Nicolas Sarkozy’s Legitimisation of the Front National – Background and Perspectives

Many commentators saw in the ‘poor’ result achieved by Jean-Marie Le Pen in the 2007 presidential elections the demise of the Front National. However, when asked by a journalist whether it was the end of her father’s political career, Marine Le Pen replied smiling: ‘I don’t think so. In any case, this is the victory of his ideas!’[i] In these question and answer lie the whole story of the Front National and its impact on mainstream politics in the past two decades. First, Le Pen’s defeat was exaggerated, the same way his victory had in 2002. In what was seen as the demise of the Front National, Le Pen managed to obtain almost 4 million votes despite the candidature of far right Philippe de Villiers and still ranked fourth in the tally. Furthermore, that Le Pen managed to retain these votes despite the adverse context was a victory in itself. The five years between the 2002 and 2007 presidential elections had indeed led to drastic changes in the way politics was done in France.

 The evolution concerning the Front National during this period was two-fold. First, a fear of another April 21 2002 became anchored by the media in the minds of left-leaning voters who would turn en masse to the 2007 elections to support the Socialist candidate, whoever it was. Also, during Jacques Chirac’s second mandate, the right opened itself further to the idea of appealing to Le Pen’s electorate and led consequently a form of politics bordering on extreme right propaganda, if only at times. This was best exemplified by Sarkozy’s return to the forefront of mainstream right politics. As the 2007 elections dawned, the French electorate was thus broadly divided in three:  a ‘never again’ approach which would refocus the left-leaning vote towards the previously discredited Socialist Party, a traditional right-wing electorate turning to a neo-liberal Sarkozy and a broad right-wing electorate extending from the centre to the extreme right which would also turn to Sarkozy to conduct a rupture in French democracy. These settings both reduced the vote for Jean-Marie Le Pen and what had appeared as the unavoidable rise of abstention. Yet just like many remained with Le Pen, abstention remained a major player in the French democratic landscape.

 What I will argue in this paper is that the 2002 presidential elections did act as an ‘earthquake’ within French politics. However, this ‘earthquake’ was not so much triggered by a Jean-Marie Le Pen tsunami, but rather by a tidal wave of misinformation and misunderstanding of the real interests and novelty of the results of these elections. I will then highlight how this reaction led to the consecration of right wing populist politics best exemplified in the landslide election of Nicolas Sarkozy in 2007. To do so, I will first concentrate on the way the 2002 elections were analysed and how their true relevance was left aside. This will in turn highlight how the Front National was both demonised further on one side of the political spectrum, and yet legitimised on the other. Finally, I will focus on the way Nicolas Sarkozy in his race towards presidency has coopted the Front National rhetoric, and, by doing so, legitimised Le Pen’s party rather than combating and defeating it as had been widely advertised.

The 2002 earthquake

I have already used most of the metaphors which were in vogue at the time to describe Jean Marie Le Pen’s accession to the second round. Most referred to natural disasters, showing clearly the state of shock in which France, and particularly its commentators were thrown. Despite the waves of fatalism that flooded television and newspapers, detailing what appeared to be the unstoppable ascension of the extreme right represented by the Front National, a cold-headed analysis shows a peak had been reached. Le Pen’s clear defeat by Jacques Chirac, successful with more than 82% of the vote in the second round of the elections, demonstrated the limits of extreme right support and its inability to actually reach power, at least at that time. Furthermore, reforms to the electoral system in 2003 prevented marginal parties such as the Front National from playing a decisive role in elections due to their negative impact on proportional voting; the addition of a second round to the election process encouraged the bipolarisation of politics.

 The Front National’s 2002 results should have been predictable, both because France’s primary extreme right party had experienced a rather constant progression since 1982, and also because of the erosion of the base support of both major parties (Jacques Chirac’s Union pour un Mouvement Populaire and Lionel Jospin’s Parti Socialiste). It was the disenchantment of important parts of the electorate with these ‘moderate’ governing parties that led to a narrower margin to a third contestant such as Le Pen than had ever previously been seen. Similarly, many factors made it unlikely that the Front National would create, in the presidential elections of 2007, another ‘earthquake’ of similar magnitude to that of 2002. First, Jean-Marie Le Pen, who was seventy-nine at the time, no longer represented the new and fresh force he had aimed to incarnate throughout his political career. The presence of his youngest daughter by his side was not enough to counteract the effects of old age, and was even at times detrimental. As she created a more respectable, perhaps even moderate, image of the party and bringing in a new generation of voters, Marine Le Pen also alienated parts of the more radical core of supporters without increasing drastically support in the young electorate. Further, five years of intense media coverage of the events of 2002 and of the shame that was felt by the French population made any strong protest vote highly unlikely; it seemed clear that the majority of those who had voted in 2002 for smaller parties, including the Front National, to protest against the politics led by the Parti Socialiste and the Union pour un Mouvement Populaire (UMP) would not reiterate such a risky warning. Therefore, it was logical that the Front National ‘only’ managed 10.44% of the vote and ranked fourth in the tally, far behind the moderate parties of the right, the left and the centre (François Bayrou’s UDF – Union pour la Démocratie Française – renamed Mouvement Démocrate or MODEM in 2007). Since then, with Jean-Marie Le Pen withdrawing and handing leadership to his daughter, the Front National has been slowly declining despite a recent surge during local elections in March 2011. Massive debts and dissensions over leadership have caused party splits and consequently a revival seems unlikely, even though the possibility for a short-lived resurgence of popularity cannot be ruled out and Marine Le Pen’s recent take over might revive the flame as Nicolas Sarkozy’s popularity is waning.

