The first round of the French Presidential election is set to take place on Sunday. The latest polls have shown that right-wing president Nicolas Sarkozy and his centre left contender François Hollande are set to win their ticket to the second round. While both are currently polling in the high 20s, an upset is not entirely ruled out as the campaign has shown strong support for three main outsiders: centre François Bayrou, but more importantly hard left Jean-Luc Mélenchon and extreme right Marine Le Pen. While Hollande has so far refused to embrace more left-wing politics, Sarkozy has recently made a clear move to recuperate Le Pen’s electorate.
The New York Times noted in an editorial that ‘Mr. Sarkozy has no problem being frivolous or cruel if it means he can peel away some of [Le Pen’s] voters’. It had become clear that the president is targeting the extreme right electorate to secure himself a ticket to the second round and a precious win in the first. Nicolas Sarkozy’s attempts did not go unnoticed around the globe and led to strong criticism, the Wall Street Journal even calling him ‘Nicolas Le Pen’. Yet for the first time late in March, and despite this embarrassing publicity, opinion polls showed Sarkozy in front in the first round, as Le Pen’s support slumped from a high of 19% in October last year, to 14% in early April.
To push his populist candidacy as he successfully managed in 2007, Sarkozy was again ready to damage his international credentials. In agreement with Jean-Marie Le Pen, and as he had in the 2007 campaign, he reiterated his attacks against the ‘culture of repentance’, and declared proudly that France should not have to ‘repent for the Algerian war’. His rightward shift did not even spare his European partners; to reduce immigration, he threatened to pull France out of the Schengen treaty, which allows the free flow of people between the 26 country members of the European Union.
Sarkozy’s strategy is not surprising and could well prove successful. Prior to March when ratings were poor, Sarkozy’s re-election seemed at best improbable. He appeared unable to reignite the fervour of 2007 which had given him a strong mandate. After four years in power, many of those who had turned to the hyper-active president felt disappointed and were planning to return to their traditional voting patterns or to abstention. While he continued paying lip-service to his open-door politics and promised to invite more centre and left-wing personalities into his government, Sarkozy increasingly took aim at Marine Le Pen’s electorate.
After the Front National’s impact on the UMP electorate during the 2011 county elections, where Le Pen’s party won over 15% of the vote, the centrality of populist politics was reemphasised in Sarkozy’s campaign. This was demonstrated by the nomination of radical right Patrick Buisson as advisor, and the media saturation organised by special advisor to the President Henry Guaino and Minister of the Interior and Immigration Claude Guéant, who had both played a major part in Sarkozy’s 2007 populist victory. Guaino made things clear early: ‘it is true that in a society in crisis, immigration is a problem’. Howardesque, Guéant refused that such a position on immigration could be linked to ‘xenophobia’; instead, he declared that it was natural that the French ‘want France to remain France’. His wording meant not only the creation of an Other, an enemy, but gave every French person permission to express their irrational prejudice freely. For Guaino, the importance of the 2012 elections was reminiscent of Le Pen’s apocalyptic rhetoric:
the overarching theme of the 2012 election is: how to face the societal crisis, the identity crisis, the moral crisis, the civilisational crisis we are currently experiencing. It is about which qualities, which personality one must have to face this perilous world into which we are entering.
Outbidding Le Pen herself, Guéant added, out of ‘common sense and obviousness’, an undeniably neo-racist tone to his rhetoric, when he declared that ‘all civilisations are not equal in worth’. Of course, he clarified that he was not targeting any culture in particular, but quickly highlighted the importance of banning the hijab in public places, as well as street prayers. A day later, Sarkozy confirmed Guéant’s point was merely ‘common sense’.
In a similar fashion, the proposition to grant the right to vote to foreigners was described in the most Manichean terms. Sarkozy felt that it would be a ‘blow to the Republic’, linking his strange reasoning to the burqa issue. For Guéant, it would lead to ‘compulsory halal food in the meals served in school cafeterias’:
foreigners must accept our rules, they are the ones who have to adapt. Everyone understands that if we welcome fewer immigrants, things will be better […] common sense needs to be injected into the management of public affairs.
Sarkozy agreed: ‘there are too many foreigners on our territory’, and promised to halve immigration. Of course, the foreigner was not any immigrant; it was solely the Muslim one, creating an innate inability of this type of immigrant to live in our democracies: the ‘increase in the number of [Muslims] and certain types of behaviours [is] problematic’.
Borrowing further from Le Pen, and after almost five years of presidency and much longer in government, Sarkozy still attempted to present himself as the candidate of the ‘rupture’, the candidate of the people against the elite. To achieve this, many populist proposals were added to the campaign. While recently opposed to the idea of referenda, Sarkozy proposed in his campaign to ask ‘the people’ whether unemployment benefits should be reformed to force the unemployed back into work. That half of those eligible do not claim the minimal unemployment benefits escaped Sarkozy’s populist discourse, which instead singled out further the most defenceless in society as innately lazy and profiteering from taxpayers’ money.
His attacks on the poor redoubled when they were directed at foreigners who benefited from the minimum retirement pension. For Sarkozy, it was ‘not normal that someone who arrives in France at 60 receives a bigger retirement pension than the widow of a farmer who spent his life paying taxes and has a small pension’. Sarkozy forgot to mention that the widow was also entitled to receive the minimum pension provided to all, lessening the impact of his argument. In the same vein, Sarkozy reiterated his critiques against the judicial system and vowed to generalise ‘people’s juries’, another proposition he had failed to implement during his mandate, but one sure to speak to Le Pen’s electorate. Finally, his proposal for a more proportional legislative ballot was another backflip, but an unmistakable signal to the Front National and its electorate, who had been calling for it for decades.
With less than a week to go until the first round, Sarkozy has made it clear that he will be relying on the extreme right vote in the first round. To assuage the fears of his more moderate electorate, some of his advisers have noted that his campaign for the second round would be more centrist, to tap into François Bayrou’s electorate. While it is unclear whether Sarkozy is reinforcing or damaging Le Pen’s results in the first round, it is certain that he has given her ideas an added legitimacy, and this cannot bode well for the future of French and European politics.
A shorter version of this article was published on The Conversation on 20/04/2012