Home > Sarkozy set to unleash new French revolution

Sarkozy set to unleash new French revolution

by Open-Publishing - Sunday 6 May 2007

Edito France FR - Presidential 2007

The right’s candidate could canter home in today’s election -but that will do little to heal deep divisions still raging in France. As hope for Socialist Segolene Royal slips away, Jason Burke finds a nation polarised

The scruffy streets outside the campaign headquarters of Nicolas Sarkozy, the right-wing candidate apparently set to sweep to power in elections today, were calm. The multi-coloured, multi-ethnic market on the Rue Strasbourg Saint Denis nearby was not. Amid the shoppers hunting the perfect brie, warm pain de campagne or fresh okra, a lone activist broke the official ban on campaigning this weekend to distribute leaflets for Segolene Royal, the Socialist candidate, in Paris yesterday. ’It’s more in hope than in anticipation,’ she admitted glumly.

Royal has trailed Sarkozy in a hundred consecutive polls and is unlikely to make up the six to nine points that separate the two candidates. With 44 million Frenchmen and women heading for the polls, it looks very much as if Sarkozy’s mix of promised radical change, economic liberalism and outright hard right populism has brought him victory - and possibly by a significant margin.

There is still a chance of an upset. Polls in France have been badly wrong before and 14 per cent of the voters, enough to swing the election, were apparently still undecided last night. But Sarkozy, 52, one of the most controversial and divisive figures of recent French political history, remains likely to replace outgoing President Jacques Chirac at the Elysee Palace. His slogan throughout months of campaigning has been ’Together, everything becomes possible’.

’That... is the least you can say,’ muttered Loïc Delaurens, 29, a newspaper seller near the Place de la Republique in Paris, who voted Communist in the first round of voting two weeks ago. Sarkozy’s team has already started working on the formation of a government and planning legislation, sources close to the former Interior Minister admitted. ’We’ll get the parliamentary elections out of the way [in six weeks] and then really get moving,’ said one member yesterday.

The campaign has been extraordinarily bitter, reflecting a polarised and divided people who know they are making a historic choice between very different individuals and very different programmes. ’If Sarkozy has the will and the ability to turn his announced policies into reality, he will turn France upside down,’ said Ivan Rioufol, a leader writer at the right-wing Le Figaro newspaper. Royal, 53, also provokes fierce emotions, attacked by the right as an incompetent spendthrift representative of an unreformed left responsible for decades of cultural, social and economic decline. But the career politician, daughter of an army officer and educated at elite universities, remains far less controversial than her rival, the son of an immigrant seen as an outsider even by the establishment right.

For those who are voting against him, Sarkozy, whose electoral strategy has been to hunt votes amid the third of French voters who profess a ’sympathy’ with the ideas of the extreme right, is ’the abomination of abominations’. ’This is a man who shook the hand of George Bush, who will destroy the French social model, who will institute a police state,’ said Geraldine Chene, a Lyon-based Socialist activist. ’We hate him and all he stands for.’

Sarkozy’s uncompromising statements on immigration are behind much of the fierce emotion he excites. Lilian Thuram, the French football star, has vociferously attacked Sarkozy’s ’racist’ rhetoric. He told The Observer yesterday he hoped that ’if Sarkozy is President he has the wisdom to find the words to unite the French’. Key public figures, such as the former tennis player and singer Yannick Noah, have pledged to leave the country in the event of his victory.

’You would think we were on the brink of civil war,’ said Jacques Marseille, an author and historian.

For Mohammed Chirani, 29, who is walking across France to call for unity among his fellow citizens, ’the election has crystallised all the faultlines that divide the nation. I’ve never seen so much fear and hate. I’m not optimistic for the country, whoever wins.’

And though Royal’s claims last week that a Sarkozy victory would lead to ’violence’ were dismissed as scaremongering by her opponent’s media team, significant social strife is likely if he wins. Many local mayors in areas where tensions are already high - Sarkozy is hated in many of the poorest housing estates in France for having described delinquents as ’scum’ - are planning heavy police deployments tonight.