 In light of previous presidential elections, the results of 2002 were not so much of a surprise, and certainly not an ‘earthquake’, as advertised in the media. The Front National and the Mouvement National Republicain obtained around 5.5 million votes, around 900,000 more than they had when unified in 1995. However, this radical right ‘breakthrough’ is nuanced by the absence of de Villiers, who had put the overall extreme right result at around 6 million votes in 1995. In 2002, the extreme right could therefore be argued to be on a relative decrease.[ii] In fact, in the extremely favourable circumstances, Le Pen’s progression from 4.5 million votes in 1995 to 4.8 million is of consequence, yet probably much less than expected. Despite the passion triggered by the results of the first round, the second round was a mere formality for Chirac who won with 82% of the vote. Despite his electorate changing to some extent, Le Pen’s score barely increased, showing the limits of the radical right during elections.[iii] Further lessening the groundbreaking character of the Front National’s result, between 1988 and 2002, Le Pen’s vote increased by less than half a million votes in an electoral register comprising more than 41 million people in 2002.[iv]

 Moreover, trends clearly showed that the Front National’s accession to the second round was foreseeable, as support for mainstream parties had consistently declined in recent elections. In 1981, the three major parties (the Socialists and the two mainstream right-wing parties) gathered 57.57% of the registered voters (or 72.17% of the votes) and in 1988, 56.29% (or 70.61%). After two decades of Mitterrandism and periods of cohabitation, these three parties obtained only 47.77% (or 62.72%). After another mandate that was again marked by cohabitation, corruption and increasing social unrest, the tide was unlikely to turn and its worsening was a clear possibility. In 2002, the three mainstream parties together barely managed to top the record level of abstention for a presidential election (29.67% against 28.40%), a striking figure given very little attention compared to Le Pen’s ‘victory’. Less than a third of those registered to vote chose to trust the parties that had led them for over fifty years. Yet it was the Front National that made the front page and not its opponents’ failure or the myriad other minor parties that benefited from the growing disillusion. Jacques Chirac, who, as expected won a landslide victory against Le Pen in the second round (82% of the vote), had qualified with the approval of only 13.75% of those registered to vote.[v] He became the worst-performing first-round candidate to be elected president during the Fifth Republic, and yet the elected president with the highest majority in French history. In the meantime, Le Pen’s vote only increased by a few tens of thousands of votes, showing clearly the limits of his appeal, even when faced with a less than popular candidate.

 During the two weeks between the first and second rounds, demonstrations and calls for a ‘great republican front’ (against Le Pen) made the front page of most newspapers. What many considered their democratic duty forced them to vote against Le Pen, rather than for Chirac, in the second round. Following calls from most party leaders, many were forced to condone the reinstatement of a system they had tried to denounce with their first ballot.Only one of the myriad of extreme left parties did not ask their supporters to vote for Chirac. Since it was impossible for Le Pen to win; demonstrating and voting were merely a cleansing ritual. The radical right had again proven its limits and yet opened a new era where its ideas would become increasingly mainstream. Bruno Mégret had failed individually and yet his endeavour had played a part in reshaping the French political culture. Le Pen was now populism’s greatest advocate and, in a perverse twist, defined the Gaullist Chirac as the candidate of the ‘Occupation’ and himself, ‘man of the people’, as the candidate of the ‘Liberation’.[vi]

 It is not surprising that it was only after Le Pen’s accession to the second round of the 2002 presidential elections, and after the media stressed to the extreme his apparently growing popularity, that Sarkozy was allowed to make his way back to the forefront of politics. Before then, the former rising star of the right had mistakenly supported Edouard Balladur in 1995 against Jacques Chirac and failed in his launch of a neo-liberal party. Before 2002, Nicolas Sarkozy had become a pariah. Yet in 2002, his authoritative tone granted him a landslide victory in Parliament, and made him an increasingly powerful minister of the interior and then finance minister from 2002 to 2004. In November 2004, Sarkozy left the government to dedicate himself to the presidency of the Union pour un Mouvement Populaire (UMP). With this mandate, he reshaped the Gaullist party into his personal movement with a view to the 2007 presidential elections. Within a year, he returned as minister of the interior to rescue the government after its failure at the European referendum.[vii] The 2006 demonstrations against the new work-rights laws led to the downfall of his nemesis, prime minister Dominique de Villepin,[viii] making Sarkozy the only credible right-wing candidate in the 2007 presidential elections.

 As had become common, the Front National appeared to the mainstream right as a potential threat. It seemed possible that voters might prefer the ‘original to the copy’, and choose Le Pen over Sarkozy regarding issues of insecurity such as delinquency and crime. Another ‘April 21’ could have seen Ségolène Royal and Jean-Marie Le Pen sent to the second round, leaving Sarkozy stranded.[ix] However, with the help of populist rhetoric, Sarkozy did to Jean-Marie Le Pen what he also did to popular centre candidate François Bayrou. The UMP leader managed the difficult combination of pseudo-left-wing and reactionary radical right-wing rhetoric in order to lure the electorates of both his closest enemies. The voters he appealed to were most probably part of the ‘soft core’ of both the Front National and Modem parties, those who were not ideological voters, and who saw in Sarkozy the only chance they had for some of their ideas to reach power.

