Sarkozy’s failure reflects France’s identity crisis By Zaki Laïdi


Nicolas Sarkozy is battling for his political survival, having become the first incumbent French president to trail in second place after the first round of voting. The conventional wisdom is that he lost voters’ confidence because he was too brash, too hyperactive and bent on changing France. In fact, the opposite is true. Mr Sarkozy had too little confidence in himself to inspire any in the French. More seriously, instead of telling the public that in a globalised world, the state is not all-powerful, he sought to flatter the French by sticking to the familiar excesses of state voluntarism.

Of course, Mr Sarkozy shared the burden of every incumbent European government since 2008: the depth of the crisis, the eurozone’s slow response, the inability to conceive of austerity without growth, and the feeling that one can trust neither one’s state nor Europe. In the French system, centralised at the top and feudal in the regions, with a political culture of confrontation rather than consensus and where the cult of the state has over two centuries replaced the cult of God, the effects of the crisis automatically rose to the highest level.

Yet Mr Sarkozy compounded the burden. He was not content to be president of the republic. He wanted to be president, prime minister, minister, journalist, friend to the powerful and pal to the French. He wanted and claimed to have an opinion on everything and never felt accountable for what he promised. He systematically confused impulsiveness with responsiveness and public life with private life.

Mr Sarkozy was a deconsecrated monarch. While the French are willing to elect a monarchical president, in exchange they expect him to wear a royal mantle of distance and levelheadedness that they might turn to in difficult times. Mr Sarkozy became embroiled in all problems down to the last detail, leaving his ministers in fear of being challenged by an overbearing presidential entourage. But what Mr Sarkozy most lacked was political coherence. Because he was obsessed with immediate results, announcements, the need to impress his interlocutors and the desire to prove that he was taking action, he lost sight of any strategic vision. This resulted in a huge gap between his words and his actions.

More seriously, he failed to confront the reality of the problems France faced. As soon as he took office in 2007, with the outlook for growth deteriorating, he made the extravagant statement that “if there is no growth, I will bring it forth from every nook and cranny”. He responded to the brutal shock of the 2008 crisis with even more purely rhetorical voluntarism. In his speeches, Mr Sarkozy came close to adopting the far left’s opposition to financial capitalism, to the banks and to the fat cats who crush the small people. This grandstanding gave the French the illusion that the state was finally back, but it led to few concrete actions.

Social inequalities were not as great as many believed, precisely because of the redistributive power of the French state. The 2008 crisis did, however, give Mr Sarkozy a unique opportunity to reverse his fiscal policy. Yet he clung to it, lending credence to the idea that he was defending the winners while neglecting the social losers. Even his perfectly justified pension reform was very poorly sold to the public.

Mr Sarkozy’s failure resulted from the political elite’s fear of speaking truthfully about profound transformations in the world and their implications for the French model, combined with the absence of a strategic vision as to how to give France a new social balance and identity. France has had a strong aversion to liberalism for more than two centuries, but has not succeeded in building an alternative model that would allow it to adapt to globalisation without rejecting its history. Mr Sarkozy was unable to overcome this difficulty.

Hence the zigzag policies that led him sometimes to promote liberal reform, sometimes to exalt state voluntarism, sometimes to value France’s cultural diversity and sometimes to make utterly xenophobic statements. Ultimately, none of this would have mattered had his policies yielded any results. But a comparison between France and Germany shows that in growth, unemployment and trade, Germany is faring much better than France after five years of Sarkozyism.

Mr Sarkozy’s political decline reflects both his personal failings and the failure of his policies. It is also the collective expression of France’s struggle to develop a new political identity in response to globalisation. It would be to the left’s benefit not to lose sight of this reality. Sarkozyism looks to be over. But the problems that led to its failure are here to remain

The writer is a professor at Sciences Po and editor of Telos website


Posted by on May 13 2012. Filed under Economie. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry

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