Why Sarkozy Doesn't Deserve France

On Sunday, April 22, French voters decided to send Nicolas Sarkozy, the right-wing incumbent, and his contender the socialist François Hollande to a presidential runoff election. The American media has been quite unanimous in anticipating a victory from the latter. It has also had a slight tendency to sneer at it, dubbing Sarkozy the worst candidate for the job except all the others, to paraphrase Churchill, in an otherwise unrealistic race dominated by demagogy. The French elections have indeed abounded with ellipses. As for Sarkozy, the slim enthusiasm with which the international community has endowed him deserves further inquiry. As a French living in the U.S., I feel compelled to tell a different story.

Never before has a French leader enjoyed so much intellectual scrutiny during his incumbency. The Sarkozyst bibliography already accounts to 350 works according to a leading bookseller -- that's 11 more than former president Chirac's whose political life lasted half a century. In five years, the myth of Sarkozy has been successively created and debunked. Psychologists have had scientific quarrels over the specification of the case at hand, whether an inferiority or superiority complex, infantile caprice or social revenge, narcissism or Oedipus complex. At least one cover story has dealt with the "Sarkozy apparatus" each week. And a recent consortium over on "the ideology of Sarkozysm" organized by four think tanks and newsmakers, including The Huffington Post, gained much public attention. As if no one could really figure him out.

Yet the character himself undermines the hypothesis of a Sarkozyst doctrine. Excelling in the postmodern art of multitasking that earned him the infamous nickname of "omnipresident," Sarkozy has warded off attempts to grasp the broader logic of his political agenda. Instead he assures critics that he is doing the job the best he can, often inferring that no one could do it as well as himself, especially not his runoff socialist contender François Hollande who he deems "worthless."

Sarkozy is making sure to be judged on his pursuance not his politics -- a strategy that brought him to power in 2007 and that he is about to reiterate this year despite a well-organized and fully-deployed attack on his ideology. But can the arrow ever hit its target? Elected as the first French president openly backing economic liberalism, Sarkozy turned to championing protectionism and social democracy when the crisis hit in 2008. Also an unremitting European at the start of his term, he recently threatened to pull out of the Schengen zone for immigration reasons. Critics indeed are plenty, but they rarely talk about the same thing.

Sarkozy's election in 2007 had little to do with political ideology. He made a promise that seemed invigorating enough to the French benumbed by a failing Chirac: to fix things, and to fix them quickly. He talked about the many little flaws afflicting the République, presenting himself as its long-awaited providential manager. The French were tired of standing in line at the post office; he pushed for its privatization. The educational system left some unsatisfied; he demanded the mandatory evaluations of professors under managerial terms. Setting France on a course of self-criticism despite its long-running pride, Sarkozy appeared as a novelty while his spin doctors found the fitting snapshot story -- "inscribing France in the 21st century." And at first the French bought it.

The same strategy holds sway in 2012: diverting the attention from politics to that of the president's performance. Contenders, we are told, don't have the necessary "caliber;" they couldn't take the crisis as well as he did. On the other end, responses targeting the Sarkozyst agenda fail to recognize that Sarkozy is the president of the abolition, not of privileges, but of politics. The key to his success is not the credence of a project as much as it is his dexterity in crisis management, which favors the immediate over the substantial -- an approach un-shy of its contradictions. During the financial crisis, he was indeed recognized as an audacious negotiator in international summits. Yet he also backpedaled, eclipsed his liberal convictions, and vouched for a tax on financial transactions he formerly deemed "absurd." He also stood as an ardent defender of the French safety net he had promised to cut into. He later came back to favor liberalism in fear of losing France's "triple A" credit rating (which ultimately happened).

Unprecedented social unrest was also proof of Sarkozy's ability to thrive in crises. In the wake of bombastic comments on inner cities "lowlife," he sought confrontation with what he considered the incivility of "French of foreign origin," earning much public attention, especially from far right voters. A key measure was the launching of a large debate on the French national identity, which ultimately sparked less dialogue and reconciliation than an unprecedented moment of navel-gazing for the French white male. All the while he turned real issues of concern into adroit scapegoating strategies -- of the Roma in the rural areas and of Muslims in cities -- sapping social integration for the sake of big police coups and shock doctrines on the inequality of civilizations.

The various extremities of the last presidential term are witness to the hollowness of Sarkozysm. The French president is more accurately portrayed as a court-appointed lawyer, committed to flexibility not to political responsibility. He is a "crisis president" limited to immediate problem-solving intuitions. Yet these tend to perpetuate the general problem that they take for granted instead of questioning its causes, rethinking the framework and articulating a politics of change. The duty of a president, French writer Marc Dugain reminds us, may well be "to think the world beyond the end of his term, and to ask intimately the question of the reappropriation of a nation and its individuals' fate." As such Sarkozy, despite his achievements, doesn't deserve a country in desperate need of perspective.