Sarkozy’s Reactionary ‘Rupture’

We need to react and I will lead the reaction.[x]

 I want to tell the French the truth; I want to be sincere; I want to be honest.[xi]

 First, it is crucial to understand that it is not the aim of this part to recount the policies implemented by Nicolas Sarkozy during his years in office. While some policies are important to this study, the central endeavour is to show the way in which Sarkozy has reshaped the political discourse in France; how he has manipulated values, values which were until Sarkozy thought of as extreme and often undemocratic, and how he created a new ‘common sense’. Further, in the context of this thesis, the meaning of ‘Sarkozy’ is not restricted to the man himself. While Nicolas Sarkozy has been the most potent symbol of moderate parties’ recent tendency to embrace right-wing populism, he is not the only politician to have embraced exclusionary rhetoric and politics. Nor is he the first. In the past, many other ‘moderate’ politicians proved willing to flirt with and legitimise the radical right. In 1976, prime minister Chirac made a correlation between the 1.5 million unemployed and the 1.5 million immigrants; in 1984, prime minister Laurent Fabius admitted that Le Pen ‘asked the right questions’; in 1989, president Mitterrand agreed that the ‘tolerance threshold [in matters of immigration] had been exceeded’;[xii] in 1991, Socialist Prime Minister Edith Cresson deported illegal immigrants to Mégret’s safisfaction,[xiii] while former president Giscard d’Estaing linked immigration to an ‘invasion’; that same year, future president Chirac denounced an ‘immigration overdose’ and the ‘noise and smell’ of African families.[xiv] Chirac was also largely responsible for making the issue of insecurity central to the 2002 presidential campaign, despite a vast majority of the French admitting to feeling safe.[xv] This borrowing from Le Pen’s rhetoric by mainstream politicians even led the leader of the Front National to ironically point out ‘Chirac and Giscard d’Estaing had considerably outflanked him’.[xvi] Scapegoating minorities and fuelling the fear of the ‘Other’, both typical right-wing populist tactics, had become common, yet Sarkozy proved original for a number of reasons which this part will highlight.

 Sarkozy’s rhetoric played a crucial part in his 2007 victory. His understanding of politics and campaigning owes much to those elements studied in the previous parts of this thesis. This part highlights not only how indebted Sarkozy is to the radical right, notably in his constant use of populism, but also the impact of his comments on mainstream politics: the respectability of the various positions he held in government facilitated the legitimisation of many ideas previously considered in conflict with democracy. This is not to say that Nicolas Sarkozy is an extreme or radical right leader, left alone that twenty-first century France has succumbed to a form of fascism. Clearly, Sarkozy’s takeover of radical right themes has been limited for the most part to rhetoric, although it would be wrong to assume that some of his populist stunts have not had serious repercussions.[xvii]

 Relying on ‘common sense’ rhetoric, popularised by Le Pen, Sarkozy has shaped himself as the ‘voice of the people’, or more precisely, the voice of a series of peoples whose composition varies according to the theme and the audience. The concept of ‘people’ in right-wing populist rhetoric is never closed and definite, and nor is it all-encompassing; it takes on many different, yet always exclusionary, meanings. Sarkozy’s ‘people’ are opposed to the elite, to an ‘old left’, to a ‘certain kind of left’, to ‘hoodlums’, to ‘scum’,[xviii] to those who profit without working, to idlers: all of those portrayed as enemies of the ‘people’ and France in general. Often, Sarkozy’s insistence on the value of work was reminiscent of Thatcher’s ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ poor. It highlighted the necessity of creating a dichotomy in the lower classes of the population who might otherwise be opposed to a neo-liberal agenda. To create and convince his ‘people’, the manipulation of language became essential to Sarkozy’s campaigning and governing. His strategy recalled that devised by Gustave Le Bon and his adept and expert propagandist and advertising guru Edward Bernays.[xix] As Louis-Jean Calvet and Jean Véronis have pointed out in their research dedicated to Sarkozy’s speeches, ‘simplicity, concision, and quasi-obsessive repetition led [them] to resemble an advertisement’.[xx]

 Sarkozy’s populism was often revealed by the inconsistencies within his discourse. Sarkozy has said or implied very different things depending on the context, on his audience, on his target, and also on his ghost writers. The populist shift became obvious when Henri Guaino became a central figure in Sarkozy’s speech-writing team.[xxi] As the 2007 presidential campaign became increasingly focused on personalities rather than politics and ideas, Guaino was hired precisely when it seemed the right-wing leader was losing ground to his Socialist opponent. While Sarkozy symbolised a masculine, if not macho, rupture, Ségolène Royal became the incarnation of the soothing and protective mother. Eventually, Sarkozy’s attitude and rhetoric became untenable; by being too extreme, he had alienated himself in a similar way to Le Pen before him. The more receptive the French were to Royal’s motherly inclusiveness, the more threatening Sarkozy’s violent language appeared. Consequently, on January 14 2007, a few months before the elections, Sarkozy declared ten times in one speech he had ‘changed’.[xxii] While the programme was left mostly untouched, its delivery ‘changed’ in the extreme: Sarkozy no longer attacked, he gathered; his rupture became oxymoronically ‘quiet’; the candidate of an ‘unabashed right’ began borrowing heroic figures from the left; he was no longer the defender of Capital, but that of the worker; he was no longer the angry one, but the one unfairly hated for defending freedom of speech against the elite’s ‘groupthink’ (pensée unique); he was the defender not of ‘the right or of the left, but of the truth’. Sarkozy ‘had a dream’.[xxiii] As Le Pen’s rhetoric had changed under the influence of the Nouvelle droite, so did Sarkozy’s under Guaino.

