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Game up for Sarkozy, but is Hollande really the change France needs?

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Originally published in The Pryer on 05/05/2012


Fellow writer Chris McCourt stated correctly that “the strongest argument in favour of Mr Hollande seems to be that he is not Monsieur Sarkozy”. Where I disagree is with his opinion that Sarkozy’s low ratings in polls are mostly down to an ‘image problem’.

Certainly his image has hindered him over the years; the nickname ‘President Bling Bling’ does him no favours, nor does it help voters to identify with him.

Sarkozy introduced tax breaks for a tiny minority of super-rich cronies, while living the life of a tycoon himself, alongside his heiress third wife, Carla Bruni-Sarkozy. The couple have regularly enjoyed luxury holidays abroad (often at somebody else’s expense), or else at Ms Bruni-Sarkozy’s palatial private villa on the Riviera.

Mr Sarkozy’s first major step on achieving office in 2007 was to award himself a pay-rise of some 140 per cent. The move showed no empathy whatsoever with ordinary French people. The presidential election of 2012 will probably show that they now have no empathy with him, or his divisive politics.

Sarkozy is the Fifth Republic’s ‎most unpopular president, with a 64% disapproval rating, and the first incumbent not to take the ‎lead in the first round.

Then we have the allegations of corruption and foulplay. Not only was Sarkozy forced to deny allegations he had received 50 million euros from the late Muammar Gaddafi, he is also accused of manipulating the sex charges against Dominique Strauss-Kahn in order to torpedo his [DSK’s] presidential chances.*

Whether these allegations are true or not, it has done little for Sarkozy’s credibility; his opinion ratings only went up slightly last year (from 30% to 37%) during the NATO-led operation in Libya.

Then there’s the fact that the former British Prime Minister Tony Blair has been a major influence on Sarkozy – if that is not enough to repel you, then nothing is!

The far right has also benefited from Sarkozy’s tactical introduction of nationalistic themes into the ‎mainstream political discourse.

It seems that Hollande is running an ‘easy campaign’. Hollande is no longer risking losing centrist votes, (centrist leader Francois Bayrou has lent his support to Hollande) which is in contrast with Sarkozy’s attempt to win the far right. “Hollande is much less encumbered by his extreme left than Sarkozy is by his extreme right”, said political scientist Pascal Perrineau.

Was immigration a key factor in Le Pen’s 20%? Perhaps not. For French voters, the economic crisis, Europe’s debt woes and pressure on household incomes have been the overriding issues, driving the wave of support for Le Pen’s National Front party.

Champallement, an area with almost zero immigration and very low crime, voted 30% for Le Pen. One Le Pen voter said: “I want more work for the French and not for foreigners. We’re sick of working hard while other people get the same amount for just sitting at home”.

When asked whether there were any foreigners in these parts, he said no. Oh, the irony. Which just goes to show the complexities of the Le-Pen vote. While Sarkozy is using anti-immigration rhetoric (the terms “Muslims” and “immigrants” have been used interchangeably) in a bid to attract the far-right vote, he is failing to see the bigger picture.

The support for the far right and even the far left in other countries is motivated by a rejection and mistrust of the elite, a rejection of European technocracy and the European consensus, and a deep fear of globalisation, rather than intense xenophobia.

This is why I think it is wrong to assume, as some have, that Ms Le Pen’s voters will swing automatically behind Mr Sarkozy in the May 6th run-off.

Though Sarkozy is upping the rhetoric on immigration, there is no doubt in my mind that he actually believes it. Former spokesperson for Sarkozy, Rachida Dati, denies the president has veered wildly to the right or crossed any invisible moral or political line.

“Since the Arab Spring when we saw a huge wave of migrants arrive off the coast of Italy and when France temporarily closed her borders…We are not suggesting France becomes an island or isolated, we are talking about a Europe that is protective not protectionist. We are not saying expel immigrants, we are saying we have to stop them coming”.

So the incumbent President is all for championing the rights of Arabs in their own countries, condemning the Syrian government and imploring other countries to allow in Syrian people across their borders – he just does not like them in his own country.

France is the only western democracy where a minister of interior, Brice Hortefeux remained in duty in spite of his condemnation for racial offences. During a political meeting, talking about the Arab origins of one of the participants, the minister stated, in front of cameras: “He doesn’t correspond to the prototype. We always need one [Arab]. When there is only one of them it’s alright. But it becomes a problem when there are too many of them”.

More importantly, the French people have pressing concerns to deal with. A recent BPCE poll for the French financial newspaper Les Echos cited an unemployment rate of more than 10% as France’s most pressing problem, with immigration ninth on the list of priorities.

This is precisely why another Sarkozy term will see even more chaos and frustration among the French people. He does not seem to be addressing key issues, such as the economy, growth, unemployment and jobs.

Not only are white French people disenchanted, but so are the children of the North-African immigrants, who are routinely discriminated against. Myriam Francois-Cerrah did an excellent piece on the sentiments of France’s Muslims.

Hollande: the candidate of change?

But what would a Hollande presidency mean? Despite Sarkozy labelling his rival as a dangerous fiscal extremist (he has proposed a 75% tax on those earning 1m euros) who would plunge Europe back into a deep crisis, most City analysts have a more sober view.

Mujtaba Rahman of Eurasia Group argues that Hollande will struggle to make major changes to Europe’s strategy, stating: “It’s going to be easy for Merkel to sign up to Hollande’s growth agenda because it means very little in terms of actual substance. However, on the fiscal side, much of Merkel’s agenda is now codified in EU legislation”.

In a less ostentatious way than Nicolas Sarkozy, Francois Hollande has also begun to court right wing voters. Hollande is attempting to win over the 6.4 million voters who supported the extreme right leader Marine Le Pen.

He said: “In a period of crisis such as that which we are experiencing, limiting immigration is not just necessary, but essential,” he said, considering adopting the 20,000 a year limit of 20,000 already established by Sarkozy, even if he is open to a discussion on the number. . .

Hollande told RTL radio Friday that if elected, he won’t overturn a law banning face-covering Muslim veils, stating that he would “have it applied in the best way.” He did not elaborate.

Europe Editor Ian Traynor, writing for the Guardian, argues that if François Hollande claims victory, he will inherit a miserable economic situation and possibly face limitations from the markets.

Within weeks of winning, he argues, he should be at his first EU summit, either sparring or compromising with Chancellor Angela Merkel over the German-scripted fiscal pact for the eurozone, austerity, fiscal stimulus, and how to shore up the euro.

Philippe Marlière, Professor of French and European politics at University College London, writes that he is “like most politicians today…ideologically adaptable and ambiguous”.

If Nicolas Sarkozy wins a second term which is looking unlikely, it will be ‘business as usual’ on the euro crisis, while he pursues a more Eurosceptic line at home to court the Front National, through a tough line on immigration, and tough austerity measures.

Under Sarkozy, progressive taxation such as income tax is being replaced by regressive taxation such as VAT, and let us not forget the numerous tax breaks to the wealthy.

At a time of great economic crisis, more austerity is not what Europe needs. This is why Sarkozy is almost certain to lose the second round. We cannot predict that Hollande will be the saviour France needs but he cannot be any worse than Sarkozy.


Written by Iram Ramzan

May 5, 2012 at 9:37 pm

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