The Burning Bush of Nicolas Sarkozy

"Before the first round, the campaign was poor. Before the run-off, it has become putrid," Dominique de Villepin wrote this week in a widely read op-ed piece in Le Monde.

For weeks, many have complained about what little place the French presidential election was giving to real issues. The polls circulating for the last eight days confirm that the biggest concerns of the French are jobs and buying power, followed by economic woes, the national debt, solidarity and public services.

Immigration comes far behind in eighth place. Only 24 percent of French voters say immigration is an issue that influenced their choice, according to a Harris Interactive poll. Clearly it is not a priority -- except for voters of Marine Le Pen, the eliminated far-right candidate whose vast majority of supporters (77 percent) say immigration is the No. 1 problem. And except for the speeches of incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy as he campaigned for his Sunday run-off against Socialist candidate François Hollande.

Sarkozy finally softened his tone last weekend at an appearance in Toulouse, but only because many observers, including those in his own camp, expressed disbelief at his hard line on immigration, which festered during a hotly contested first round against the Front National party's Le Pen.

Sarkozy adviser Patrick Buisson has pushed the president for many years to campaign with the same themes as the extreme right. The first round of the voting on April 22 proved the strategy wrong. Sarkozy increased his share of the vote very slightly from the 25 percent that the polls predicted at the beginning of the campaign to 27 percent in the election tally April 22. His message gives the impression that the republican right wing doesn't know how to rise up against the extreme-right values traditionally rejected in France. Buisson persisted with his anti-immigration platform leading up to the final round, and risked his candidate's fall. That's his problem. But he has damaged France. That's our problem.

In the past, winks made in the direction of the Front National were stigmatized. Many French remember the inflammatory words of then-President Jacques Chirac, who described "the noise and the smell" of a building inhabited by immigrants and native French. Poor Chirac! How he was criticized for his connivance with Front National! But it was finally not such a big deal, especially compared to what has happened in this election.

This week we witnessed the incumbent adopting words and ideas from the Front National. Sarkozy seemed offended that we would be indignant that he described the FN as "compatible" with the Republic. The emotion produced by his words -- uttered for the first time -- is understandable. Sure, the Republic protects the free speech of those who don't agree with its values. The Republic accepts that the FN has the right to compete in elections and express itself. But accepting that a party has a right to exist in our Republic doesn't mean that its campaign themes, slogans, claims and politics are compatible with the ideas of the Republic! France has tolerated a royalist party, even if the principles of royalty are incompatible with those of the Republic. So when Le Pen roots for national preference -- or national priority like she now calls it -- in the matter of social protection, it is nothing but a challenge to the ideal that the Republic has proclaimed since our World War II liberation.

What bothers the nation is that Sarkozy is not just another candidate. As the current president, he is still accountable for the image of France. He repeats themes, sometimes word for word, from the "pocket" of the Front National's Le Pen. (See the unbelievable montage of the French website Mediapart on this subject. It's an affront to the veterans of the National Council of the Resistance, and it's a license for the rest of the world to shake its finger at France, a nation that likes to teach lessons.)

I heard, on Friday night in Dijon and then again on Saturday in Clermont-Ferrand, Sarkozy pretend that he hadn't made any new proposals since last Sunday. These are "small arrangements with the truth." It is true that the "presumption of the right of self-defense" that the incumbent would like to grant every cop, has come up between the two rounds, right from the little navy blue book of Marine Le Pen, who has called Sarkozy's declaration an "ideological victory." It's a proposal that even Claude Guéant, the current minister of the Interior, called a "license to kill."

At Longjumeau last Tuesday, Sarkozy pretended to address the people of France, but was in fact talking to the voters of Le Pen, who may decide Sunday's election. He spoke of a zest of work and a pinch of family, and about the immigrants, and again the immigrants. He declared that Europe had become a sieve for foreigners and reaffirmed the Christian roots of France: "This country," he said without anybody paying real attention "was built on kings and churches." What about the age of enlightenment, the French Revolution, the ideal of the Republic or secularity?

He sees too many foreigners in our territory, and a system of integration that is no longer efficient. Immigration is, he says, "uncontrolled." (But who was minister of the Interior and then President of the Republic over the past 10 years?). He thinks our deficits deepen because foreigners take advantage of social services, so he wants the RSA (a French form of social welfare) and the minimum old-age income to be given to citizens only after they spend 10 years on French soil and pay dues for a minimum of 5 years.

One had to rub one's eyes to realize this was a Sarkozy rally, side by side with his spokeswoman, Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet, the author of an acclaimed book against the FN, "Le Front antinational," and who, day after day, has had to bite her tongue, no matter what her candidate is saying.