 In keeping with contradictions and despite an increasingly empathic vocabulary, Sarkozy remained true to his exclusionary agenda. He emphasised further the division between those who worked hard and those who did not; those who deserved help, empathy and sympathy, and those who were responsible for their exclusion; those who worked hard to be French and those who did not and should leave. As Sarkozy sent signals simultaneously to the left, the extreme left and the extreme right, his programme remained anchored in a neo-liberal agenda best exemplified in his tax reforms favourable to the wealthy.[xxiv]

 Similarly to Le Pen, in the quest for hegemony over the concept of the ‘people’, practical results came second for Sarkozy. As this part will highlight, highly symbolic policies resulting from Sarkozy’s extreme rhetoric were often delayed or rebutted by higher institutions such as the Constitutional Council. Yet crucial for Sarkozy was not the implementation of these policies in particular, but the appeal he gained from such promises. To seduce a disenchanted electorate, increasingly distrustful of the ‘establishment’, the UMP candidate based his campaign on the idea of a ‘rupture’. Sarkozy would not continue Chirac’s politics, or any of his predecessors’. He would not govern for a small fraction of the population, but for all, ignoring the contradictions in his neo-liberal programme. He would be both the face of an ‘unabashed’ right,[xxv] proud defender and friend of the rich,[xxvi] and, at the same time, that of a president close to the people and to their daily struggle.

To do so, Sarkozy would spend a lot energy reshaping public discourse and bringing forth many ideas which could strengthen his support within the extreme right electorate. One of these ideas was the use of National Identity as ethno-exclusivism.

National Identity as Ethno-exclusivism

France is a miracle.[xxvii]

To become French is to subscribe to a form of civilisation, values and mores.[xxviii]

 As with these two quotes, this particular conception was highlighted further in Sarkozy’s decision to create a minister for immigration and national identity. This idea of creating a minister for immigration and national identity emerged as the 2007 election campaign was drawing to an end, and was key to understanding Sarkozy’s ideological and populist use of language. The proposition was considered one of the winning moves by the Sarkozy team; it was drawn up as part of Sarkozy’s conservative electorate grew suspicious of his ‘unabashed’ use of populism, which constantly shifted his rhetoric from left to right. His neo-liberal agenda, allied with the recuperation of iconic figures from the left, increasingly alienated those who had seen in Sarkozy the defender of a nationalist, traditionalist France. In this context, the new portfolio offered two main advantages. First, Sarkozy borrowed once more Le Pen’s popular anti-establishment posture: he was a candidate willing to ‘break taboos’, and ‘to express the ideas the French people think and carry within themselves’.[xxix] It also sent a clear signal to the radical right electorate: if the issues of immigration and national identity were to be linked in a ministerial position created by Sarkozy, the two concepts would most likely become antagonistic.[xxx] As argued in his programme, ‘undeniably, our worst forsaking [was] to have stopped being proud to be French […] if I am elected I will not cease to affirm our pride in being French’.[xxxi] Sarkozy therefore drew a clear dichotomy between those who rightly felt proud to be French, and those who did not, those who were responsible for the dire situation in France. For Sarkozy, this dramatic situation justified the project:

our republican model is in crisis. This crisis is first and foremost a moral crisis. […] This moral crisis is a crisis of values, a crisis of landmarks, a crisis of meaning, a crisis of identity. The denigration of the nation is at the heart of this crisis.[xxxii]

 In the apocalyptic language of the extreme right, Sarkozy described the identity crisis as ‘a serious crisis, a profound crisis and a dangerous crisis’.[xxxiii] Often, Sarkozy’s understanding of this crisis was reminiscent of the vision of the early French extreme right, Barrès amongst others, as well as of the rhetoric used as late as the 1980s when the right tried to appeal to its extreme electorate.[xxxiv] All believed in decadence, all saw one symbolic event as responsible for this decadence (be it the Revolution, the Popular Front or May ‘68), and all argued for an authoritarian solution based on ethno-exclusivist values and on the singling out and superiority of the French people and French identity.

 All of them also emotionally defended their position and attacked groups of ‘intellectuals’ for their self-loathing and hatred of their country. Sarkozy denounced a form of ‘intellectual terrorism preventing the majority of our compatriots from defending ideas in which they believe’. Sarkozy made it clear he was not part of that elite: he ‘was not an intellectual, he was someone concrete’.[xxxv] Sarkozy knew such issue to be crucial.

He knew a strong stand on the abstract crisis of national identity could be rewarded with the sympathy of over 15% of the electorate who had been voting for the radical right for over two decades. In a tactical move, he reiterated the position of the reactionary French elites of the nineteenth century. Instead of considering a systemic failure, which created systemic insecurities, and had in the past led to the creation of class identity and the advancement of social causes, Sarkozy relied on an irrational and exclusionary form of identity which saw the other as responsible for the crisis. While the face of the ‘Other’ changed (Germans, Jews, Italians, Algerians, Muslims, youth in general), the rhetoric remained.

