The Thatcher-Blair move to the right has finally hit France. In a campaign that played on fears of crime and immigration and vowed to trim social spending, Nicolas Sarkozy, with 53 percent of the vote, handily won the runoff presidential election against Socialist candidate Ségolène Royal. Sarko took two-thirds of neo-Fascist Jean-Marie Le Pen’s votes from the first round and, crucially, more of center-right candidate François Bayrou’s than did Ségo. Sarko has already been making deals with the latter’s MPs, assuring himself a victory in next month’s important parliamentary elections. Clearly, enough voters bought his conservative vision of a people who would look out for themselves rather than depend on a protectionist state. As in much of Europe, a part of the left’s vision has been left behind. Sarko could afford to sound presidential in his victory speech, assuring the French that he would defend all their interests and that no citizen would be left behind. But the country he will rule is far from unified.
As in Caesar’s time, all Gaul is divided into three parts. A third of the voters have been firmly for the Socialists, wanting to maintain France’s comprehensive welfare state and overall high standard of living. Another third is persuaded that Sarko is right in wanting to introduce neoliberal economic reforms. On the eve of the May 2 presidential debate, 19 percent were still undecided. These centrists agreed with Ségo on preserving the social safety net but were with Sarko on crime and immigration.
Ségo took a big gamble in their face-to-face confrontation, wanting to show that a woman could be tough and “presidential,” clearly hoping to provoke Sarko’s notoriously bad temper. She attacked him partly from the right, pointing to the recent rape of two policewomen, saying they should all be escorted home after work, a suggestion that Sarko (and presumably many others) scoffed at as being impracticable. Rather than seeming firm, to many she came across as a scolding schoolmarm, literally, telling Sarko to “do your homework,” though her own figures proved to be more inaccurate than his. The results the next day were devastating: The 66 percent of those who’d found her sympa (likable) before the debate fell to 53 percent, while the unlikable Sarkozy went up four points.
Neither candidate proved fully persuasive. Ségo defended the thirty-five-hour week, the great Socialist achievement, claiming it had added a million new shared jobs (most economists say a more accurate count is a third of that). Sarko didn’t dare attack the thirty-five-hour week directly, but he wants to encourage more overtime by cutting taxes on overtime pay. French employers have been reluctant to use their existing allocations of overtime, though, since they can find cheaper labor elsewhere. Auto workers in Slovakia, for example, make a quarter of French wages; now more cars are produced there per capita than anywhere else in Europe.
Sarko argued for tax cuts and debt reduction, the old Reagan refrain. Such cuts would affect all social programs and undermine French standards of economic equality, which are extraordinary, at least compared with Britain and the United States, the two rich countries where the well-being of children is the worst, according to UNICEF. Sarko, who has been caricatured in the French media in a Margaret Thatcher wig, proposes tax cuts that would go much further than hers, and certainly much further than outgoing President Jacques Chirac’s recent cuts, which were steeply regressive.
Other than a few protectionist asides by Sarko, neither candidate had much to say about the very real threats France faces from globalization. Nor did either have any persuasive ideas about the massive, now multigenerational, unemployment among France’s immigrants. Ségo’s famous suggestion of military training for delinquents, an incredibly expensive idea, seemed more attuned to persuading hesitant centrist voters than to solving the problem. At least she offered helpful suggestions on education, stressing the need for smaller classes in poorer school districts and more spending on education in general.
Although Sarko kept his cool in the May 2 debate, he continued to go off on bizarre rightist tangents just days before the election. Having earlier argued that pedophilia was genetic, he showed his contempt for the left by making impassioned speeches about the evils of 1968, which he argued had “abolished the difference between good and evil, between the real and the fake, between the beautiful and the ugly…. This election will decide whether its heritage continues or is banished forever.”
In the last days before the vote Sarko, a veritable Jekyll and Hyde, tried to look presidential. Well ahead in the polls, he talked about uniting all French people. Occasionally the mask slipped, as when he raised the specter of 450 million poor Africans flooding into France; he was still instinctively playing to the old Le Penist fears that worked so well for him in the first round of the election. Sarko’s backers feel he has now successfully integrated the far right into his camp, just as Socialist François Mitterrand undermined the Communists years ago.
Ségo’s last speeches argued that Sarko’s election might lead to more urban riots, and in fact, some rioting did occur. Many immigrants understandably fear and loathe Sarko, both for his rhetoric and because when he was Interior Minister he changed the old Socialist policy of neighborhood policing to one of aggressive, Giuliani-like stops and searches. The New York Times Paris correspondent did not seem to feel that this was a bad thing, but many French saw it as racist and counterproductive. They fear an even more divided country and speak of the military intervening if there are ghetto riots like those that erupted in 2005. The most pessimistic predict a new Battle of Algiers in the Paris suburbs.
A few minutes after her defeat, Ségo made a speech placing herself at the heart of future Socialist Party changes, something contested by many of the old leadership, who feel that she systematically sidestepped them during the campaign. Those who agree with her feel that the left, which has now lost three presidential elections in a row, simply cannot be elected without merging with the center, as it has done in Italy. Despite her missteps, Ségo did no worse than Lionel Jospin in 1995. Others will argue for a more unified left, one that has a far clearer message than Ségo’s. But thus far, it’s not clear what that would be.
On a beautiful sunny May Day, still a holiday in much of Europe, we watched the annual parade of at least 30,000 workers coming from the Place de la République, most wearing Stop Sarko stickers. Many carried banners protesting plant closings and downsizing. It was hard not to be touched by the hope that their way of life might still be saved from the great threat it faces. Under Sarkozy, we can be sure that they will lose much of their égalité and fraternité. Let us hope that their liberté is not diminished as well.