|Nicolas Sarkozy has finally declared his candidature. In one sense, this was a mere formality as the likelihood of the incumbent President not standing for re-election was vanishingly small. However, the impact of his declaration is likely to be more pronounced than one would expect from a simple confirmation of the obvious.|
Firstly, the announcement defines Sarkozy as a candidate, first and foremost, and then as an outgoing president. To date, he has played upon his position as incumbent Head of State to demonstrate his international presence, his qualities as a statesman, and an institution above the fray of mere party and electoral politics. As we have recently suggested on television, he has emulated the American Rose Garden strategy. The Cannes summit; the triple-A downgrade; the Afghanistan military tragedy – whilst unwelcome news for France and its population, and potentially harmful to Sarkozy’s policy stance, these incidents have nonetheless given Sarkozy an ideal stage upon which to play the role of President as France incarnate. Yet, whilst the polls showed some evidence of a rally towards the end of 2011 on the back of this tactic, the overall gains it provided on François Hollande’s lead were short-lived. Just as worrying, the gap between Sarkozy and Far Right candidate Marine Le Pen had not widened – quite the opposite, with Le Pen even overtaking the incumbent in certain social categories.
With diminishing returns from the statesman gambit, then, an exit from the Forbidden City of the Elysée is a strategic step as well as a paper exercise. That his timing is deliberate and considered is clear inasmuch as it departs from indications that he might well declare as late as March. Polling inertia, a call for his presence on the field from UMP cadres, and a need to engage with the realities of a campaign battle all recommended an earlier call.
Sarkozy the candidate needs to return to the electoral arena to fight his way back to power, in the way he fought his way to his first incumbency in 2007. The Figaro Magazine interview has already provided interesting clues as to how this political metamorphosis will occur. A first strategic shift is the move away from valence –e.g. competence, statesmanship or credibility– to divisive positional issues such as immigration, social welfare benefits or gay marriage, where electoral gains can be potentially made from higher ideological polarization. Sarkozy’s spurious attacks on the allegedly ‘pro-immigration’ positions of Hollande, or his re-launching the most controversial debate over opening shops on Sundays leave little doubt as to his intention to firmly occupy both the authoritarian and neo-liberal grounds in this campaign.
Headlining with ‘la France forte!’ – not, perhaps, the most captivating of slogans – departs from his previous Ensemble, tout devient possible, a promise of rassemblement which manifestly has not materialised. Instead, it delineates his primary objective – to cluster voters along well-identified ideological lines– and spans the triptych of values which provided the fanfare for his candidacy – ‘travail, responsabilité, autorité’ [work, duty, authority]. Juxtaposed with Hollande’s optimistic but somewhat oxymoronic Le changement, c’est maintenant, one would be hard pressed to find a more Nietzschean proclamation of success through self-empowerment and struggle.
As a value-set, it promises tough times, tough decisions – and shifts responsibility clearly onto the shoulders of the willing voter, and away from the executive. Comparatively, there are more than a few parallels to Cameron’s Big Society, despite Sarkozy’s proclaimed inspiration from the Germany of Merkel and of Schröder. Similarly to the British Tory concept, it sees a strong society’s future in upright citizens taking responsibility for the welfare of their communities, their families and themselves, backed by more effective regional and local representation – even if their budgets and headcount are to be cut – and popular initiatives. Moreover, it implicitly condemns those who cannot or will not live up to its aspiration. The French are therefore bidding farewell to the paternalist president who once claimed in Toulon that he would protect them from the “foolishness of the free market” and would “reform international financial capitalism”. While leaving it to the left and Marine Le Pen to fight over the ‘remains of the old world’, Sarkozy is inviting voters to this new land of economic opportunities called globalisation.
As a political vehicle, the ‘strong France’ slogan puts nation first, if necessary at the expense of individual and pluralist interests, and in opposition to some fundamental principles of representative democracy. Given Sarkozy’s well-known personal loathing for popular referenda, his sudden conversion to the delights of direct democracy can hardly be seen as a revival of the magnificent plebiscitary tradition in French Gaullism. Instead, it resembles the classic claim by right-wing populist demagogues that the ‘true’ will of the people is best expressed by bypassing all intermediary political bodies –i.e. parties, unions, councils and Parliament. More Boulanger than Bonaparte, then, Sarkozy is replicating his 2007 anti-establishment appeal, when he pounced on the country’s elite, ‘intellectuals’ and ‘self-righteous’ left imprisoned in their permissive ‘post-68’ ideology. Now that he has taken off his mantle of “president of the Rich”, he is striving to reconstruct himself symbolically as a candidate of the people against the political class.
And this is the third reason for focusing on his declaration. A French President represents tous les Français. It is why the absolute majority at the second round is symbolically so important. A French presidential candidate before the first round only needs to represent as many French voters as will secure victory, and in that mindset, Sarkozy has chosen to stay firmly on the Right. In 2007, analysts ascribed his victory in part at least to the support of a group of former (Jean-Marie) Le Pen voters. The emphasis on immigration and law-and-order appealed to the bouc-émissaire mindset of the reactionary, xenophobic Right. That this group would once again be targeted had become clear well before his declaration. Claude Guéant, the Interior Minister, alluded to a hierarchy of civilisations and cultures, with the support of many if not all in the UMP, including the President himself. Gay marriage was condemned as deleterious to family (as indeed is any Socialist amendment to the family tax benefits). The announcement of the values that would underpin an eventual campaign themselves embodied a hard Right approach. In all senses, and despite protests to the contrary, Sarkozy’s candidacy is exclusionary, in a way that an incumbent President would find impossible to sustain.
There is a fourth and final element to this reverse metamorphosis from president to candidate. Whether Sarkozy can garner some of the Far Right in the first round against Marine Le Pen, or secure many more by default, if her parrainages are not forthcoming, or even win the vast majority of these voters at the second round, the numbers do not add up. Undoubtedly comfortable in a coherent hard Right-wing enclave, nevertheless the centre-right of Bayrou, together with the Left bloc in toto, represent more than 50 per cent of the vote. As polls inch upwards for the post-declaration Sarkozy, and minor Right-wing candidates such as Christine Boutin and Hervé Morin stand aside – the two events not unlinked – the gap at the second round with Hollande remains double-digit. At some point soon, Sarkozy the man needs to turn away from the hard Right to address the centre ground. The Janus approach to canvassing is not uncommon for two-round systems. But in this case the difficulty of looking Left has been exacerbated by just how far Right the candidate has placed himself. Some see his eventual centrist tactic involving an appeal to economic management. Yet, in that area, his credibility is weak, particularly amongst the squeezed middle classes. Whether he can find another point of resonance based upon his worth as ‘the man for the job’ will come down entirely to his capacity to reinvent his image as an individual, rather than as a Head of State. As we noted in a recent debate on France 24, this might require also a little more humility.