 For Sarkozy, France’s national identity was to be built in a typically extreme right manner: in opposition to emancipatory struggles and events. For Gérard Noiriel, the subtle negation of the Revolution was present throughout Sarkozy’s campaign, and was best highlighted in his speeches on France’s eternal subscription to freedom and human rights. For Sarkozy, it was not the Revolution or the Enlightenment that had brought human rights into being, but rather millennia of national identity; ‘2000 years of Christian values’.[xxxvi] Sarkozy’s conception of the nation and national identity was esoteric: France was a ‘soul’, a ‘spiritual principle’, ‘a carnal soil to which one is bound by a mysterious link […] that cannot be broken without losing part of oneself’.[xxxvii] As Noiriel has pointed out, Sarkozy’s conception was reminiscent of Barrès’ conception of the ‘déracinés’.[xxxviii] His understanding was denounced by many scientists and researchers, who argued that national identity ‘should not be granted scientific validity’.[xxxix] Yet such strong beliefs filled a growing void in part of the population which was looking for simplistic certainties, for a sense of belonging, in a world where they felt they had been left to fend for themselves. Sarkozy’s conception of national identity was clearly reminiscent of Le Pen’s: rather than ‘explicit’, it was a concept based on the obvious, on common sense. It was Le Pen’s aim to give his electorate a sense of belonging by giving them characteristics of either ‘similarity’ or ‘dissimilarity’; in any case, the aim of Sarkozy’s national identity was to offer Le Pen’s electorate a similar kind of ‘Other’.[xl]

 Neo-racism has been key to Sarkozy’s attempt to recuperate Le Pen’s electorate. To prevent being attacked as racist, Sarkozy insisted that the perfect Frenchman is not necessarily a biological Frenchman. An immigrant or a son of immigrant could well become truly French, and indeed French president. The dichotomy was not drawn between those who have French blood and those who do not, but between those who can be French – that is those who ‘inherit’ ‘Frenchness’ by blood or those who become part of a ‘successful immigration’ – and those who fail to integrate. It is precisely those who fail who have led to ‘the miracle being threatened’.[xli] Therefore, immigrants are divided into two clear camps: those who deserve to become French and the others, the illegal immigrants and those who preach communautarisme (community withdrawal or communalism).

 The first category of ‘others’, which Sarkozy has pejoratively called ‘clandestines’, have come to take advantage of France without giving anything in return: ‘the problem with France [and its immigration policies] is that for too long it has asked nothing of no one, not even the respect of its values and laws; [now] it is facing one of the most serious crises of its history’.[xlii] Sarkozy implied the comforting idea that if the situation was not ideal, it was because ‘we’ had been taken advantage of, because ‘we’ had been too kind. Consequently, if ‘we’ made it tougher on immigrants, things would improve. In fact, as Le Pen had before him, Sarkozy argued that his exclusionary policies were for the good of the immigrants themselves. As a result, illegal immigrants were not only accused of taking advantage of France and stealing its wealth without giving anything in return, they were also infantilised, told what was right for them. In a neo-racist manner, they were found not to be inferior biologically, but merely incompatible with the French way of life.

 Similarly, Sarkozy’s attacks on communautarisme always targeted one particular group within the population. All the examples given to highlight this apparently crucial issue sent a clear signal to the Muslim community, or more precisely, to anyone even remotely associated with this community.[xliii] While the Protestant, Catholic and Jewish religions have been praised in Sarkozy’s speeches as legitimate components of French identity, Islam remains unmentioned, except as a counter-example.[xliv] While there are some cases where Islam has been portrayed in a positive light, for example in the creation of the Muslim council, the defining category nonetheless remains an exclusionary generalisation.

 As with the radical right, debate proved futile; for Sarkozy, one either loves France or hates it. As a result, those opposed to his understanding of national identity were accused of disliking France, of being dishonest and cowards. If Sarkozy spoke up on this it was because he ‘was not scared’, and because he did ‘not believe in politics which say nothing, which think nothing’; he spoke because he wanted to ‘tell the French the truth, to be sincere, to be honest’.[xlv] By implying the dishonesty of his opponents, Sarkozy presented himself as a martyr in a similar manner to both Le Pen and Hanson. Sarkozy also criticised the ‘intelligentsia’ for their ‘culture of repentance’. France had made some mistakes, but ‘not all French people were Petainists’, ‘not all French people were colonists’.[xlvi] On that topic, soon after his election, in October 2007 in Dakar, Sarkozy gave a speech which provoked a wave of indignation. He argued that colonisation had only played a minor role in shaping contemporary Africa, and should be exonerated from ‘the responsibility of the bloody wars Africans are waging amongst themselves, of genocides, dictatorships, fanaticism and corruption’.[xlvii] Sarkozy’s vision was unrepentant and consciously ignored the negative impact of both colonisation and neo-colonisation, from which France has benefited greatly.[xlviii] Worse still, Sarkozy blamed the situation in Africa on the ‘African’ character; he concluded his speech with an unmistakably neo-racist ‘historico-political consideration’ of the ‘African man’ who had not ‘entered history enough’, and whose ‘mindset does not leave space for human adventure or for the idea of progress’: ‘never [does the African man] venture towards the future’.[xlix]

 Armed with his ‘common sense’ and nationalist vision of history, Sarkozy refused to apologise for the deeds of his ancestors and grudgingly asked historians, ‘adept in repentance’, ‘how [they could] ask sons to repent for their fathers’ mistakes, mistakes that often their fathers only made in [the intelligentsia’s] imagination’.[l] Sarkozy ignored the symbolic importance of an acknowledgement of past misdeeds. Highlighting further Sarkozy’s lack of consistency, the presidential candidate simultaneously went against the ‘culture of repentance’ to attract the Front National electorate, and made sure to acknowledge the atrocity of the Holocaust in order to keep the support of key figures such as Simone Veil.[li] To sum up, for Sarkozy, the situation was simple in 2007: the French had ‘to choose between those who like France and those who display their hatred of [it].[lii]

