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What’s left in France

April 25, 2012


THE first round of the French presidential election has not substantially diminished the likelihood that the Élysée Palace will have a new occupant next month, after Nicolas Sarkozy last Sunday bucked the trend whereby the incumbent initially takes the lead.

Few analysts, however, have written him off completely. The diminutive combatant may yet secure a second term — not least if the bulk of those who cast their ballots for the neo-fascist Front National’s (FN) Marine Le Pen opt for Sarkozy on May 6. That is not a given, however.

After all, Le Pen to a considerable extent based her campaign on deriding the status quo and, more specifically, Sarkozy’s role in it, so even a half-hearted endorsement would widely be seen as hypocritical.

What’s more, it has been argued that Le Pen has a vested interest in the president’s defeat, as it could precipitate a splintering of the Union pour un Mouvement Populaire (UMP), which would facilitate FN’s ambition to posit itself as the primary right-wing force in the country.

That would be a dangerous development, albeit one aided by Sarkozy’s tendency to steal the accoutrements of extremism whenever it suits his purpose — as demonstrated both by his anti-immigrant rhetoric and by his even more cynical appropriation of Le Pen’s crusade against halal meat.

They are significant differences, though, and they were demonstrated last month in the wake of Mohamed Merah’s 10-day murderous spree that terrorised Toulouse and traumatised the rest of the nation.

Le Pen responded to it by asking: “How many Mohamed Merahs are arriving everyday in France on boats and planes filled with immigrants?” The only reasonable answer to which would be: probably none. Sarkozy did not offer that response, but explicitly stated that Merah’s odious actions ought not to serve as an excuse for demonising French Muslims.

He will nonetheless be dedicating much of the next 10 days to courting the more than 18 per cent of the electorate that voted for Le Pen. About half of them are expected to vote for him anyhow.

A quarter are likely to abstain — and the remainder seemingly detest Sarkozy so much that they are inclined to opt in the second round for François Hollande, the Parti Socialiste (PS) candidate who edged out Sarkozy in the first round and is widely favoured to repeat that feat on May 6.

Sarkozy’s problem all along has partly been the personal animus he attracts from a large section of a populace accustomed to — and arguably more comfortable with — the semi-monarchical, above-the-fray style of his presidential predecessors.

What’s more, both François Mitterrand and Jacques Chirac, after ‘cohabitation’ with parliamentary majorities of a contrary ideological ilk, were able to campaign for their second terms from an oppositional standpoint.

Sarkozy has not enjoyed that particular advantage. At the same time, his pursuit of conspicuous luxuries — from a showcase bride to expensive jewellery — has proved as detrimental to his image as eagerness to suck up to the United States.

One of the crassest examples of the latter tendency was the public release of segments of a video conference between him and Barack Obama, evidently intended to create the impression of an endorsement from the US president. In a nation that has long prided itself on its independence, it appears to have backfired.

Sarkozy’s second-fiddle relationship with Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, in the European Union’s attempt to cope with the fiscal and broader economic woes of recent years has played a significant role in enhancing popular disenchantment, and part of Le Pen’s appeal lay in that part of her platform which envisaged an exit from the eurozone and a return to the franc.

Hollande does not go that far, although he has expressed his intention to recalibrate relations within the European context. And while it would largely be futile to try refuting the argument that the change he offers falls mainly in the category of style rather than substance, there are certainly some valuable differences in his platform, not least his commitment to ramping up taxes for the very rich.

Hollande’s stated determination to tax annual incomes of more than a million euros at 75 per cent inevitably invited a backlash from the targeted fat cats and their pet rodents, but it is broadly a popular proposition — albeit nowhere near as radical as the proposal of Front de Gauche’s Jean-Luc Melenchon to tax all income above 360,000 euros at 100 per cent.

The candidacy of Melenchon — an ex-Trotskyite who subsequently served in Socialist governments before growing disenchanted with a PS that was no longer living up to its nomenclature — certainly stirred up the campaign with its revolutionary invocations, but ultimately fell considerably short of its declared purpose of decimating the FN.

But, as they say, better to have fought and lost than never to have fought at all. And Melenchon — whose rallies attracted some of the largest crowds, and who unequivocally pledged support for Hollande after winning about 11 per cent of the first-round vote — may well have done France a considerable service by stoking memories of its bolshie past.

A second comeuppance for Sarkozy on May 6 certainly won’t be bad thing either for a France or for a Europe in the grip of austerity measures that are deemed the only reasonable response to capitalism gone crazy. Whether Hollande — who will become only the second Socialist president in the Fifth Republic if he crosses the line on Sunday after next — can meaningfully deviate from the existing paradigm remains extremely doubtful. He poses a negligible risk to the status quo.The same cannot be said about Le Pen. The trend she represents is not all that far removed from the rabid ideology that the mass murderer Anders Breivik has been spouting in a Norwegian courtroom. Europe can well do without both its Breiviks and its Merahs, but it needs to recognise that the racism and insular nationalism of the former poses the bigger threat amid the present era’s economic uncertainties.