Right turn

Print edition : June 01, 2007

Supporters of Sarkozycelebrate in Paris.-OLIVIER LABAN-MATTEI/AFP

Nicholas Sarkozy's election to the presidency with a 6 per cent majority signals that France has taken a sharp turn to the right.

FOR the third time in a row, France has elected a conservative President and that too with a decisive majority. The winning candidate, Nicolas Sarkozy of the Union for a Popular Movement (UMP), campaigned on a platform that promised a "rupture" from the policies successive French governments have adhered to since the late 1950s. With his election France has taken a sharp turn to the right.

Sarkozy won the May 6 run-off with more than 53 per cent of the vote. Segolene Royal of the Socialist Party, who was bidding to become the first woman President of France, got 47 per cent of the vote. There was a massive turnout of voters; in the first and second rounds, more than 85 per cent of the electorate voted.

The Left has been in retreat for some time now. The rejection of the European Union constitution by French voters in 2005 strengthened the Right. In the last presidential election six years ago, the Socialist candidate, Lionel Jospin, could not even qualify for the second round. That privilege went to Jean-Marie Le Pen, the leader of the Far-Right National Front. Voters in the French white, former working class suburbs of Paris and other major cities, who once voted for the Communist Party of France, have shifted to the Far Right since the presidential elections of 2002. In the latest elections too, voting figures have shown that most of their votes in the second round went to Sarkozy. Le Pen came a distant fourth in the first round of elections in April. But much of his support base had already shifted to Sarkozy.

Sarkozy greeting supporters after his election on May 6.-THOMAS COEX/AFP

Segolene Royal put up a creditable fight, despite some initial hiccups. Her opponents made the most of some faux pas she committed while speaking on economic and foreign policy issues. She also did not deliver the knockout punch many had expected from her during the face-to-face television debate with Sarkozy broadcast a few days before the final round. Instead, it was Sarkozy who improved his poll ratings. According to opinion surveys at that time, two out of five voters had not made up their minds on the candidate they would support.

It was no secret that the "elephants" (as the old guard in her party are called by the French media) were not too happy with her candidature. After the election results were out, Laurent Fabius, a leading light of the Socialist Party with presidential aspirations, said that "the flag of the Left is on the ground". He went on to add that the Left failed to convince the electorate "that our candidate could be head of state".

Segolene Royal's campaign picked up momentum at the eleventh hour but by then it was too late. She warned that if Sarkozy was elected, France would become a dangerously polarised society and that violence on the streets would increase. Francois Bayrou of the centrist Christian Democratic Party, who came third in the first round, said before the final round that a Sarkozy victory would not bode well for the future of the Republic and would aggravate social divides. However, he refused to endorse Segolene Royal's candidature. Prominent French politicians and intellectuals also warned that if an American-style free-marketer such as Sarkozy was elected, France's economic model and social fabric would be in danger.

A demonstration at Place de la Bastille, Paris, by Sarkozy's opponents. The banners read: "We already know the result: more racial discrimination, more contempt, more poverty and more repression."-JEAN AYISSI/AFP

There were incidents of violence in some of the major cities after the final results were announced. Protesters were seen carrying banners which read: "We already know the result: more racial discrimination, more contempt, more poverty and more repression."

Sarkozy, an admirer of former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and the present occupant of 10 Downing Street, Tony Blair (Blair will step down next month), wants to initiate wide-ranging economic and political reforms in France. Fifty-two-year-old Sarkozy is the son of an immigrant who fled from his native Hungary after the Communists came to power. Sarkozy senior belonged to the discredited Hungarian nobility and so the family property had been taken over by the state. Though Sarkozy is estranged from his father, it is said that the new President of France has inherited strong anti-communist views and is particularly bitter about the loss of his ancestral property. His anti-Left sentiments were on display during the presidential campaign. In a speech delivered a few days before the final round, he blamed the historic May 1968 student-worker uprising in Paris for much of the ills plaguing present-day France. The revolt led to French workers gaining union recognition in many factories along with substantial wage rises and social benefits. Sarkozy said that the legacy of May 1968 should be "liquidated".

Sarkozy has championed fundamental reforms in France to make it "competitive" once again. Many in the French elite are unhappy that the country has the second slowest growing economy and the fastest rising public debt in Europe. The unemployment rate, though coming down, continues to be among the highest in Western Europe. On the campaign trail, Sarkozy said repeatedly that France should look to the United Kingdom, and even the United States for inspiration, if it was to once again become a big player on the world stage.