 By the 2007 presidential elections, Sarkozy had made himself the only possibility, the only choice. His appropriation of key historical events and concepts led him to embody the ‘voice’ of the French people, and to incarnate the ‘neither left nor right’ candidate, a concept which had become in the 1990s a slogan for the Front National. His focus on concepts such as insecurity, national identity and immigration, along with his credentials as the leader of a ‘moderate’ right-wing party, made him the best candidate for the growing fringe of the population which had been seduced by the Le Pen alternative, and yet repulsed by his extremist image. Sarkozy made sure not to alienate the Front National electorate. A few months before the 2007 presidential elections, he made it clear that ‘yes, [he] was trying to appeal to the Front National electorate’, and that he ‘would go and get them one by one’ if necessary.[liii] On 2 October 2006, he told the UMP youth that ‘as soon as I say something a bit strong, I am told I am trying to appeal to the Front National electorate. […] Well, that’s entirely correct. Why shouldn’t I talk to an electorate that was ours?’[liv] It proved a very wise move. The 2007 elections witnessed the massive migration of the Front National electorate towards Sarkozy’s candidature in the first round, leaving Jean-Marie Le Pen with ‘only’ 10% of the vote. By suggesting that he understood Le Pen’s electorate and shared its fears, Sarkozy was able in part to gain its support. Surveys suggested that between 21 and 38% of Le Pen’s 2002 electorate voted for Sarkozy in the first round of the 2007 elections.[lv] In the second round, two-thirds of Le Pen’s voters transferred to the UMP candidate.[lvi] For Nonna Mayer, these Lepéno-Sarkozystes surveyed showed that this shift was directly related to Sarkozy’s borrowing of Le Pen’s rhetoric and political themes.[lvii] It seemed that an important part of the workers who had previously turned to Le Pen had made their way to Sarkozy’s rank. For the director of polling company IFOP, it was an ‘exploit’ for Sarkozy to have become the workers’ favourite candidate in 2007 (26%).[lviii] This exploit should be relativised as, according to the same poll, Socialist candidate Royal obtained 25% of the workers’ vote while Le Pen was down to 16%. This could be explained by the scars left by the 2002 elections and the fear of many workers or not that Le Pen could access the second round again, forcing them to cast a ‘useful vote’ (vote utile).


By the time the elections came around, Sarkozy had created a rhetorical rupture between himself and the other candidates. In his rhetoric, he regrouped around his candidature a very wide electorate stretching from the centre to the extreme right. He appeared strong on immigration and crime, an original alternative to the establishment while having been part of governments for a long time, a defender against evil capitalists, and yet was a friend of the wealthy. He appeared both a reassuring male figure to the most conservative and authoritarian electorates, and a modern, original politician standing strong against the establishment. In a country where abstention had become the ‘strongest party’ and where smaller parties gathered a large part of the protest vote, many found in Sarkozy’s numerous faces something appealing to their particular situation.

 Nicolas Sarkozy therefore owed much to the extreme right success since the 1990s and in return, the extreme right owed him much for popularising and mainstreaming its ideas. However, while Sarkozy obtained a landslide victory in 2007, the 2012 elections are uncertain. After four years of presidency and with the elections looming, his ratings are at an all time low. Yet it would be wrong to assume that Sarkozy will not be able to turn the tide and claim a second mandate. Indeed, with the recent resurgence of the Front National under the new leadership of Marine Le Pen, we can see that the ethno-exclusivist politics which had made the president popular remain appealing to a vast part of the population. Similarly, Sarkozy can trust the republican front to remind the electorate of what voters had unleashed in 2002.

 One thing remains certain; those who had predicted the death of the Front National in 2007 have been proven wrong. In fact, on that topic, it was Marine Le Pen who was proven right: Jean-Marie Le Pen’s 2007 setback was to some extent the victory for his ideas. On April 12, the National Commission of Human Rights in France made public its 20th yearly report on racism.[lix] Members of the commission found that Pandora’s box had been opened; they warned that the lines around what was acceptable in politics had moved dramatically.

[i] “Interview with Marine Le Pen,”  in +Clair (Canal Plus, 22/04/2007).

[ii] It is problematic to add the 1.2 million votes obtained by CPNT since this rural electorate seems to differ from a typically extreme right-wing electorate, and even more so from Le Pen’s which had become largely urban by 2002.

[iii] Le Pen received 5,525,906 votes against 5,472,160 in the first round (Front National and MNR). For changes in the electorate, see Nonna Mayer, Ces Français Qui Votent Le Pen (Paris: Flammarion, 2002), p.365-66.

[iv] James Shields, “Support for Le Pen in France: Two Elections in Trompe L’oeil,” Politics 30, no. 1 (2010): p.63.

[v] Furthermore, according to a poll, only 29% of the respondents who voted for Chirac did so for he was ‘a good candidate’. Mayer, Ces Français Qui Votent Le Pen, p.378.

[vi] Pierre-André Taguieff, L’illusion Populiste: Essai Sur Les Démagogie De L’âge Démocratique (Paris: Flammarion, 2007), pp.255; 63.

