Good news for the French, good news for us: Nicolas Sarkozy’s impressive victory in this weekend’s French presidential election sounds the death knell of key components of French political exceptionalism.
GAULLISM AT HOME…
First, the Gaullist exception in both the domestic field and in international affairs has finally been done away with. Domestically, Gaullism has been terrible for the Right. In France, after 1945, the figure of General de Gaulle singlehandedly prevented the consolidation of a powerful and durable Christian-Democratic party as arose in Germany or Italy and as existed in Britain. Even after de Gaulle’s retirement, his legacy prevented the often-attempted establishment of a conservative, right-of-center party. This fragmented the center and the Right, and forced a general shift to the center. The Right was softened, which in turn enabled the rise of an uncouth ultra-right in the form of Jean-Marie Le Pen, whose National Front took a large part of the conservative electorate.
Furthermore, de Gaulle essentially established a pact with the Communist party, which paralyzed the political landscape: Against an erratic coalition of Gaullists and Communists, it was virtually impossible to effect significant change. For the better part of fifty years, the Communist-dominated unions were like a lead balloon burdening the body politic, a powerful lobby on behalf of corporatist status quo.
No figure comparable to that of Mrs. Thatcher ever rose to break the back of the unions, no figure remotely comparable to that of Ronald Reagan ever appeared to free the political system from the poisonous legacy of Gen. de Gaulle. Sarkozy’s ascent represents the consolidation of a genuine right-of-center force in French politics and the final vanquishing of the Gaullist exception.
In international affairs, de Gaulle repeatedly broke ranks with Atlantic solidarity; he tried to sunder NATO and flirted with Moscow. De Gaulle foolishly France, with him at it head, as the leader of an international “third way” in which the “non-aligned” and the Soviet bloc would join him. The Islamic world, Latin America, and Asia would heed his anti-American call. De Gaulle’s successors kept up that tradition, though with partial exceptions: President Pompidou improved relations with Richard Nixon somewhat; Socialist president Mitterrand supported Reagan’s deployment of the “euro-missiles” (but furiously opposed missile defense). Jacques Chirac turned out to be the most virulent hater of America, ready to go to almost any length to harm the U.S.
Sarkozy’s very first statement upon being elected pointedly emphasized a strong alliance with and friendliness toward the United States. This is an enormous change: For the first time since the strongly Atlantic-oriented Fourth Republic, Paris will not be anti-American. This does not mean that Sarkozy’s France will be “aligned” with, or a mere appendix of, American diplomacy — in his speech, Sarkozy first underlined that he was “a good European” and favorable to a stronger Europe. Rather, it means that Sarkozy’s France will stop trying to berate, harass, and scoff at the United States at every opportunity; that Sarkozy’s France will stop trying to lead a worldwide anti-American coalition, as was the case under the bumbling but tenaciously noxious stewardship of Jacques Chirac. The professional America-loathers at the French foreign ministry, the Quai d’Orsay, will have to watch their step. Israel will be able to count on a more level playing field and less Islamophilia. Washington can do business with Nicolas Sarkozy, whereas Chirac only wanted to do injury to America. The European Union can again envision a center-right French-German leadership that is not intent on pitting the EU against America.
THE END OF LE PEN
The second French exception that suffered a fatal blow Sunday is Jean-Marie Le Pen, a clever, oafish demagogue. By defying the politically correct denial that there was any problem at all with Muslim immigrants, with their wayward, violent, and inassimilable children, or with the ghetto-like “banlieues” — breeding grounds for drugs, criminality, and Islamic recruitment — Le Pen proved a powerful attraction for the popular electorate and dragged it away from the mainstream, which in turn strengthened the Left. Mitterrand and the Socialists underhandedly supported Le Pen so as to weaken the Right, which gave Le Pen an otherwise unattainable lease on life. The fact is that Le Pen’s strength was a mainstay of Socialist power. Deprived by Le Pen of more than 15 percent of the electorate, the Right was politically weakened; with Le Pen unwilling to engage in coalition politics except on his own terms, the conservative camp was in poor shape. The farce of the 2002 presidential election, where all the Left voted for Chirac — “the crook,” as they called him — in order to stop “the Fascist” Le Pen was the crowning tomfoolery of the French exception.
