Les Jeux Sont Faits

The long, sad end to the presidency of Nicolas Sarkozy.

Getty Images
Getty Images

How fortunate for French politicians that the whole country spends the month of August working on its collective tan. "Finally, vacation!" a French parliamentary official in President Nicolas Sarkozy’s party recently confided to me with a sigh. Members of the French government should be forgiven for feeling stressed at the moment. Most of the 37 cabinet members don’t know whether they will survive Sarkozy’s announced government makeover, the latest of his many governmental reforms. At the very least, they’ll have to consider which of their collective 541 advisors they want to let go, as the president is demanding that the government rolls immediately be reduced 20 percent.

If you look closer, however, this most recent austerity measure is a symbol of the greater failures of the Sarkozy presidency. Thepresident has sold the belt-tightening as an urgent response to a looming budgetary crisis, but it seems unlikely to make any difference. The majority of those laid off will be civil servants with guaranteed contracts, so they’ll simply be placed somewhere else in the government. The advisors working on private contracts are going to need to be paid sizable severance packages — an expense Sarkozy could have spared had he simply waited for the government reshuffle, when the contracts could have been terminated for cause. But waiting would have nullified the real goal of the measure: propaganda.

A big announcement, followed by minimal effect: That’s the experience France has had with its current president. Sarkozy’s successful reforms are long forgotten: the increased administrative autonomy for universities, the increased oversight given to government auditors, and the alteration of rules pertaining to trade unions. The French are also in no mood to give Sarkozy credit for his earnest reform efforts — attempts to liberalize the economy, modernize the criminal justice system, and address the crisis in the urban ghettos — that resulted in failure.

The most important reform, acareful adjustment of the pension system, is supposed to be signed and sealed in early autumn, but it’s hard to muster optimism. There’s especially strong resistance to the proposed raising of the retirement age from 60 to 62, and the government is already promising extensive exceptions. One is reminded of the fate of the "minor pension reform" from the beginning of Sarkozy’s presidency, which closed the gap between private- and public-sector employees — it was a putative money-saving reform that ended up costing the state more money.

Granted, this time things are different. With the financial markets looking at France’s balance sheet with a jaundiced eye, Sarkozy’s pension reform is designed to send a much-needed signal that the country can spend responsibly. There’s also a presidential election less than two years away. In France, where power is centralized in the presidency, elections tend to concentrate politicians’ focus.

But no French president has ever been as unpopular in the third year of his first term; Sarkozy’s approval rating stands at 33 percent. The French are tired of the uninterrupted flow of scandals from Paris. Not a week passes without more news of government officials enriching themselves at public expense or cultivating personal and financial ties with France’s milieu of millionaires.

Hadn’t Sarkozy promised the French people an "irreproachable republic"? Now, there’s only bitter disappointment all around. In a recent poll, 64 percent of the country agreed that "leading politicians"are "overwhelmingly corrupt." Among people with low incomes, the rate goes up to 75 percent. The latter amounts to an especially bitter failure for Sarkozy. His electoral success in 2007 depended not least on drawing lower-class votes away from the radical right.

The crisis of confidence isn’t only the product of particular scandals — petty corruption is a French political tradition, after all. The crisis is deeper than usual because Sarkozy has run out of ideas. Every citizen knows that the country needs change. It’s just that they want it to come at someone else’s expense. It’s on the altar of French egoism that all the liberalizing efforts of the past 30 years have met their death.

That’s why Sarkozy made his unprecedented promise to French voters three years ago: This time, all the necessary reforms would be executed at the same time. The public took him up on that offer, but its momentary trust was quickly overcome by doubts. With officials sensing the public angst, laws failed to make their way out of Parliament, or through the bureaucracies. The headwind was evident even immediately after Sarkozy’s inauguration, though it was the onset of the global financial crisis that definitely marked the end of Sarkozy’s reform alliance. As with Tony Blair’s New Labour, Sarkozy’s electoral campaign unified globalization-friendly business people, pro-modernization portions of the governmental and bureaucratic elite, and parts of the lower classes. Now the alliance has frayed; at the hint of any single reform, their separate lobbies set upon one another.

