Nicolas Sarkozy’s Waterloo Is His War on Islam

The former president has staked his comeback on a mistaken belief that France is having an identity crisis.

PARIS, FRANCE - APRIL 15:  French President and right-wing ruling party, Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) candidate for the French 2012 presidential election Nicolas Sarkozy delivers a speech during a campaign meeting at Place de la Concorde on April 15, 2012 in Paris, France. President Sarkozy and challenger Socialist Francois Hollande held giant campaign rallies a week before the first round of voting as polls showed Hollande widening his lead by another two points.  (Photo by Franck Prevel/Getty Images)
PARIS, FRANCE - APRIL 15: French President and right-wing ruling party, Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) candidate for the French 2012 presidential election Nicolas Sarkozy delivers a speech during a campaign meeting at Place de la Concorde on April 15, 2012 in Paris, France. President Sarkozy and challenger Socialist Francois Hollande held giant campaign rallies a week before the first round of voting as polls showed Hollande widening his lead by another two points. (Photo by Franck Prevel/Getty Images)

Over the course of his campaign to become the presidential nominee of Les Républicains, France’s conservative party, Nicolas Sarkozy has invited more than a few comparisons to Donald Trump. This is true not just for his foes on the center and the left, though Socialist Prime Minister Manuel Valls did speak of the “Trumpization” of the former president. Even erstwhile friends on the right see a certain resemblance. As onetime Sarkozy ally and shadowy accomplice Jean-François Copé joked in September: “Certain candidates are watching too many shows with Mr. Trump.” This is because Sarkozy, a self-proclaimed pal of Hillary Clinton’s, has nonetheless been giving the Republican U.S. presidential nominee a run for his money when it comes to who can offer up the bleakest vision for where their respective countries are headed.

According to Sarkozy, France is a country embroiled in a civil war between those who would see its identity dissipated and those who wish to protect it. The former French president wants to be the latter’s champion. As he notes in his campaign book Tout pour la France (All for France), which was published this summer: “There can be no happy identity as long as we do not reaffirm that the French identity is not more important than particular identities.”

On the campaign trail, Sarkozy has taken pains to show just how he will go about such a reaffirmation, should he be elected president. He has insisted that all French citizens, regardless of their ethnic backgrounds, claim the Gauls as their ancestors. He has vowed both to ban the wearing of the veil in public and to take up the war against burkinis with new zeal. He has promised to plunk all potential terrorists in so-called “de-radicalization centers” — centers that Laurent Wauquiez, the leader of Sarkozy’s party, has referred to, without a hint of irony, as “internment camps,” indifferent to the echoes this phrase carries from France’s grim past under the Vichy regime.

Whether through ideological conviction or political convenience — the two positions, in Sarkozy’s case, are difficult to disentangle — the former president is clearly betting that French voters will embrace a vision of a nation on the back foot. However, Sarkozy is hardly alone. In addition to National Front leader Marine Le Pen, who has consistently called for “zero immigration” and described Muslims praying outside a Paris mosque as an “occupation,” President François Hollande, too, has begun to portray France and French identity as something under threat. In a book of interviews published last month, aptly titled A President Should Not Say That, Hollande observes that “no one doubts France has a problem with Islam.” Not to fear, however: The Socialist president, echoing recent comments by Valls, also insists that “today’s veiled Muslim woman will be tomorrow’s Marianne” — France’s feminine (and often bare-breasted) embodiment of liberty.

In building a case for their candidacies around a defense of traditional French identity, Sarkozy, Le Pen, and Hollande have joined a slew of intellectuals engaged in what is by now a familiar discourse of national malaise. In this narrative of decline, France is portrayed as a country unmoored from its past greatness, swept up in a wind-whipped sea of unchecked globalization and immigration. In his earlier comments, Sarkozy was making a reference to the work of French neoconservative thinker Alain Finkielkraut, whose 2013 book, L’identité malheureuse (Unhappy Identity), paints a dire picture of a country fragmenting into religious and ethnic enclaves. The French historian Robert Frank, who wrote the landmark book La hantise du déclin (The Fear of Decline), published in 1994, recently suggested in an interview that the older notion of “decline” has morphed into that of “decadence.” The danger for many in France, he observed, is “no longer an invasion from without, but instead a dilution of the French identity.”

Yet a flurry of polls shows that many French citizens aren’t buying it. On Oct. 18, the magazine L’Express published a survey that ranked the popularity of the presidential candidates. Topping the list, at 42 percent, was Alain Juppé, the current mayor of Bordeaux. In a former life, Juppé served as prime minister under Jacques Chirac in the mid-1990s — a position that won him widespread opprobrium for his unpopular and ultimately unsuccessful efforts to cut back the state’s generous social security provisions. After his fall as prime minister, Juppé reinvented himself as a mayor, successfully revitalizing a once dreary provincial city and winning overwhelming bipartisan support.