Voters' anger about the high levels of unemployment and crime was one of the key factors that propelled Sarkozy into the Elysee Palace. The previous Centre-Right government led by Jacques Chirac left the country's economic policies unchanged, including the 35-hour working week. It opposed the invasion of Iraq and criticised many aspects of US foreign policy under the neoconservative-dominated Bush administration. Chirac continued with the policy of his Socialist predecessor, Francois Mitterrand, of nurturing close ties with Germany and strengthening the EU, so as to build it as a counterweight to the dominant "hyper-power", the US. Sarkozy, on the other hand, was among the few French politicians who were not critical of the US-led invasion of Iraq.

Segolene Royal, the Socialist Party candidate, after the result was announced.-ERIC FEFERBERG/AFP

He criticised the French government's threat to use its veto in the United Nations Security Council. On a visit to Washington before the election, Sarkozy said he would never behave in the "arrogant way" the Chirac government did in the days preceding the invasion of Iraq. In his victory speech, Sarkozy told his cheering supporters that "the American people can count on our friendship" and that the war on terrorism "is of primary importance in the world, it is a fight that will be our fight". Sarkozy's advisers maintain that there was no basic disagreement between their boss and Chirac on the Iraq issue. Sarkozy, they told the media, had drawn conclusions from France's debacles in the colonial wars it waged in Vietnam and Algeria.

At the same time, Sarkozy has emphasised that he is proud of being labelled "Sarkozy the American" by the French media and opposition. Segolene Royal spoke on the campaign trail about the "unlimited dementia" of the Bush administration and emphasised that she would never bend before Bush as her rival had done. She went to the extent of alleging that Sarkozy went to Washington to apologise to Bush for France's refusal to support the invasion of Iraq.

Sarkozy and his advisers are in favour of downplaying the traditional friendship with Germany and building up close relations with new EU member-states such as Poland and the Czech Republic. These two countries are close allies of the US in the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation and the EU. Sarkozy's election may sound the death knell for Turkey's chance to be a full-fledged EU member. The new French President has made it clear on several occasions that he remains steadfastly opposed to EU membership for the Muslim-majority nation in the "Asia Minor" region.

The French economy may not be doing as well as the other major powerhouses of Western Europe, such as the UK and Germany. But French citizens continue to enjoy the benefits of a welfare state and a high standard of life; its state-run health system is acknowledged by the UN as one of the best in the world and the government is seen as the guarantor of economic security. Sarkozy and his supporters, however, have convinced the majority of French voters that unless the French political system undergoes radical changes, France will not be able to reclaim its status in Europe and the world. Sarkozy emphasised the need to introduce neoliberal policies along the lines of Thatcher and Blair and to trim the welfare state in order to promote competition. He has proposed major cuts in the budget of the state-run health system and big tax breaks for the wealthy.

Sarkozy took a hard-line stance on the emotive issue of immigration. As Interior Minister in the government, it was he who ordered the police to crack down on rioters in Paris in November 2005, referring to them as "rabble". He deported tens of thousands immigrants, mostly from North Africa, back to their countries and tightened immigration laws. During the election campaign, he promised to create a Ministry of Immigration and National Identity.

On crime he proposed that courts should impose an automatic sentence for all crimes, as is the practice in California. Segolene Royal also took a tough stance on crime, suggesting that first-time offenders should be sent to military boot camps. French jails are already overflowing. Many of the convicted are immigrants from the suburbs of the big cities. If Sarkozy's proposals are implemented, judges will not be able to use their independent judicial discretion. Occasionally on the campaign trail, Sarkozy's statesmanlike demeanour slipped, especially when he invoked the spectre of 450 million poor Africans flooding into France. As the election results have shown, his hard-line stance on immigration won him votes from the Far-Right.

At the same time, Sarkozy promised a French "Marshall Plan" for the deprived suburbs, where unemployment and alienation are at their highest. The consummate politician that he is, Sarkozy has in the past proposed a limited set of affirmative measures for immigrants and other socially deprived sections of French society. He said that the state could help them overcome the deprivation and handicaps that gave them a raw deal in life. Many Frenchmen view these promises as posturing for electoral gains, similar to the "compassionate conservatism" George W. Bush talked about during his first run for the presidency. The left-wing French paper Liberation wrote that France had "made a clear choice". The article said that though many may find the new French President's ideas "shocking", 53 per cent of the voters had reposed their faith in him, hoping that he would get France "out of the doldrums of the last two decades through energetic - unfair? - methods". The paper predicted that France's "Thatcher without the skirts" would face tough times as he went about implementing his ambitious reform agenda.

The defeated Socialists are girding up for the National Assembly polls due in a few months' time. Segolene Royal has indicated that she would like to lead the campaign once again. Her seniors in the party are not happy with that prospect and there are already murmurs of revolt. An opinion poll revealed that 63 per cent of French voters were critical of her campaign style. There is already talk of a split in the Socialist Party. A large majority rebelled against the party in 2005 during the referendum on the EU. Most observers expect the Right to do well in the National Assembly elections. The Left in France could remain in political limbo for quite some time.

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