04/09/2012 10:50 am ET Updated Jun 09, 2012

Lucky Sarko

A Frenchmen who called himself "Lucky Pierre" opened a restaurant many years ago on New York's West 55th Street. He claimed to have dived under an ammunition truck during the war that blew up shortly after -- and survived unscathed. Alas, his restaurant did not last very long.

Enter another amazingly lucky Frenchman -- Nicolas Sarkozy.

France's presidential elections are only two weeks away. President Sarkozy, who was trailing in the polls behind Socialist challenger Francois Hollande just weeks ago, is now neck-and-neck with his leading electoral rival.

One suspects Sarkozy has either made a pact with the devil or should head straight to Monaco's casino.

First, in an incredible stroke of luck for the wildly unpopular Sarkozy, the man who should have been France's next president, former IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn (DSK), was utterly ruined by a string of sordid sex scandals. Disgraced bad boy DSK is now preposterously charged with aggravated pimping. The Strauss-Kahn scandal saved "Lucky" Sarko's goat: polls showed Sarkozy would have been soundly beaten by DSK.

France's judicial system is notoriously obedient to political power. Sarkozy is clearly beating political dead horse Strauss-Kahn to smear the opposition Socialist party, whose star the ex-IMF chief once was. French politics are notoriously dirty and sleazy.

Strauss-Kahn's Viagra-fuelled sexual escapades with ladies of the night and females who came too close proved a major misfortune for France. Strauss-Kahn was likely the only politician with the authority to impose desperately-needed reforms on France's sagging economy and bloated welfare state.

Second, the murder of seven people in Toulouse by a deranged youth of North African background that horrified France. Sarkozy, his allies and the right-wing media launched a blitz of scare stories about alleged "Islamic terrorism," the suspect's supposed links to al-Qaida, and fear of foreigners. In a scene straight from the classic film Casablanca, Sarko ordered his security forces to arrest the usual Muslim suspects who had nothing to do with the Toulouse massacre. France's Muslim-hating right loved it.

Third, Sarko played to France's growing xenophobia and prejudice against Islam by warning of Muslim conspiracies and demanding the number of "foreigners" in France be curtailed. Pretty rich, considering that Sarkozy was the offspring of Hungarian Jewish immigrants.

Now, Sarko and his men are crying about the dire threat to the Republic of Muslim halal meat (though not Kosher meat). France has 600,000 Jews who strongly support Sarkozy.

Equally important, Sarkozy's warnings of the supposed evils of the Islamization of France are luring voters way from the far right National Front of Marine Le Pen. Sarko fears she may grab enough votes on the right to deny him a first ballot victory on 22 April, or even knock him out of the race.

I extensively interviewed Marine's father, Jean-Marie. He was beating the anti-Muslim drums back in the 1980's and warning that "immigration equals invasion." He had a great one liner-for me: "You Americans took California away from Mexico. Now, by immigration, they are taking it back." Many French share his views. In the 1930's, France's right made Jews the enemies of mankind; today, the alleged culprits are Muslims. This noxious tendency has also infected US politics.

The hard left has also come back to life in France, threatening to draw votes from center-left candidate Hollande. Politicians across Europe have been swept from office by a tide of anger over economic woes. Strange things could happen in France, which has a tradition of radicalism and anarchism. But as of now, the Sarko-Hollande race still looks close, but Islamophobia is allowing Sarko to nose ahead.

None of the candidates have addressed France's severe economic problems or its growing lack of competiveness. Both Sarko and Hollande vow to raise taxes. Hollande promises to hire 60,000 new teachers to boost employment, a crazy scheme at a time when France has far too many sociology teachers, bureaucrats, and government employees, and spends a huge 56% of GDP on government.

Hollande wants a 75% top tax. The Socialists defend their beloved and quite lunatic 35-hour work week, which has further undermined the competitiveness of French industry and its service sector.

The basic problem is that in spite of chronic grumbling, the French live in one of the world's most beautiful, best-run, most civilized countries. France must slash government spending, lower sky-high taxes, liberalize the economy and stop borrowing. All candidates are dodging this existential question.

French don't want to change but must at some point. Vilifying Muslims or banning halal meat is not going to address these issues.

copyright Eric S. Margolis 2012