The Sarkozy Phenomenon

May 26, 2011

Nicolas Sarkozy's election as president of France in 2007 represented a change of political generation, a point he himself underlined by adopting "rupture" as his campaign slogan and presenting himself as a tough, innovative leader who was prepared to roll up his sleeves and tackle what he saw as a nation in decline.

Sarkozy had already cultivated a reputation for being tough on law and order. In 2005, he famously described the youth of the Paris suburbs, many of whom were "of immigrant origin" (the term "ethnic minorities" is not used in mainstream French political discourse), as "racaille" or scum. In a clear pitch to win over the extreme Right electorate of Jean-Marie Le Pen's National Front, he promised to clean out the suburbs with a "Karcher", an industrial high-pressure washer.

As Nick Hewlett shows, this was not the only rupture that Sarkozy promised. France, he argued, needed to break with years of economic stagnation and free up the economy by reducing state involvement in the labour market, weakening guarantees of the 35-hour week and providing tax breaks for the wealthy to encourage enterprise. At the same time, he sought to strengthen the state in other ways, with new legislation to increase the power of the president vis-a-vis parliament (although he presented these measures as doing the opposite) and to deport illegal immigrants.

In promising rupture, there was also a not-so-implicit criticism of the inertia of his predecessor, Jacques Chirac. Instead, Sarkozy promised an interventionist presidency. Indeed, his critics have dubbed him the "hyperprésident", or hyperactive president, and accuse him of interfering in a range of policy areas "often in inverse proportion to the logic of the reforms".

Sarkozy sought to break with past presidential practice in other ways. His policy of "ouverture" to other political currents and ideas normally associated with the Left broke new ground.

In contradiction to France's strictly egalitarian republican tradition, he appeared to support positive discrimination as a way of addressing the dearth of people from ethnic minorities in prominent positions in French public life, an approach traditionally associated with the Left in other countries. He appointed women from ethnic minorities to ministerial posts and planned reforms in the environmental and climate change field, a policy area normally associated with the Left in France. He also appointed socialists to prominent posts in government, with Bernard Kouchner leading the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Eric Besson, a former Socialist Party national secretary, heading the new Ministry of Immigration, Integration, National Identity and Solidarity Development.

Shortly after coming to power, this eclectic mix of policies and political personalities collided with the 2008 global financial crisis.

The first casualty was Sarkozy's neoliberal economic agenda. Suddenly, the unregulated free market looked a less promising proposition. Sarkozy performed a U-turn on economic policy and affirmed his support for French-style state-oriented capitalism. Apart from raising the retirement age to 62, his other planned reforms mostly came unstuck as a result of determined opposition from certain groups or their political incoherence, or both.

How then are we to understand the "Sarkozy phenomenon"? For Hewlett he is a Bonapartist, part of a recurring pattern in French politics that brings strong, authoritarian leaders to power at moments of crisis to "save the nation from itself". He acknowledges, however, that Sarkozy can also be seen as combining three archetypes within the French political Right: the conventional, conservative politician, the Bonapartist populist and the far-Right authoritarian. Alternatively, Sarkozy can be seen as a uniquely contemporary phenomenon: one of a new generation of media-aware, celebrity-like leaders that includes Tony Blair, Silvio Berlusconi and Vladimir Putin who are part of the modern trend of politics as spectacle, which is accompanied by dumbing down and depoliticisation.

In this excellent short book, readers will find plenty to support each of these approaches. They will doubtless then make up their own mind about which is the most useful analytical "grill" through which to read the Sarkozy phenomenon.

The Sarkozy Phenomenon

By Nick Hewlett. Imprint Academic, 128pp, £8.95. ISBN 9781845402396. Published 5 May 2011

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