Thursday, February 2, 2012

Le Meilleur Homme: Sarkozy in Light and Shade

There is no perfect candidate running for the French presidency. Then again, putting it mildly, since the inculcation of the Fifth Republic France has never had a perfect President.

The first, Charles de Gaulle, was a quasi-fascist military ruler with a nasty prejudice towards the non-French and Anglo-Saxons in particular. He took power under the cloud of a coup d’etat led by Jacques Massu and other fifth columnists in Algeria, and clung to power by bullying other nations and over-egging the narrative of French resistance during the Second World War. De Gaulle, it should be noted, led this so-called effort from a palatial structure on Carlton Terrace in St. James’s, and subsequently spent the better part of his presidency deriding the very peoples and nations who liberated France not once but twice from foreign aggression during the twentieth century — he was, then, the very epitome of an armchair general.

Those who followed de Gaulle could hardly be as pompous, but the French hardly witnessed a great deal of improvement in the calibre or moral fortitude of their leaders. François Mitterrand was a Petainist sympathiser who laid flowers annually on Armistice Day on the grave of the leader of the Vichy government, a puppet regime which collaborated with the Nazis and was complicit in the Shoah. Mitterrand also hid a secret daughter whom he had fathered with his long-time mistress, opposed German unification following the fall of the Berlin Wall, and presided over such disasters as the genocide in Rwanda (a former French colony and the most Catholic country in Africa), the sinking of the Rainbow Warrior, and the HIV contaminated blood scandal.

He was succeeded by Jacques Chirac, a neo-Gaullist race-baiter with ideas above his station, who lead the effort in by-proxy support of Saddam Hussein, in opposition to the long-postponed liberation of Iraq. A French court convicted him late last year of “diverting public funds and abusing public trust” during his tenure as Mayor of Paris — Chirac used the city government as a platform to construct a powerful political and electoral organisation with himself at the centre, using public funds to pay members of his party for jobs which did not exist.

I say all this not just out of a combination of glee and disgust, but to put into some sort of context the competency which marked the Sarkozy presidency above all others, relatively speaking of course. This is not say to that he hasn’t been a little embarrassing, at times seeming as if he was stumbling from one comedic incident to the next: from his drunken post-lunch press conference after meeting Vladimir Putin, to a contretemps out on the stump where he castigated a citizen for neglecting to shake his hand.

The problem for Sarkozy is that these moments which should be considered trifling and ethereal have been blown up, as to make seem more monumental than they truly are, and paint a portrait of Sarkozy as an aloof, bumbling fool, not fit to inhabit the Élysée Palace. This goes some way to explaining why, based upon the most recent survey conducted by French polling organisation CSA, Sarkozy would lose in a runoff with the PS candidate François Hollande by 20 points.

And, his fallen standing is also the result of a misplaced public resentment, driven by the current economic conditions. France’s extensive public sector – a hangover of the policy of dirigisme, a cornerstone of les Trente Glorieuses — enabled the country to buffet the recession adequately, but has slowed growth in subsequent years (not aided, admittedly, but the single currency crisis). The unemployment rate remains stubbornly high at 9.8pc, and on Monday revised its growth forecast downward from 1pc to only 0.5pc. In effect, growth for the year 2012 will be non-existent. The budget remains in deficit – as it has for at least the past thirty years – and has been enlarged by various post-Lehman stimulus measures which have, the Heritage Foundation notes, resulted in “a deterioration of public finance, increasing the fiscal burdens imposed on French taxpayers”.

But at the same time, measures to improve France’s fiscal footing have been vociferously protested against by students, trades union, and other factions opposed to deregulation and liberalisation. Efforts to raise the retirement age – the lowest in Western Europe – from 60 and 62 drew between 1-2 million people onto the streets in opposition. Sarkozy is jammed between a sluggish economy which requires reform to improve and tackle the continent-wide debt and jobs crisis, and a public deeply hostile to measures which may reduce the size of the state.

The Sarkozy presidency, thus, merits being judged within this context, one of intransigence and many hindrances obstructing progress. When it comes to foreign affairs, neither in France nor in the international community does Sarkozy get the credit he is due for leading the transnational effort in support of the free forces of the National Transitional Council, to remove Colonel Gaddafi from power in Libya. Recent alarming, serious, and chilling reports of rebel forces turning the tables on Gaddafi sympathisers, mistreating, abusing, and torturing them, absent of prosecution from the nascent government, have clouded memories of the state of the country one year ago.

Libyans had, for the first time under Gaddafi’s rule, risen up in a substantial enough number to threaten the central administration in Tripoli. Pro-government forces had, however, pushed eastward far enough to threaten the rebel’s final stronghold in Benghazi. Gaddafi had threatened to “purge Libya inch by inch, house by house, alley by alley” – zenga zenga – and given his history, the West had no reason not to take him seriously on this point.

Sarkozy was the first major world leader to publically support the rebel forces, and recognise the NTC over Colonel Gaddafi. He, along with David Cameron, was pivotal to ensuring the passage of a United Nations resolution, securing the skies over Libya and preventing a bloodbath in Benghazi. His government also provided vital logistical aid to rebel forces, which were under-armed and highly disorganised. Libyan democracy will take years or even decades to evolve into a stable condition, but what can be asserted is that the world is better off for Gaddafi’s removal, and Sarkozy was central and pivotal to that end.

The salad of alternatives vying for the French presidency also gives credence to the notion that a continuation of Sarkozy’s tenure would be good thing. His main rival, François Hollande, has proposed an agenda which would see government spending increase, funding by almost 30 billion of tax increases on businesses and the wealthy. He has also indicated that he would be willing to tear up and rewrite the EU fiscal compact that would see spending and deficit brought under control (though the merits of the stringency of these measures are very much up for debate), and levy additional taxes on the banking industry.

Not a lot needs to be said about Marine le Pen, save that her anti-globalisation, anti-immigration, anti-Islam message would see France effectively withdraw itself from the family of nations and into a hermit-like condition where the only true Frenchmen are those avec une souche­, with a stump. The other principle contender, François Bayrou, is an anti-establishment centrist populist, but no real platform or manifesto to speak off.

Thus we return to Nicolas Sarkozy. France has never had a perfect President, and certainly Sarkozy hasn’t been exemplary. But in a race where there is no perfect candidate, and no astonishing or gripping alternative, his record – particularly at a time of tremendous economic and social unrest in Europe –makes an excellent case for the French electing for five more years of Sarkozy and the stable politics of le droit.