France’s Monarch-President: On the Frontline
Nicolas Sarkozy’s accumulation of power and personalisation of politics leave him exposed when things go wrong, says Patrice de Beer for openDemocracy.
By Patrice de Beer for openDemocracy.net
France's founding republican myth and democratic self-image exist uneasily alongside an enduring popular fixation with the many powerful leaders that have ruled the country: among them Louis XIV, Napoleon I and III, Général Charles de Gaulle, and even the wartime Marshal Pétain (who "gave himself to France" - and France to Hitler).
The latest to enter this imaginary panthéon, offering a heady blend of lofty promises and base populism, is Nicolas Sarkozy. The modern fifth republic inaugurated in 1958 with the majestic return of Charles de Gaulle from a form of internal self-exile - allows all French presidents to behave like a benign monarch; but is exceptional is that the current one has effectively made himself king of a strange form of republican elected monarchy: "Sarkoland". Never in this half-century has a president held as much power - or been so determined to curtail any potential opposition.
In many cultures there is a tendency to attribute a characteristic of special cunning or ambition to men of small stature. Nicolas Sarkozy is of the same size as Louis XIV and Napoleon, and like them has shown every intention to expand the political and economic role of the state. L'Etat, c'est moi (I am the State) was the "sun king's" motto; the "Sarko" era's addendum is ...et l'Etat est à moi (..and the State is mine).
Sarkozy was widely hailed after his election in 2007 (notably by British and American media and pundits) as the leader who would at last lead the reluctant French towards a model of economic liberalism, deregulation and globalisation. But in the first half of his five-year term - which has coincided with the global financial crisis - he has followed a very different course: extending his hold in all possible fields, buying over any available opponent, and putting his favoured clients in charge of departments, agencies and anything that he could control.
The president is now trying to spread his reach even further by revamping the municipal and local institutions of Paris and the regions, as well as modifying the election process in order to strengthen his grip over them. The unexpected consequence is that some local stalwarts of his Union pour une Majorité Présidentielle (UMP) are protesting against what they see as a reduction of their own power. A dispirited socialist opposition remains in control of most major cities and departements and of all France's regions except two, but is unable to find the coherence or the policy ideas to mount a serious challenge to the quasi-monarch in the Elysée palace.
A turn of the tide
Indeed, things have been going very well for Nicolas Sarkozy over these two and a half years. The Parti Socialiste (PS) is in disarray, unable to unite behind a platform and a leader; the rest of the opposition (not least further on the left) is hopelessly divided. "Sarko" has had the field to himself: piling up reforms (some popular, some less so), flying the tricolore in foreign policy (not without success, including during the French presidency of the European Union in July-December 2008); and riding on his image as a "reformer" capable of international leadership (as in his crucial role in the G20 during the financial crisis).
In domestic terms, the president-monarch has resisted any surrender to what he regards as reactionary forces (meaning, mostly, the left and the trade unions); and portrayed himself as the "irreproachable president" who would end the governance by underhand deal-making embraced by his predecessors.
But in recent weeks, there have been the beginnings of a change. Sarkozy's relations with Barack Obama are much cooler than with George W Bush, whose war in Iraq he supported. The domestic economic troubles include a rising budget deficit, which he refuses to ease by abandoning the "fiscal shield" he imposed after his election (to protect his more affluent supporters from tax demands).
Some of his reforms, moreover, have both irked his followers (including conservative, ageing voters who are the hardcore of his electorate) and provoked the opposition into life. They include the decision to abolish the "professional tax" designed to reduce the fiscal burden on business; for this would also deprive local governments of their main income and thus make them more dependent on the "Sarko" administration at the very time it is seeking to download on them social expenditures which used to be carried by the government. A number of UMP stalwarts worry that about abstention at the regional elections in 2010; their concerns are reinforced by poll findings that suggest a decline of trust in the president.
In October 2009, three events in particular suggest that Sarkozy's grasp of French public opinion may be becoming shaky. The first is the murky slander trial involving Dominique de Villepin, who was prime minister under Jacques Chirac before Sarkozy's election in 2007. The president is a plaintiff against Villepin, heads the judiciary and is immune from prosecution during his own term; but these have not stopped him from hounding his rival in court and even calling him "guilty" on television (thus violating the law that says that anyone indicted is presumed innocent until being sentenced). Villepin smartly retorted that "justice" was biased against him - in doing so he gained public sympathy, including from the right, who can't understand how two of its brightest sons can fight so bitterly.