There is talk too of a ’third round’ of the election in the streets. France’s powerful unions last week vowed a trial of strength with Sarkozy who, through his plans to modify France’s legally enforced 35-hour week, labour laws and expensive welfare model, is seen as the living incarnation of ’the excesses of American-style capitalism’.

’If Nicolas Sarkozy thinks that if elected he will have the right to push through all the reforms that he has announced, whatever the unions think of them, then he is making a big mistake,’ said Bernard Thibault, the general secretary of the CGT, France’s biggest union.

If Sarkozy wins, his likely Prime Minister is Francois Fillon, a former minister and senator reviled by the left for his controversial pension reforms five years ago.

There is still a chance that the ’anyone but Sarko’ alliance might have scraped together enough votes for Royal to win. Despite his final declarations on Friday promising unity, Sarkozy scares many. ’Normally I wouldn’t vote for either of them, but the man’s thirst for power disgusts me,’ said Bruno Romain, 30, a Parisian jobseeker as, with an estimated 23 million others, he watched the tense televised debate between the candidates last week.

But Royal - hindered by a lack of ideological coherence and a quarrelsome and jealous Socialist party - has failed to convince France’s restive working classes that she has the answer to their concerns about international economic competition, immigration and decreasing household incomes. Sarkozy’s efficient campaign, specifically targeted at winning over the 11 per cent of voters who backed veteran extreme-right leader Jean-Marie Le Pen, tapped into the spirit of much of the nation. It is in the old mining towns, the semi-rural zones on the periphery of the major cities, in the south and east, that Sarkozy has won most votes - helped by high unemployment, sluggish economic growth and a profound cultural identity crisis in the face of a globalised economy dominated by ’Anglo-Saxons’.

Though Sarkozy’s voters tend to be old, he has won over the young too. ’We are losing all the values in this country, no one values the family, work, the nation any more,’ said Romain Mollica, 19, a student in Marseille watching Sarkozy speak. In Metz, Camille Goyot, 21 and at her first political rally, told The Observer France needed ’a strong leader’ who would get ’the lazy and pessimist French working again’. In Lyon, locals in one poor area talked of ’getting France back on track’. For one 73-year-old man watching Sarkozy visiting a mining museum in staunchly conservative Alsace ’women have too much power’.

For the campaign, Sarkozy dropped radical proposals on positive discrimination and state financing for mosques. His speeches, with their references to Joan of Arc and Napoleon and bloody military victories such as Verdun, their rejection of guilt for collaboration with the Nazis, and their unapologetic insistence that those who do not want to conform to French values can always leave, have struck home.

Even among those worried by Sarkozy’s nationalism, his dislike of criticism or his taste for power, there are many attracted by his individualist, meritocratic message, whether defined as being able to choose a school, work longer hours or fire and hire more easily. In Chaumont in the Haute-Marne, The Observer found scores of small businessmen - restaurateurs, shopkeepers - ready to vote for lower taxes and less social protection.

’Sarkozy’s support bridges any theoretical divide between haves and have-nots,’ said Jacques Levy, a political geographer at Lausanne University. ’He has won over the traditional economic bourgeoisie and has got the working classes back from the National Front.’ There is also support in communities of immigrant origin. ’We are sick of being parked in high-rises like victims,’ said one 29-year-old man in Marseille. ’He’ll shake things up and allow us to stand on our own two feet.’ Sarkozy’s young spokeswoman Rachida Dati, a judge whose parents were born in North Africa, is likely to be an early ministerial appointment.

Yet Socialists such as Jean-Louis Tourai, deputy mayor of Lyon, had yet to give up hope yesterday. He said Royal was the only person to heal France’s bitter divides. ’There are those who have faith in the future based in a positive vision of humanity and its evolution. Then there are those who fear the future, who want to return to a mythical past where these supposed traditional values prevailed. France is choosing between two ways of seeing man and his place in the world.’