France on a cliffhanger

France on a cliffhanger

8 April 2012Mon Dieu! France’s presidential elections are only two weeks away. President Nicholas Sarkozy, who was trailing in the polls behind Socialist Challenger Francois Hollande, is now running neck-a-neck in the race.

One suspects Sarkozy, has made a pact with the devil.

First, in an incredible stroke of luck for the wildly unpopular Sarkozy, the man who should have been France’s next president, former IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn (DSK), was ruined by sordid sex scandals. Disgraced bad boy DSK is now preposterously charged with pimping and sexual criminal conspiracy. The Strauss-Kahn scandal saved Sarko’s goat: polls showed Sarkozy would have been soundly beaten by DSK.

France’s judicial system is notoriously obedient to political power. Sarkozy is clearly beating political dead horse Strauss-Kahn to smear the opposition Socialist Party, whose star the ex-IMF chief once was. French politics are notoriously dirty and sleazy.

Strauss-Kahn’s escapades with ladies of the night and females who came too close proved a major misfortune for France. Strauss-Kahn was likely the only politician who could have imposed desperately needed reforms on France’s sagging economy and bloated welfare state.

Second, the murder of seven people in Toulouse by a deranged youth of North African background that horrified France. Sarkozy, his allies and the right-wing media launched a blitz of scare stories about alleged “Islamic terrorism,” the suspect’s supposed links to Al Qaeda, and fear of foreigners. In a scene straight from the classic film “Casablanca,” Sarko ordered his security forces to arrest the usual Muslim suspects who had nothing to do with the Toulouse massacre.

Third, Sarko played to France’s growing xenophobia and prejudice against Islam by warning of Muslim conspiracies, and demanding the number of “foreigners” in France be curtailed. Pretty rich, considering that Sarkozy was the offspring of Hungarian Jewish immigrants. But his rightwing supporters ate this up with gusto. Now, Sarko and his men are crying about the dire threat of Muslim halal meat (though not Kosher. France has 600,000 Jews who are fierce Sarkozy supporters).

Equally important, Sarkozy’s warnings on Islamisation of France are luring voters way from the far right, neo-Vichy National Front of Marine Le Pen. The amazingly coincidental Toulouse massacre may just save the day for Sarko.

I extensively interviewed Marine’s father, Jean-Marie. He was beating the anti-Muslim drums back in the 1980’s and warning that “immigration equals invasion.” He had a great one liner-for me: “You Americans took California away from Mexico. Now, by immigration, they are taking it back.” Many French share his views. In the 1930’s, the France’s right made Jews the enemies of mankind; today, the alleged culprits are Muslims. This noxious tendency has also infected US politics.

The hard left has also come back to life in France, threatening to draw votes from center-left candidate Hollande. Politicians across Europe have been swept from office by a tide of anger over economic woes. Strange things could happen in France, which has a tradition of radicalism and anarchism. But as of now, the Sarko-Hollande race still looks close, but Islamophobia is allowing Sarko to nose ahead.

None of the candidates have addressed France’s severe economic problems or its growing lack of competiveness. Both Sarko and Hollande vow to raise taxes. Hollande promises to hire 60,000 new teachers to boost employment, a crazy scheme at a time when France has far too many sociology teachers, bureaucrats and government employees, and spends 56 per cent of GDP on government. Hollande wants a 75 per cent top tax. The Socialists defend their beloved and quite lunatic 35-hour work-week, which has further undermined the competitiveness of French industry and service sector.

The basic problem is that in spite of chronic grumbling, French live in one of the world’s most beautiful, best-run, civilised countries. France must slash government spending, lower sky-high taxes, liberalise the economy and stop borrowing. French don’t want to change but must at some point. Vilifying Muslims or banning halal meat is not going to address these issues.

Eric Margolis is a veteran US journalist. This article originally appeared on Khaleej Times online.