The second event is the Frédéric Mitterrand scandal. Among Sarkozy's victories in his unremitting psychological warfare against the PS has been his poaching of the nephew of former president Francois Mitterrand, a TV personality and writer whom "Sarko" appointed culture minister. Alas, Frédéric's denunciation of the arrest of the Polish-French film director Roman Polanski in Zurich over a three-decades old charge of abuse of a minor in California led to National Front co-leader Marine Le Pen publicising quotes from his book La Mauvaise Vie in which he recalled his sexual trysts with young male prostitutes in Bangkok's red-light district. When the president defended his minister, even more Sarkozy voters were horrified (though a majority of French people as a whole seem opposed to Frédéric Mitterrand's resignation).
The third event has been the most damaging: the Jean Sarkozy affair. "Prince Jean", Nicolas Sarkozy's second son from the first of his three marriages, has declared his candidacy to chair EPAD - the public body in charge of La Défense, Europe's largest business centre on the west side of Paris, where 150,000 people work for 2,500 firms on 3.3 million square metres of office-space. The claim was drowned in an outcry: how can a 23-year-old second-year law student, with little more in his CV than being the president's son and having been elected in 2008 a local councillor for Neuilly-sur-Seine (the wealthiest suburb in France and his father's long-time fiefdom) be said to qualify for such an influential position on his own merit? A new terminology - "nepotism", "hereditary monarchy" and even "banana republic" ruled at the president's bon plaisir (whim) has - to the Elysée palace's dismay - been circulating around France and abroad.
All the president's men, and the president himself - amazingly - did not see it coming. "Sarko" has defiantly championed his son, on the grounds that that everyone should have his chance, that "Prince Jean" was fully qualified, and that he had won his legitimacy through election. This defence omits the facts that his son had been elected in his father's constituency; and that his promotion to EPAD (due to be formalised in December 2009) had been eased both by the resignation of a friendly board member and by the Elysée's blocking of a decree enabling the present chairman - one of Sarkozy's oldest friends, minister Patrick Devedjian - to retain his position.
The president does not see the contradiction - some say the hypocrisy - between making Jean his dauphin and his promises of re-establishing a clean, meritocratic republic where success could be achieved only by hard work. The French are outraged. Le Monde's cartoonist, Plantu, portrays Jean holding a "son's diploma". A poll by the CSA company published in Le Parisien finds that 64% of respondents oppose the decision, as do 51% of Sarkozy's voters.
Almost all government MPs and ministers have been sent into battle to support Jean, saying how bright he is and how much he is the victim of an opposition and media plot. But many of them under cover of anonymity also express their dismay at a decision their constituents don't understand. They talk of voters whose educated and multi-qualified offspring are unable to find a job at a time when the economic crisis has turned into a social one.
An end to promises
The three setbacks raise serious questions for the monarch-president. Has Nicolas Sarkozy lost his magic touch; has the man who once said the French were "regicides" lost touch with reality; has he isolated himself, surrounded by courtesans and close advisers in his palace?
The signals are clear. "Sarko's" partisans do not dare criticise him or even give him bad news, fearing they will be rebuffed by the "omni-president". The president has not realise how damaging it is for his democratic image to have called his prime minister a mere collaborateur, to have ministries ruled by his advisers and UMP elders, to have MPs vote for bills crafted in the Elysée palace. Meanwhile, his forays to the outside world are even more stage-managed than before; during one factory visit, short workers were bussed from another plant so that he was not seen to be surrounded by taller people.
Sarkozy may take comfort in the fact that the media quickly tires of scandals. But the moment is worrying: a few months before regional elections, instead of being able to steal more votes from the opposition by blurring the lines between left and right, he has disorientated his own partisans and lost support on the far right (which helped him to win in 2007). His own personalisation of politics has catapulted him into every frontline, thus making him the only recipient of blame when things go wrong. It is perhaps the fate of would-be strongmen to be victims of their own hubris rather than of their crushed rivals. But is there anyone among the latter in contemporary French politics able to take advantage?
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