Old Sarkozy does not match new France’s needs

 29 Aug 2016 - 0:00

By Remi Piet

News reports in France this week have covered at length Nicolas Sarkozy’s announcement that he would run for his party’s primary elections that will determine the eventual right-wing candidate for the upcoming presidential election.
In truth, this was hardly news material since nobody had any doubt that the former president who served between 2007 and 2012 would covet a return to the Elysee Palace next year.
Yet, Sarkozy was able to take over the front page of all the main newspapers in France on the morning of August 24. Even the left-wing Liberation covered this official return at length.
Such is the capacity of Sarkozy to polarise the French people and occupy a centre stage, much as Silvio Berlusconi did in Italy or Donald Trump currently does on the other side of the Atlantic.
The issue for Nicolas Sarkozy has never been to create and ride the “news buzz” — or in his own words, to “create a blast effect”; it was, however, to provide the political platform and answers needed by the French people.
Despite the coverage of his announcement, Sarkozy is facing an uphill battle. Opinion polls have regularly shown him trailing far behind former prime ministers Alain Juppe and Francois Fillon in the race for the party nomination.
Even the right-wing electorate seems to have grown tired of the “bling bling” show business approach of their former hero. After five years of his presidency, the smoke screen of his contagious energy is not enough any more.
Juppe or Fillon now represent reasonable alternatives: Grimmer and sterner politicians for sure, but who gesticulate less and achieve more.
Sarkozy is hoping to reverse all odds by using the formulas that led him to success 10 years ago: Control the agenda and take over the media.
In a country traumatised by terrorist attacks, what is needed is a consensual stainless leader, not someone who stirs division between neighbours and whose name resonates in half a dozen ongoing judiciary investigations of potential frauds.
In reality, he does not have much of an option. Despite his constant criticisms of President Francois Hollande’s meagre economic results, a closer look at his own achievements would fare poorly in comparison.
During Sarkozy’s presidency, the number of unemployed increased by more than a million, the country’s debt exploded by $675bn, 24 new taxes were introduced and more than 400,000 citizens fell below the poverty line.
Sarkozy’s strategy is, therefore, to pick up the tempo and shape the campaign according to his own themes, and do his best to avoid fact-checking and thorough analysis.
During his presidency, Sarkozy grossly overstated his role in ending the global financial crisis. His activity at global summits helped him turn attention away from developing adequate economic policies in France.
Similarly today, he surfs on the waves of shortsighted controversies such as the “burkini drama”, initiated by local mayors of his own political party, in order to fuel up Islamophobia, cultural and identity concerns of the French people.
In a sense, his recently released book to support his candidacy is unequivocal: It calls for “popular sovereignty to the service of the nation against multiculturalism and the tyranny of minorities”.
Two of the five chapters tackle the issues of identity and national security. It appears that by addressing those issues, he is aiming to rally the extreme right votes as he did during his march to power in 2007.
The narrative is similar to the catastrophic national debate on the French identity that contributed to the feeling of exclusion of minority members, whom he called “riff-raffs” who should be “karcherised”.
The campaign strategy that placed the themes of identity and sovereignty in the centre of Sarkozy’s political platform is simple to understand and similar to the one he used 10 years ago.
First, the campaign distances him from other candidates who might be better economic experts, but they shy away from addressing heads on the questions of immigration and security, which are Sarkozy’s favourites. Second, Sarkozy hopes to syphon Marine Le Pen’s supporters into his party’s primary selection.
However, this approach shows that Sarkozy has learned nothing from his previous failures. He never drew lessons from the “sanction vote” in 2012, which explains why the electorate has trouble seeing what he would do differently.
Moreover, if your platform is inspired or copied from the National Front’s xenophobic discourse, why then chose a copy over the original?
If Sarkozy has not changed, his country indeed has, and that’s why his success is unlikely.
France today is much different from the country Sarkozy governed with controversial decisions over two decades either as president or as a member of successive governments.
Many now realise that the development of terrorist cells in France has coincided with the massive cuts in education and social programmes Sarkozy advocated, as well as the narrative of contempt he diffused.
In a country traumatised by terrorist attacks, what is needed is a consensual stainless leader, not someone who stirs division between neighbours and whose name resonates in half-a-dozen ongoing judiciary investigations of potential frauds.
If Islamophobia has increased after the wave of terrorist attacks, so did the initiatives for interfaith dialogue, the very one targeted by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS) when terrorists killed Jacques Hamel, the French priest who had always advocated for cooperation with other religions, including Islam.
The historic demonstrations after recent attacks prove that the majority of French people understand that what unites them - the Republican model of secularism — is more important than the differences within the multicultural mosaic that France has become.
The answer to terrorism is unity and understanding, not division and rejection. When news networks continuously focus on the debate about burkini or Sarkozy’s call for cancelling pork-free substitution meals for Jewish and Muslim communities, they fail to acknowledge the countless examples of interfaith dialogue and solidarity.
Those examples will forge the cradle of the modern, open French identity, unless failing leaders of the past win upcoming elections with shortsighted and populist promises.

Remi Piet is assistant professor of public policy, diplomacy and international political economy at Qatar University.

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