So Sunday, in Toulouse, after a week of hearing Buisson, we were given a Henri Guaino (another special adviser to the president) with a horde of heroes including Victor Hugo, Joan of Arc, Charles de Gaulle, the Résistance, plus a torrent of general considerations on civilization, the borders, regurgitated at least 50 times in a hazardous digestion of the last book of Régis Debray, L'éloge des frontières (Praise of the Borders).

We also had to listen to the repetitive praise of Claude Allègre, a former socialist and, oddly, a supporter of Sarkozy. And there was also the evocation of national sentiment, which is, according to Sarkozy, very different from nationalism. Then came an appreciation of Europe, which he thinks is too diluted because of globalization. In a word, it was a very trivial right-wing speech, much less cleaving than the previous ones.

But who is the candidate one must listen to? The right-wing man who comes back to his core values or the man who is engaged in a crazy race for the votes of the extreme right wing? Is one "national" speech enough to erase a series of "nationalist" rallies?

In the flood of overstating these last few days, very few voices have risen from the right wing to condemn his remarks. The silence is reminiscent of Communists in the 1960s and '70s, who refused to disavow the Soviet Union when it was devoted to indescribable repressions behind its Iron Curtain, in order not to "harm their camp."

Where is Alain Juppé, a man with an honorable reputation as a true republican? What about Jean-Pierre Raffarin, who says, like some Stalinists back in the day, "If I was expressing today some reservations, I would weaken my camp"? Where are Jacques Toubon, Pierre Mazeaud, Yves Guéna, all trusted Gaullists, in their deafening silence? Where is Rachida Dati, a symbol of success for immigrant women? Where is former President Valery Giscard d'Estaing, who could defend conservative values rather than denounce the "adventure" that Hollande would make of our financial situation?

"In combat, honor is loyalty," Raffarin said to Le Monde. One can point out to Mr. Raffarin that, fortunately, on June 18, 1940, General de Gaulle did not pronounce these words but chose instead to be disloyal to the Vichy Regime in order to save the honor of France.

In the last few days, some prominent officials did dare to speak up. Yes, "dared" is the right word. It was as if fear -- but fear of what, for God's sake? -- was guiding the steps of the silent. Dominique de Villepin, his nemesis, said he was scared by the speech of Sarkozy and his "pledge to the extreme right wing." Etienne Pinte, deputy of Yvelines and ex major of Versailles; UMP senator Jean-René Lecerf; Patrick Devedjian and Chantal Jouanno condemned the "disgusting shift to the right." It makes me think that deep inside, they were perhaps hearing the voice of Churchill uttering his eternal words to Chamberlain shortly after he returned from signing the Munich Agreement: "You were given the choice between war and dishonour. You chose dishonour, and you will have war."

The tension is becoming so unbearable around the immigration issue that the opposing candidate, Hollande, appeared embarrassed and waffled on the subject in an interview with news anchor David Pujadas. Hollande refused to directly answer whether there were too many foreigners in France. His response was cautious because a "yes" would have offended the Left Wing (his own camp) and a "no" would push away the Le Pen supporters he hopes to win over in the final election on Sunday without giving the impression that he agrees with their ideology.

The next day, on RTL radio, for the first time, Hollande said he would, if elected, limit legal immigration in France. Each year, he explained, Parliament would determine a number according to the needs of the economy. The proposal looks exactly like the "chosen immigration" policy of Nicolas Sarkozy.

Does it mean that the debates of this presidential election will lead to a reversal on immigration? (Incidentally, there are 200,000 legal entries per year, including 20,000 to 30,000 for economic considerations.) One has to believe it after Valérie Rosso-Debord, a leader in the UMP party, was heard accusing Hollande spokesperson Najat Vallaud-Belkacem of belonging (which is no longer the case) to an association of Moroccan Nationals. One must be indignant hearing Sarkozy claiming all week long that Hollande is supported by the radical Muslim Tariq Ramadan and by 700 Imams from French mosques, in spite of denials of those concerned.

We don't need anymore confusion and anxiety in our already fragile society. It is time for this campaign to be over, to end an ugly chapter in which the party still in charge is ready to say, do, or protest whatever they want to win an election.

Is fear the only argument of Sarkozy lovers?

Guy de Maupassant wrote in "Le Horla": "Fear... is something appalling ... like a decomposition of the soul, a dreadful spasm of the thought and the heart ... But this takes place ... only in certain abnormal circumstances, under certain mysterious influences opposite vague risks."