The portion of the popular electorate that supported Le Pen, at least 15 percent of the whole, had shifted over decades from de Gaulle to the Communists and then from the Communists to Le Pen. Sarkozy’s strategy, tested and steadfastly practiced over many years, much resembles Richard Nixon’s recapture of George Wallace’s electorate. Nixon did not deny, as the respectable elites did, that there were serious reasons for disaffection among blue-collar workers and disenfranchised whites. Sarkozy likewise stated the obvious, which the Chiraquist, as well as Socialist, elites were discounting — giving Le Pen, as a result, a monopoly on proclaiming that uncontrolled North African and West African Muslim immigration had created a massive problem; that the withdrawal of police and justice from the high-density clusters of immigrant and second-generation Muslims and the abandonment by the authorities of the poorer, lower-middle-class French had worsened the problem; and that some major policy-shift was urgent.
On the abhorrent basis of ideological racism and hatred for “foreigners” (he even badgered Sarkozy for his Hungarian roots), Le Pen recognized the Muslim problem and spoke up strongly about it. In so doing, he strongly contributed to the disintegration of the Communist party, which was once one of the most vigorous in Western Europe, with a quarter of the vote and a powerful grip on labor: Le Pen stole the Communists’ popular base. In the present election, Le Pen lost about half his electorate and the Communist candidate polled 2 percent of the vote.
The radical (Left or Right) hijacking of blue-collars has come to an end, even if various Trotskyites and Greens and sundry absurdists managed to siphon off about 10 percent of the total vote in the first leg of the election. In France, the fringe radicals are on the wane. Just as, in Germany, the CDU-CSU was wide enough a tent to include more nationalistic oriented voters, so it will now be in France.
THE END OF AN ERA
The exceptions of Gaullism, the Communist party, and Le Pen have been fatally weakened or eliminated altogether. The French body politic is ripe for a thoroughgoing reshuffle, and this is what will occur now. A new, post-Gaullist conservative pole will take shape around Sarkozy. Should the new president go to the country to acquire the parliamentary majority he needs, he would consolidate a five-year majority for himself, enabling him to implement what priorities he will select, which, if the campaign is any indication, will represent a pro-market inflection (not revolution) in the étatist policies of the French state.
The Socialist party will be torn by defeat, by the exhaustion of the ’68 generation, by the failure of the post-’68 (Ségolène Royal’s) generation to capitalize on even as calamitous a 12-year legacy as that of the pseudo-conservative Chirac. The moderate, more Social-Democratic types in the Socialist party have been signaling their willingness to deal with the center: Former Socialist government minister Bernard Kouchner, founder of the “French Doctors,” is now talking of joining François Bayrou’s new Centrist (Christian-Democratic) party. Claude Allègre, renowned geophysicist (and noted global-warming skeptic) and a former Socialist minister of Education, was spotted leaving Sarkozy’s offices a few days ago.
The grip of the “Sixty-Eighters” (soixante-huitards) on the political and cultural establishment and the complete connivance between Gaullists, Communists, and ’68ers on anti-American, anti-Israeli, anti-Christian, pro-Arab, pro-Muslim, pro-Russian, and pro-“third world” policies has now been seriously weakened. In his campaign, Sarkozy emphasized national identity and cultural roots (Judeo-Christian, Catholic, French, and Western) — subjects that drive the Left into fits of rage. The ’68ers idolized cultural relativism and multiculturalism; the new president has no sympathy for their shibboleths. The virtues he stresses and the vices he attacks have nothing in common with the worldview of the ’68ers.
With the end of its persistent and toxic “exceptions,” from the so-called French social model to the conceit of French international leadership, and with a new chief executive unburdened by these follies, France will join again the ranks of reasonably governed nations. Good news for the French, good news for us.
– Laurent Murawiec is a senior fellow with the Hudson Institute in Washington, D.C. His next book, The Mind of Jihad, will appear next year.