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Waiting for Sarko

The local elections in France confirmed that Sarkozy has turned French politics into a bitter, sub-Beckettian pantomime.

Gerry Feehily

Topics Politics

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In early June last year, on the night Nicolas Sarkozy was elected, I went walking in my neighbourhood of République, in east Paris, to gauge the mood. The streets were blocked off by CRS riot police. Little tear gas canisters went popping up into the sky, ricocheting off the linden trees that line the avenues as a hundred youths flung bottles at the police and screamed curses. The mood didn’t look good.

But there was something unreal going on. Many protesters, I noticed, having flung bottles, ran away giggling like schoolboys who have rung Mad Mrs Quinn’s doorbell. Meanwhile, CRS officers advanced down the road 10 feet, then gave up and went back. This had the elements of a riot, but it seemed to be a virtual one, where protesters and police had agreed to act out, rather than engage. More importantly, however, beyond personally despising that night’s winning candidate, no one really knew why they were there. ‘He likes Johnny Halliday’, one teenager told me, in reference to the cheesy, eternally dim, French rock star the President regularly dines with.

If anything, the first 10 months of Sarkozy’s presidency have been similar in that he hardly knows why he is here either, but goes through the motions nevertheless. Having come to power on slogans like ‘Work more to earn more’ in order to ‘improve buying power’, his attempt to liberalise French job laws as a way to stimulate an economy considered stagnant have stalled. Having appointed former Socialist ministers to key cabinet positions, he might have believed that France’s notoriously intractable trade unions, after talks over at the Élysée Palace, would roll over with the same opportunism as ex-Communist Bernard Kouchner. By November, however, a transport strike against pension reforms suggested otherwise.

No doubt, this was a disappointment. During his time at the Ministry of the Interior, Sarkozy had built his reputation on delivering results during the extended snooze that was Jacques Chirac’s 12 years in power. Milking the right-wing buzzword l’insecurité for all it was worth, he passed an unprecedented total of 11 bills – many of them aimed at anti-social behaviour in a nation where petty theft incidents were the first item on the eight o’clock news, night after night.

Many of these laws were repressive, vindictive and dangerous. For example, his 2006 law about mobile-phone ‘happy slapping’ provided for the prosecution of those filming police happily slapping protesters. But in a world where middle-class citizens, increasingly withdrawing into private life, can no longer distinguish between huddles of sullen teenagers and Hannibal Lecter, Sarkozy was seen to be doing something.

He was backed by statistics that suggested that crime was falling by nine per cent annually (later revealed as being due to the increased efficiency of anti-theft devices). But while perceptions about nebulous insecurity are so easy to manipulate, feeding off anything from shell-suited members of the underclass stealing your bike to the al-Qaeda threat, it’s much harder to create a sense of wellbeing when financial markets are crumbling, and citizens are simply out of pocket. His ever-growing spate of travels abroad, including his most recent offer to meet FARC narco-rebels in the Columbian jungle to secure the liberation of French hostage Ingrid Bétancourt, seem to be an admission that the fate of the French economy is somewhat out of his hands. Perhaps Sarkozy believes that cutting deals with Marxists talking Spanish might serve at least as a distraction from daily cares – ours if not his.

The French Socialist Party (PS) capitalised on this weakness in Sunday’s local elections. Having bagged traditionally right-wing cities like Strasbourg and Toulouse, the PS has underlined the fact that Sarkozy, with an approval rating of 41 per cent, is the least popular president of the Fifth Republic this early in his term. Outside my window on Sunday night, however, there were no scenes of mass allegresse to contrast with last year’s bitter ones. Indeed, the turn out of 65 per cent, the lowest in the history of the Fifth Republic, suggests it’s not just Sarkozy that’s unpopular, but politics itself.

This is not helped by the fact that, when it comes to being vacuous, the Socialists are a match for Sarkozy. ‘This is a vote of censure. We have to produce a credible, solid and durable programme’, exulted the PS’s Ségolène Royal on French television, in a statement made after the results of Sunday night. Even here, don’t hold your breath. Third Way noises made by socialist personalities, like Harlem Désir’s comment about ‘canalising the capitalist river’, produce intellectual meltdown in a party that is wary of the Blairism Sarkozy himself has embraced. The PS is simply too divorced from its radical roots to come up with any alternative.

Negotiating the capitalist torrents in the meantime, but without a paddle, Ségolène Royal’s policy as her party’s foremost spokeswoman has been to focus on Sarkozy’s character, his penchant for Rolex watches and holidays on yachts, his much publicised courtship of top model Carla Bruni, and his ‘poor twat’ aside to a farmer who had refused to shake his hand. All proof, she claims, that Sarkozy ‘diminishes the dignity of the Presidential office’.

This is rich, given that Royal has never been averse to exposing the affairs of her heart to the nation if she thinks it might be good for the polls. In interviews she openly discusses her separation from the unlikely skirt-chaser that is her former partner, François Hollande, the Socialist Party’s bland general secretary. Also, she has made much of her difficulty with the ‘machos’ who hobbled her presidential bid last year. Unlike the brash Sarkozy, however, her stance is that of victim, albeit a staid, bourgeois one who lost. Like him, however, she seeks to appeal to voters’ emotions by adopting all the candour of a recovering celebrity alcoholic.

Where politics has become a question of personality and branding, the Socialist victory is not much of a cause for celebration. Of all his recent achievements, Sarkozy’s one true rupture – his much promised break – with French politics, is that he has set standards of emptiness that everyone seeks to equal. It ends in a strange environment where voters, when they don’t stay at home, vote the way the wind blows, where protesters and police act out roles they don’t quite believe in. It’s a bitter pantomime inspired by Samuel Beckett’s theatre of passively active and actively passive heroes. It’s Waiting for Sarko.

Gerry Feehily is a translator and writer in Paris. His first novel, Fever, is published by Parthian Books. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

Previously on spiked

Gerry Feehily reported on the mood of conservatism lurking behind the Parisian protests of Spring 2006. Chris Bickerton asked why the left were scared of Sarkozy?. Mick Hume revealed the empty rhetoric of the 2007 French elections. Frank Furedi argued that the outbreak of rioting in France revealed the political exhaustion of Europe. Jonny Thakkar discussed the Machiavellian intrigues gripping the French political class. Or you can read more at spiked issue Europe.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics

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