Home > Image, Anecdote, and Reality: Why Sarkozy Really Is to Be Feared
Image, Anecdote, and Reality: Why Sarkozy Really Is to Be Fearedby Open-Publishing - Sunday 29 April 2007
or, How LePen Made the Second Round in the Disguise of Sarkozy
By Patricia Alessandrini
I have yet to see a Sarkozy poster in Paris – or even just a sticker with his name on it – that has not been defaced within a few hours of being posted. The fear and resentment here in regard to Sarkozy, especially in working-class neighborhoods, is palpable. The French left credits the record highs in voter enrollment and turnout for the presidential election of April 22 to anti-Sarko sentiment.
“If it’s Sarkozy on May 6th, it will be war”(1), a youth from the suburbs is quoted as saying in reaction to Sarkozy’s strong showing in the first round of the presidential election, and many commentators are expecting a violent explosion throughout the country if he does indeed win the second round two weeks from now. But surprisingly, the reaction of the left abroad (especially in the United States) to the Sarkozy phenomenon has been mostly negative but rather blasé, certainly nothing like the international horror produced by the popularity of LePen in 2002.(2) For example, in Counterpunch, Diana Johnstone and Jean Bricmont have written:
the Sarkozy conversion, if it happens, will be only a surface event on a highly unstable and volatile social reality. The rebellious nature of the population makes it unlikely that any president will be able to impose his will, short of establishing a real dictatorship.(3)
So why is a large portion of the population here so worried? I think something can be learned from observing the images that have spontaneously arisen from the French consciousness, even the most hateful and spiteful among them. The violence of the characterizations of Sarkozy and their grave implications are by no means the result of a mass hysteria, or exaggerations made lightly by young and mischievous vandals, but rather arise from the bitterness created by Sarkozy’s actions in the past, and from a defiance in the face of the real dangers posed by his candidacy. I try to illustrate below how a reasonable evaluation of Sarkozy’s record leads to some very troublesome conclusions, which in no way contradict the various images of vilification that have accrued, in the hope that an international cry of outrage against a demagogue who opposes democratic principles might be raised, as it was in 2002. After all, if the result for LePen was much lower this time (11%, as opposed to 16.86% in 2002), it is because Sarkozy stole his rhetoric, and with it his votes; and if Sarkozy is elected, it will be thanks to the fact that 75% of LePen voters are expected to vote for him in the second round (so much for “the party of the working class”)(4). LePen posed a serious threat in 2002: the banalization of xenophobic, nationalistic, extreme-right rhetoric. Sarkozy poses a far greater danger today: the legitimization of this same rhetoric, and its execution in law. If the cry of shock from the French suburbs at Sarkozy’s 30+% receives no echo in the world, Sarkozy has already succeeded in the first goal.
Image no. 1: Authoritarian, “facho,” violent, capable of anything, out-of-control; a divider
The graphics: Two graffiti images of Sarkozy posters: the Hitler moustache (a long-time favorite for LePen) and dripping blood (i.e. red paint)
The anecdote: Sarkozy screams at a fellow minister, “I’m going to break your face, asshole!”(5) (The fact that it was the former Minister of “l’Égalité des chances” [Equal opportunities], Azouz Begag, who had criticized Sarkozy’s immigration proposals and his infamous statements about the “scum” of the suburbs, is not insignificant.)
The reality: The American left finds the label “fascist” unsophisticated, and seems to want to keep it in reserve for some unspoken evil yet to come. But if one wants to know why Sarkozy is so often called a fascist, rather than attacking those who use the term, one might begin by looking at what criteria might be in play. To begin with, if a fascist needs to have an ideology of an elite or superior race or class, Sarkozy has made no secret of his: genetic predestination of character traits, such as pedophilia and propensity for suicide.(6) If some people are born with such genetic “weaknesses,” it doesn’t take a huge logical leap to assume that others are innately superior. In practical terms, this has led to proposals by Sarkozy – as Minister of the Interior – to detect supposed criminal tendencies in the form of “behavioral problems” in young children, starting with nursery school (the maternelle, where children start at about 3 years old).(7)
Sarkozy’s campaign promise to create a Ministry of Immigration and National Identity doesn’t seem inconsistent with a fascist ideology either. As far as propaganda and demagoguery, there are ample examples to his credit (discussed further in the section below). Furthermore, a fascist would also necessarily show disrespect for the rule of law, an authoritarian approach to power as opposed to a democratic, participative model. There is evidence that Sarkozy’s authoritarianism is not limited to a personal lifestyle, and that he is not squeamish about breaking state and international law. He began his law-breaking as mayor of Neuilly, by refusing to conform to state regulations for low-income housing, earning the rich suburbs a mandatory fine. (LCR [Ligue communiste révolutionnaire] candidate Olivier Besancenot has made the reasonable suggestion that politicians who break these regulations should be banned from running for office in the future, starting with M. Sarkozy.) But his greater crimes have gone unpunished: as Minister of the Interior, he showed complete disregard for international law against the arbitrary treatment of immigrants by engaging in expulsion quotas and charter flights. On a national level, Sarkozy’s tenuous relation with the rule of law has put him into conflict on numerous occasions with legal associations and judges. In terms of the European Union and participatory democracy, Sarkozy would be likely to push through the passage of a constitution similar to that rejected by referendum in several member countries, including France.(8)
Image no. 2: The opportunist, propagandist, manipulator; more clever than intelligent
The graphics: More graffiti: devil’s horns and tail, the word “liar”; cartoon images as a moustache-twirling villain
The anecdotes: Sarkozy is reputed to have made his political career through calculation and sheer unbridled ambition, despite lacking the prestigious political education shared by most of his colleagues (he failed the Sciences Po – Institute for Political Studies – entry exam due to his sub-standard performance in English). He made nice to Chirac in order to insure his rise to power, and even dated his daughter, then betrayed him by supporting another candidate against him and eventually rallied support to take over the UMP party from the Gaullists (Chirac, of course, among them). When Paris Match published a photo of Sarkozy’s (then-estranged) wife Cynthia with her lover of the moment, Sarkozy allegedly called the owner – his friend Arnaud Lagardère – and had the editor fired.
