The Free State
"Man, in a word, has no nature. What he has is - history."

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

President Sarkozy: Deconstructing Victory's Themes

Sarko’s done it, he’s won, not with a landslide, but with a decisive majority. Decisive because it is a majority for Sarkozy, while many of Royal’s votes were not pro-Royal but anti-Sarkozy.

Sarkozy resembles Chirac in many ways. Both made their careers as youthful “outsider” right-wing reformists. Both came under fire for racist comments (Sarko’s “racailles” and vow to “cleanup aux Karcher” the banlieue, Chirac’s “le bruit et l’odeur” of immigrants). Both fell out with their right-wing superiors, Chirac with Giscard, Sarkozy with Chirac. Both come into office facing similar issues (place in the world, unemployment, tax cuts). Both are members of incumbent governing parties yet promise change.

Despite the similarities, nothing resembling the current heady atmosphere, nothing like the prospect of such reform existed when Chirac was elected in 1995. Sarkozy has the greatest mandate for change since Mitterrand's victory in 1981. For this reason, I felt a little anxious watching Sarkozy’s victory speech. I’ve decided to deconstruct it because it represents the expectations and hopes of the man as he enters office.

Sarko sought to reach out to Royal’s supporters. He had good words for her, expressed respect for her ideas, and said she must be respected for the millions who voted for her. He said he represents “all the French.”

Sarko spoke in very broad terms of the changes he will bring France: “The French people (...) have chosen to break with the ideas and habits of the past. I will thus rehabilitate work, authority, morality, respect, merit.” All somewhat regressive/authoritarian/capitalist themes, but they’re vague and unsubstantive anyway.

Sarko said that “France is back in Europe” with his election. A reference to his “mini-treaty” which he doesn’t want backed by referendum. He also, interestingly, said the EU must be a “protection” to Europeans, which seems to imply protectionism, that is, tariffs, subsidies and protections against outsourcing. This contradicts on a pretty basic level his with supposedly “tough-love capitalism” ideals. It’s a way of selling Sarko’s Euro-reforms by portraying it as social-oriented and not (as the EuroConstitution was perceived) as globalization’s “Trojan Horse”. More generally, EU pledges like this soften Sarko’s image, but because he doesn’t make EU policy alone, if he doesn’t fulfil these protectionist commitments he can always blame Brussels.

As per usual, Sarko said France was America’s friend, but that because of that France reserves the right to disagree and act differently. Same ol’, same ol’. Sarko made reference to France’s opposition to the US on global warming. This is a pretty soft issue, nothing on Iraq or the War on Terror.

Sarkozy made again reference to a proposition that can only be described as fluffy. He wants a ‘Mediterranean Union’. Nothing too specific, though it would include all Southern Europe and North Africa. The idea is extremely poor on specifics but he said “What was done to unite Europe 60 years ago, we will do it for the union of the Mediterranean.” Now, I have a problem with this sort of language. We’re obviously going to have nothing like a Medi-parliament, a Medi-Single Market, Medi-citizenship or, say, the free movement of people! Sarkozy has said in the past Turkey can never join the EU because it is in Asia Minor and that the Turks “belong” in the Mediterranean Union. I think this betrays what the whole point of this obscure proposal is. It’s a more positive way of spinning opposition to Turkey than just a xenophobic “non”, instead, they will get a formal, ineffectual, poor man’s EU.

Sarko prefaced his opposition to African (Black/Arab) immigration with a call towards more development aid to Africa. I have to interpret this as, again, putting a positive light on a simple “non”. There is no way he is serious about helping Africa. If he’s going to keep his promises to simultaneous cut taxes and the deficit, simultaneously cut the civil service without a decrease in quality of education and healthcare… well, the last thing on his mind will be spend more taxpayers money in Africa.

To me the most interesting thing was all the talk about pride in France and the equation of France and freedom.

“I will restore honour to the nation and national identity. I will bring French pride back to the French people, I will end the penitence that is a form of self hatred, and the competition over memory which feeds a hatred of others.”

Now however much in principle French self-esteem is good. There are a few issues here, penitence can be perfectly legitimate. All nations have shame in their histories. Germany has Nazism. America has slavery. France has Vichy’s role in the Holocaust and torture in Algeria among other things. Coming to terms with the past is important, that’s one thing, at least, which Chirac can be commended for.

Sarkozy ended on this
“I want to launch an appeal to all those in the world who believe in the values of tolerance, freedom, democracy, humanism. To all those who are persecuted by tyranny and dictatorship, to all children around the world, to all women ill-treated in the world, I want to say that the pride and the duty of France will be to be on their side.
France will be on the side of oppressed peoples. It is France's message, France's identity, France's history.”

Boom. Now that’s a rally for “FREEDOM!” on par with Reagan. He said France stood with “imprisoned Libyan nurses”, “Ingrid Betancourt (of Columbia)” and “women in Burqas” (don’t misunderstand the last one… he’s not saying they have a right to wear one). Such unambiguous talk is a big change to France’s usual somewhat wishy-washy and nuanced balancing acts in international affairs. I'm not quite sure what it means, but it might just place France in a more enthusiastic role in the War on Terror. Hmm.

So, a mix of symbol, wishy-washy, spin, and rousing rhetoric. His proposals on the Mediterranean and Africa seem like little more than good-speak for more concrete proposals the French want: no more Blacks and Muslims in France, no Muslim Turks in Europe. “Freedom” on the other hand, isn’t a foreign policy, and I don’t expect much improvement from Monsieur Sarkozy in this regard.

Ironically, Sarko said nothing concrete on the issues which he was elected on: race relations (identity) and the economy (unemployment). Given Sarko’s deservedly poor reputation in the banlieue, I was disappointed Sarko made no conciliatory reference to things like equality of opportunity or the fight against discrimination. No references to taxes, the 35h week, job security or anything. Yet these issues will define the early years of his presidency. The real litmus test for his “reformer” pretensions will depend on whether he can remove job security laws (CPE-style) without giving way to strikes and street protests. His credibility on identity and race relations will depend on whether he is capable of a gentle touch despite his venomous tongue, if not, he may well bring France the proverbial “Rivers of Blood.”

Sarkozy has led people to expect no less than a revolution. I'm in two minds about it, on the one hand I'd be surprised if he brought about any change at all, on the other, I'd hope his "revolution" brings more than merely destruction.


Blogger cswilly said...

Nice review of the French election. Not much to disagress with. I wonder when Sarko will return to affirmative action--to really piss-off the left in France.

12:43 PM  

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