Take a look at Nicolas Sarkozy’s official campaign posters from 2007 and 2012.
In a lot of ways he’s running the same visual play: the blank stare, the sort of half-smile what-is-that expression, the reassuring message. And in a lot of ways, the French president must surely believe he has run the same campaign, in general, to be re-elected that he ran to win five years ago. He’s an outsider — son of immigrants, not educated at the grandes écoles, unpolished, friend to the little guy — running, not precisely against privilege, but against elite systems designed to keep guys like him out.
It was enchanting in 2007. He won without real difficulty. It has not worked in 2012. He came second in Sunday’s first-round voting and will probably lose in the runoff (the best short analysis I’ve seen, in French, is here). Obsessed by the record support French voters gave the far-right Front National under its founder’s less abrasive daughter, Marine Le Pen, Sarkozy apparently intends to double down on a populist, protectionist message with a dash of xenophobia (here’s Henri Guaino, the scuttling little thug who writes his speeches, losing his cool after an opposition spokesman busted him for musing on “the problem of national identity”).
The article I linked above quotes a Sarkozy advisor, who says the Sarkozy message leading to the May 6 runoff must respond “to a need for authority and protection: European protectionism, economic patriotism, defence of the authority of the State and of the Republic.” In the same article, Sarko helpers are gleeful at the high Front National turnout. They can go get that electorate! The socialist, François Hollande, can’t! Suddenly — well, actually, not suddenly at all — the Sarko campaign’s MVP is Patrick Buisson, who spent the 80s writing mash notes to Jean-Marie Le Pen in a Front National fan-club pamphlet called Minute.
Buisson’s shtick is that the Right is the Right, so Sarkozy mustn’t ostracize the Front because its supporters are people who basically think like his own voters. He’s gone after those voters as hard as he could in the campaign’s first round, and he’ll go after them harder now. In one recent speech, Sarkozy said, ”There are worries, there is suffering and anguish before this new world that is starting to take shape. This anguish, this suffering, I know it, I understand it. It’s all about” — the coddled 1%? Nah; let’s go full xenophobe — “It’s all about the border, jobs leaving France, immigration, about the value we give to work and about security.”
Now here’s the thing. Here’s why I put those two campaign posters at the top of this blog post. In 2007 Sarkozy’s message wasn’t the monotonic stew of fear and resentment he’s peddling now. In 2007 he offered a subtler and altogether more uplifting message: insecurity, sure, but also hope that things could get better. His message to the poor children of immigrants in the banlieues wasn’t merely, “delinquence will be punished;” it was also, “I will find you a way out of these streets and into a better future.” That’s why he campaigned amid the brokerage firms at the City of London: because London had become a major destination for bright young French citizens, many of African and Arabic descent, whose future was blocked at home. Sarkozy’s message was that the youth of France shouldn’t have to leave France to hope.
Hope. “The Republic isn’t a religion,” he said in his speech accepting his party’s nomination in 2007, in words that now stand as a direct rebuke of his behaviour this year. “The Republic isn’t a dogma. The republic is a project, always incomplete.”
“The true Republic,” he said, “is the one that does more for the person who wants to get out of where they are… it’s the one where men and women have the same rights, the same salaries, the same career options… It’s the Republic that creates jobs, builds housing that permits people to work and live off their work, that gives a chance to the poor child.”
So then he got himself elected President of the Republic and he fitfully attempted a few reforms that turned out to be grotesque failures and mostly, since 2008, he hasn’t lifted a finger to make the labour market more flexible, to redeem hope and work, to help the embittered residents of the banlieue to get out and live off their work. At the end of 2007 I visited Villiers-Le-Bel, north of Paris, where the locals had been burning police cars. The only evidence of the active and interested presence of the French Republic was the busy construction site where the police station was being expanded. The message was obvious: You will never get out, and we have our eye on you.
A law-and-order agenda is eminently defensible if it’s practiced in a context of economic opportunity where people can hope to get out. Sarkozy never provided the opportunity. In the end he forgot he had promised to. He listened too much to Henri Guaino’s economic hocus pocus. Today as he collapses, he is listening too much to Patrick Buisson’s xenophobia. In 2007 his message was “Together, Everything Is Possible.” In 2012, it’s “A Strong France.” A fortress against outsiders, against too many of its own citizens. From security-and-hope to security-and-repression.
I don’t think François Hollande will be a particularly distinguished leader for France. But Sarkozy’s behaviour must not be rewarded. This paranoid, self-pitying schemer and plotter can’t leave office fast enough. In three years nobody will remember he ever held it.