France falls out of love

By Philippe Marlière, a senior lecturer in French politics at University College London (THE GUARDIAN, 09/01/08):

Who is Nicolas Sarkozy? What is his political project for France? Is he a Gallic Thatcherite, a closet neocon? Or is he economically dirigiste, a kind of socialist in disguise? These conflicting interpretations are all erroneous. "Sarkozyism" combines the Orleanist and Bonapartist traditions of the French right (the economic liberalism of a Giscard d'Estaing and the populism and authoritarianism of a De Gaulle), peppered with a broad range of ideological references. In his speeches, Sarkozy cherry-picks quotations from leftwing figures (Jaurès, Blum) and far-right thinkers (Barrès).

Such absurd posturing is at best comical, at worst worrying. Sarkozy may also be seen as a "Berlusconian buffoon" - eager to entertain, bully and manipulate the media. When the political news is bad for the president, "Sarko the showman" enters the fray to divert attention. Yesterday he appeared before journalists in Paris to trumpet his achievement in "breaking with a hateful tradition of hypocrisy" by making public his relationship with former model Carla Bruni. His taste for flashy watches and sunglasses, and his fascination for the jet-set, have earned him the dubious nickname of President Bling Bling.

But the bling and gossip disguise a growing malaise. Seven months into his presidency, a majority of French voters are hungover. Newspaper surveys show Sarkozy's approval rates slipping. His first actions have been utterly disappointing for the less affluent. According to a recent poll, only one in four of the public believes that Sarkozy will improve their economic situation.

On the one hand, he has refused to raise the minimum wage on the grounds that there is no money to do so (while giving himself a salary rise of 170%), decreased health subsidies, and introduced TV licence fees for the poorest households. On the other, he has scrapped inheritance tax and reduced taxation on the highest incomes.

His campaign slogan "work more to earn more" has turned out to be a sham. Before May 2007, it was possible to work more than the legal 35-hour week. Sarkozy has not "freed work", for such a right already existed. He has decided that all working hours beyond the 35-hour limit will no longer be paid at a higher rate. This means salaried workers will, in effect, work more to earn less.

Denis Kessler, a former deputy leader of the Medef (the French CBI) has been candid about Sarkozy's intentions: "The French social state is the product of a postwar consensus between Gaullists and communists. It is time to reform it, and this government is working on it." Sarkozy's much-vaunted "rupture" is a historic break with France's more social-minded capitalism to embrace Anglo-American-style capitalism. Such an admission cannot be made publicly. First, some of his voters would realise that his dirigisme is just a facade. Second, there is still no majority in France to support Thatcherite economic reforms.

Sarkozy's relentless pursuit of "national unity" is part of his ambition to disarm the left, the trade unions and the public. This plebiscitary posture aims to depoliticise his ideological attempt to dismantle the social state. It is also a way of transcending ideological divides. Such trickery has enabled him to avoid a clear stand on economic redistribution. When riots erupted again in the Paris suburbs last month, Sarkozy said the situation in the banlieues was only a matter of public order: he did not utter a word about the abject socio-economic conditions in which most of the rioters live.

The French president has also managed to neutralise his main political opponents. The appointment of a handful of Socialist mavericks into François Fillon's government is a case in point. In truth, it could be argued that Ségolène Royal's conservative campaign implicitly encouraged them to switch to the right.

The philosopher Alain Badiou has labelled Sarkozy's politics "transcendental Pétainism". This is not to say Sarkozy is a fascist. The comparison helps underline that, like the chief of the Vichy regime, Sarkozy talks of "regeneration" and "rupture", whereas he is the architect of France's capitulation. In Pétain's case, it was capitulation to the Germans; for Sarkozy, it is capitulation to global capitalism and US hegemony. Like Pétain, Sarkozy talks obsessively of "moral crisis" and "decline" - notions conveniently chosen to justify the "inevitability" of (neoliberal) reforms. Pétain thought France should imitate Nazi Germany. Sarkozy wants to emulate the US and UK economic "models". Pétain reckoned the defeat of 1940 was all down to the leftwing government of the Popular Front. Sarkozy sees in the students' and workers' egalitarian struggles of May 68 the starting point of France's decadence.

From an ideological point of view, "Sarkozyism" comes across as an incoherent bricolage. From a socio-economic point of view, it is consistently devoted to implementing the economic agenda of global capitalism.