A Letter From a French Friend
How should Americans make sense of the recent elections in France and Sarkozy's fall from power? I contacted one of my colleagues in France for an overview of the political situation, his excellent analysis is below.
In every general election since 1978, the majority lost, except on two occasions—1995 and 2007—when the conservative majority was divided against itself (the faction that was in power lost to the other one). In my opinion, that doesn’t mean French voters are filp-floppers, rather that successive governments have all had poor records. Getting reelected has only been possible for French presidents since De Gaulle (1965) by losing legislative elections first, and then running against the government (as did Mitterrand in 1988 and Chirac in 2002).
In 2007, Sarkozy knew he couldn’t count on that scenario because the presidential term had been reduced to five years. This meant that the presidential and legislative elections would take place almost simultaneously (legislative elections are taking place in a few weeks, the socialists are almost sure to win).
I had thought that Sarkozy, being the clever politician that he is, had considered the fact that he would have to run on his own record, unlike all of his predecessors since Giscard d’Estaing, who lost the presidency in 1981.
That was no easy task in any case. France has been in crisis since the 70’s, with around 3 million unemployed since the early 80’s. On the other hand, considering that he had five full years in front of him, he had time to pass very unpopular reforms during the first two years and reap the good results during the remaining three.
He did not do that. Instead, Sarkozy wasted the first two years with a constitutional reform that could have come later, a series of environmental measures that could have been politically useful right before the reelection but not earlier, an Internet three strikes law (“Hadopi”) that was politically suicidal at any moment (and useless) while the reforms that his 2007 voters had hoped for were either not passed at all (like the repeal of the 35 hour working week) or in a very mild manner (retirement pensions and immigration, for instance).
Sarkozy further frustrated his own voters at the very start of his term when he appointed a few socialists or left-wing politicians to ministerial positions in order to create mayhem inside the socialist party, which may be useful before an election, but not right after. These people came out to support Hollande a few weeks ago, by the way.
Looking back, it seems that Sarkozy, once elected in 2007, tried to continue his brilliant campaign when he should have governed instead. He got elected by promising everything to everyone, as all politicians do to a certain extent, he just did it particularly well. He should have stopped once he was the president, and focused on a consistent strategy, which he didn’t.
Then the economic situation worsened badly in 2008, and that put him into trouble in two different ways.
First, it became commonly admitted in French political circles, including conservative ones, that the right response to the crisis was a more or less massive state intervention. That can be a problem for a president who campaigned on a mildly free market platform: if state intervention is good in times of crisis, why would it be bad the rest of the time?
In any case, Sarkozy’s policies became just as statist (that is, far beyond Keynes) as what the socialists intended to do. Politically, Sarkozy has been accused from 2007 of being the “president of the rich”, mainly because he passed a fiscal reform (known as the “fiscal shield”) that limited the total taxation, including the wealth tax, to 50% of someone’s income.
This reform perfectly embodies what was wrong in Sarko’s policies: first, the problem was not that some people could be taxed up to 50% or more, but rather that the nation as a whole was taxed to more than 50%. Then, however justified it may have seemed, the “fiscal shield” was an exemption for the rich only, much more so than tax cuts would have been. If a new tax was introduced, which of course happened, those who benefited from the fiscal shield became the only ones exempted. Third, what Sarkozy’s supporters wanted was the repeal of the wealth tax, which was rational, more easily justifiable, and which would have made the “fiscal shield” useless. And finally, Sarkozy had to repeal the fiscal shield in 2011 when it started to look like a major obstacle to his reelection.
To sum it up, Sarkozy was no Thatcher. He had probably just as much willpower as Thatcher, but he was not nearly as consistent intellectually. Guts but no brains.
Immigration was another disappointment for Sarkozy’s supporters. In 2007, Sarkozy took a lot of votes from the National Front by promising just a certain firmness on the subject. He didn’t even promise to restrict immigration, just to not let it completely loose. Once in power, Sarkozy made some political gestures: he passed a law that was vaguely supposed to restrict family reunion programs (the biggest part of immigration) but didn’t. One amendment that involved voluntary DNA testing became controversial, was passed anyway, but finally not implemented. The measure was actually supposed to make it easier for an immigrant to prove that he had family ties inside France, but the word "DNA" triggered a massive "anti-fascist" Godwin campaign from the left. The socialists painted Sarkozy's government as more or less Nazi, while the conservatives used it to look tough on immigration. The amendment was passed, but nothing happened and the minister in charge finally announced years later that the DNA testing procedures were too complicated to be implemented.
To sum it up, Sarkozy seems to have mixed up the various components of an effective political strategy. He alienated the wrong people at the wrong time. Being hated by the opposition is perfectly OK as long as you keep your own supporters. Politics sometimes has to be confrontational. Hollande is OK with that when he casually declares that he doesn’t like the rich, for instance.
But if you polarize the political scene, you have to cultivate support on at least one side. Sarkozy managed to be hated on the left while alienating his own supporters in a number of ways. For instance, he went out of his way to look tough vis-à-vis fiscal heavens and tax evasions. During the campaign, he suggested that “fiscal exiled” French people should be taxed to the same amount as French residents, and that a failure to pay should result in loss of their citizenship. That of course would not apply to diplomats who get huge untaxed expatriation bonuses, or people working for international governmental organizations with untaxed salaries. That didn’t generate much enthusiasm on the conservative side.
Sarkozy will probably not be remembered as a great president, which is a pity because he had a chance to become one. But he didn’t take it and there is a good chance that he will be remembered as the man who lost the presidency to François Hollande, something very few people thought possible a few months back.