Politics & Policy

Fear Factor

On Sunday, France will discover the cost of Nicholas Sarkozy's ice-cold feet.

The first round of the French presidential elections comes this Sunday, and not a minute too soon. What began as a great dialogue on the need for change in a country suffering from an overabundance of failed government policies has ended up as something more predictable in French politics: A traditional farce. If you need proof, here’s TF-1’s round up of the final day of the first-round campaign. By Monday, the country will know who the two final-round candidates for president will be.

The encouraging insistence on change that propelled the early days of this campaign seems to have come first from the French grass-roots. A half-century of growing a massive government as a means of buying electoral passivity has left France with a failing health system, a stagnant economy (a slight uptick in consumer spending not withstanding), an educational system and other public services in steep decline, a self-serving political class, and an entrenchment of cynicism as a permanent national political characteristic.

However, even all that may not have been enough to cause the French political sensibility to disturb itself if it had not been for the magical ingredient in this year’s campaign: The unsustainable fatigue of the public with their president and all he stands for. Jacques Chirac may be the most despised French president in the history of the Fifth Republic — fifty years old next year, ancient by French standards — and not least because he represents the dead end of a political system built on corrupt cronyism. By the time this year’s campaign began, the French had had enough of all that.

The first indication of rising frustration came two years ago with the overwhelming rejection by French voters of the EU constitution, widely seen at the time by the BBC, and everyone else, as a rejection not only of governmental sprawl but also of Chirac, who had made the “yes” vote a kind of personal referendum.

The surprising beneficiary of that vote was Nicholas Sarkozy, the UMP’s law-and-order interior minister, who had two things going for him: First, he was hated by Chirac. Second, he was hated by the Left. Those two enemies alone made him a friend to many French voters.

Long before he even bothered with gaining the nomination of his party, Sarkozy launched his drive for the Élysée with a hard-edged demand that he be given a mandate for change, a demand that he felt certain represented the feelings of many here. His abrasive personality was particularly apt: He ran as if petty issues like party nominations were simply ridiculous in French politics, and in that, he was right. Sarkozy created what the French love best in their political narratives: a logic that pointed toward success as the most satisfying conclusion.

As the race shaped up, however, Sarkozy began stepping back from all this. The entry of Ségolène Royal as the Socialist candidate changed Sarko’s trajectory by changing his style. He apparently thought the contrast between his crisp political manner and Ségolène’s dreamy wispiness — no matter that it was merely ineptness in a very pleasing disguise — was too sharp. Royal’s campaign has been built on an appetite for change, too, but it was not the fundamental change that Sarkozy’s campaign — and even more, his persona — suggested. Royal’s is the kind of change that begins and ends in rhetoric, the sort of change that announces transformation but alters nothing, the change that is now everywhere associated with the sentiment-rich and idea-free politics of the Left. Here’s a report from Libération on a typical Royal appearance: “A new political generation has arrived!” she shouted. The unasked question: Cool — so now what?

Left-leaning analysts thought people might be afraid of the kind of profound changes Sarkozy might bring. Royal’s early efforts to discover the depth of that fear were fruitless. But when Sarkozy began backing away from the big stuff and chasing trivial issues around the edges, it appeared he was afraid of serious change. Soon, Sarko was trying to out-promise Ségo, and ultimately, both candidates were offering more and more of the one thing the French didn’t want: more of the same. This week, l’Express reports, Sarko is suicidally campaigning with Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, the champion of the failed constitutional effort and perhaps the one politician in France who could rival the low esteem that voters have for Chirac.

Last January, the “centrist” candidate, François Bayrou, strolled into contention when he simply remarked that promises were being made on all sides that not only couldn’t possibly be kept, but that shouldn’t be kept. In the months since, he has sullied the campaign with a bizarre appeal to populism — wondering aloud about Sarkozy’s apparently unstable wife — but he has also proposed the one thing that really would mean lasting change in France: Closing the grandes écoles that for half a century have bred France’s malignant, self-perpetuating élites — people like Chirac, Villepin, and, of course, Royal. This caused the ruling class’s journal of record, Le Monde, to recoil in horror, arguing, perhaps unpersuasively, that what France really needs is “more senior officials.”

As the Financial Times reports, Royal and Sarkozy have countered Bayrou’s inherent appeal to populism with populist goop of their own — leaving Jean-Marie LePen, the uberpopulist of French politics, to fulminate about ridding the country of “oligarchy,” as France Matin reports. To their message of little-guy politics, the major campaigns have now introduced “serenity” as a transcendent theme, as the Times’ Charles Bremner observes. For those who hoped for an interesting — and useful — presidential campaign, there can be only disappointment: France has gone from the politics of change to the politics of Bobby McFerrin.

Bayrou will almost certainly fail to reach the final round, and that’s a pity. If polls such as those conducted by Ipsos are correct, it will be Royal chasing Sarkozy; Sarko will run with the limp he has now acquired, worried about appearing too mean, too harsh in the gloriously beautiful face of an airy Royal challenge. The result of that match-up will be more farce — a campaign built on a fear of real issues and articulated in yet more well-cushioned, over-promised meaninglessness.

Only a Bayrou-Sarkozy contest will force the center-left and the center-right to stake out genuine differences. Sarkozy trails in that projected contest, but what his campaign should be about — creating fundamental change — is best suited not only to his real personality but more importantly to a pursuit of a mandate for change. That’s the contest he should have been waging all along. It’s one he can win. And if this uncharacteristically clear-headed editorial in the Observer is correct, it’s the sort of change the entire continent could use at the moment. Unfortunately, the leader-writer, like Sarkozy, gets cold feet at the end.

Denis BoylesDennis Boyles is a writer, editor, former university lecturer, and the author/editor of several books of poetry, travel, history, criticism, and practical advice, including Superior, Nebraska (2008), Design Poetics (1975), ...

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