconomics at the Institute of Political Studies in Paris. Hollande is a real party man—his then-common-law wife, Ségolène Royal, was the party’s nominee against Sarkozy in 2007. And although Hollande has never held a cabinet post, he was party chairman for a decade. That was the decade, starting with the Socialist government of Lionel Jospin in 1997, when the party embraced business, privatizing more state enterprises than any government before or since. The Socialists also completed their migration from the factory floor to the faculty club. You might describe Hollande as Dominique Strauss-Kahn with a bit less economic brilliance and a good deal less personal baggage. Hollande is known as a fine tribunicien. This is a qualified way of complimenting his oratory. It means he is good at spelling out the party program to those who already agree with it. At Le Bourget on January 22, he gave a barn-burning address that rallied a lot of the party behind him.
But not all of it. Hollande has a problem that will be familiar to those following the U.S. election: He doesn’t sufficiently fire up the hard-liners. He is a Gallic Mitt Romney. So comfortable is he in the reasonable-sounding consensus-oriented part of his party that the fire-breathers never take his loyalty for granted. Hollande is constantly having to swear he’ll do radical things if anyone ever lets him near real power. So, as with Romney, half the country thinks him dangerous, and the other half thinks him insincere. Having spent the 1980s and 1990s under the tutelage of Jacques Delors, France’s leading advocate of transferring powers to the European Union, Hollande may be the party’s most dyed-in-the-wool technocrat. He is most comfortable in front of an audience of bankers, like the one in London last month to whom he boasted that “today there are no Communists in France.”
Well, there are more than Hollande thinks. And whenever they attack him, he blurts out radical-seeming sound bites that confuse people. Since many on the left of his party oppose the EU “fiscal pact” negotiated two months ago to protect Greece and other debtor countries from bankruptcy, Hollande promised to renegotiate it. A big mistake. His aside infuriated Angela Merkel. Everyone except Chancellor Merkel, however, understood that Hollande had no intention of doing any such thing. That is why Sarkozy opened his own campaign with a speech attacking Hollande: “Someone who tells the English press he’s a free-marketer and then tells the French that finance is the enemy,” Sarkozy said in Annecy in mid-February, “is lying—lying morning, noon, and night—and this lie does no honor to the person who voices it.”
One of the big surprises of the campaign has been the strength of hard-left movements within and without the Socialist party. Jean-Luc Mélenchon bolted the party in 2008 to form the Front de Gauche, a movement that resembles the ex-Communist Left party in Germany. One of their ideas is to win back the Communists who defected to the National Front in the 1980s and 1990s. Mélenchon’s movement may seem illogical. It vilifies Europe but somehow can’t work up the gumption to call for withdrawal from the euro. It seems to believe that the only purpose of a nation-state is to nationalize industries. It extols Hugo Chávez, along with various 19th-century leftists. But about other issues, the Front de Gauche has a clarity that certain people like. One of these is taxation. Its plan is to tax all earnings over 20 times the median income (that is, all earnings over about $500,000) at 100 percent—to confiscate them, in other words. Socialists may snicker at the Front de Gauche as a mere bunch of “angry professors,” but new polls show the party bumping up against double digits—and these are all votes that the Socialists see themselves as having lost by being insufficiently socialist.
Last week witnessed one of the strangest moments of the campaign. Hollande was on the television channel TF1, being interviewed about an important question—the ability of rich people to avoid high tax rates by declaring income as capital gains. He was tongue-tied. He began to stammer a bit, and you could almost see him doing math in his head. Then he blurted out that he planned to establish a new 75 percent tax bracket on French people making more than a million euros a month—no, sorry, he corrected himself a few minutes later, a million euros a year. Now, it’s worth noting that, even at the high-water mark of France’s self-proclaimed socialism, taxes never rose as high as those here during the New Deal. The tax Hollande was proposing would be the highest since the Herriot government was floundering in the aftermath of World War I.
Hollande appeared to be winging it. His top budget adviser, Jérôme Cahuzac, was on another network, France2, just a few minutes later. He told the questioner that he frankly had no idea what tax plan Hollande was talking about. Yet there was method in Hollande’s seeming madness. Perhaps he was reading the same polls as U.S. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, who had said days earlier that paying high taxes was the least one could do for the “privilege” of being American. Hollande’s way of putting it was: “It’s patriotism to accept paying an extra tax to put the country back in order.” French people seemed to agree: A TNS Sofres poll released Friday showed 61 percent backed the tax.
Sarkozy, then, is not the only candidate being pushed to extremes, but he would be unwise to take too much solace in that. France’s president has much in common with our own. Both Sarkozy and Obama come from the ideological wing of their parties, and yet both were able to romance undecided voters in the center of the electorate, winning almost all of them. Sarkozy and Obama are politicians who were nominated in the naïve days of the credit bubble but have had to govern when everyone understands that Voter A’s government-funded health plan, let’s say, comes directly out of Voter B’s paycheck. They are pre-crash politicians trying to get reelected in a post-crash world.
Obama is in a better position. For one thing, Sarko’s economic model was based on rewarding work. “Work more to earn more” was his slogan. Spend less to keep from going under is more like the way most people have experienced the last half-decade. Obama’s campaign did not promise anyone anything about the rewards of work. Sarkozy’s second problem is that, unlike President Obama, he has no big, base-rallying achievements. True, Sarkozy’s modest raising of the French retirement age, from 60 to 62, was an Augean labor in a country so committed to the welfare state. But it does not win the gratitude of taxpayers in the way that Obama’s health plan pleased Democratic true believers. Nor does it provide a piñata to anybody, as the stimulus bill and the automobile bailouts did to labor unions. True, Sarkozy has introduced a rational system for military-base closings, a reform of universities that has left teachers reasonably satisfied, and minimum sentences for certain crimes. He has given voters many good reasons to reelect him. But he has given nobody a really good reason.
Christopher Caldwell is a senior editor at The Weekly Standard and the author of Reflections on the Revolution in Europe: Immigration, Islam and the West.