08 May 2012

Les Zélections, Part Deux

Le bling, c’est moi.

Socialist candidate François Hollande was widely predicted to prevail in Sunday’s runoff election for the French presidency, and now that the predictions held true, we may not remember just how volatile the race was or how close the incumbent, Nicolas Sarkozy, came to victory. If Sarkozy had been able to pick off more voters from the political center and far right, he could have done much more than narrow Hollande’s already-slim lead.

In the event, the endorsements Sarkozy desired simply did not come. Centrist François Bayrou stopped short of endorsing Hollande — and even characterized the Socialist platform as dangerous — yet announced that, while his supporters should vote their consciences, he would vote for Hollande himself. Bayrou is the sort of middle-of-the-road politician whom everybody respects and yet whom very few actually follow to the polls. Nevertheless, I suspect that most French voters saw the part about “I’m voting for Hollande,” skipped over the part about “His program is dangerous,” and as a result found it difficult if not impossible to believe Sarkozy’s attempts to paint Hollande as an extremist.

The far-right, as represented by Marine Le Pen of the Front National, proved even more challenging for Sarkozy’s campaign. Le Pen refused to endorse or to vote for Sarkozy — she announced that she’d cast a blank ballot rather than support him. Emboldened by an unexpectedly strong showing in the first-round elections, on April 22, she has been thoroughly enjoying her new position as kingmaker/spoiler/insurgent, and it’s hard to find a picture of her anymore where she is not striking a “Don’t cry for me” pose (even though she’s more likely singing the Marseillaise than the score to Evita). French pundits now assert that the FN will fare well in the upcoming legislative elections, and that Sarkozy’s party, the Union pour un Mouvement Populaire, will have to strike all sorts of deals and accommodations with the FN in order to hold onto any kind of power or influence.

One reason Le Pen’s (relative) success was unexpected, is that her partisans historically don’t cooperate with public-opinion surveys. Why would they? Most of the country looks down on the FN, and besides, survey-takers are exactly the sort of establishment drones that the party is fed up with. As he has throughout so much of his career, Sarkozy tried to appeal to the FN, more and more overtly, but in the end he failed to meet his goal.

We haven’t heard the last of Marine Le Pen.

What’s interesting is how often Sarkozy has seemed to think he was using a sort of dog whistle in order to communicate with Front voters, as if only they — and nobody else — could hear him when he addressed their favorite issues, notably immigration and nationalism. Yet again and again, even members of his party and high-profile members of his government balked, as they did when the much-vaunted “debate over French identity” threatened to devolve into an orgy of state-sponsored immigrant-bashing.

Sarkozy’s fixation on halal meat, a recurring theme in this campaign, is another example of his attempts to reach out to the FN. If anybody can explain to me why I’m threatened by eating meat that’s been prepared according to Islamic rules, or why it would be so terrible to do so without being told first that I was eating halal, I’m eager to hear it. Otherwise it seems no less healthy than eating Kosher meat — and as for the religious blessings, well, I don’t freak out when Christian friends say grace over dinner, either.

Sarkozy’s campaign made it seem as if there were something insidious about the rising sales of halal food, as if Muslims were somehow stealthily corrupting their neighbors through their meals. When even this tactic didn’t attract sufficient numbers of FN voters, Sarkozy went further, eventually declaring that there are “too many immigrants in France” and calling for changes in border policies and immigration law.

These were hardly the first such appeals he’s made in the course of his career, and to me they’ve always seemed calculated in a way that has less to do with electoral politics and more to do with anticipated but unspoken concerns about Sarkozy himself. After all, his own father was an immigrant from Hungary, and his own wife is an immigrant from Italy. And while Marine Le Pen has steered the FN away from the explicitly anti-Semitic position of her father, Jean-Marie, Sarkozy must have seen some benefit in distancing himself from questions about his own family’s Jewish heritage. Again and again, he strove to make clear that his own background afforded him no special sympathy for families currently in similar circumstances in France.

Paradoxically, however, Sarkozy’s position served more to legitimize what might otherwise have been considered a fringe party. He, as much as Marine Le Pen, made the Front National respectable. By echoing the FN line so often for so long, he made it easier for French voters to side with her — and against himself.

The campaign has provided first-rate political theater, not least including the debate between Sarkozy and Hollande on May 2, in which the candidates’ positions amounted to “You’re a liar!” and “You never take responsibility for anything!”

Others of Sarkozy’s political calculations had an impact on voters across the spectrum, and now that he’s lost the election, it will be easier and more urgently necessary to assess them. What strikes me is that Sarkozy, a Gaullist, shared Charles de Gaulle’s “certaine idée de la France,” one that goes beyond mere patriotism to insist on the country’s role on the world stage. De Gaulle opted to assert France’s influence and exceptionalism by going it alone: breaking ties with NATO and playing the U.S. and the Soviet Union off of each other. But Sarkozy, in a vastly changed environment, seems to have followed a page from Tony Blair’s playbook instead.

According to such analyses, for a smaller power to look like a winner, you must ally yourself with those greater powers who are going to win in any case, with you or without you. And just as Blair tied himself to George W. Bush, so Sarkozy tied himself militarily to NATO (and by extension to the United States) — and economically to German Chancellor Angela Merkel. The latter strategy in particular cost him dearly.

Even now that Merkel’s single-minded campaign for austerity has been rebuked by voters across Europe (and in the pages of The New York Times, thanks to relentless criticism from that newspaper’s Nobel Prize-winning columnist, Paul Krugman), she refuses to back down. I daresay that, from the start, Sarkozy spotted Merkel’s intransigence, recognized that he couldn’t win by opposing her, and thus hoped to win by joining her. Never mind that French voters historically have a hard time swallowing ideas they find too “Saxon,” whether the subject is pasteurized-milk cheese or economic policy, whether the ideas come from Germany or from Britain or from the United States: Sarkozy took an exceptional risk.

For a time, the gambit seemed to pay off, and with both of Europe’s largest economies in lockstep, the other nations fell in line — for a while. But Sarkozy’s strategy also made it much easier for Hollande to tap into popular frustration (on both the right and the left) and to call for a break with austerity and a new embrace of growth.

As many American pundits are writing today, Hollande’s policies are thus the antithesis of those promoted by the Republican Party here and in the budget put forth by Rep. Paul Ryan. This doesn’t necessarily mean that Hollande will become Barack Obama’s closest ally, particularly since Hollande explicitly rejects U.S. military policy in Afghanistan and elsewhere, but it does mean that there will be a certain amount of common diplomatic ground in coming months, despite the departure of Sarkozy, who yearned so poignantly to become Obama’s BFF.

I’m sure I’ll have a lot more to say about Hollande, and soon, but for now Sarkozy strikes me as the central character in this drama: after all, it was not least by being “anyone but Sarkozy” that Hollande sailed to victory. In temperament especially, Sarkozy always seemed precisely the wrong person to manage the kinds of reforms that France needs (as he acknowledged, sometimes) and that Hollande will probably duck; the great curiosity is that both Sarkozy’s victories and his failures are so dubious. There will be a lot of mess to clean up in Sarkozy’s absence, and the newly empowered FN is just one of the outgoing President’s legacies with which the nation and much of the rest of Europe will find it difficult to cope.

And the winner is … François Hollande!
Who may soon learn to be more careful what he wishes.

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