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Nicolas Sarkozy

France
Politics

Transparently blind ambition. Heavy-handed manipulation. Crude talk. Obvious love of power, wealth and self. You’d be forgiven for thinking this not the best recipe for success in politics. Especially not in a country like France, with a political culture that values the intellect and is obsessed with ideology; with a long tradition of Socialist Left and Gaullist Right. So how do you explain Sarko?

Nicolas Sarkozy is the Interior Minister who enraged the disenfranchised immigrant youths of the Paris suburbs by calling them ‘rabble’ (_racaille_). He went on to suggest that he would ‘karcherize’ the ghettos – a reference to a violent form of vacuum cleaning for encrusted dirt. He threw fuel on the flames of revolt as, night after night, the youth burned thousands of cars and fought with riot police. When the TV cameras came to places like Clichy-Sous-Bois or Seine-Saint-Denis to interview the enraged youths, the name of Sarkozy was never far from their lips. He had become for them the symbol of a France blind to their marginalization, as he built a political career on racism and immigrant-bashing.

But it would be a mistake to underestimate the wily Sarko – or ‘Speedy’ as he is sometimes called, due to his nervous energy and penchant for fidgeting. He has built up a substantial popular following, from the far-Right to the centre-Left. He has packaged himself as a pragmatic, shoot-from-the-hip ‘outsider’ in revolt against the sclerotic old guard of French politics. The prize he’s after is to replace his arch-rival, Jacques Chirac, as President in the 2007 elections.

Sarko is a departure from French politics in several respects. He is a quite open admirer of things Anglo-Saxon. He rates Tony Blair for the way he was able to seduce the media and shift British politics to his conservative ‘New Labour’ point of view. He champions Americana – anathema in Parisian political circles. ‘I like America and Americans a lot, and I say it. Some of my friends tell me not to talk about it so loudly. Why? I don’t get it.’ His pro-US tilt has been rewarded with the red-carpet treatment in Washington, even as other things French were being excoriated. He has an excellent press there too, including a fawning 2005 profile in the prestigious journal _Foreign Policy_.

Sarko presents himself as a rebel against the besieged French model of egalitarianism and social entitlement. As Finance Minister he pushed a privatization agenda and worked to undermine the 35-hour work week won by France’s combative social and trade union movements. He wants lower taxes and less bureaucracy.

In France this may have some resonance, but in the rest of the world it looks pretty much like the standard formula for making the rich richer and the poor poorer. Sarko is close pals with French business leaders like Martin Bouygues (who owns a TV channel) and the billionaire Bernard Arnault. Bouygues claims Sarko is ‘one of the few French politicians for whom a business success story is not suspect’.

But Sarko is crafty if nothing else. He has avoided any positive commentary on the unpopular Bush agenda. While pushing street-wise, law-and-order politics he has fended off charges of racism and fascism by carefully cultivating a few pro-Muslim initiatives.

His undoing may be his immense ego. He is obsessed with ‘policing’ his own reputation. He recently managed to suppress a tell-all book by his estranged wife, forcing the publisher to take a major hit, with 25,000 copies already printed. The books were warehoused in a Paris suburb, leading the humourist Laurent Ruquier to remark: ‘If the suburban youth had burned down that warehouse, Sarkozy would have given them a bonus.’

According to former football star Eric Cantona: ‘It’s not easy growing up in a bad neighbourhood. People look at you and treat you in a certain way. In France we are capable of celebrating a man like Napoleon, who brought back slavery. Today he has been replaced by a man who, for me, is Le Pen [leader of the extreme right-wing National Front] with a mask.’

Chirac rather than Sarko took the flak for the ‘_non_’ vote on the European constitution – but the threat to France’s relatively generous social programmes and extensive public sector was one of the main reasons for that vote. In the past the French have proven combative when it comes to letting the market decide. Sarko may be in for a rough ride.