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France’s Mrs Thatcher?

Elections are incredibly symbolic political events and no more so than in France. While groups of the French Left were celebrating the election victory of the Socialist candidate Francois Hollande in Place de la Bastille; the home of Right, Place de la Concorde, was empty. Exit Sarkozy. Nicolas Sarkozy was, for the first time since 1945, an unashamed President of the Right in France, campaigning in his successful 2007 presidential bid for a ‘rupture’ from France’s ‘failed’ economic and social model. Sarkozy saw his mission as reviving France from the mediocrity of the Jacques Chirac years by implementing unequivocal Rightist ideas. It is no wonder that Hollande has vowed to be a ‘normal president’. Hollande’s platform in many respects was defined through negation; he was going to roll back Sarkozyism. Indeed, Hollande is the figurehead for a cultural phenomena that has been germinating in France known as anti-Sarkozyism. Hollande is avowing to return France to normalcy after a period of five years of rupture. But what is it that was so ‘exceptional’ or different about Sarkozy’s presidency? Is it the self-styled ‘hyper-presidency’ that constitutes the aberration or something more fundamental in his ultra-conservative dirigiste ideology?

As it stands, Sarkozy remains one of the most unpopular and controversial presidents of France’s Fifth Republic. He is the first French leader not to be re-elected for a second term since Valery Giscard d’Estaing in 1981. His ‘Bonapartist’ policies and personality only ever appealed, at most, to half of the French nation. Like other dominant politicians of the European Right, he was unashamedly critical of the Left’s failures. Like Mrs Thatcher, he despised the more ‘moderate’ and ‘spineless’ members (i.e. Jean-Pierre Raffarin, Dominique de Villepin, Alain Juppé) of his own Party, Union pour un Mouvement Populaire (Union for Popular Movement, UMP).

Sarkozy was presented, perhaps unfairly, as the ‘President of the rich’ after taking illegal cash donations from the heiress to the L’ Oreal fortune, Liliane Bettencourt, and a penchant for yachts, expensive watches and glamorous parties. From this perspective, it is no wonder he was dubbed ‘President Bling Bling’. When Carla Bruni, his Italian supermodel spouse, suggested that her and Sarkozy were ‘modest, simple folk’ they were mocked and derided, both on the Left and the Right, mercilessly. Whilst an important and overlooked aspect of politics, this is all presentational. Sarkozy is largely a signifier for a collection and ensemble of ideas that have revived a Right wing populism in France. So, what are these ideas and did these ideas change the ‘climate of opinion’ or mentalitie of France?

In an interview with Le Figaro on 17 April 2007 Sarkozy suggested that he was going to try and engineer a political hegemony out of ideas from the Right: ‘I have made [Antonio] Gramsci’s analysis mine: power is won by ideas. It is the first time a rightwing politician has fought on that ground.’ Arguably, this attempt at building a hegemony out of Sarkozyism failed as of yesterday with the first election victory for the Socialists since 1988. Some of have suggested that Sarkozy’s conservatism resides not in a belief in the iron law of the market, as many conservatives in Britain and the US adhere to, but in the power of the state. The French presidential election of 2012, unlike the election in the US between a Mitt Romney pro-market restorationist Republican ticket or a Obama neo-Keynesian Democratic ticket, was between a dirigisme (and ‘austerity’) of the Right and a dirigisme (and ‘growth’) of the Left. Sarkozy’s estatisme was a reaction, albeit an unconvincing one, to the crisis of finance in 2008 and the ensuing global recession. In response to the global financial criss, Sarkozy, unlike Anglo-American conservatives, promised to punish speculators and advocated an ‘active state’ in the economy. However, if one goes back to the glory days of Sarkozyism he was offering a French Thatcherism! Indeed, George de Menil, author of Common Sense: Pour débloquer la société française, suggested that the Thatcher reforms of labour markets were a source of inspiration to the Sarkozyists. Sarkozy, in his high-charged first hundred days, introduced a fiscal package implemented by the Fillon Government, which introduced a more flexible work contract, making it easier to hire and fire. Furthermore, it promised to reform the Jospin Government’s 35-hour week, by relaxing the cap and altering the tax system to encourage overtime (paid 25% higher than normal hours in all companies) and home-ownership. Sarkozy also gave generous tax cuts to the wealthiest in France through almost complete elimination of inheritance tax and a tax shield of 50% on income tax. The retirement age was raised from 60 to 62, which President-elect Hollande plans to reverse. Sarkozy granted the universities more fiscal autonomy, which some saw as an attack on public education and the unfair enforcement of higher fees and tougher entry requirements. The fiscal package is called loi TEPA, referring to the law in favour of labour, employment and purchasing power. Ideologically, the series of measures addressed reducing the fiscal burdens on businesses, liberalising the labour market and avenues for stimulating investment.

Like Thatcherism, Sarkozyism was deeply anxious about national decline, decline caused by restrictive labour practices, high taxes, uncompetitiveness, powerful trade unions and a bloated public sector. Unfortunately, unlike Mrs Thatcher, the French are more hostile and anxious of change than the British and the climate of opinion, because of the onslaught of the financial crisis and the crisis of neo-liberal capitalism, was not with the French Right. But, like Mrs Thatcher, he was loathed and detested by a substantial proportion of the French population. The intellectual Left loathed him. The Marxist thinker, Alain Badiou, saw Sarkozy as a representation of the Fascist, ‘Pétainist’ tendency in France. His election victory in May 2007 is a manifestation of surrender to the historical current of counter-revolutionary reactionary conservatism (incepted in 1815), which is nothing more than a fear of disorder and chaos. Badiou, using one of Freud’s patient nicknames, called Sarkozy ‘Rat Man’. Nevertheless, Sarkozy had his supporters, but these were weakened by a revival of support for the Socialists and a continuing strong showing for the Front National under Madame Le Pen.

So, what was Sarkozyism? It was broadly consistent with the Gaullist principles of the primacy of law and order, which is explicitly evinced in his attitude towards the rights of immigrants, strikes and, towards the end of his presidency, Islam. In the election campaign he stressed the virtues of work, family and national identity. It believed in a strong and concentrated role of the state in social affairs. It was, as is contemporary conservative ideology on economics, schizophrenic on the role and scope of government in the economy. His largely laissez-faire approach in the 2007-08 era gave way to a dirigiste, paternal approach as a consequence of the financial and banking crisis (i.e. €20 billion stimulus package to fight the economic crisis). Nevertheless, his initial self-conscious radicalism was a departure in French politics; a figure and symbol of the Right utilising a language of radicalism to further the cause of Right wing politics. It is for the Socialist candidate of consensus, Hollande, to play the part of the conservative now after five years of radicalism under the candidate of conflict, Sarkozy.

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1 Comment

  1. Tom Barker
    May 11, 2012 at 4:02 pm — Reply

    A very interesting post. Do you think that the ideology of ‘Sarkozyism’ has now died out as the man himself has fallen from power, or could it live on in another, less tainted, candidate? In particular, do you think the laissez-faire Sarkozyism of 2007-8 retains support in some quarters of the French populations?

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