The Honeymoon Is Over

Why the French Lost Faith in Nicolas Sarkozy

Last week saw the annual ritual by which the Left in France marks summer’s end, and the resumption of politics as usual. This ritual is a general strike called by the Left, whenever a rightist government is in power.

Competitive claims are made concerning how many marched last Tuesday to denounce Nicolas Sarkozy and his government. Buses mostly ran; trains mostly did not. Letters were undelivered. The weather was mild, and a boring and noisy time was had by nearly all, especially those who took the day off and didn’t waste it marching.

The French predilection for marches and demonstrations bemuses foreigners, and frequently annoys them because of the inconveniences caused. It is playtime revolution, but nonetheless very serious.

This year the main issue was the character, personality, activity, policies, and ultimate failure of President Nicolas Sarkozy—condemned with enthusiasm by most demonstrators.

For a politician, Sarkozy is a strange fellow. He doesn’t seek popularity or love. He has constantly skirted the risk of making people hate him for his arrogance, brashness, and material ambition (one of his first acts as president was to more than double the presidential salary—if only to general European standards; but it was the gesture that counted).

The night of his election he flaunted his connections with some of France’s richest industrialists, and immediately left for a holiday on a rich man’s yacht. That no doubt was celebration and self-validation for the Hungarian immigrant’s son, who speaks demotic and often vulgar French, wears lifts in his heels to look taller than he is, and whose behavior proclaims aggressive insecurity as much as political ruthlessness.

He nonetheless seized the French popular imagination to make himself president, and became the most active, and in certain respects the most successful, French president in the past thirty years. He unblocked many sterile or stalemated relations with the unions, which are losing members and power. Labor is still suffering the ideological hangover of their period of real power, which lasted from the Popular Front (1936–38) until the 1970s, when revolution in Europe had become a myth, and the Socialist parties stole the Communists’ intellectuals—and then their voters. Sarkozy invited union leaders to the presidential palace for consultations. He has made a serious effort to reform the neglected university system, and to correct foolish tax excesses.

His current unpopularity, three years on, is self-created, the product both of a vanity that inspired him to ignore the constitutional structure of de Gaulle’s Fifth Republic, and of his intellectual volatility, which has made his leadership seductive but inconsistent. People have stopped believing in him.

The constitution places a French president in a position of reserved overall policy direction and arbitration, and defense of the principles and institutions of the nation. It provides for him a prime minister to conduct the day-to-day business of government and a parliament to debate and vote on policy.

Sarkozy wanted to do it all, because that placed him fully in the limelight, where he daily invented national policy, and inconsistently commented on national affairs as things caught his eye. He consistently humiliated his prime minister, even though he depended on him. His taste for wealth and display alienated him from the public, which has always expected from the state the formal symbols of power and authority, and had always been tolerant of the greed of ordinary politicians. But the public would not accept Sarkozy’s apparent change of political sides from that of defender of the citizen to collaborator with the rich, powerful, and privileged.

The distinguished centrist political figure Jean-Louis Bourlanges recently wrote that while de Gaulle had made the French chief of state “the defender of what must count, and of what must last,” Sarkozy made the presidency representative “of what glitters and fades: his inconstancy mixed the durable and the ephemeral, the fundamental and the incidental.” That has undermined the institutional references of the citizenry, and has left them angry at what he has done.

The second subject of anger in these demonstrations was anodyne rather than apocalyptic in implication—although there was a trace of the latter. It was a proposed rise in the national retirement age, which is all but certain to be adopted. The same issue that generates controversy in most advanced democracies, given the world economic crisis and lengthening lifespans, immigration, and accompanying demographic trends. Even the United States, which pronounces itself no welfare state, has seen this controversy, but it still pays people retirement benefits (because the government resisted the Republican and Wall Street campaigns to “privatize” Social Security—aiming to put all that money into the stock market).

In France, as mostly elsewhere, the retirement age doesn’t mean automatic retirement, but is the age when people cease to pay into the national pension system, and the pension system begins to pay out to them. Putting the age up prolongs high deductions from an individual’s wages and higher contributions from employers.

The main demand by the demonstrators was that bosses pay the extra money, not the workers. Surprise, surprise. The bosses during the past decade have so far successfully argued that they deserve to keep their privileges. But as with the Sarkozy presidency itself, things may now be changing.

© 2010 by Tribune Media Services International. All Rights Reserved.



Related: More Like the Anglo-Saxons: Sarkozy's Plans for France, by Steven Englund

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About the Author

William Pfaff, a former editor of Commonweal, is political columnist for the International Herald Tribune in Paris. His most recent book is The Irony of Manifest Destiny: The Tragedy of America's Foreign Policy (Walker & Company).