When Sarkozy takes potshots at the promoters of a “happy identity,” he has Juppé in his crosshairs. First coined by Juppé in 2014 in response to Finkielkraut’s book, the phrase has since become his campaign’s unofficial slogan. (When Hollande was asked his opinion, he replied judiciously that France with neither happy nor unhappy — the sort of feckless triangulation that has contributed to his current 4 percent approval rating.) Rather than retreat in the face of Sarkozy’s dig, Juppé has since brandished the phrase with greater energy. Rather than recoiling in the face of religious and ethnic diversity, Juppé instead has declared he seeks to “conciliate” the reality of French society with republican ideals. He has spoken of certain “accommodations” that the state should strike with French Muslims, centered on practical issues like serving halal meals in schools. He has also denounced the “frenzy of intellectuals,” some of whom have proposed that parents be limited to giving their children traditional “French” names like Jacques and Marie. And for all of this levelheadedness, Juppé, according to polls, has been rewarded by the voters-to-be.

Sarkozy’s belittling of Juppé as “naive” and “angelic,” meanwhile, has won him little favor. In an Odoxa poll published in mid-October and measuring the popularity of prominent French politicians, Sarkozy languished in 14th place, finding favor with less than a quarter of respondents. Fifty-five percent of respondents had an unfavorable view of the former president; the only politicians who come close to having a similarly unfavorable rating are Marine Le Pen and her niece Marion Maréchal-Le Pen, one of the National Front’s rising stars. Barring an event that would have a seismic impact on the political landscape — another terrorist attack being the most likely scenario — Sarkozy’s dreams of returning to the Élysée Palace appear likely to go up in smoke come the late November primary vote. The would-be comeback kid seems to have badly misjudged the mood of the French electorate.

Evidence that the center is holding in France also comes from the left of the political spectrum: Finishing second to Juppé, with 34 percent of support in the L’Express poll, was Emmanuel Macron, the former economy minister under Hollande. Having quit his position in August after a series of disagreements with the government over his proposals to loosen the state’s oversight of labor laws, the 38-year-old Macron has since devoted his time to building his own political movement, dubbed En Marche! (On the March!). A graduate of France’s prestigious National School of Administration, the training ground for French technocrats, Macron acknowledges the French no longer believe in technical solutions. Instead, he hammers at broad measures that would “revitalize” French democracy, including proportional representation for the Senate and National Assembly. To those who worry that would increase the representation of the National Front, Macron replies, not unreasonably, that “rather than limiting the extremes by excluding them, we are instead reinforcing them.”

Most importantly, like Juppé, Macron has rallied to an inclusive and tolerant republicanism. He has repeatedly lambasted what he calls “laïcité revancharde” — the straight and narrow secularism embraced, to varying degrees, not just by Le Pen and Sarkozy but also by many on the left, including his former boss, Prime Minister Valls. He argues that Sarkozy’s proposal to ban Muslim students from wearing the veil at public universities is not just demagogic but disastrous. Such a law, he said, while “marginalizing Muslim students, would neither halt the rise of fundamentalism nor reinforce secularism.” When it comes to religious belief, he insists upon the strict neutrality of the state. As long as Catholics no less than Muslims respect the rights of others, the republic has no right to interfere with an individual’s “transcendental” beliefs. And in an act of political courage, he also acknowledges the structural racism in many spheres of French life: “If you are named Youssef or Ibrahim in our country, life is much harder.”

Both Macron’s and Juppé’s popularity undoubtedly issues from their image as competent managers and problem-solvers. But their ascendancy, and Sarkozy’s stumble, also points to the limits of the politics of declinism and national identity in France. Contrary to popular opinion elsewhere in the world — or opinion in Parisian intellectual circles, at least — it turns out that the French nation isn’t quite such a head case after all. In a survey last month by French polling firm Ifop, less than 10 percent of voters identified “secularism and the place of Islam in French society” as their chief concern. Instead, “the fight against unemployment” topped the list, with 27 percent of voters identifying it as their top concern, followed by the “fight against terrorism” and “level of taxation.” The poll also revealed that 56 percent of voters believe that politicians “talk too much about Islam”; just one quarter believes that politicians do not speak enough about it.

In the recently published book Marque France (France: The Brand), the well-known public relations specialist Philippe Lentschener argues that the likes of Sarkozy, Le Pen, and Valls have overestimated their particular sales pitch and underestimated their audience. The majority of the French, Lentschener affirms, are not buying the anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim bill of goods. Reminding me that I am descended from Gauls, he writes acerbically, will not help me find a job or grow my business.

For people like Lentschener, or his fellow citizens, who are concerned with pragmatic issues like the economy, it will take more than just letting go the French attachment to a narrative of social and political decline for Juppé and Macron to have something to offer. But letting go is a start, at least. The Jacques and Maries of France, no less than the Youssefs and Ibrahims, are eager for a new storyline.

Photo credit: Franck Prevel/Getty Images

Robert Zaretsky is a professor of history at the University of Houston’s Honors College and the author of a forthcoming book on Simone Weil.


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