The Sarkozy Revolution of the French New Right
16 mai 2012
The history, agenda, and future of ‘Sarkozysm’.
Nicolas Sarkozy’s 2012 presidential campaign has often been depicted as extremist by mainstream US media. He embodies a turning point in French right-wing history. He represents the French version of what was called the “New Right” in the US during the Reagan Revolution of the 1980s and in the UK during the Thatcher years. However, unlike Thatcherism or Reaganism, Sarkozysm is not a political ideology based on a set of ideas. Rather, it is a new way of being involved in French politics through a new political language and a new political strategy whose aim is to gain power, to retain or to regain public approval, and to remain in power. The main difference between what we could call a French “Old Right” and Sarkozy’s “New Right” is that the latter defines itself as a right-wing movement that defends conservative beliefs openly and without reservations. In France it is termed, “la droite décomplexée”.
The French Right-wing: Another French exception
Before Nicolas Sarkozy became the leader of the main French right-wing party, the Union for a Popular Movement (UMP), in 2004, no leader of the French right-wing (Charles De Gaulle, George Pompidou, Valéry Giscard d’Estaing or Jacques Chirac) had identified himself as purely conservative. That is certainly a French exception. So how can it be explained?
During the French Third Republic (1875-1940) and Fourth Republic (1946-58), the Republican movements presented themselves as the heirs of the French Revolution and won the battle of ideas against conservative forces. The Republicans considered themselves to be on the right side of history. They thought that the French right-wing had committed “original sins” against the French republican regime by supporting every anti-republican ideology or group in France such as the monarchy, Bonapartism, the Church, the Vichy Regime during the WWII, and the Collaboration with Nazi Germany. Left-wing movements always suspected those in the right-wing of being ambivalent towards the Republican regime and of being tempted by anti-republican positions even in the most recent decades.
This specific situation had two big consequences for the French political landscape. Firstly, before 2004, the French right-wing suffered from a psychological complex regarding the Republican regime. Secondly, as right-wing parties did not really dare to state their conservative beliefs openly, Jean-Marie Le Pen’s far-right filled this political vacuum when the left-wing was in power during the Mitterrand presidency (1981-1995). There was thus an unoccupied political territory between the centre-right of the French political spectrum (the “old right”) and the far-right. This is the place that Sarkozy’s New Right wanted to colonize in the 2000s by relying on a genuine conservative stance.
The Sarkozy Revolution: A new political language
The first symptom of the “Sarkozy Revolution” is the adoption by Nicolas Sarkozy and his followers (the Sarkozysts) of a new political language, supposed to be more “mean street-friendly”. In this way, they actually wanted to break with the language of two kinds of French elites. The first being the elite technocrats graduated from the ENA (Ecole nationale d’administration) who are still viewed as the symbol of the French political elite and whose language is not always understandable by ordinary people. The second being the elite of “opinion leaders”, often described by Sarkozysts as “bobos” (bourgeois bohemians). These are centre-right or centre-left politicians, journalists, columnists, pundits, pollsters or advocacy groups. They generally share common values based on cultural and economic liberalism, tolerance, multiculturalism, or pro-European and pro-globalization stances. However these values are not always shared by ordinary folk and especially blue collar workers whose beliefs are often described by members of these elites as racist, xenophobic, protectionist, eurosceptic, narrow-minded, misogynistic or old-fashioned. In the Sarkozysts’ view, this “bobo” way of thinking adds to the appeal of the far-right’s speeches, especially among blue collar workers.
Sarkozy’s followers were consequently influenced by Jean-Marie Le Pen’s strategy that consisted of breaking with political taboos. Moreover, both during his mandate as minister of the interior and as president, Sarkozy adopted a strategy of “zero tolerance” towards events that could affect public opinion. Whenever there was a child murder or upheaval in a poor suburb, he reacted instantaneously by making statements, going to the place where the event occurred and enacting new legislation. His aim was to convince French people that he cared about their everyday problems and that he was ready to devote all necessary means to tackle them. This strategy also seeks to draw media attention, and was criticized on the grounds that commitments were mostly not followed up with adequate decisions or financial support. “On-the-hoof” reactions to any and every event that takes place, does not make for “good” policy.
The “Sarkozy Revolution” also had its drawbacks. The first was related to his image as a “hyperpresident” who was omnipresent in the media and in the public debate. The second was what the left-wing parties called the “rich people’s president” and the “bling bling president”. The third was that especially in the beginning of his presidency, Sarkozy did not respect the common practice of French presidents to keep their private life separate from public affairs. Seen in this light, Sarkozysm can be described as a populism driven by the temptation to profit from the cleavage between the people and the elites, although Nicolas Sarkozy himself embodies the French elite.
The Sarkozy Revolution: A new political strategy
The other symptom of the “Sarkozy revolution” is the implementation of a new political strategy. Sarkozy actually drew lessons from a series of difficulties and electoral defeats the French right-wing had faced since the end of 1980s. In 1988, the incumbent president François Mitterrand defeated Jacques Chirac, the main right-wing candidate and the incumbent prime minister. Seven years later during another presidential campaign, the neo-Gaullist party–the Rally for the Republic (RPR)–was sharply divided between Jacques Chirac and Edouard Balladur, the then incumbent prime minister, since both were standing for election as members of the same political party. Another political shock for the right-wing parties was the 2002 presidential election. While Jacques Chirac, the incumbent president, won a landslide victory against Jean-Marie Le Pen in the second round of the presidential election, he had polled very few votes in the first round.
