A Bizarre Political Comedy

Why France's Political Ringleaders Don't Pass Muster

Sarkozy speaks in front of the "Ozar Hatorah" Jewish school in Toulouse, after last month's attack. (Eric Cabanis / Courtesy Reuters)

Nicolas Sarkozy has used his country's recent tragedy -- the killing spree by French-born 24-year-old Mohamed Merah, a self-proclaimed radical Muslim -- as an opportunity to put his campaign on hold. Looking every bit a president (read: not a candidate), Sarkozy responded with solemnity to the rampage that left seven dead -- he rose to the occasion by organizing a national funeral ceremony. Yet, during the funeral, which was televised live, the other candidates elbowed each other to appear in front of the camera, and it became clear how political this mourning period had become. Uncouth, perhaps, but the show must go on.

Of course, the inability of France's intelligence services to prevent the attacks might have undermined Sarkozy's security record, but on balance this incident has energized the president's limping campaign. Polls immediately bumped in his favor. With his bold stance in a time of tragedy, Sarkozy reminded the French that he is the man in charge and could continue to be so for the next five years, should they desire stability in troubled times. He also signified to his opponents that he still has the leading role and that he can set the tempo of the political circus of an election season.

Above all else, this election has become a bizarre political comedy. The main characters are weak campaigners who echo familiar, hackneyed lines. Sarkozy's repeated pledges to "fight and defeat unemployment" while jobless numbers are on the rise make him appear a tired hero. Meanwhile, both the far-right Front National leader Marine Le Pen and the far-left, anticapitalist Parti de Gauche candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon, attract angry, energized crowds. Their anti-European discourse, inflammatory Islamophobia, and anti-elite mishmash resonate with a population in anguish. While unemployment is on the rise and the public deficit measures 5.2 percent of GDP, however, the campaign has largely sidestepped the dismal issue of the economy, even though it is arguably the foremost challenge facing France today.

Despite his post-attack popularity bump, Sarkozy's prospects are actually quite dim. Never before has a French president running for re-election been so low in opinion polls for so long. According to Le Journal du Dimanche, over the last 18 months Sarkozy has maintained the support of just 31 percent of the French electorate. So far, not a single poll predicts his victory in the second round of the election. The economic crisis laid waste to his 2007 campaign promises to increase the power of consumers: consumer spending power grew by a fifth of one percent, leaving most working-class French feeling impoverished. He is short on promises and plans for the future, too. Four weeks ahead of the vote, he had yet to write down and publish his platform.

Sarkozy's supporters long for the energetic candidate who wowed the country five years ago. Those who believed in his promise of a republic above reproach have been seriously disappointed. His self-approved 150 percent pay raise, the nepotism scandal (Sarkozy's 22-year-old son was tentatively named as the head of France's financial district La Défense), and the corruption allegations surrounding his 2007 campaign have, together, taken the air out of Sarkozy's most fervent enthusiasts. Today, the president's slogan, "French people, help me!" ("Françaises, Français, aidez-moi!"), smacks of political desperation. The phrase is actually that of Charles De Gaulle, who employed it in 1961 when he was given full powers by the civilian government to stop a coup set up by generals in Algiers. These times are not those, and the fact strips Sarkozy's cries of such seriousness.

On the other side of the political spectrum, Sarkozy's socialist rival and main opponent, François Hollande, has been unable to go beyond an "anything but Sarkozy" mantra. He plans to hire 60,000 teachers and push for public investment to jump-start the economy, but his 75 percent tax on big fortunes has come under harsh criticism from the financial world, which fears that the wealthiest citizens will flee the country and stop investing in France. As much as Sarkozy has been seen as the friend of the rich and the powerful, Hollande is the opposite.

Beyond his anti-big-money stance, Hollande differs in other ways as well. He has never held a ministerial post, and is relatively unknown abroad. He still has to make voters forget that he is a latecomer to lead the French left -- many consider him to be doing little more than covering for Dominique Strauss-Kahn, who stepped down from the post suddenly, after being accused of sexual assault in New York. Hollande's mellow style prevents voters from summoning any kind of full-throated enthusiasm. Despite all this, however, he commands a lead in the polls: Paris Match puts him at 54 percent.

As it turns out, Hollande's closest rival on the left is a friend: Mélenchon. As a former minister of the Socialist Party and now Parti de Gauche candidate, Mélenchon embodies his former party's failure to address blue-collar issues. His Gallic persona and folksy tone underline the technocratic style of the socialists while speaking to the man on the street. He denounces big corporate profits and decries the closure of factories by hedge funds, which he refers to as "thugs."

The tragicomic part of this is that his rhetoric rings hollow when faced with economic hard facts. Mélenchon glosses over the loss of capital investment in France and the country's decadelong industrial decline. Instead, he voices a simplistic vision of the economic crisis and presents supposedly "radical" solutions such as a ban on "financial layoffs," and a cap on part-time and temporary jobs. He promises to have the French government veto the relocation of any private factories abroad. Setting aside the obvious question of how feasible such a law would be in practice, it seduces former Communist Party voters and contrasts with the apparent passivity of traditional parties on economic issues. While Hollande hoped to gain the votes of the French far left, he now sees them raptured by Mélenchon, who has been making gains in recent weeks.

The other key character of this election is Le Pen: she's been on the rise in the polls and now has nearly 16 percent of the country's support, according to the most recent polls. The daughter of her party's founder, she has revamped the far-right Front National from head to toe. Her blond look and feminine tone, coupled with a more polished discourse (now that it has been emptied of anti-Semitism), resonate with both rural and urban working-class voters, who are angered by the costly welfare system, which they pay for but feel they do not benefit from. These voters picked Sarkozy in 2007, but now reject the pro-diversity measures he focused on in the early part of his mandate and root for Le Pen instead.

The terrorist attacks served Le Pen's Islamophobic arguments to her on a silver platter. As France discovers that one of its own children fell into a murderous madness in the name of jihad, many want to focus on Merah's religion and Algerian heritage rather than investigate the security and social explanations of the catastrophe. Such soul searching would indeed ask tough questions about the past 30 years of immigration and integration policies in France which both main parties would have to answer. But that is not happening.

Yet what at first looked like a bizarre political comedy -- an election with underwhelming candidates, crass jockeying for publicity, and a fringe that is gaining support but could never win -- is nothing to laugh about. Above all else, no matter who wins the French election, the president of the republic will inherit the leadership of a country facing severe challenges, the lion's share of them economic. Without a serious plan for putting France on a better path, anything that may have once looked funny will be little more than tragedy.

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