From President of the Rich, to Candidate of the People

Nicolas Sarkozy has – finally – declared his candidature. In one sense, this was a mere formality as the likelihood of the incumbent President not standing for re-election was vanishingly small. Yet there are four reasons why the impact of this declaration is important, and is likely to be more pronounced than might otherwise be expected.

First, the announcement defines Sarkozy as a candidate, and then as an outgoing president. To date, he has played on his role as the incumbent Head of State to demonstrate his international presence, statesmanship and position above the fray of mere party politics. As we have argued, this marks an attempt by Sarkozy to emulate the American Rose Garden strategy. The Cannes summit; the triple-A downgrade; the Afghanistan military tragedy – whilst unwelcome news for France, and potentially harmful to Sarkozy – have nonetheless given Sarkozy an ideal stage upon which to play the role of President incarnate.

Yet, whilst the polls showed some evidence of a rally towards the end of 2011 on the back of this tactic, the overall gains it provided on François Hollande’s lead were short-lived. Just as worrying for Sarkozy, the gap between his position and Far Right candidate Marine Le Pen had not widened. In fact, it was quite the opposite – Le Pen even overtook the incumbent among certain social groups.

Sarkozy the candidate needs to return to the electoral arena to fight his way back to power, in the way he fought his way to his first incumbency in 2007. An interview with Figaro Magazine has already provided interesting clues as to how this might occur. One strategic shift is the move away from valence –e.g. competence, statesmanship or credibility– to divisive positional issues such as immigration, social welfare benefits or gay marriage, where electoral gains can be potentially made from higher ideological polarization. Sarkozy’s spurious attacks on the allegedly ‘pro-immigration’ positions of Hollande, or re-launching the controversial debate over opening shops on Sundays, leave little doubt as to his intention of firmly occupying both the authoritarian and neo-liberal territory.

Second, Sarkozy has chosen to headline with ‘la France forte!’. While perhaps not the most captivating of slogans, it nonetheless delineates his primary objective – to cluster voters along well-identified ideological lines– and spans the three set of values that provided the fanfare for his candidacy – ‘travail, responsabilité, autorité’ (Work, Duty, Authority). Juxtaposed with Hollande’s optimistic but somewhat oxymoronic Le changement, c’est maintenant (The Change is Now), one would be hard pressed to find a more Nietzschean proclamation of success through self-empowerment and struggle.

As a value-set, Sarkozy’s approach is promising tough decisions for tough times, attempting to shift responsibility onto the shoulders of the willing voter, and away from the executive. Comparatively, there are more than a few parallels to Cameron’s ‘Big Society’. Despite Sarkozy’s proclaimed inspiration from the Germany of Merkel and of Schröder, much like Cameron’s vision of the Big Society he is portraying the future French society as one in which upright citizens take responsibility for the welfare of their communities, their families and themselves, and where they are backed by more effective regional and local representation (even if budgets are to be cut).

Moreover, the strategy is implicitly condemning those who cannot, or will not, live up to its aspiration. The French, therefore, are bidding farewell to the paternalist president who once claimed in Toulon that he would protect them from the “foolishness of the free market” and would “reform international financial capitalism”. While leaving it to the left and Marine Le Pen to fight over the ‘remains of the old world’, Sarkozy is inviting voters to this new land of economic opportunities called globalisation.

As a political vehicle, the ‘strong France’ slogan puts nation first, and even (if necessary) at the expense of individual and pluralist interests, and in opposition to fundamental principles of representative democracy. Given Sarkozy’s well-known personal loathing for popular referenda, his sudden conversion to the delights of direct democracy can hardly be seen as a revival of the magnificent plebiscitary tradition in French Gaullism. Instead, it resembles the classic claim by right-wing populist demagogues that the ‘true’ will of the people is best expressed by bypassing all intermediary political bodies –i.e. parties, unions, councils and Parliament.

More Boulanger than Bonaparte, Sarkozy is replicating his 2007 anti-establishment appeal, when he pounced on the country’s elite, the ‘intellectuals’ and the ‘self-righteous’ who he associated with a permissive ‘post-68’ ideology. In an attempt to jettison his image as the ‘President of the Rich’, Sarkozy is now striving to reconstruct himself as a candidate of the people against the political class.

And this is the third reason for focusing on his declaration. A French President represents tous les Français. It is why, symbolically, the absolute majority at the second round is so important. Before the first round, a French presidential candidate only needs to represent as many French voters as are needed to secure victory, and in that mindset, Sarkozy is choosing to stay firmly on the Right. In 2007, analysts ascribed his victory, in part at least, to support from a group of former (Jean-Marie) Le Pen voters. The emphasis on immigration and law-and-order appealed to the bouc-émissaire mindset of the reactionary, xenophobic Right.

That this group would once again be targeted in 2012 became clear well before Sarkozy’s declaration. Claude Guéant, the Interior Minister, alluded to a hierarchy of civilisations and cultures, with the support of many (if not all) in the UMP, including the President himself. Gay marriage was condemned as deleterious to family, while the announcement of the values that would underpin an eventual campaign embodied a hard Right approach. In all senses, and despite protests to the contrary, Sarkozy’s candidacy is exclusionary, in a way that an incumbent President would find impossible to sustain.

There is a fourth and final element to Sarkozy’s reverse metamorphosis from President to Candidate. Whether he is able to garner some Far Right support in the first round against Le Pen, or even win the vast majority of these Far Right voters in a second round run-off, the numbers required for victory do not add up. This is because the centre-right of Bayrou, together with the Left bloc as a whole, represent more than 50 per cent of the vote. As polls inch upwards for post-declaration Sarkozy, and minor Right-wing candidates such as Christine Boutin and Hervé Morin stand aside, the gap at the second round with Hollande remains double-digit.

At some point soon, Sarkozy needs to turn away from the hard Right to address voters on the centre ground. The Janus approach to canvassing is not uncommon for two-round systems. But, in this case, the difficulty of looking Left is being exacerbated by just how far Right  Sarkozy has placed himself. Some see his eventual centrist tactic involving an appeal to economic management. Yet, in that area, Sarkozy’s credibility is weak, particularly amongst the squeezed middle classes. Whether he can find another point of resonance based upon his worth as ‘the man for the job’ will come down entirely to his capacity to reinvent his image as an individual, rather than as a Head of State.

As we noted in a recent debate on France 24, this might require also a little more humility.

Jocelyn Evans and Gilles Ivaldi

Ballots and Bullets is delighted to be publishing several guest blogs from these authors, who are the two minds behind 500 signatures. Professor Jocelyn Evans and Dr Gilles Ivaldi offer expert insight into the forthcoming Presidential elections in France. Prof. Evans is currently working with Matt Goodwin from Nottingham on a study of far right supporters, launching on March 8th.

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