Presidential elections in France: The far right tactics of Nicolas Sarkozy

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Once the champion of European integration, Nicolas Sarkozy is now leaning to the far right, maintaining an approach that is  not compatible with a candidate of a moderate conservative party. Image Credit: BBC

The citizens of France will be called to vote for their next president on the elections that will start on April 22, 2012. The candidates for the presidency are the current conservative president, Nicolas Sarkozy, the candidate of the main socialist opposition, François Hollande and the leader of the far right party, Mrs. Marine Le Pen. With roughly a month remaining before the elections, the speeches of all three candidates are already very heated, something quite normal during such electoral periods, where each candidate wishes to gain the support of the public at all costs, even if that may require the use of unrealistic promises or far-reaching aphorisms. In that respect the campaign of Sarkozy is replete with exaggerated speeches outlining his future policy framework that will ostensibly make France a better place for its people. Sarkozy’s campaign slogan is “La France Forte” (Strong France), a phrase that encapsulates the kind of image he wishes to attribute to himself and his campaign; one that, arguably perhaps, reflects the kind of myths, memories and collective images of the French nation.

Though Sarkozy is the candidate of the moderate center right party UMP, close attention must be paid to the far right tendencies that have repeatedly been made manifest by himself or his government during this campaign and in the course of his time in office. These are not at all coincidental. They are the end result of well-thought tactical thinking. In my understanding there are four major issues that led Sarkozy to the decision of adopting views that normally belong only to the ultraconservative part of society, all of which have the common denominator of absorbing the pressure coming from the Front National (the far right party).

These four issues are:

  1. The revival of Front National ever since the rise to power of its new leader, Mrs. Marine Le Pen, the daughter of the party’s founder and undisputed leading figure (Jean Marie Le Pen),
  2. The deepening effects of the systemic crisis of the euro that have given rise to unemployment which pushes many young people to the far right,
  3. The immigration influx that is depicted by the ultraconservatives as an asymmetric threat to local low-skilled workers and French society in general,
  4. The increasing concerns cultivated by the far right about the deterioration of French power due to European integration and the ongoing stress in the euro area that supposedly erodes French national sovereignty.
It is undeniably true that under the leadership of Mrs. Marine Le Pen, the Front National has changed its image by getting rid of ideas that were only stigmatizing the party, preferring instead to develop a kind of rhetoric that on one hand appears more “progressive”, on the other it expands on areas of policy that before did not belong to the party’s agenda, such as the issues concerning Islam and the presence of the Muslim community in the country. The Front National has ever since 2010 been gaining momentum, pilling up the pressure on the governing UMP on issues concerning migration, unemployment, the bailouts to countries like Greece, as well as other affairs that fall in line with standard far right politics on national identity and culture.</p>

Sarkozy is well aware of the fact that the far right party, Front National, can appeal to a considerable portion of his voters, something that he cannot possibly afford as it could cost him the presidential seat, given that he already appears second in most polls behind his main adversary, socialist candidate François Hollande. 

For Sarkozy to be able to counter this, he either needs to respond with reason and facts, which understandably is the hard way of doing things these days, especially during elections; or to adopt a similar far right rhetoric that does not deviate fundamentally from the center right orthodoxy. Indeed this is what Sarkozy has been doing the last couple of years, when he first raised migration issues, by implementing controversial policies that were specifically discriminating against Roma people. He and his government then followed with islamophobic statements and legislation, such as the law prohibiting the use of the veil (the traditional burqa). Last but not least in the rather long list was the dispute with the Italian government on immigrants coming from Tunisia, which at the time was in the midst of its Arab Spring uprising and thus the influx of migrants could easily be considered an urgent humanitarian affair.</p>

This hardliner attitude on migration was the overriding element in one of his recent speeches were he explicitly attacked Greece over its ineffective border control mechanisms, while also asking for stricter rules on the Schengen Area. Yet the adoption of far right views has not been limited to migration, as he has held similar views on economic affairs, such as forcing Greece out of the eurozone, even though he and his consultants are well aware of the fact that such a threat, if ever materialized, would prove detrimental to their country’s interests as French banks are heavily exposed to Greek public debt, either directly or indirectly (for more on the broader issue see TARGET 2 Euro payment system).</div>

The rationale of Sarkozy is clearly opportunistic, as his sole objective is to win a second term in office. Towards that end, his far right tactics are two-fold: First to preserve his voter base, by not losing voters to the Front National. Second, to cultivate a positive image in the core far right voters as he will probably need it on the second round of the presidential elections where he will most probably pass together with the socialist candidate François Hollande. Sarkozy knows that to stand up against Hollande he will need all the support he can get from his existing voters and from those who are positioned to the (far) right side of the UMP and the general electorate. He and his team of advisors definitely think that the projection of a hard line agenda that contains a strong far right element, will prove effective in winning the elections. As such the champion of European integration during France’s 2008 EU presidency, has now transformed into a much less tolerant, euro-skeptic candidate, who promises to make France “strong”, even if that means going against all those ideas he once stood for.
Though Sarkozy may only be using far right statements for election purposes, the underlying reality is that in recent years standard far right beliefs are becoming the norm in doing national politics all across Europe. Playing tactics can be easy, but playing with the social psyche can be a much more dangerous venture, with far-reaching ramifications; something that Sarkozy might have underestimated in his struggle for power.