Sarkozy teeters on the edge of despair

Sarkozy teeters on the edge of despair

The first round of the French presidential election has not substantially diminished the likelihood that the Elysee Palace will have a new occupant next month, after Nicolas Sarkozy last Sunday bucked the trend whereby the incumbent initially takes the lead. 

Few analysts, however, have written him off completely. The diminutive combatant may yet secure a second term — not least if the bulk of those who cast their ballots for the neo-fascist Front National’s (FN) Marine Le Pen opt for Sarkozy on May 6. That is not a given, however.

After all, Le Pen to a considerable extent based her campaign on deriding the status quo and, more specifically, Sarkozy’s role in it, so even a half-hearted endorsement would widely be seen as hypocritical. What’s more, it has been argued that Le Pen has a vested interest in the president’s defeat, as it could precipitate a splintering of the Union pour un Mouvement Populaire (UMP), which would facilitate FN’s ambition to posit itself as the primary right-wing force in the country.

That would be a dangerous development, albeit one aided by Sarkozy’s tendency to steal the accoutrements of extremism whenever it suits his purpose.

They are significant differences, though, and they were demonstrated last month in the wake of Mohamed Merah’s 10-day murderous spree that terrorised Toulouse and traumatised the rest of the nation. Le Pen responded to it by asking: “How many Mohamed Merahs are arriving every day in France on boats and planes filled with immigrants?” The only reasonable answer to which would be: Probably none. Sarkozy did not offer that response, but explicitly stated that Merah’s odious actions ought not to serve as an excuse for demonising French Muslims.

He will nonetheless be dedicating much of the next 10 days to courting the more than 18 per cent of the electorate that voted for Le Pen. About half of them are expected to vote for him anyhow. A quarter are likely to abstain — and the remainder seemingly detest Sarkozy so much that they are inclined to opt in the second round for Francois Hollande, the Parti Socialiste (PS) candidate who edged out Sarkozy in the first round.

Sarkozy’s problem all along has partly been the personal animus he attracts from a large section of a populace accustomed to — and arguably more comfortable with — the semi-monarchical, above-the-fray style of his presidential predecessors. 

Sarkozy’s second-fiddle relationship with Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, in the European Union’s to cope with the fiscal and broader economic woes of recent years has played a significant role in enhancing popular disenchantment, and part of Le Pen’s appeal lay in that part of her platform which envisaged an exit from the euro zone and a return to the franc.

Hollande does not go that far, although he has expressed his intention to recalibrate relations within the European context. And while it would largely be futile to try refuting the argument that the change he offers falls mainly in the category of style rather than substance, there are certainly some valuable differences in his platform, not least his commitment to ramping up taxes for the very rich.

A second comeuppance for Sarkozy on May 6 certainly won’t be bad thing either for a France or for a Europe in the grip of austerity measures that are deemed the only reasonable response to capitalism gone crazy. Whether Hollande can meaningfully deviate from the existing paradigm remains extremely doubtful. He poses a negligible risk to the status quo.

The same cannot be said about Le Pen. The trend she represents is not all that far removed from the rabid ideology that the mass murderer Anders Breivik has been spouting in a Norwegian courtroom. Europe can well do without both its Breiviks and its Merahs, but it needs to recognise that the racism and insular nationalism of the former poses the bigger threat amid the present era’s economic uncertainties.

*Mahir Ali is a former Assistant Editor of Khaleej Times. This abridged article originally appeared on Khaleej Times online.