Chirac v Sarkozy

The title fight between the French president and his young finance minister is personal, not political.

Jonny Thakkar

Topics Politics

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The French president Jacques Chirac has spent the summer engaged in an unseemly scrap with his young finance minister Nicolas Sarkozy. That Chirac v Sarkozy has captivated the French political class all summer is a sign of the times.

As with Blair v Brown, the conflict is not about politics but personality. Petty hatreds and private ambitions are at its root, not differences of beliefs. The course of the country is unlikely to be affected by the contest’s outcome. Yet the escalation of hostilities is oddly fascinating for many, a glimpse into the power struggles at the very top. And despite the banality of the rivalry, it has already destabilised the teetering Chirac administration. As such, it provides a useful case study of politics in the age of celebrity/voyeurism.

On 30 January, a court in the Parisian suburb of Nanterre set off the chain of events that has turned a private feud into the key factor in French politics. The court convicted Alain Juppé, Chirac’s protégé, of corruption, barring him from political office for up to 10 years (1). Juppé had been head of the governing party, the Union for the Presidential Majority (UMP), and hence Chirac’s obvious successor in the 2007 presidential race. Sarkozy – a member of the government but a sworn enemy of Chirac’s since he backed a rival, Edouard Balladur, in the 1995 presidential election – has been eyeing up the UMP presidency. If he gets it, he would become the presidential candidate of Chirac’s own party.

Chirac has done everything in his power to prevent Sarkozy’s accession; yet by fighting (and losing) the battle in public, he has only succeeded in humiliating himself. First he tried to make Sarkozy less popular by moving him from the Interior Ministry, where he had won acclaim from the right wing for his no-nonsense approach, to the troubled Finance Ministry. Yet Sarkozy’s popularity refused to wane, and so Chirac was forced into a desperate move. He informed his young rival that he would be allowed to become head of the UMP so long as he gave up his post in the government (2). Any attempt to combine the two functions would be unworkable, he claimed.

Sarkozy, however, has continued undeterred, holding the first rally of his election campaign in Arcachon on 17 August (3). He has called Chirac’s bluff and exposed his weakness. Chirac was re-elected president in 2002 with 82 per cent of the vote, thanks to the ‘Stop Le Pen’ movement, but has since squandered his political capital on minor issues like road safety and illiteracy, being too timid to engage whole-heartedly in unpopular reforms. The voters have already punished him with poor results in the recent regional and European elections, and his current crisis of authority has buoyed the circling vultures: ‘After 37 years, France’s elder statesman is the laughing stock of his Cabinet’, The Times gloated on 21 August (4).

Why is the presidency of the UMP so important? The Union for the Presidential Majority was formed in 2002 with the express aim of delivering a parliamentary majority to the newly elected French president, so that he wouldn’t have to ‘cohabit’ with a Socialist prime minister, as he had had to do previously with Lionel Jospin. So the party per se stands for nothing other than giving power to Chirac. This isn’t without precedent. Parties in France are often formed to support a presidential candidate; they have few members, and tend to have a short life span. The party is simply a useful umbrella for raising money, as well as campaigning. ‘With the current laws on the finance of politics’, commented a friend of Sarkozy, ‘if you try for the presidency without having a party, you’re sure to end up in prison’ (5). If Sarkozy manages to take control of the UMP, he will have secured Chirac’s own political and financial base for himself.

On top of that, Jean-Pierre Raffarin’s position as prime minister would become untenable. With Sarkozy commanding the UMP, the largest party in parliament, as well as the Finance Ministry, the prime minister would be only the third most powerful man in government. ‘There would no longer be a prime minister’, concluded Chirac on 14 July, posing as the disinterested guarantor of the Fifth Republic’s institutions.

Few are deceived, however; Chirac’s hypocrisy is legendary. To begin with, Chirac and Raffarin had themselves proposed bringing Juppé into the government before his conviction, despite his being the UMP leader. More importantly, Chirac himself is the prime example of a young politician accumulating offices in order to weaken an elder president – the very same cumul des mandates that he now condemns. During the period 1986-88 he even managed to combine being prime minister with being head of the Rally for the Republic (RPR) Party and mayor of Paris. What enthrals the political class is the sense that Chirac is getting a taste of his own medicine.

Sarkozy himself has recognised the comparison with his adversary: ‘I resemble him in the electricity of our contact with the crowd. And, like him in his day, I am the one with the most ambition’, he said recently. Sarkozy also invites comparison with UK prime minister Tony Blair – especially for his preference for conducting arguments through the media. ‘He treats the Finance Ministry like a production studio which makes a new episode each day’, complains one Chiraquien minister. ‘He’s emptied the administration’s cupboards and offered up their entire contents to the greedy mouths of the press.’ (6) Like Blair, Sarkozy promotes himself as a moderniser and is perceived as arrogant: ‘I want to reconcile France with success’, he said in a recent interview with Le Figaro (7).

What is more, the finance minister is often accused of having no fixed principles. He professes himself an economic liberal, and yet does not baulk at state intervention to prop up ailing ‘national champions’. For example, on 24 August, Alstom, the transport engineering company behind the TGV, announced that Sarkozy had ordered for the senior civil servant Denis Samuel-Lajeunesse to be ‘appointed member of the Board of Directors as a representative of the French state’ (8).

There is a long-established French art of maintaining popularity by discerning which way the wind is blowing. De Gaulle was notorious for it. And Chirac has long been known as la girouette, ‘the weathervane’. But today’s politics takes populist pragmatism to a new level. Even on the rare occasions when the skirmishes between Chirac and Sarkozy are on policy issues – the referendum on the EU constitution, Turkey’s entry to the EU – the disputes seem limited to which one is more ‘in touch’. Principled debate rarely gets a look in.

This is because the battle between Chirac and Sarkozy is personal, not political. It has little to do with policies or beliefs. It is governed by the same Machiavellian ruthlessness that politics has always attracted; but even Machiavelli advocated his methods to advance a particular cause (9). It is difficult to detect any such cause driving either of these combatants.

And yet this duel is central to French politics today. It is French politics today. Politics has been adapted for the age of celebrity/voyeurism. The French political class follow every move, captivated; and, to be honest, it really is captivating – as all voyeurism is. But it is shallow. As with Blair v Brown and Bush v Kerry, Chirac v Sarkozy comes down to character – which one feels the best? That trio points to a worrying future for Western democracies in which electorates are governed by impressions and emotions. Parliamentary debate becomes irrelevant; parties are reduced to their figureheads; politics becomes entertainment.

It should be no surprise that in such a political culture the public is apathetic. When politics is reduced to entertainment, it has to compete with other forms of entertainment. Blair v Brown or Wenger v Ferguson? I’d go for the latter any day.

(1) Ex-French PM guilty of corruption, BBC News, 30 January 2004

(2) Les manoeuvres du président, L’Express, 28 June 2004

(3) After 37 years, France’s elder statesman is the laughing stock of his Cabinet, The Times, 21 August 2004

(4) After 37 years, France’s elder statesman is the laughing stock of his Cabinet, The Times, 21 August 2004

(5) Les nerfs de la guerre, L’Express, 19 July 2004

(6) Les nerfs de la guerre, L’Express, 19 July 2004

(7) ‘Sarkozy: “Je veux réconcilier les Français avec le success”’, Le Figaro, 30 July 2004

(8) Alstom’s website

(9) That of republican liberty. See ‘The republican ideal of political liberty’ by Quentin Skinner in Machiavelli and Republicanism, ed, Bock, Skinner and Viroli

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Topics Politics


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