The reality: For Sarkozy, the dissemination of information consists largely of manipulation, disinformation, and intimidation. The numerous allegations that he has prevented this or that book or article from being published may be difficult to prove (the latest controversy is over Serge Portelli’s recent book on Sarkozy, Ruptures, made available on the internet when a pre-election publication was refused), but his bullying of the press is public and in the open: according to Sarkozy, the very mainstream newspaper Libération contributes to criminality by criticizing him. This charge was made after the events in the in the Gare du Nord last month, when protests against the police and Sarkozy (crowds shouted “CRS [French riot police], SS” and other anti-Sarkozy chants) were followed by incidents of looting and destruction of property. Sarkozy prefers his own approach to informing the public about the facts of the case: he joined the new Minister of the Interior, François Baroin, in spreading misleading, grossly exaggerated, and simply false information about the criminal record and immigration status of the passenger whose brutal arrest sparked the protests.
Sarkozy’s information manipulation is intimately linked to policy and, as shown by the Gare du Nord case, the desire to crush all possible dissent in regard to it. Leftists who think that it would be relatively easy to resist oppressive measures under a Sarkozy presidency should look at the example of how Sarkozy managed to undermine the solidarity movement of parents, teachers, and school administrators against the deportation of immigrant children enrolled in French schools. As this popular resistance movement gained public support, both out of sympathy for plight of the children, admiration for those who fought to defend them, and notes of resemblance to the resistance under Nazi occupation, Sarkozy cynically proposed a regularization of status for the families of these children, supposedly according to objective criteria. Sarkozy carefully orchestrated the regularization process to run smoothly at first in critical areas of resistance, such as Paris, while families in less strategically important regions often faced a bureaucratic nightmare when applying. Once the publicity stunt worked, and the solidarity movement’s cause seemed to have been appropriated by Sarkozy himself, an arbitrary cut-off quota for regularizations was fixed behind the scenes, applications meeting the criteria began to be massively rejected, and the hunt for immigrant children resumed. The resistance has continued, as it must, but it is important to note that Sarkozy would not be likely to follow the same route of arrogant, intransigent inactivity that led Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin to his humiliating defeat at the hands of the labor-law protesters.
Image no.3: The little dictator, security freak surrounded by cops, future head of a police state
The graphic: A favorite photo of the anti-Sarko movement: a seemingly endless line of riot police in front of the UMP headquarters, just under the Sarkozy campaign slogan, “Imaginons la France d’après” [Let’s imagine the France of the future]
The anecdotes: Sarkozy’s campaign has been dogged by tales about hordes of police who accompany him, sometimes nearly outnumbering the people in the audiences he addresses.
The reality: Proving that the respect of the police for the public deteriorated during Sarkozy’s term as Minister of the Interior is like proving that water is wet while you are drowning: the evidence is all around you. You can watch a plethora of cell-phone videos showing a wide range of maltreatment at the hands of the police, mostly of young men in poor urban suburbs. The abuses range from the disrespectful use of the “tu” form of address to death threats (specifically, offers to share the fate of the two young men electrocuted when they hid from police in a transporter), while the latest example of physical abuse – filmed near Rouen in April - shows two young men in handcuffs being beaten and strangled. When one considers that this is only the tip of the iceberg, that most of the humiliation and abuse meted out by the police goes undocumented, one can easily understand how this society has become so polarized, to the point that some ordinary, law abiding citizens (particularly those living in areas where ID checks by the police constantly create tensions) hesitate to call the police because they are afraid of an overreaction, or have simply lost confidence in the enforcement of the law.