[vii] On 29 May 2005, 54.68% of French voters rejected the European constitution. Moderate parties had supported the treaty and appeared therefore to have further lost touch with their electorate.

[viii] The Contrat Première Embauche (First Job Contract) was implemented in 2006 before being repelled by president Chirac after important demonstrations. The demonstrators argued against the unfair dismissal clauses that would have allowed employers to terminate a contract without justification during the first two years of employment.

[ix] ’21 April’ became a common phrase in the news to remind voters of the day Le Pen reached the second round of the presidential elections.

[x] Nicolas Sarkozy, “Speech in Toulouse,” (4/02/2003).

[xi] ———, “Speech in Besancon,” in (13/03/2007).

[xii] This Etienne Balibar more appropriately called the ‘intolerance threshold’. Etienne Balibar, “Racisme Et Crise,” in Race, Nation, Classe; Les Identités Ambiguës, ed. Etienne Balibar and Immanuel Wallerstein (Paris: la Découverte, 1997), p.292.

[xiii] Peter Fysh and Jim Wolfreys, The Politics of Racism in France (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003), p.72.

[xiv] For more detail, see Sylvie Tissot and Pierre Tevanian, Les Mots Sont Importants, 2000/2010 (Editions Libertalia, 2010), pp.186-89.

[xv] While 58% of the French believed that insecurity was one of the three most important factors in their decision during the first round of the elections (74% in Le Pen’s electorate), 68% felt ‘entirely’ or ‘rather’ safe in their daily life. Mayer, Ces Français Qui Votent Le Pen, pp.351-55.

[xvi] Fysh and Wolfreys, The Politics of Racism in France, p.72.

[xvii] The deportation of illegal immigrants, which has become increasingly violent since annual quotas were implemented, is a clear example of the consequences Sarkozy’s rhetoric has had on politics.

[xviii] ‘Scum’ (racaille) was a term used by Maurras, who added that in France ‘one comes in at ease, does whatever one pleases and leaves only if one wants to’. Jean-Paul Gautier, Les Extrêmes Droites En France; De La Traversée Du Désert À L’ascension Du Front National (1945-2008), Mauvais Temps (Paris: Syllepse, 2009), p.403. Sarkozy had ‘had enough of always feeling one has to apologize for being French’ and believed that ‘if some don’t like France, they should feel free to leave it’. Nicolas Sarkozy, “Pour Nicolas Sarkozy, “Si Certains N’aiment Pas La France, Qu’ils Ne Se Gênent Pas Pour La Quitter”,” Le Monde 23/04/2006.. This sentence was reminiscent of the slogans used first by Le Pen and then by Philippe de Villiers: ‘France, love it or leave it!’, slogans which are in turn similar to the nationalist reaction of the past two decades in Australia, which argued, ‘Australia, love it or leave’.

[xix] Edward Bernays, Propaganda, Comment Manipuler L’opinion En Démocratie (Paris: Zones, 2007).

[xx] Jean Veronis and Louis-Jean Calvet, Les Mots De Nicolas Sarkozy (Paris: Seuil, 2008), p.27. Sarkozy’s sentences were 30% shorter than those of Ségolène Royal during the 2007 presidential campaign, his vocabulary much poorer and 44% of his sentences contained anaphors.

[xxi] Guaino had played an important part in Chirac’s 1995 victory, notably in the social rhetoric the candidate adopted. It is interesting to note that some of his most important advisers came from the extreme right and were central in decisions such as the creation of the a minister of immigration and national identity. For mor detail, see Augustin Scalbert, “Derrière L’offensive Sécuritaire De Sarkozy, Deux Conseillers-Clés,” Rue89 14/08/2010.

[xxii] Nicolas Sarkozy, “Inaugural Speech,” in U.M.P., ed. U.M.P. Congress (Paris14/01/2010).

[xxiii] For more detail on Sarkozy’s speeches, see Veronis and Calvet, Les Mots De Nicolas Sarkozy.

[xxiv] One of the most emblematic of Sarkozy’s promises and measures was the creation of the ‘fiscal shield’ (bouclier fiscal) to limit taxation to a maximum 50% of one’s earnings. Another example is the repeal of the inheritance tax, something which resulted in benefits for only the richest 15% of the population, yet was advertised as allowing every French person to be a home-owner at the end of their hard-working life.

[xxv] Nicolas Sarkozy, “Speech in Tours,” (10/4/2007).

[xxvi] Sarkozy spent the night of the 2007 election in the very exclusive Fouquet’s nightclub in Paris before leaving for a yacht vacation sponsored by his billionaire friend Vincent Bolloré.

[xxvii] Nicolas Sarkozy, “Speech in Caen,” in (9/03/2007).

[xxviii] ———, “Speech in La-Chapelle-En-Vercors,” (6/11/2009).

[xxix] Sarkozy, “Speech in Caen.”

[xxx] Symbolically, Sarkozy’s first minister for this polemical portfolio was found guilty of a racial slur in 2010. AFP, “Hortefeux Condamné Pour «Injure Raciale» Et Soutenu Par Fillon,” Libération 4/06/2010.

[xxxi] Nicolas Sarkozy, “Mon Projet: Ensemble Tout Devient Possible,” ed. U.M.P. (2007).

[xxxii] Sarkozy, “Speech in Caen.”

[xxxiii] ———, “Speech in Besancon.”