With the political atmosphere soured by private unease and public protest, Sarkozy learned to make reform a purely rhetorical venture. It’s a posture that’s damaging to Sarkozy, precisely because it so explicitly contradicts his self-image. Hadn’t he established a cult of action, the better to mark his break with the stagnant old conservatives? Sarkozy isn’t any more dictatorial than previous French presidents, but he is obviously more hyperactive. In his first year, this was refreshing. But the country has long been disillusioned. People see Sarkozy running, but they know he’s only going in a circle.

In the same way, the French slowly came to understand that the nature of their president’s foreign policy is mostly theatrical. That’s not an entirely comprehensive assessment when measured against Sarkozy’s intervention in 2008’s Georgian war or his insistence that France again participate in the NATO chain of command. Neither action changed much of substance, but they did show an impressive will to assume responsibility. But absent such good-faith leadership, powerful gestures become farcical gesticulation (see: Sarkozy’s policies on climate change, the Mediterranean Union, and U.N. reform). His statements on foreign affairs are now bordering on megalomania. During France’spresidency of the European Union, he described himself as "Europe’s president"; later, in the same vein, he announced that he was the founder of the G-20 and the savior of global capitalism. The French are bracing for the same sorts ofpronouncements this winter, when Paris becomes rotating chief of the G-8 and G-20.

None of that bravado has much purchase anymore in France. That’s why Sarkozy is now resorting to another strategy, a traditional conservative standby: repression.

Eight years ago, as interior minister, Sarkozy had already declared a "war against criminality" and promised residents of urban areas a life free of fear. This was popular among the public. Which is not to say Sarkozy actually changed anything.

Sarkozy is again reaching for that card, both in domestic and foreign policy. On Friday, Sarkozy promised a crackdown on violent crime, suggesting that foreign-born citizens be stripped of their citizenship if they are convicted of violent crimes. "The principal cause of violence is leniency," Sarkozy declared. "No housing project, no street, no stairwell should escape from the order of the republic." The announcement came on the heels of a decision on July 28 to tear down 300 encampments across the country where Roma have been living.

The government is also thinking out loud about retribution for the murder of a French hostage by al Qaeda in theIslamic Maghreb (AQMI), a regional affiliate of the terrorist network. France can easily draw on experienced commandos in the region who are familiar with this kind of mission, and an attack on the AQMI bunker in northern Mali would earn Sarkozy some sympathy in France, especially among right-wing voters. But the gesture would probably not go over well in Madrid, where the Spanish government is trying to negotiate the release of two hostages from the same terrorist group. However much an attack would undermine France’s constant plea for greater European cooperation on terrorism, the French government very well may prioritize domestic needs over foreign pieties, as it has often done in moments of weakness.

In autumn, a new phase of retrenchment will begin for Sarkozy. He’s going to put together a self-described „war cabinet," and perhaps even install a new prime minister. The era of
"Ouverture"– the opening to former socialists like foreign minister Bernard Kouchner — is over. Gone too is the split from the old conservative elite. Kouchner will likely soon be forced to relinquish his post for a traditional conservative in good standing with the right.

Sarkozy intends on going into the election campaign with his new cabinet, but he’ll first have to cross some new and dangerous political terrain. France is likely to see an unprecedented convergence of crises: the continuation of economic hard times or even the onset of a recessionary double-dip; further demoralization of the political elites; and more losses of life in the hated Afghanistan war. Not to mention the potential reaction of the easily irritated public: The streets of France could soon play host to militant labor unions, rebellious farmers, striking civil servants, and rioting youth in the banlieues.

Sarkozy seems to have abandoned hope that France’s trying circumstances can be overcome with optimism and audacity. He might try repression and retrenchment instead. But it’s possible that the reactionary, radical right are in the best position to profit from extended turmoil. In his last campaign, Sarkozy promised France a "rupture," but this is not quite the way that he meant it.

Editor’s note: The original version of this article suggested that the Roma encampments are inhabited by illegal immigrants. That was incorrect: most of the Roma living in the camps are legal residents of France.

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