With less than a year and a half to go before the next French presidential election, and current President Nicolas Sarkozy at 35% popularity, could France end up shifting further to the right? The possibility is a good one. Sarkozy won the 2007 race by largely borrowing from the right-wing Front National party’s platform on everything from immigration reform to national security. Keeping in mind that French presidential elections usually consist of two rounds of voting (if no one party gets 50% of votes in the first round), with other parties throwing their weight behind one of the remaining two parties in exchange for concessions and government positions, Sarkozy beat Socialist Segolene Royale in 2007 because he nabbed right-wing and centrist party votes after the first round, which put him over the top in the second and final vote.
The advantage Sarkozy had in 2007 is that he had never been given the chance to be in charge. He always had to dodge the long shadow of his party’s leader, Jacques Chirac, whom few outside of France (or even in France) could ever legitimately label right-leaning or laissez faire. Chirac spent his mandate importing his beloved Africa into France one Muslim immigrant at a time, appreciating the various resulting cultural manifestations such as bar-b-cueing Citroens as a form of public debate, and taking advantage of various sanctions imposed by the world community on dodgy regimes like Saddam Hussein’s to enjoy market monopoly free of any legitimate competition.
Sarkozy was supposed to be a break from all that. But then something got in the way: France. The Economist, having hailed Sarkozy as the new Napoleon, recently called him the “incredible shrinking president”, and criticized him for not following through on his good ideas. The criticism came from the right, not from the left. The result of gridlock or inaction is maintenance of the status quo, which in France is nanny-state left. And this isn’t what a majority of French voted for when they elected Sarkozy.
A summary of the disappointments:
*Sarkozy pushed DNA testing legislation through parliament to ensure actual relation between family reunification immigrants. But when the bill had passed and was ready to be signed, he told his minister not to.
* After running a campaign emphasizing cultural integration and the secular nature of the French state, Sarkozy sent his prime minister – the head of French government -- to open a new mosque during which he made warm declarations about Islam.
* While the value of the Euro is on a roller-coaster ride because some member countries can’t sort out their own messes to the point of just failing and requiring a bailout from others, Sarkozy has been spending his time strong-arming German Chancellor Angela Merkel into coughing up German productivity to help out the deadbeats. Some French don’t understand why they should be forced to pay for Greeks to riot.
* A presidential campaign emphasizing meritocracy has given way to parachuting friends and relatives, and firing critics in both the private and public sectors. The fact that Sarkozy has referred to himself, in various contexts, as the “head of human resources” probably doesn’t help.
* French companies and factories are disappearing from the landscape and setting up shop overseas. Rather than reducing taxes and gold-plated benefits all around and explaining to people that not doing so will choke off their livelihood entirely, Sarkozy just offered the companies goodie-bags* (*cash). Most normal people can’t fathom handing over a wad of money to their significant other without being considered crass, so imagine the reaction of an entire population when money is given to big business – and the money doesn’t come from the giver but rather from other people’s pay checks. “The French should be used to that,” you might say. But no, the French aren’t used to seeing it done that overtly. When their pay checks are stolen from them by the State, it is done underhandedly in the interest of “benefits”, making them think they’re getting something back, or at the very least that it’s going to their employer: the government. In this case, it’s just shooting down a tube directly into other people’s hands.
This is not to say that Sarkozy hasn’t made a dent. He’s planted the seed of change in France, such as getting the French used to the idea of working two years longer – which shut down the country in itself. But the change promised in 2007 hasn’t yet become a reality to the extent it was perhaps anticipated by voters.
So what are these voters to do? Well, this time, they have an alternative that’s as right-leaning as Sarkozy’s UMP party in theory, and perhaps may actually be more so in practice: therein lies the real difference between the two. The Front National party, led by Jean-Marie Le Pen, is set to be taken over in the coming weeks by his 42-year old lawyer daughter, Marine: a smart, tough, articulate lawyer and mother with a knack for leading debate and appealing directly to the people over the heads of the elites. In a recent example, she criticized Muslims who flood into the streets and jam entire blocks of public space to conduct their prayers to Allah as “occupying”. A flood of denouncements came from all other parties, along with threats from various minority and ethnic interest groups to take legal action against the remark. A Socialist Party leader conceded that the phenomenon is indeed a problem – while everyone else living in the real world and having to manoeuvre around these sessions can actually see that it is. French people are now supporting Marine Le Pen in record numbers (27% versus Sarkozy’s 35%).
So let’s imagine a scenario that could very well occur if Sarkozy’s popularity continues to decline or remain low. If, in the first round of 2012 presidential voting, Sarkozy’s right-leaning base votes against him and in favour of the Front National (in protest or otherwise), the centrists vote for their own various candidates and divides the center-right, and the left rallies around the Socialist Party, this could result in a second round race between the Front National and the Socialist Party. And while centrists may side with the Socialists, the right and traditional UMP voters would rally around the Front National.
In a country where a presidential candidate can go from 65% popularity to tanking with 18% in the first round of voting (Prime Minister Edouard Balladur in 1995), it’s not unfeasible to imagine the possibility of France now moving further right.