[xxxiv] In 1985, former president Giscard d’Estaing wrote in extreme right newspaper Valeurs Actuelles that immigration constituted ‘a threat to national identity’. in Gérard Noiriel, A Quoi Sert ‘L’identité Nationale’, Passé Et Présent (Marseilles: Agone, 2007), p.71.

[xxxv] Nicolas Sarkozy, “Speech in Nice,” (21/04/2009). and Sarkozy, TF1, 20/06/2007 in Arnaud Vaulerin, “Et Si Le Gouvernement Avait Oublié De Penser?,” Libération 23/07/2007.

[xxxvi] Sarkozy, “Speech in Caen.”, Noiriel, A Quoi Sert ‘L’identité Nationale’, p.88.

[xxxvii] Sarkozy, “Speech in Caen.”

[xxxviii] Noiriel, A Quoi Sert ‘L’identité Nationale’, p.86. During his campaign, Sarkozy referred to Barrès as the one who ‘wrote for the French youth the story of national energy’ in Veronis and Calvet, Les Mots De Nicolas Sarkozy, p.146.

[xxxix] The French Association of Anthropologists also insisted that national identity ‘is an imaginary social construct which, under pretence of unity, leads to the reinforcement of divisions, discriminations and inequalities’. in Eric Hazan, Changement De Propriétaire; La Guerre Civile Continue (Paris: Seuil, 2007). Many ‘new philosophers’ such as Alain Finkielkraut, however, have supported a mystical definition of national identity Alain Badiou, Alain Finkielkraut, and Aude Lancelin, “Finkielkraut-Badiou: Le Face-À-Face,” Le Nouvel Observateur 17/12/2009

[xl] For more detail, see Maryse Souchard et al., Le Pen, Les Mots; Analyse D’un Discours D’extrême-Droite (Paris: “Le Monde” éditions, 1997), p.97.

[xli] Sarkozy, “Speech in Caen.” Sarkozy’s populist opportunism was further highlighted by the relatively small immigration intake that France witnessed in the 1990s compared to other European countries and the United States. For more detail, see François Héran, L’avenir De L’immigration (Paris: Seuil, 2007).

[xlii] Sarkozy, “Speech in Caen.”

[xliii] For more detail, see Joan Wallach Scott, The Politics of the Veil (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2007).

[xliv] Sarkozy, “Speech in Caen.”

[xlv] Ibid.

[xlvi] Nicolas Sarkozy, 14/01/2007  in Veronis and Calvet, Les Mots De Nicolas Sarkozy, p.148.

[xlvii] Nicolas Sarkozy in Thomas Hofnung, “Le Jour Où Sarkozy Stupéfia L’afrique,” Libération 9/10/2007, Nicolas Sarkozy, La République, Les Religions, L’espérance; Entretien Avec Thibaud Collin Et Philippe Verdin (Paris: Les Editions du Cerf, 2004), p.98.

[xlviii] For more detail, see Sadri Khiari, La Contre-Révolution Coloniale En France; De De Gaulle À Sarkozy (Paris: La Fabrique, 2009). and François-Xavier Verschaves and Philippe Hauser, Au Mépris Des Peuples; Le Néocolonialisme Franco-Africain (Paris: La Fabrique, 2004).

[xlix] Nicolas Sarkozy in Hofnung, “Le Jour Où Sarkozy Stupéfia L’afrique.”

[l] Nicolas Sarkozy, 7/02/2007  in Veronis and Calvet, Les Mots De Nicolas Sarkozy, pp.147-48.

[li] Simone Veil is one of the central figures of Gaullism, who survived the concentration camps. She was a popular minister of health, but was also the first woman to become president of the European Parliament, a post she held between 1979 and 1982. According to a survey, Veil is the most liked woman in France in 2010. “Veil, Femme Préférée Des Français,” Le Journal du Dimanche 5/03/2010.

[lii] Nicolas Sarkozy, “Speech in Nice,” in (30/03/2007).

[liii] Nicolas Sarkozy in Gautier, Les Extrêmes Droites En France, pp.402. After Mégret’s MNR seceded from the Front National, Sarkozy, then leader of Chirac’s RPR, declared himself favourable to welcoming ‘electors and militants who wanted to move away from their party’. Nicolas Sarkozy in ———, Les Extrêmes Droites En France, p.396.. The Italian version of Sarkozy’s book Témoignages was prefaced by ‘former’ neo-fascist Gianfranco Fini, leader of Alleanza Nationale.

[liv] Veronis and Calvet, Les Mots De Nicolas Sarkozy, pp.135-36.

[lv] Jocelyn Evans and Gilles Ivaldi, “L’extrême Droite À La Dérive : Recomposition À Droite,” Revue Politique et Parlementaire 109, no. 1044 (2007): p.119.

[lvi] Shields, “Support for Le Pen in France: Two Elections in Trompe L’oeil,” p.65.

[lvii] Nonna Mayer, “Comment Nicolas Sarkozy a Rétréci L’éléctorat De Le Pen,” Revue Française de Science Politique 57, no. 3-4 (2007): pp.439-40.

[lviii] Bruno Jeudy, “2012, Le Match Pour L’électorat Populaire,” JDD 24/04/2011.

[lix] “La Lutte Contre Le Racisme, L’antisémitisme Et La Xénophobie,” ed. Commission nationale consultative des droits de l’homme (Paris: CNDCH, 2010).


This is an Author’s Original Manuscript of an article whose final and definitive form, the Version of Record, has been published in the Patterns of Prejudice [16 Oct 2012] [copyright Taylor & Francis], available online at:

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