Sarkozy drew three main lessons from these events. First, he thought that he needed a unified political party to win. That is the reason why he chose to take the lead of the UMP in 2004 instead of simply becoming a member of the government.
Second, like Margaret Thatcher who wanted to break the “consensus” on economic and social policy between the Labour party and the Tories at the end of the ‘60s, Sarkozy called for a break with what he described as an absolute opposition to change by his predecessors (he called it “immobilisme”). He believed there was consensus between the Socialist Party (in power with Lionel Jospin between 1997 and 2002) and the “Old Right” of Jacques Chirac (in power between 1995 and 2007) on the wish to postpone structural reforms which in his view were essential for the country’s future. He concluded that in spite of the unpopularity of such reforms, he had “to do the job” by advancing a reform agenda and making hard choices in order to stop France’s decline.
During the 2012 presidential campaign he explained that he “has done the job” in terms of reforms: pension system, university system, justice, the structure of the State with the reduction in the number of civil servants, among others. Sarkozy thus embodied what we called in France a “volontarisme politique” (a “political voluntarism”). He explained that he intended to tackle every problem. However, his low approval rate in opinion polls has been the consequence of the enactment of those unpopular reforms. Some right-wing politicians and pundits also considered that Sarkozy had been too cautious in applying structural reforms, and finally that his policy was in the footsteps of Jacques Chirac and those of the old-right.
Third, Sarkozy thought that he could only win the 2012 election on a conservative stance. Back in 1965, Charles De Gaulle declared that France was neither a left-wing nor a right-wing country (Interview on French TV, 15 December 1965). However, after the student riots in May 1968 and during the George Pompidou presidency (1969-74), the neo-Gaullist party became more and more conservative. This rightist trend strengthened during the 1980s when Sarkozy began his own political career. As the socialist-communist coalition came to power in 1981 for the first time since the beginning of the Fifth Republic (established in 1958), right-wing parties voiced harsh opposition to a political program whose aim was to break with the capitalist system. During this decade, the French right-wing embraced the new global direction of Western right-wing parties under the influence of Reaganism and Thatcherism, by adopting a program that was tough on law and order and immigration, and conservative in economic and social affairs. Finally, the French right-wing parties had to face a new political competitor with Jean-Marie Le Pen and his populist stance on immigration and law and order issues. Although the French right-wing parties did not openly declare their conservative beliefs, they were de facto conservative parties.
Sarkozy inherited this “conservative framework” when he became the UMP leader in 2004. Moreover, there have been two political traumas in France since the beginning of the 2000s that have encouraged Sarkozy to choose the “rightist way”. The first was, of course, the initial round of the presidential election in April 2002 when Jean-Marie Le Pen arrived in second position. The second was the victory of the “no” vote in the referendum on the European Constitution in May 2005.
In Sarkozy’s mind, the French people, and especially what he, like Richard Nixon, often calls the “silent majority”, are more conservative than we are used to thinking in France. He also believed that he must listen, understand, and convince voters who chose to vote in favor of the National Front or the “no” vote in the 2005 referendum. For him, the politicians’ deafness towards what he called the “people’s cries” (Le Monde, 8 December 2009) nurtured the French “angry white male’s” temptation to support extremist parties. So he considered that winning on a more centrist stance as Chirac did in the past, was no longer possible after 2002 and that he could only win on a conservative stance, especially on law and order, immigration, work, gay marriage, and the support of this “France du non”. This is exactly what he has done in his 2012 campaign.
Consequently, just like Thatcherism or Reaganism, Sarkozysm brought about a huge political polarization in France. Sarkozy’s policy was thus often described as extremist, divisive and unfair, especially by the left-wing parties. These parties felt that Sarkozy had adopted the far-right’s extremist ideas on law and order, immigration, Islam or national identity, and Le Pen’s strategy towards blue collar workers. They also explained that the French president’s policies tended to increase the divisions in French society.
All Sarkozysts now?
Will Sarkozysm become a sustainable trend in the French ideological landscape even after Sarkozy’s recent electoral defeat? It was a predicted defeat, but Sarkozy’s conservative stance polled much more votes in the second round than was predicted. For this reason, the UMP could be tempted to follow this Sarkozyst line in the future. Moreover, the victory of François Hollande, the socialist candidate, could confirm the “Sarkozy revolution”. Although Hollande’s success in this election relied on an anti-Sarkozyst stance, as president he will certainly face lots of constraints, especially Europeans and fiscal ones, which will limit his ability to implement his political program. In the end, Hollande will probably be forced to apply a kind of “Sarkozysm with a human face”, just as Tony Blair did when he came to power after the Tory political dominance in the UK. Peter Mandelson, a former minister and adviser to Tony Blair, exclaimed to The Times in June 2002 that “we are all Thatcherites now!” In that case a French Mandelsonmight also say one day: “we are all “Sarkozysts” now!”…