It is important to stress this latter point: law enforcement became more brutal but less efficient under Sarkozy, and violent crime in certain categories has significantly increased.(9) The Gare du Nord example is a stunning case in point: the police reaction to the original spontaneous, non-violent protests was enormous in terms of numbers, but at no point did the police try to close down the public entrance to the station, nor did they issue any warning to the passengers entering the station that something was going on, even once the violence began later in the day. Evidently mixing it up with the protesters is more important (or maybe more fun) than assuring the safety of passengers in a busy station with international train service. This is why largely disproportional numbers of riot police have been employed against such major threats to public safety as students sitting-in at the Sorbonne during the labor-law protests.
Image no. 4: The extreme-right revisionist, nationalist, xenophobe – in a word, LePen II
The graphics: Posters from the anti-Sarko campaign: the classic “Votez LePen” (with a picture of Sarkozy) of Act Up-Paris and the 9ème collectif des Sans-Papiers(10); a variation on the same theme, Sarkozy’s picture with the text “Votez Berlusconi”(11); and recently seen in the subway, pictures of Sarkozy and LePen with the Sarkozy campaign slogan, “Ensemble tout devient possible!” [Together, everything becomes possible!]
The anecdote: I start a conversation with a middle-aged man of North-African descent in a park in Strasbourg. He asks me if I would help him to write a letter to his wife at home: “Of course we speak in Arabic, but I can only write in French, and not very well.” A letter full of hope and promises that she and the children will soon join him in France. But in reality, he is depressed, nearly desperate. “I spend all day in their offices, for nothing.”
The reality: Sarkozy is a historical revisionist, denying any crimes against humanity committed against indigenous peoples in the course of French colonialism. While campaigning in the South, trying to gain votes from LePen supporters, he stated that only harkis and their dependents and the French who were forced to repatriate are owed apologies for France’s colonial past. "By what right does one ask the sons to repent for faults that often weren’t committed by their fathers other than in the imagination of those who profess repentance", Sarkozy blasted (not LePen, in case you lost track for a moment). (12) Too bad that doesn’t fall under France’s laws against revisionist denial of crimes against humanity.
Sarkozy didn’t just begin to espouse racist ideology for his campaign in the last few weeks or months. One year ago, in April 2006, Sarkozy claimed that one of the origins of the Fall 2005 riots was the regroupement familial (laws allowing immigrant workers to be joined by their spouse and children), especially when there are "five, six, seven" children. It is apparently also the cause of the housing crisis, "squats, ghettos", etc; he thus implies that the tragic deaths which occurred in 2005-6 in state-owned housing units were in fact the fault of the victims, because they shouldn’t have been there (i.e., in France) in the first place. Considering all of the problems that they cause, he feels that immigrants should at least take on certain "responsibilities", such as learning French. Here he adds a special list of what Muslims (although they are not named, it is perfectly clear) must "accept": cartoons will criticize their religion, women must appear without a veil in identity cards, and women should not have the choice to consult a female physician, because "It is not up to France to adapt to other cultures and other laws." What else is the fault of immigrants? Racism itself: in a stunning inversion of logic, he blames the imagined leniency of French immigration law (and by implication, supposedly unchecked immigration) for the rise of the extreme right (and thus for the success of his campaign…should he maybe be thanking immigrants?) and racial hate crimes.(13)
The connection between Sarkozy’s denial of the crimes of colonialism and his attacks on immigration crystallizes in his repeated targeting of the regroupement familial. These laws were a response to an example of domestic colonialism: the massive immigration of North African men to provide cheap labor during the waning post-WWII era of French colonialism. When young people in urban suburbs refer to systematic police harassment combined with a denial of access to opportunities in education and employment as colonialism at home, this is a reasonable assessment with a historical basis. Now Sarkozy – already responsible for toughening immigration law two times in the space of three years – wants to make proficiency in written French (with a test a little bit easier at least than the one in English he failed) a requirement for those – including children – who want to join family members living and working in France. This latest monstrosity evokes the shameful memory of indigenous peoples who were forced to learn to read and write French at the risk of remaining illiterate in their own languages – part of the colonial history that Sarkozy denies.
Which is why I was surprised to see Johnstone and Bricmont calling for the left to “overcom[e]… its own tendency to ‘hate France’ for its bad moments in history : colonialism and Pétain in particular.” There are times in history when it is not appropriate to say, “I love America”, or “I love Germany”; since Sarkozy has joined LePen in saying that immigrants must “love or leave” France, it is no longer an ethical act to say “I love France”, because the implication is that there may be an implicit “And you, immigrant, or son of immigrants, do you love the country that occupied your homeland, that tortured your countrymen? Yes or no?” tacked at the end, with grave consequences. And as for the ideals that “set France apart”, I’ll believe that France is as secular as, for instance, Spain once it recognizes gay marriage and not just a watered-down civil union [PACS], and as committed to equality as the rest of Western Europe when it has as many female members of parliament as any of its neighboring countries. Of course the left should value secularism (when it respects the religious practice of minority populations, which is not the case currently in France) and equality, but not as particularly French ideals, as French identification with these principles has serves both apologists of French colonialism (“We brought them Enlightenment ideals”, etc.) and current anti-Muslim sentiment. An example of the latter can be found in Sarkozy’s program, which has this sentence in bold under the title dealing with immigration, “I want to be President of a France proud of its values and of its identity”: “I will be intransigent concerning the respect of our fundamental principles, in particular equality between men and women, secularism, and free choice [of religion].” This might sound perfectly reasonable – although one wonders what all this has to do with immigration - were it not an only slightly veiled reference to the extreme-right theory of the “Islamification” of France, in which French people of all religions are well on the way to being forced to adhere to a conservative interpretation of Islam. This sounds like a paranoid fantasy, and it certainly is one, but it was also the backbone of the campaign waged by the Mouvement Pour la France candidate Philippe de Villiers, who placed sixth in the first round, thus ahead of both the Communist Party and the Greens.
Leftists abroad who do not recognize the dangers posed by Sarkozy’s candidacy, the extreme fringe elements that he represents, the violence of his discourse, and the real damage that he has already achieved in France, are guilty of looking away while racist, anti-democratic ideology becomes legitimized and carried out on a national and European level. The international left could, on the other hand, play a very useful role: remind French voters, especially Bayrou supporters who may be seduced by Sarkozy’s liberalism, that a Sarkozy victory on May 6 will be a giant step to realizing at least one of LePen’s dreams: the total isolation of France from the world. All the better for Sarkozy, who will have his hands full with dismantling the social system and waging permanent war against the urban suburbs.
- Patricia Alessandrini writes for the Atlantic Free Press. She lives and works in Paris.
(1) Libération, April 22, 2007
(2) I would site a “pro-reform” apology for Sarkozy from the April 23 edition of the New Yorker, “Round One” by Jane Kramer, but it’s hard to say that a piece which seems to have been ghost-written by Paul Wolfowitz is coming from the left.
(3)“A Coming Political Tsunami: The Elections in France”, Counterpunch (on-line edition), April 17, 2007
(4) The citation is also from the Johnstone – Bricmont article.
(5) “Je vais te casser la gueule, connard!” Azouz Begag recounts Sarkozy’s abuse in his recent book “Un mouton dans la bagnoire” (“A sheep in the bathtub”, a reference to Sarkozy’s televised comments suggesting that Muslims slaughter sheep in their bathrooms) published by Fayard.
(6) Views expressed in an interview with philospher Michel Onfray for Philosophie Magazine, available here: http://www.philomag.com/article,dia...
(7) Sarkozy quoted in the Parisien, November 11, 2005: ”Il faut agir plus tôt, détecter chez les plus jeunes les problèmes de violence. Dès la maternelle, dès le primaire, il faut mettre des équipes pour prendre en charge ces problèmes. Dès la maternelle ? Oui.” [“One has to take action earlier, to detect problems of violence among the very youngest [members of society]. From nursery school on, teams must be put in place to take care of these problems. From nursery school on? Yes”]
(8) See the Reuters article of Apr 19, 2007 by Paul Taylor, European Affairs Editor, “EU hopes for Sarkozy but fears his nationalism”
(9) Increases in violent crime have been largely reported in the French press; a thorough investigation of these statistics, as well as an account of attacks on civil liberties and the degradation of relations between the public and the police during Sarkozy’s term as Minister of the Interior, is given in the aforementioned “Ruptures” by Serge Portelli, expert on the French justice system. The book is available here: http://www.betapolitique.fr/spip.ph...
(10) The latter is an immigrant advocacy group. You can see the poster here: http://www.hns-info.net/article.php...
(11) You can see it here, as one of the top-five posters of an anti-Sarko contest: http://ns39947.ovh.net/~antisark/sp...
(12) “…de quel droit demandez-vous aux fils de se repentir des fautes que souvent leurs pères n’ont commises que dans l’imagination des professeurs de la repentance! “, cited in "Sarkozy flirts with those nostalgique for ’French Algeria’", l’Humanité, February 2007
(13) In an interview on the station TF1 on April 27th, 2006, which you can see on-line here: http://www.lemonde.fr/web/video/0,4...
(14) "Je serai intransigeant avec le respect de nos principes fondamentaux en particulier l’égalité entre la femme et l’homme, la laïcité, la liberté de conscience.", from the official platform mailed to all French voters.